Studio: Compass International Pictures
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Producer: Debra Hill
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers
Three teenage girls become the targets of Michael Myers, a man who returns to Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night after spending 15 years in a sanitarium for murdering his sister.
In October of 2012, I attended a screening of “Halloween” at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood to benefit the Debra Hill Fellowship. It was a rare opportunity to experience “Halloween” in 35mm with a sold-out theater of the film’s most passionate local fans. Of course, the highlight was meeting John Carpenter and Nick Castle (as well as taking home an incredible pair of Ken Taylor posters from Mondo).
Prior to the screening, John and Nick took the stage for a brief conversation with a moderator before the panel was turned over for a Q&A. What happened when they looked for audience questions? Not one person had a hand raised. This was the first time I had ever seen a Q&A begin without a single urgent inquiry from the audience. After John made a joke about the shocking silence, the questions opened up and then things progressed smoothly. The initial silence was not all that surprising, however. In the four decades since the film’s first release, so many tidbits have been divulged and so many articles and books have been written that little, if anything, remains to be revealed about the making of the film.
Donald Pleasence’s part was initially offered to Christopher Lee. The first title was “The Babysitter Murders.” William Shatner’s face is the Michael Myers mask. What else is left?
Writing a review for the film 35 years later is a daunting task for that same reason. What is there to say about “Halloween” that has not already been said?
“Halloween” in one word: lean. The economy of John Carpenter’s classic is not limited strictly to its relatively slim budget. Every frame is essential. Every sound is necessary. Not a single ounce of fat appears anywhere on the movie’s skeleton.
It begins with clearly defined characters. The killer is not Michael Myers. It is “The Shape.” It is deliberately intended that The Shape be not a person, but a MacGuffin of sorts. Before being given a familial motivation retroactively, The Shape was an unstoppable force of evil wearing a plain white mask because it was faceless. This could be anyone or anything. It did not even matter if it was human. Doctor Loomis even suggests that possibility.
As Ahab to The Shape’s Moby Dick, Loomis is closest to being a one-note stereotype. His singular devotion to stopping The Shape encompasses his existence. Yet amongst several serendipitous casting choices, Donald Pleasence executes a line delivery that fleshes a true depth to the daunted psychiatrist. Cutting off Nurse Chambers with, “because there is the law” illustrates careful consideration behind his actions. The nervous “heh” he gives to Sheriff Brackett after jumping at a fallen rain gutter shows awareness to how he is perceived. His goal might consume him, but it is not the only trait that defines him.
“Halloween” would be a completely different film with even one scene removed. Each second of the brisk runtime fulfills and then stretches the limits of its potential. Hitting each beat is accomplished only with what is necessary. Laurie, Annie, and Lynda have just one scene with the three of them together (the walk home from school), yet it is perfectly clear that they are closely connected friends. Even characters with briefer appearances, such as Sheriff Brackett, make the most of their screen time with quotable lines. “…it’s Halloween. I guess everyone is entitled to one good scare, huh?”
Every murder is memorable. Bob’s knife impalement. The Shape in a ghost sheet about to strangle Lynda. The slasher boom that followed after would often lose itself in gore baths and body counts, but “Halloween” is interested in neither.
Competing with “Suspiria” and “The Exorcist” for most memorable horror film score, the music of “Halloween” is iconic not because it is easily recognizable, but because it is thoroughly effective. Befitting of the film’s other lean elements, the main them is just three repeated notes. That such a palpable menace can be conveyed so simply is no easy feat. Tri-tones are a hallmark of the other notable orchestral movements. From the accompaniment underneath Laurie walking to the sting when The Shape enters the foreground, Carpenter’s score uses the minimum amount required to reach its goals, and it does so with incredible results.
Cinephiles can argue over what 70’s horror films truly birthed which tropes, but whatever “Halloween” did not invent, it popularized. “Walked boldly” being the definition of her last name, Laurie Strode epitomizes the “Final Girl” with her virginal wholesomeness and determined resilience. In the 21st Century, it would only be a surprise if the killer did not survive a fatal attack to return for the sequel. But its employment as the conclusion for “Halloween” makes for a perfect end moment when Laurie realizes from Loomis’ expression that his bullets have not stopped the terror. Now she is ready to believe that The Boogeyman might truly exist.
“Halloween” transcends its era as well as its setting. Watching “A Christmas Story” in July will never equal the resonance of a December viewing. Even with the jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating tying the film to its own holiday, “Halloween” leaves the same impression in April as it does in October. Scary movie marathons and tales of The Boogeyman are as timeless as the movie. Consider that “Black Christmas,” another DNA match candidate for horror trope fatherhood, will forever be dated by the traced phone call scene. Yet fashion and hairstyles are the only elements tying “Halloween” to the disco era. 35 years later and phone-addicted teenagers still obsess over high school crushes. Babysitters still allay fears of things that go bump in the night. And faceless dangers still threaten the most peaceful securities.
Nothing impedes the story. Nothing prevents its effectiveness. Every character, every line, and every arc directly relates to pacing the suspense and establishing a clear vision of a relatable suburban nightmare. What is there to say about “Halloween” that has not already been said? Nothing, really. It can be discussed in terms as lean as the production. “Halloween” in one other word: perfect.
Review Score: 100