John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the finest independent horror flicks in history. Released in 1978 to an unsuspecting audience, Halloween is often credited for starting the whole lumbering stalker era in horror and slasher movies (some may rightly give that credit to Black Christmas).
The beauty of Halloween lies not in overt gore or bloody and gruesome setups. Instead, Carpenter plays havoc with open spaces, windows and doors to create a sense of dread and terror that lingers long after the closing credits have rolled. The now-ubiquitous score, written by Carpenter, fills the movie like a haze of constant tension and doesn’t provide much relief.
A 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis stars as teenager Laurie Strode. She’s a babysitter living in the small town of Haddonfield in the state of Illinois and life is pretty damn simple. Laurie spends time with her friends and watches them carry out their teenage lives, but she tends to lead a quieter life than most. Like most of the residents of Haddonfield, Laurie is unaware of the terror about to be unleashed on the small community.
On Halloween night in 1963, a young Michael Myers kills his sister. He is sent to an insane asylum where he remains until his eventual escape as a 21-year-old (Tony Moran). Myers hasn’t said a word the entire time and his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasance) is concerned. Myers returns to the scene of the crime, which is of course in Haddonfield, and picks up where he left off.
There’s really no question that the large, lumbering, repressive figure of Michael Myers is rich with interpretive possibilities. That Myers appears to constantly stalk teenagers is a clue, as is the now-famous refrain of the killer stalking and murdering teenagers engaging in some sort of “deviant” activity like sexual intercourse or drinking. Myers is partially, at the very least, a play on a sort of patriarchal revenge figure that haunts and slaughters the free love hippies of the 60s.
Of course, there are multiple interpretations to what the figure of Myers represents. The possibilities are indeed endless, but Myers is a product of his time in late 70s America. Carpenter’s picture picks up on the elements of rebellion and day-to-day life beautifully, characterizing the person of Laurie as a sort of regular girl making her way through life doing regular things. She smokes pot, she baby-sits and she gets shy around boys.
Carpenter runs the possibilities with seamless precision, telling the slasher story simply and elegantly. The camerawork by Dean Cundey is tremendous. It captures the tension perfectly with the use of low angles and lots of sneaking, stalking shots around corners and through half-opened windows. Carpenter’s use of the usual trappings of suburbia serve to create tension, too, especially his use of a long scene in which we await the inevitable demise of a character as she traipses back and forth to and from a laundry room.
It’s clear that Carpenter has learned from the likes of Hitchcock and other tension and terror masters. His work in Halloween is brilliant and the movie stands as a calling card in a genre that is often overrun with gory, needlessly violent imitators. This is a movie that works because of its use of anxiety, timing and patience.