John Carpenter’s original slasher. Or at least, the movie that began the seemingly endless cycle. I have to admit, however, that while I recognise Halloween’s stripped-down effectiveness and visual elegance, its persuasively insistent score and the engagingly antic presence of Donald Pleasance’s prophet of doom – representing scientific reason! – I don’t rate it as highly as some of the director’s lesser known or regarded pictures.
It’s worth noting some of the different takes on the picture, both in terms of praise and refutation, and how they actually end up saying many of the same things. Carpenter and co-writer and producer Debra Hill lay it all out there with kids’ incessant references to whether the boogey man and whether he is real, and Dr Loomis’ (Pleasance) raving to anyone who will listen that Michael is “purely and simply evil”. Pauline Kael acknowledged this in her review, but also attested to its “pitiful, amateurish script” that “doesn’t seem to have any feeling at all for motivation or for plot logic”. She essentially recognised that this is, if not the point, then beside it, but I do see and sympathise with her complaint that, once you take away the vital and intrinsic stylistic tricks – courtesy of Carpenter’s nifty Panaglide camera – there’s a shortage of anything else there.
Attempting to account for Halloween’s phenomenal success, Kael sniped that “stripped of everything but dumb scariness… it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do”. Kim Newman was much less grudging in offering the picture praise – he would be, as a horror buff – but he made many of the same points, that it was “the perfect machine movie. Its only message is ‘boo!’… It’s sort of silly, full of seat-clutching scare moments, and, most of all, fun”. Kael’s objections to internal integrity scarcely mattered: “The boogey man doesn’t have to make sense, all he has to do is be scary”.
Kael’s thoughts on the genre it birthed are not recorded; “classy” De Palma slashers were much more her cup of tea. But Newman knew his genre when he attested “Few horror films are as well made or as inoffensive”. Time Out’s Tom Milne called Halloween “A superb essay in Hitchcockian suspense, which puts all its sleazy Friday the 13th imitators to shame with its dazzling skills and mocking wit”. And Newman too noted it was with the advent of Jason Voorhes (or his mum) that “psycho movies started to go nastily wrong”. He highlighted the lack of blood in Carpenter’s film in favour of suspense – it’s singular connective tissue with the preceding Assault on Precinct 13 and indeed TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! – whereas those that made subsequent entries in the genre “aren’t talented enough to direct a hosepipe”.
Newman also identified the elements Kael attempted to work through to account for Halloween’s success, recognising it was “about as original as an Italian western remake of a samurai epic”, and that original concept The Babysitter Murders from producer Irwin Yablans wasn’t really all that; on paper, it “did not sound like the kind of film that would stretch the horror genre overmuch”. One can put the results down to many things: the alchemy of the simple title and the hook of the music, the prowling camera and the simple “dumb scariness”. It’s all those elements, but it’s essential to note that even Kael recognised Carpenter’s facility as a filmmaker, even if she objected that he “keeps you tense in an undifferentiated way – nervous and irritated rather than pleasurably excited – and you reach the point of wanting somebody to be killed so the film’s rhythms will change”.
I’m happy to admit I’m only ever moderately engaged by Halloween until the final fifteen minutes, when virginal tomboy Jamie, I mean Laurie, comes under direct attack from Michael, as opposed to being preyed upon at a distance. It’s easy to see the picture’s traits in terms of self-parody now, given the way it stops and starts and the music cues suggest foreboding when Michael’s nowhere in sight (let’s not forget how Carpenter later sustained the opening titles of Prince of Darkness, also partial to its very deserted setting, there urban rather than suburban). As Kael commented, “there’s so much subjective tracking you begin to think everybody in the movie has his own camera”.
Again, though, Carpenter explicitly isn’t resisting that (“True crass exploitation” he called it). You only have to look at the scene in which Loomis frightens some kids away from the Myers house by putting on a scary voice, before visibly jumping when Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) comes up behind him, to see the director of Dark Star is present and correct.
Loomis’ ranting offers the refutation of the explicable psyche at a key point. Halloween doesn’t thrive on the explicitly supernatural – a demonic or satanic influence – and it’s a long way past a world where rational explanations were possible for disturbance (the episodes of Spellbound through to Psycho and even Frenzy), a world where morality is relative and grounded in accountable formative influences and there are shades of grey. Michael isn’t the Damien Antichrist. He’s just a stone-cold child killer and adult one too (Hill references their inspiration from the Samhain idea of souls “let out to wreak havoc on the living” on Halloween, personified in Michael). He unleashes a very materialist horror, then, for all that he is evil personified, and that may be why slashers were so prevalent in the subsequent decade (even A Nightmare on Elm Street, for all its dreamscape surrealism, is about the perfidy of the flesh).
Dr Loomis comes on like a cackling loon from a Universal horror, confirming that every superstitious view naysaid is in fact real, and then Michael proves it by refusing to stay dead. “Sometimes you think he’s going to have to cross his eyes to keep a straight face” said Kael, but she’s only underlining the fine line between terror and parody the picture walks
None more so than Laurie’s queasy “I’ll kill you if this is a joke” as Lynda (PJ Soles) is strangled on the other end of the phone. Notably, Michael only kills three people when he reaches Haddonfield (four if you count the dog, the only one of them not randy, although we don’t know that for certain). Which is positively restrained by most of the genre’s standards (“sexually uptight” Laurie does the most stabbing, and in keeping with her twisted sobriety has a self-portrait by Belgian expressionist painter James Ensor on her wall; he was keen on his figures with grotesque masks or skulled faces). It probably feels like more, because Carpenter has spent so long establishing mood. This includes those ever-present pumpkins and the bizarrely ritualistic sister’s tombstone overseeing the body of Annie (Nancy Kyes). Curiously, the kids are watching old sci-fi movies (The Thing, Forbidden Planet), rather than outright horrors.
The Carpenter-produced sequel went in for the gore the original had avoided. But then, Carpenter himself took fright and added some to The Fog after getting cold feet over its box-office prospects. Halloween II was ignored by the also gore-friendly 2018 retcon, a derivative attempt to Sarah Connor-up Laurie that certainly didn’t improve on the H20 revisiting of Curtis’ character twenty years earlier. Halloween has bags of atmosphere, and it may be the picture Carpenter will be most remembered for, but for my money, the four (cinematic) features he made either side are all a cut above.