In 1978, a film first billed as The Babysitter Murders travelled across multiplexes one state at a time, building momentum as word spread of this creepy horror film about a masked murderer who had returned to his home town 15 years after killing his sister to finish what he started. Halloween is a unique film as it is a perfect blend of commercial intention and creative gusto; the film was intended to be a quick dollar making exercise for producers Moustapha Akkad and Irwin Yablans, who hired young filmmaker John Carpenter to bring their basic idea to life. Little did they know that with Carpenter and Debra Hill, his then partner, they had hired two artists in touch with the ethos of the teenage mantra of the 1970’s as well as being die hard fans of the horror genre. Since its release, Halloween has become a financially successful franchise spawning no less than seven sequels, one remake with its own sequel as well as countless comic books and merchandise. It has also been considered the first true slasher film that inspired a number of seasonal slashers, and has been analysed by film theorists for its apparent subtext and social commentary.
Halloween is a masterpiece. It sets the precedent for the slasher sub-genre as well as the horror genre itself and it does this primarily by being a character focussed film. This concept might surprise some, as theorists argue that the sexually promiscuous characters in the film are the ones that meet their demise, but the focus throughout the film is on Laurie and it is in this character that the film is set apart from the countless other horror films that are produced in order to make a quick buck. Having said that, there is also something intricately appealing about Michael Myers, the antagonist who is the antithesis of your archetypal horror boogeyman. It is also a masterpiece because of its measure between genuine scares versus blood shed. Think about it: if you’ve watched Halloween, think about when you might have seen blood? Not often. It’s only when the body’s are seen posthumously that the blood is seen. Halloween manages to construct scares entirely from suspenseful shots and suggestive imagery as opposed to the shock value of seeing the victims insides on the outside.
The film’s opening shot is one of the most famous in horror history, as a seemingly continuous shot takes us from the outside of the Myers house – peering in with voyeuristic intention – into the house itself where the viewer is soon transformed from spectator to facilitator as a mask is placed over the camera lens and we see this house from a different perspective. A knife is picked from the kitchen drawer and protrudes steadily ahead as we make our way up the stairs and into the room of a sexually promiscuous young girl who is combing her hair. She recognises the perpetrator – is it us? – as he proceeds to stab her to death. The shot then cuts to a young Michael Myers, stood emotionless outside his home as his parents return. The pathological look in young Michael’s eyes tells us all we need to know about this antagonist – he is void of any emotion or remorse and will be relentless in his pursuit. That sublime tracking shot that opens the film – which actually has three cuts in it – establishes the primary focus of this film: a masked killer with no compunction stalks the young and vulnerable.
The unique thing about Halloween is that it takes its time to build up to the chaos that inevitably ensues. In the time it takes for Michael Myers to break out 15 years later and start stalking his victims, Carpenter and Hill have established a repertoire of characters. Laurie Strode, our hero of the film, is introduced as she goes about her day. We see her interact with the local kid she babysits for as well as talking to her eclectic mix of friends she hangs with, sizing up where she fits amongst them. It is clear that Laurie is the clean cut, all American teenage girl: good with her grades, friendly with the neighbourhood kids and reluctant to mix with the boys. Her friends flaunt their sexual promiscuity and frequent drug use but she brushes this off. However, there is a secret yearning for her to feel wanted by a boy as much as her friends are idolised. We see this when, later on in the film, Annie tells Laurie that there’s a guy at school that has a little thing for her and wants to take her to the dance the following night. Finally Laurie has the chance of living a bit of a life, but Myers has other plans…
The devastation caused by Michael Myers lasts one night, on Halloween – the perfect setting. The parents are out and the teenagers are babysitting, taking advantage of their situation by having their boyfriends come over. Kids of all ages wander the streets in a plethora of costumes so no-one blinks twice at a man in a faceless mask and boiler suit wondering the streets with a kitchen knife, nor do they look when someone runs screaming from their house. With no adults aside from Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett tailing bodies behind him, Michael Myers has free reign over Haddonfield to finish what he started 15 years ago: to kill his entire family. What is psychotically brilliant about Halloween is that no-one really offers an explanation as to why he is doing this. Loomis tries to relay the character of Myers through monologues describing his time with him from infancy as “…this six year old child with this blank, pale, expressionless face and the blackest eyes – the devil’s eyes; I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” What’s made all the more intriguing about Myers is that we never actually see him; rather, we see the mask he hides behind. Yet, this mask is perhaps more of a significant representation of Myers because it is faceless and soulless, with no remorse or emotion – just as Myers is.
The brilliance of Michael Myers is that there is an evil haunting the characters that has no real motivation, no definitive purpose, no way in which the events have been purposely orchestrated. The murders he commits are to segregate his sole intended victim but the macabre and remorseless way in which he does this is what makes this film so brilliant. The focus on Myers has inevitably caused controversy due to theorists summarising that as we follow this psychotic antagonist we are almost sympathising with him, but horror needs an antagonist that doesn’t really have a weak spot. Being shot and falling from a second story doesn’t deter Michael as his psychopathy almost renders him inhuman. His almost robotic movements and remorseless way in which he observes his victims belie his psychotic intention.
Though we follow Michael and at the start we are his eyes, the film is definitely moved forward by Laurie, our determined scream queen that holds her own and protects the children from ‘the Boogeyman’. Essays have been written about Laurie as the eponymous ‘Final Girl’, able to fend off the attacker because she is pure of mind and soul. But its Laurie’s fighting instinct and determination to protect the young ones that really drives her instinct to survive. She overcomes insurmountable odds and psychologically devastating events as she sees her entire friendship group killed off by a masked, emotionless killer intent on killing her. It is only with Loomis’ retrospective monologue does she begin to understand the magnitude of what she has been through.
Halloween has some incredible set-pieces and scary moments, the most memorable being when Laurie is in focus in a medium close up in the foreground, breathing rapidly but in relief as the nightmare feels like its over. Then in the background, with a calculated ease Michael rises from the floor, turning his head with mechanical precision to stare with his faceless mask at his intended victim. The shot holds as we scream at the scream for Laurie to run. It’s the shots that Carpenter crafts that bring the most scares as opposed to blood and guts. The unmoving frames – like the one that sees Michael approach from far to extremely close – are the moments that keep the audience teetering with their pillows in front of their faces. It is the most important thing when it comes to horror: less is more. When you craft your shots so perfectly that the audience believe they have seen something that was never shown, that’s when you’re winning at horror.
Released 36 years ago, Halloween has continuously topped the polls for scariest films and scariest villain because it has stood the test of time through ingenuity – it focussed on its characters by making them three dimensional as opposed to kill-by-numbers pop-ups. It is a masterpiece because it set the benchmark for the slasher sub-genre and the modern horror genre itself, and despite the franchise destroying the innovative concept of a soulless indestructible monster, the original film still chills today. The remake, though it shouldn’t be considered as canon, does well to explain the reason behind the mask and the motivations of Michael. However, when we look at the original, there is nothing more scary than knowing that the motivation of this killer is as blank as his face.
TOMORROW: Horror Masterpiece: A Nightmare On Elm Street