There’s a popular saying that goes along with this film’s director, and researching it now, I can’t seem to find a substantiated version of it to repeat here. Nevertheless, it bears repeating, simply because it’s a damn good quote – John Carpenter said that someone, be it Stephen King or otherwise, told him to “never show the face of the devil.” This was before Carpenter took up The Thing, where he wanted to tenaciously do the exact opposite. But early on in his career, he was contracted by producer Irwin Yablans to make a movie about babysitters being stalked and eventually murdered, and here Carpenter would adhere to this advice almost religiously, keeping his demon in mask and in shadow.
Carpenter took this quote and this simple premise and crafted it into the one and the only Halloween, still known today as one of the scariest movies ever made and one of the most influential horror films ever, kickstarting the slasher subgenre and catalyzing the unstoppable horror killer craze with the inhuman Michael Myers. Of course, the genre would devolve into tripe and nonsense, and the Halloween series itself would get almost humiliatingly ridiculous, but the first entry is regarded as a modern day classic and one of the best low-budget movies ever made.
A toast to this masterpiece is in order. Carpenter, with a budget in the hundreds of thousands, crafted something that is still above all else beautifully chilling in its simplicity. A ten-year old kid murders his sister, then 15 years later escapes from his mental hospital the night before Halloween to get back to his hometown and kill some more. His motives are never touched upon – he is “purely and simply evil,” his psychiatrist puts it. That psychiatrist is a Dr. Sam Loomis, Myers’ own Van Helsing. Donald Pleasance plays the shit out of this role, giving Loomis an intense obsession that does little to mask his fear of this thing that he hesitates to refer to as a man.
A hop, skip, and a couple of tracking shots later, we’re in Haddonfield and following one Laurie Strode. A template for what would later become a horror cliché, Jamie Lee Curtis singlehandedly creates the “virginal ‘Girl Scout’ final girl” role, but never portrays anything less than genuine charm and warmth; she cares about her charge Tommy Doyle, and she cares about her friends Linda and Annie, aloof and promiscuous though they may be, and through her we grow to care about these characters as well.
It’s partially the great screenwriting – Carpenter took care of the scary stuff, but Debra Hill handled the high school girl dialogue, giving it a really authentic feel – but most of that is earned almost completely through the performance of Curtis, along with her friends played by Nancy Loomis and PJ Soles. This sets Halloween leaps and bounds above any other slasher films to come, as they all more or less cast teens in the roles of Victims 1 through however many there were to be, and made them so two-dimensional we were begging for them to be slaughtered. But not here.
We care so much about these characters that it becomes a damn shame when the stalking sequences start. Here they start way earlier than anyone ever gives Carpenter credit for, as most killers these days wait until the sun goes down. Not Michael; he’ll stand in front of you as you’re walking towards him, or chill in your backyard and wait for you to look out, only to get the hell out of Dodge before you can snag another peek at him. His “blink and you’ll miss him” style of stalking is so damn effective, bringing that aforementioned quote back into question of “never showing the devil”.
It would be remiss to mention this bad guy without mentioning his mask: probably the most popular bit of trivia from the movie is that the mask, so brilliant, so utterly terrifying in its blank nothingness, is actually a Captain James T. Kirk mask with some minor modifications. So, yes, William Shatner has been the face scaring the pants off of you since 1978. Now you know. Regardless of whose face it is, it was used to perfection.
Nick Castle plays the guy behind the mask – he’s credited at the end as “The Shape”, further reinforcing the idea of Michael with the mask on as pure evil – and he does some incredible work for having to wear a mask the entire time he’s onscreen. Minor touches make all the difference, and Michael is full of them. The little head cock he gives while perusing a newly stabbed victim. The way he follows Tommy Doyle across the schoolyard, almost empathizing with him. In pursuit of Laurie, he doesn’t run, but his brisk walk is so terrifyingly patient – he’ll take his time, because he’ll get you no matter where you try to hide. It’s a wonderfully creepy performance, and one that wasn’t easily emulated, as time would tell.
Probably the biggest factor in the movie’s successful ability to scare you, aside from Michael Myers himself, is the music that accompanies him. Carpenter, wouldn’t you know it, had a hand in that too, composing the entire score on his keyboard. A simple 5/4 time signature was all that was needed; the resulting main theme is still played in haunted houses the world over, but it doesn’t just stop there. The recurring musical motifs add as much to the movie as anything else on screen. The simple piano riff when we first meet Laurie, ominous and foreboding, doesn’t match up to what’s on screen; it gives this juxtaposition of sight and sound, making us feel the dread of what’s to come. Michael’s ‘stalk’ theme – a simple low note played in rhythm, with a piercing high note over it – is fear personified.
The renowned tracking shots in the film, from the opening POV of Michael’s first kill through any of the long Steadicam shots through Haddonfield, wouldn’t have nearly the weight that they do if they weren’t accompanied by such awful, terrible, beautiful sounds. Audiences were coming out of the theatres with bruises on their ears, citing the sound as the scariest thing in the movie. That doesn’t happen anymore, and all the credit in the world goes once again to Carpenter not trying to make anything flashy. Just a man and his keyboard ended up making one of the best horror scores of all time.
Often imitated but absolutely standing as one of a kind, Halloween is responsible for a lot of what is in our horror movies these days. We owe a great deal of debt to John Carpenter and what he achieved with this film. It goes a long way to show that a creative mind can make something out of anything – even the scariest movie of all time.
One beer. Unrivaled.
Take a Sip: if you see Michael and another character does.
Take Two Sips: if you see Michael but no one on screen does.
Take a Sip: if the music starts to seriously get to you (those long piercing high notes…)
Do a Shot: for each onscreen death.
And if you wanna get trashed…
Do a Shot: every time evil is mentioned (the boogeyman counts!)