Halloween (1978)

“Death has come to your little town, sheriff.”

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Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) is deeply disturbed to learn that his “evil” patient (Tony Moran) has escaped from an asylum and returned to his home town, where he killed his sister (Sandy Johnson) 15 years earlier as a six-year-old (Will Sandin). On Halloween, masked Moran quickly sets his murderous sights on a trio of friends: bubbly Lynda (P.J. Soles), wise-cracking Annie (Nancy Loomis), and straight-laced Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
While he’s “not as sold” on John Carpenter’s cult “horror thriller” as are “many of its cultists,” Peary nonetheless asserts that Halloween is the “scariest horror film since Psycho and the most imaginatively directed”. He describes how Carpenter “builds tension by repeatedly using a subjective camera; quick editing; driving, piercing music (which he composed); and the creative use of light and shadow and color (particularly black and white).” He adds that Carpenter “blends the dark, spooky atmosphere essential to Val Lewton; the humor and suspense that go hand in hand in Hitchcock; the cheap — but fun — tricks and shocks found in William Castle films; and the graphic violence that is the staple of the post-Night of the Living Dead American horror film.” He writes that while he finds it a treat “watching the three Middle American teenagers” — who are “smart… witty, and appealingly unconventional” — “jabber away about boys, school, dates, sex, etc.”, he finds it “regrettable that even this film — like its many inferior imitators — thrives upon the deaths of sexually promiscuous, half-dressed young women”.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review — and I appreciate his intriguing analysis of serial killer “Michael Meyers” (who would return again and again — and again — in most sequels and remakes to come). Peary writes that he doesn’t “think the intriguing Michael is evil, just insane. There’s that six-year-old inside a man’s body, and everything he does — including his murders — is part of a mischievous game.” He points out that while Michael “could kill his victims quickly… he prefers to hide behind bushes and in closets, peer into windows, scare them, tease them with loud noises” — and, in a notable scene, “before he attacks Soles, he stands in the bedroom doorway with a sheet over his body and glasses on his covered face” (see still below). Meanwhile, “in his never ending struggle with Curtis… he pretends to be dead several times, only to rise and resume his attack” — a decidedly unique take on the “never assume he’s dead” trope of horror movie victims.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie
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  • Highly atmospheric direction and cinematography
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  • Many effectively scary moments
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Must See?
Yes, of course, as a classic of the genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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3 Responses to “Halloween (1978)”

  1. A once-must (at least) for its solid place in horror cinema history.

    That said, I would not say it’s among my favorite films. The slasher genre is not a genre dear to my heart – but I get its appeal. It’s a genre that is a step above and beyond what inspired it – which was ‘Psycho’ (essentially). That makes sense in terms of cinematic progression. But the further the genre went, the less interest it held for me personally.

    This was my first rewatch in many years. ‘Halloween’ is actually not too far removed from ‘Psycho’, at least. For the most part, the film still believes in suspense over gore. It didn’t really have the budget for anything else, anyway – but the film benefits from budgetary restraints.

    It benefits from other things as well. Mainly its simplicity.

    It also lucked out by ‘introducing’ Jamie Lee Curtis to the movies. Curtis’ Laurie is not far removed from Sissy Spacek’s Carrie of a few years before – she’s what Carrie would have been like if she had not had a religious fanatic for a mother. Although I don’t agree with Peary that Laurie’s girlfriends are smart or witty, I think Laurie certainly is. She’s almost a bit like a young Lauren Bacall – she just has ‘a certain something’ about her that is likable, attractive and appealing. We are immediately on her side and we root for her enthusiastically.

    ‘Halloween’ also got lucky in having Pleasence in the cast. He gives the film weight, not only in cinema history terms but also in terms of pedigree – he’s a solid actor, always interesting to watch, and the film goes up a few more notches because he’s in it.

    Myself, I think ‘Halloween’ still remains a somewhat flawed film, even on its own terms. But what it gets right far surpasses what it gets wrong (i.e., fake scares, odd logic, etc.). It has terrific pacing, an effective score and clever camerawork by DP Dean Cundey.

    Sidebar: the copy I saw was part of the 2-disc, 25th-anniversary edition, which contains a separate 90-minute ‘making of’ documentary (featuring many of the cast/crew). The doc is particularly interesting when it comes to describing what it was like to market the film slowly, city by city, so that word-of-mouth would grow (which it did, like wildfire). The producer chose to go that route when all major Hollywood studios turned down the film – though, of course, after ‘Halloween’ became a huge hit, the major studios took the reins and contributed countless copycat films.

    Carpenter goes on record to say he did not set out to make any statement about sexually active women being ‘wrong’ or that they should ‘pay for the sin of having sex’. Instead, he was interested in showing people who were self-involved and not paying attention to what was happening around them.

    I also go along with the idea of Michael being (or, rather, representing) evil. There is no other reason for him mysteriously disappearing after he is ‘killed’.

  2. I had not thought much about the evolution of the slasher genre or how it emerged directly from ‘Psycho’ — but this makes sense. It is odd to reflect on an entirely new genre appearing fairly late in cinematic history.

    Carpenter’s statement is interesting and seems logical. I’m also sure his script choices were about titillating audiences.

    This film does embody “simplicity” (in a positive way). I thought that on my first viewing, and still feel that way.

  3. I hadn’t seen Halloween in eons. For that matter, I hadn’t yet seen it in its proper anamorphic widescreen format. What a difference. John Carpenter delivered great mise en scene considering the tiny budget. It’s his finest production.

    And I know this point has been made before, but there’s not much in the way of gore. Rather, it’s full of suspense and terror. It’s a horror film about a brutal, indefatigable, murdering force that must be put down. Carpenter isn’t interested in why Michael Myers is the way he is, but that he is this way regardless and must be stopped, like it or not. Danny Peary doesn’t care so much for the movie, but is passionate in his reaction and has a lot to say about it. While he disagrees with Donald Pleasence’s character, and thinks Myers is insane rather than evil, he may be technically correct, but he effectively misses the point. Donald Pleasence is Van Helsing out to dispatch his archetypal rival, much like the Hammer films Carpenter admired so much. Having Pleasence say throughout the movie that he’s a psychiatrist and that the sick man needs to be escorted back to the asylum he escaped from would not have played as well.

    Carpenter composed his most indelible score here, and was clearly influenced by Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” which had been featured as the theme to The Exorcist five years prior.

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