Halloween (1978)

6 Apr

Halloween 1978 3

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carpenter’s 1978 thriller “Halloween” sure has spawned more than a dozen ripoffs, most of which deplorable wastes of time. But how does “Halloween” itself hold up? It holds up very well—so well, that I believe it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. You know the storyline—a masked psychotic killer stalks and kills teenagers. That’s also the storyline for those afore-mentioned deplorable ripoffs like “Prom Night,” “Friday the 13th” (and its sequels), “Terror Train,” and even the lame “Halloween” sequels. But the original “Halloween” is very different from all of those other movies. Why? Read further and I’ll try to explain.

The film opens (on Halloween night 1963) with a wonderful but scary point-of-view shot of someone stalking a teenage girl who apparently had sex with her boyfriend. The person grabs a carving knife, picks up a mask to wear (so we can see through the eye holes of the mask), and stabs the girl repeatedly, killing her. Only when he is discovered do we see who the killer is—it’s a six-year-old boy in a clown costume. That’s the opening scene and it’s an effective chiller. It grabs our attention—especially with the lack of emotion in the little boy’s face as he holds the blood-soaked knife.

The kid is sent away to a mental hospital and is described by his psychiatrist as pure, unadulterated evil. The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and he says he has spent eight years trying to reach through his mind, and the next seven years trying to keep him locked up. But now, fifteen years since the incident, the guy escapes. He returns to the same town and the same street where it happened. And wouldn’t you know it, it happens to be on Halloween. So now, Loomis has to track him down before he finishes what he started all those years ago. But he just might be too late…

Loomis is well-played by Donald Pleasance, but most importantly, the other actors give likable, sympathetic performances. I say “most importantly” because like all thrillers and horror films, they work best if we care about the characters that are in jeopardy. The guy’s primary targets are a trio of teenage girls—Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her best friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). When we first meet them, they seem like realistic teenagers and are likable enough for us to fear for them. That’s either a credit to the writers’ part (the writers are Carpenter and Debra Hill) or the actresses’ part, but it works.

As for the killer—named Michael Myers, or “The Shape,” as he referred to in the end credits—he seems like a demon that stalks before he kills. He kills mercilessly, silently, and remorselessly. Carpenter, as director, is careful about his camera angles for this guy. Until the final act, he isn’t seen entirely. He’s kept obscure to shadows, lighting, or distances.  He’s creepy especially when he is seen from a distance (like when a kid that Laurie is babysitting looks out a window and sees him just standing under the porch light of the house across the street) and still creepy when he gets closer to chase his final victim for the night. He sports a white-painted Captain Kirk mask and black coveralls, and that makes him just as frightening. And we never know what his motivations are. That shows that killers are more terrifying when the motive is unknown. And since he’s possibly mentally-unfit, it would seem like all it would take is teenage sexuality to set him off. All of these make Michael Myers an effective, ominous villain.

John Carpenter’s chilling piano music score for the film may seem simple, but it’s just fantastic. It works well with the tone of the story and it also goes all over the place. Most of the scores will start one theme and lay another theme on top of it, but it will keep the other theme and sometimes start another theme. With this music, added with Carpenter’s clever camerawork in keeping the killer obscure for the most part, it is so hard to feel secure when watching this movie. I remember I had to tell myself, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”

So “Halloween” loves moviemaking, but it also loves its characters. No one in this movie is presented as a stereotype, although that’s how I fear they’ve become after being exploited in the other movies—the Virgin Girl Who Lives to Fight, and the Sex-Crazed Friends Who Die. I don’t know why the ripoffs don’t have the writing talent to create characters as effective as the ones in “Halloween,” but each one has these stereotypes. But here’s something the ripoffs do even worse—they keep the sympathy away from the characters in jeopardy and have the killer be the main focus. That’s a very important difference between “Halloween” and the ripoffs it spawned—we never identify with Michael Myers in “Halloween,” and the movie has us care about what happens to Laurie, Annie, and Lynda.

It’s so hard to make a horror film of this brilliance. “Halloween” is well-crafted, well-acted, thought-provoking, and scary. Since its release and popularity, filmmakers have tried so many times to recreate its terror…but hardly even close to what “Halloween” has created. It’s a classic in the horror-movie genre.

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