“It’s Halloween. Everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”
There’s really no subset of the horror genre more recognizable these days than the slasher flick. A crazed villain with a sharp weapon wreaks havoc on some unsuspecting teenagers. It’s a formula that understandably gets a lot of criticism as studios bank in on the model for remakes, sequels, and rehashes of the same plot to bank in on the sensation. It’s important to recognize, though, that there can still be artistic merit in such a movie as directors take innovative spins on the idea, as seen by a movie like Scream in 1996 or even this year with a movie like Hush. Perhaps even more important, however, is to recognize that the model hasn’t always been a cliché, and that there’s one movie that really set the bar and made the slasher movie into the phenomenon it is today. That movie, of course, is John Carpenter’s Halloween.
If you’ve never seen the movie, you might think that Halloween looks a lot like the modern slasher movies that it has spawned. This is true in some ways, but Halloween still manages to outshine these copycats in most every regard. John Carpenter is the reason behind this. Contemporary horror has become boiled down to such a formula that you can see every jump scare and plot twist coming well in advance, but Carpenter’s direction is so twisted and daring that you never really know what’s going to happen in Halloween. Michael Myers appears at obscure times, often in broad daylight, and Carpenter holds no moment as too sacred for an attack. The shoestring budget on which it was filmed also seems to enhance the terror. The world of the movie feels so familiar and vulnerable, and Halloween is a beautiful demonstration of using tension and discomfort to terrify its viewers.
Another thing I love about this movie is how the plot cuts out the excess and really digs into the terror. From the very first scene, you know you’re in for something unique and terrifying. The plot builds in a way that keeps you unsettled and invested from start to finish. You get just enough exposition from Donald Pleasence’s character to feel comfortable with the story, and Carpenter chooses to focus on the stalking and the horror for most of the duration. Too many directors feel the need to over-justify their setup or to keep the viewer relaxed for the first half of the movie, but Carpenter plunges you right into discomfort. Every second of the movie feels necessary and gripping. The characters may feel a bit hollow, but I think the dialogue is smart enough to give some humanity to the victims and to give a bit of wit to the film that most slashers still seem to lack.
I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of the Halloween theme, composed by Carpenter himself for the movie. The 5/4 time signature and the relative simplicity is jarring and unsettling, and it always jumps out of nowhere in a horrifying way. It’s rarely just used as a fake-out either, and the movie always seems to deliver on the builds it creates in terms of action. There’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere to Halloween. I always think it’s fun that the children in the movie are watching The Thing, which Carpenter would later go on to remake. These little touches of detail really add to the story, such as the robbery being investigated at the hardware store explaining how Myers acquired his disguise or the strangely comedic post-sex scene between Lynda and Bob that sets up the murders.
Halloween is really an admirable piece of work. With only $300,000 to work with, Carpenter created a lasting milestone of the horror genre that has been imitated for decades. It’s always inspiring to see directors launch themselves into stardom through raw talent and innovation in an industry that often shuts out such individualism. As a devoted horror fan, it’s always a terrifying delight to get to sit down and watch Halloween again. It’s a clear example of how to pull off suspense and terror to make an outstanding, chilling movie. As far as horror directors go, Carpenter is undoubtedly one of the best, and his impact on the industry will be felt for years to come.
Films Left to Watch: 947