I can’t quite recall the first time I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween, but it was much later for me than most of the other horror franchises of the time. I was a horror fanatic from an inappropriately young age—if you recall my Opening Statement on The Evil Dead, two of my earliest movie-watching memories were of A Nightmare on Elm Street [a franchise in which I have always had an investment in] and Hellraiser [which I haven’t seen any sequels], at the age of 3 or 4 years old. For some unknown reason, as I was pouring over just about every horror VHS at the local video store, I never gravitated toward Halloween. Until very recently, I had never seen any of the franchise’s many sequels past Halloween II—though I wasn’t exactly missing out there. Maybe I was being obtusely loyal. Freddy was my guy, Michael Myers would have to deal with it.
It wasn’t until I had blossomed into a cinephile that I discovered these creepy delights. In some ways, that has informed the way I read the film. Undoubtedly, it is a horror flick through and through, blazing many of the most well-worn slasher tropes to come [the “slasher” genre, the “final girl,” the killer isn’t really dead moment, etc.]. By the time I finally saw Halloween, I could fully recognize its great influence. But it was the incredible craft that caught my attention, appealing to the film school student much more than the horror freak.
This begins with the camerawork of Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Though his name may not be immediately familiar, Cundey has had a long and fantastic career, helming the camera for films like Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit [for which he received his sole Academy Award nomination]. Halloween’s cinematography is perhaps most notable for its use of first-person shots, shown from the implied perspective of the killer. These shots beautifully heighten the voyeuristic nature of horror films. Maybe we want the killer to succeed, maybe we want the victims to escape, no matter your preference, seeing through the eyes of Michael Myers raises the tension as he hovers within striking distance.
Strangely, though, the first-person perspective typically gives the filmmakers an opportunity to humanize the killer, to get “inside” his head, which is something Halloween flat out rejects. Inevitably, specific mythology and backstory would seep into the subsequent six Michael Myers sequels, but the original keeps the killer as blank a presence as the expression on his white mask. This is emphasized in the credits, which refers to Myers as “The Shape” even though his name isn’t a secret to the audience or characters. And exposition machine Dr. Sam Loomis [I kid, I kid] continually orates on how Myers can’t be reasoned with or understood. He shouldn’t even be considered a person, only pure evil.
The brilliant cinematography of Halloween single-handedly creates much of the film’s tension, especially in a slow first half. Along with another personal favorite, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween takes its time before getting to the kills [the first of the core teenage characters to bite the dust happens nearly an hour into the film]—and once it does, the kills are much less extreme than what the dozens of direct descendants would begin to push. There is a legitimate case to say that Halloween frankly isn’t scary [and there might be one coming to you this week], but the slowly creeping long shots roaming the quiet Haddonfield streets are tremendously off putting.
I suppose I also can’t ignore the effect of Carpenter’s iconic score. It is simple, especially when compared to the orchestral scores of Jaws or Psycho, but there is an otherworldly quality that pulses through the screen. And it’s not just the instantly recognizable up-tempo theme—the more morose secondary tune sets an incomparable dread while the high-pitched sound effect that accompanies every surprise never fails to perk my ears up. I’m not enough of an expert to know if there wasn’t anything else like it at the time, but it certainly seems that way. Now, as synth scores have become more prevalent in all types of films, Halloween’s influence is seen beyond killers with knives who torment oversexed kids.
I may not have had any itch to see Halloween films made after 1978 and Michael Myers may be far from my horror villain Mt. Rushmore, but I can’t escape the thought that John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece is one of the most beautiful and intelligently made genre films of all time. By taking monsters out of made up European countries and the deep recesses of rural America and putting one in a clean, affluent suburban neighborhood, Halloween is almost a cautionary tale. Evil exists everywhere and the boogeyman is inescapable. As Loomis puts it: “Death has come to your little town, sheriff.” So as the leaves begin to fall and the sweaters come out from storage, it is time to take a long look at one of the great fall classics.
Here's what we'll have this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast Episode 2
- A First Viewing which wonders if Halloween is still scary
- Related Review of feminist slasher Slumber Party Massacre
- Streaming recommendations of recent horror films
- And more!