What list of Halloween movies would be complete without “Halloween”? Love it or hate it, John Carpenter’s iconic horror film is one of the most prolific of all time. Sure, horror really started to gain popularity and credibility with the Universal films of the 1930’s and nowadays people associate it more with Freddy Kreuger than with Dracula, but “Halloween” is where the genre hit it’s stride. Nearly every convention, cliché, scare technique and plot element of modern horror can be traced back to “Halloween”. Not everyone agrees this is a good thing, and I bet even John Carpenter would be disappointed to hear it, but it is true. As Americans, we love our slashers. We can’t get enough of them. They have become the standard for horror cinema, and it is all because of a little 1978 flick called “Halloween”.
For a little self justification and convincing, I’d like to make a few points about the impact of “Halloween” on the world of horror. First, the notion of the slasher. You will never hear me argue that this was the first ‘slasher’, but if I did I’d have a pretty good point. Psycho killers have been hacking away at teenagers for a while, but there really was no formula behind this. “Psycho” was an intricate, slow building, horrendously un-action packed example of a swing at the slasher pic. While I doubt that was Hitchcock’s intent, a lot of people saw it from that viewpoint. Then there was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, another great example of a psycho killer, but while it was gritty and realistic and infamous in it’s own right, it didn’t have the mass appeal that “Halloween” had. Another element is the human monster. We’ve always had Dracula and the Wolfman, but Michael Myers reminded us in this day of science and reason that there are still monsters out there. They may be demented and un-killable, but we find Michael a lot more realistic than a vampire. I could go on and on about this topic, and I probably will someday, but this isn’t an essay, it’s a review. So back to the movie.
I think we’re all agreed by this point that “Halloween” is incredibly influential, but that doesn’t answer the question as to whether it is good or not and what we should think of it from an acute standpoint. Such as, would I watch this on Halloween even if it wasn’t called “Halloween”? The quick answer is yes, but I’ve been watching this movie for years and years and have come to appreciate it. There is a ton of Halloween atmosphere, it has some genuinely creepy scenes, and the story is pretty fun. However, on a scale of one to ten, I think giving it an eight is being nice. It reminds you where the genre came from, but these days seems old and cliché. If you can throw away all your preconceptions, so you’re in the mindset of the 1978 audience, “Halloween” is nothing but enjoyable. Otherwise it’s going to be a tired snorefest, and you know how it ends.
Like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, this movie is surprisingly not gory. “TCM” takes it to the max and I don’t think you see even a hint of violence actually on screen, but compared to popular movies today, “Halloween” is relatively dry. We do get a few stabbings and some blood, but nothing’s spurting out or getting cut off. In fact, most deaths are by strangulation of some sort, which is very un-gory. This is not to say the film is without violence. There is plenty of it, it’s just not gratuitous like we’re used to. As for nudity, I did say this was the prototype for the slasher, so obviously we get some boobs. Then we get the classic teenage sex and the beginning of the “only virgins are safe” notion. Again, nothing gratuitous, but we know what’s going on.
“Halloween”’s shining star is the tension. This thing wraps you in and has you on the edge of your seat from minute one. The opening segment, which I have left out til this point, is a masterpiece. You are hooked from the start, being put behind the eyes of a psychotic little boy. This kind of thing will freak you out the first time you see it, and have you grinning each subsequent viewing. As the movie moves along, Michael starts his ominous stalking. He is there the whole time, staring into windows, standing behind bushes, always for just a frame or a split second. We feel just like Laurie, not knowing if we’re seeing things or if this creepy guy in a mechanic’s suit and a mask is really there. Then there’s the chase. Michael is slow moving, big and scary, but it seems like you should be able to get away from him if you could just run. That is definitely not the case. The guy may move like a snail, but he keeps popping up everywhere. You really can’t get away, and you can’t do anything about it. This is downright unnerving. There’s a long standing debate as to which is scarier, a slow moving baddie or a fast one. I am firmly on Michael’s side, feeling that slow and steady is the way to scare people. An enemy that chases you down would definitely have you scared for your life, but someone that plods around but is always right behind you makes you feel something else. It’s definitely fear, but not necessarily for your life. Maybe for your soul.
The best way to sum everything up is to say “Halloween” is a classic. It may not turn everyone on, but like it’s signature character, it will not be stopped and it will not be denied. The movie has spawned 5 direct sequels, two re-imaginings, and was influential in the development of pretty much every every horror movie since. It is one of the classic Halloween movies, and should be revered as such. I used to think it wasn’t worthy of the title “Halloween”; thinking about it a bit, I doubt anything else even comes close. It is Halloween is every sense: It’s American, it’s original, it’s frightening, it’s sexy, there are monsters and dumb characters and trick-or-treating and pumpkins. There are a few other films that come to mind with these same characteristics, and all of them are on my Halloween list. But “Halloween” did it first, it went harder and it did it better.