This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
One week in, it’s day seven and Halloween just came early.
We open to an Illinois house. The camera moves in, shuffling around the building’s side and spying on a playful couple within, who kiss and take things upstairs. They have no idea what peril is to come. As our eye progresses into the house, a hand picks out a knife from the kitchen: it’s a boy, just a child. The man leaves but the woman is still in the bedroom, almost entirely naked, when the boy joins her. The knife rises. She screams: ‘Michael!’ This is Halloween.
Released forty years ago this month, John Carpenter’s Halloween was the film that sailed a thousand slashers, much to the chagrin of those who attacked the sub-genre of encouraging violence. Taking his cues from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Shaw Massacre, just four years prior, Carpenter sought to terrorise audiences with a bombardment of horror tropes, some familiar, many breathtakingly original. Kids chant, promiscuous teens get slaughtered and by the end there’s the final girl standing. Carpenter striped his villain of humanity, ensuring that his heroine was the embodiment of it. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and then, of course, Scream, all born on 31 October 1978.
Fifteen years after the events of the film’s prologue, college student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, the then unknown daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh) begins to notice that she is being stalked by a mysterious, breathy figure in an uncanny, inhuman mask in her hometown of Haddonfield. It is the recently escaped convict Michael Myers, imprisoned and examined ever since he murdered his older sister at the age of six. As Myers’ childhood psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), attempts to warn the town that the infamous murder is back on the loose – ‘Death has come to your little town’ – bodies begin to pile. The gore’s lighter than you might think and all the worse for it.
Unusually for a film on so tight a budget – Myers’ disguise was a brutalised $2 Captain Kirk mask, whilst professional lighting was a sacrificed expense – half of Halloween’s financing was devoted to allowing the film to stretch into a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio. Creating a much sleeker aesthetic than your average contemporary indie, the tonal result is all-encompassing, enveloping horror, a film in which every inch of the frame is exploited for its potential to frighten.
Throughout the build up, Carpenter retains a calculated visual distance from his looming antagonist, supplying the perfect proportion of fleeting glimpses to chill, but in so wide a panorama the threat level heightens effortlessly. Such scope is too much for the eye to take in and in any direction their could lie danger; these are vistas of space with terrible potentiality. That Carpenter holds his shots just too long for our nerves to handle unsettles all the more.
On the subject of heightened fear, no review of Halloween is complete without acknowledgement for Carpenter’s electronic blinder of a soundtrack in offending the soul. Cruelly omnipresent and yet consistently startling, the film’s music is a synthesised mix of keyboard strains, played at a rapid 5/4 tempo by the director himself. His rhythm remains among the greatest and most demonically appropriate accompaniments ever committed to cinema. Decades later, spoofs would mock the film’s themes and imagery but could never get one up on its symphonic prowess.
There have been some truly absurd critiques launched against Halloween since its debut, with the weakest being a claim that Carpenter’s point-of-view perspectives actually encourage viewers to identify with Meyers. For the rest of us, an experience of the film is the slashing annual pleasure par excellence. A grisly, moody, trick of a treat.