Sandy Johnson’s career in Hollywood never really took off, but in 1978 she was integral to a series that did. In the opening scene of Halloween, Johnson played Judith Myers, the first victim of her younger brother Michael. Michael would go on to kill many more innocent victims over the next thirty-one years while surviving pretty much everything, but it all comes back to that fateful Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois.
Halloween came out in 1978 and was directed by John Carpenter and produced by Debra Hill. Two years earlier Carpenter directed a film called Assault On Precinct 13 which attracted the attention of Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad. Akkad and Yablans were looking for somebody to direct a low budget slasher film about a killer who targeted babysitters. But Carpenter and Hill reworked the story and setting to include Michael and Halloween night. They convinced Akkad to fund the movie for $300,000, which in 1978 was considered low budget. However Carpenter so expertly sold his movie to Akkad that he gave him the funding. Carpenter even famously agreed to only take $10,000 for writing, directing and composing the music for the film. Halloween went on to gross over $100 million and is to date one of Carpenter’s most successful films.
So what was the secret? Why did this film become so popular? Honestly, you could write a full-length article about any number of reasons, but the short answer is that Halloween is legitimately one of the best crafted and most effective modern pieces of horror filmmaking.
The horror genre, as well as the Halloween sequels, went on to become bogged down in a repetitive cycle of the same tropes and mistakes. Audiences today are so used to jump scares and nauseated at the excessive gore of modern torture porn, that Halloween isn’t going to scare them like it used to because all things considered it’s not particularly gory. In addition, Halloween is a very deliberately paced film-which some might think of as slow which is very much not the case as the film clocks in at 91 minutes. All this is to say that Halloween is simultaneously a horror film for a new generation though it’s very much a product of the horror that came before it.
The biggest inspiration for Halloween clearly is in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho and the films share more than a few connections. For starters, Norman Bates iconic shower victim Marion Crane is played by Janet Leigh-Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother. And Crane’s lover is named Sam Loomis-the same name as Donald Pleasance’s character in the film. But really the fundamental vibes of the film are the same. Both movies are less about gore and find their scares in something modern horror movies have largely moved beyond-tension.
After Michael escapes the mental institution during the beginning of the film, Carpenter spends a good chunk of the movie building up tension. Much of the middle of the film is spent with Loomis tracking Michael down. We constantly get the sense that we just missed him, and Loomis’ search is stressful. It doesn’t help that every authority figure writes Loomis off and dismisses Michael as not a threat.
And here is where I want to talk about Donald Pleasance. Donald Pleasance wasn’t the first choice for the role of Dr. Loomis. The late (and very great) Christopher Lee famously said that turning down the role of Loomis was one of his greatest mistakes. As someone who enjoys imagining the various Hollywood what-ifs, I can honestly say nobody could do this role better. Pleasance perfectly captures a sense of desperation and determination (and later weariness) that elevated the film beyond the B-movie it could have been. Pleasance is to date the all-time greatest harbinger of doom, and Malcolm McDowell’s performance in the later films is an insulting betrayal of the original.
While Loomis is warning everybody of the coming terror and being written off as a crackpot, we meet the other icon of the series: Laurie Strode. Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is an everyday girl. She and her friends are in their own world, and clearly Laurie is the most responsible and least promiscuous of her friends, though the film never truly condemns the other girls for being so. Instead it earnestly tries to depict them as normal and doesn’t pass judgement. Unlike many horror films, Halloween doesn’t vilify our victims for having sex. While Laurie’s friends and her all balance an evening of babysitting and boys Laurie finds herself being stalked by Michael. Curtis would go on to become the real face of the Halloween series despite only appearing in four of the ten films for various plot reasons. It was Halloween that earned her the term “scream queen”.
Before night falls in Haddonfield Laurie’s afternoon gets a bit spooky as she several times comes across Michael watching her from the distance. These moments are where Carpenter shines as a director. An early shot of Laurie walking away lasts uncomfortably long. At first Laurie walks blissfully away and out of focus, a shot that is about to become boring before Michael comes into frame and watches her. Later Michael stares at her silently from her backyard before disappearing. Anybody who has ever been home alone knows the mere suggestion that you may not be alone is enough to set you off. Despite this, Michael still hasn’t killed anybody yet. He slowly, patiently hunts Laurie and her friends down. The reason why Laurie in particular isn’t revealed until the sequel, but spoiler alert-they are siblings.
The rest of the film unfolds as you would expect. Laurie’s friends get murdered by Michael, and Laurie saves the lives of the children she babysits before fighting off Michael in her home. Loomis finally tracks Michael down and stops him from killing Laurie with six shots to the chest. Loomis looks away from Michael’s body for a second, but Michael, as would become his M.O, isn’t quite dead and disappears off screen into the night.
If that ending feels derivative, that’s because to an extent it is. Halloween became the blueprint for a slasher film. A killer hunts teens and one by one the are picked off in increasingly gruesome ways. The last surviving teen, more often than not a girl who is implied to be a virgin, finds a way to fend off the killer. The final scene of the film implies the killer is not dead and will return-because sequel. In 2015 this is as far from something new as you can get. But as I said before, it cannot be understated how original this was at the time.
But the long series of imitators that followed failed to do what Halloween did so well. Halloween is more like Psycho than it is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are so many long, and I mean loooong shots in Halloween. Even if the long shot depicted something boring, audiences would still be uncomfortable, especially in the cell phone era. Can you imagine how thirty-seven years ago these long shots of a killer watching his victims must have driven people crazy?
Not to mention Carpenter does an admirable job of making Michael something special. Carpenter famously said he made Michael walk like a man and not a monster, but he still knew how to make him a force. Whenever Michael is on screen the incredible Halloween theme plays. This carries through the entire film. The simple addition of music to his presence truly makes Michael feel supernatural even though he isn’t (though this would be retconned later). At the time he was just a man, a very strong and disturbed man, but just a man all the same. Furthermore, Carpenter kept Michael simple. He is evil. That’s all. Carpenter wisely let audiences fill in the gaps of Michael’s psyche, knowing that the lack of an explanation would only make things more unnerving. We never even see his face as an adult, a very nice touch. When Laurie rips off his mask Michael immediately stops what he’s doing, almost in a panic. He stops everything to preserve his identity. The blank white face of William Shatner hides something that even Michael is afraid of exposing. Yet, we don’t need to know. Every film since has respected this anonymity, which is one of the reasons Rob Zombie’s remake missed the point. But that’s for a later article. Michael Myers is an enigma, a blank and terrifying presence of great strength.
John Carpenter truly did something special with Halloween. He gave us a very human villain in a very identifiable setting. And he did it all with implication, music, and less gore than you remember. Much of this was due to the film’s low budget. The iconic Michael Myers mask is well known to be a William Shatner mask painted white. And my favorite kill of the film is oddly artistic as Michael impales one of the girls’ boyfriends with nothing more than kitchen knife and is illuminated only by the moon. It’s grisly and shocking but bloodless. Slasher movies would go on to have hilarious amounts of blood, but back then Carpenter knew less was more with both killer and victim. It’s fun to read about Carpenter’s vision for the film. He truly knew what he was doing, which is weird since nobody else seemed to with the sequels.
Halloween is an example of what can be done with imagination and creativity, and how both of these can trump having a bigger budget. Everything was filmed in regular homes that felt familiar. It honestly says something that I can watch all the later films and still feel a tingle in my spine when I recognize the closet where Michael attacked Laurie or the stairs she tumbled down. None of this should be so iconic, but it is.
I could spend more time talking about why Halloween is so great, but I think I’ve said enough. Carpenter wisely kept things simple, and the resulting film, anchored by great performances (even among the campier actors) as well as a killer soundtrack all contributed to such a memorable film. It’s a shame that so few films have seemed to take away these same lessons and that the oversaturation of slasher films have made Halloween feel tame in retrospect. But the original still holds up, even if just as an example of quality filmmaking. Its legacy is undeniable, but to this day, nobody else has been able to tell the tale of Michael Myers as well as the original film did.