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Should I Watch..? 'Halloween' (1978)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Halloween is a horror film released in 1978. It marked the cinematic debut for actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Written, scored and directed by John Carpenter, the film depicts a trio of young women being targeted by a vengeful and murderous presence that recently escaped from an asylum. The film also stars Donald Pleasence, PJ Soles and Nancy Kyes (credited as Nancy Loomis). The film became one of the most successful independent films in history, earning around $70 million worldwide thanks to positive word-of-mouth responses from audiences. Critics weren't initially impressed with the film although Carpenter's direction and score were praised by some. Since its release, the film has been reappraised as one of the most influential slasher films to emerge during the late seventies and early eighties alongside films like Black Christmas and Friday The 13th. Halloween also inspired a whole franchise of sequels that expanded the backstory of its iconic villain, the mask-wearing Michael Myers, as well as a reboot in 2018 that served to reset the series' continuity. The film was selected for preservation in 2006 in the US National Film Registry for its cultural, aesthetic and historic significance.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

During Halloween celebrations in 1963 in the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, six-year-old Michael Myers brutally murders his sister with a kitchen knife before apparently entering a catatonic state. Discovered by his parents still holding the bloody knife, he is incarcerated at Smith's Grove Sanitarium under the care of psychiatrist Sam Loomis. Fifteen years later and following a largely unsuccessful treatment, Michael escapes by stealing Loomis' car and drives back to Haddonfield. Aware of what Michael is planning to do, Loomis warns the local authorities but to little effect.

Unaware of the danger heading towards their town, school friends Laurie, Lynda and Annie are discussing their plans for Halloween. Laurie is stuck babysitting Tommy Doyle while Annie is also babysitting across the street while Lynda plans a steamy night in with her boyfriend Bob. While Annie is also overcome by her hormones, Laurie would rather study and carve jack-o-lanterns with young Tommy. But before long, she finds herself followed by a mysterious masked man...

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

Donald Pleasence

Dr Sam Loomis

Jamie Lee Curtis

Laurie Strode

PJ Soles

Lynda Van Der Klok

Nancy Kyes

Annie Brackett

Nick Castle

Michael Myers / The Shape

Tony Moran

Michael Myers (unmasked)

Kyle Richards

Lindsey Wallace

Brian Andrews

Tommy Doyle

Technical Info

DirectorJohn Carpenter

Screenplay

John Carpenter & Debra Hill

Running Time

91 minutes

Release Date (UK)

25th January, 1979

Rating

15 (2018 re-rating)

Genre

Horror, Thriller

Despite the film being her big screen debut, Curtis feels like a real star as the film's scream queen - so much so that she found herself tied to the franchise years later.

Despite the film being her big screen debut, Curtis feels like a real star as the film's scream queen - so much so that she found herself tied to the franchise years later.

What's to like?

Halloween wasn't the first slasher film to find an audience - Hitchcock's classic Psycho was the first true example of the genre - but this low budget effort helped establish several tropes that would soon become well-worn cliche through weaker imitators. Myers is a truly unsettling character, a silent and inscrutable killer hidden behind a seemingly innocuous mask with unknown motives. He really is just a figure, much like the jack-o-lanterns that dot the exterior sets and it makes him the perfect cinematic boogeyman. Of course, there are many candidates that may claim that title and you may have your own favourite. But here, he just feels like a cold and calculating killer instead of an iconic character - which is how it should be. Remember how the Nightmare On Elm Street series declined in quality when you started to realise Freddy Krueger had turned into a pantomime caricature?

Like many slasher films, Carpenter provides our killer with three nubile potential victims and delivers the now-classic morality tale about the link between sexual promiscuity and gory demises. Actually, this film is surprisingly light on the red stuff compared to many of its contemporaries and given its reputation. As the nerdy teen trying to survive, Curtis might not be getting stretched but delivers a performance that feels bigger than the film itself - she feels like the star she would become and this remains probably one of her best performances in her long career. Carpenter's talents as a director are also evident with careful framing of shots to maximise the tension and the scares. Pleasence, as the film's actual star, isn't on screen all that much but makes the most of his screen time, delivering monologues that feel weighty and thespian-friendly. This not only suits Pleasence's style but also underlines the possibility that Myers might not be mere flesh-and-blood but something altogether more evil and insidious.

Fun Facts

  • The famous mask Myers wears was a modified mask of Captain Kirk as played by William Shatner. It cost $1.98 from a shop on Hollywood Boulevard and costume designer Tommy Lee Wallace (who was dating Kyes at the time) simply widened the eyes, spray painted the face bluish-white and removed the sideburns and eyebrows. Apparently, Shatner himself was not happy about his face being used.
  • Carpenter knew he wanted a "classy" British actor to play Loomis and initially tried to hire Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who had suddenly returned to prominence after his appearance in Star Wars the previous year. Both of them turned the role down although Lee later expressed regret at his decision. Pleasence himself wasn't that keen on taking the part, only accepting the role after his daughter Lucy enjoyed Carpenter's work on Assault On Precinct 13. For just five days work (and just 18 minutes of screen time), Pleasence was paid $20'000 - the highest amount of any cast member.
  • Soles attended a public screening along with her boyfriend at the time, Dennis Quaid - who was considered for the role of Bob but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. At the screening, during her nude scene and her character asked if they saw anything they liked, a man in the theatre in front of her shouted "Hell yes, I do!" completely unaware that she was sat behind him!
  • One of the films the children watch on TV was the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, often shortened to The Thing. Coincidentally, Carpenter would direct his version of The Thing in 1982 and paid tribute to the original by using the same title screen.

What's not to like?

In a weird sense, this film has become a victim of its own success. With the massive explosion in popularity for slasher films in the Seventies and Eighties, the moments that work best in Halloween quickly became ubiquitous and now are less effective. As a viewer, I found myself making comments about the well-worn clichés of the horror genre as and when they appeared in this movie - wondering why such a character would walk out of the house in just a shirt and knickers or why they didn't just flick the lights out to prevent themselves from getting jumped by some malignant force from the shadows. Of course, Halloween didn't invent such tropes but it did help them become staples of any film with a bladed killer stalking the cast.

Aside from Pleasence hamming it up as the only man seemingly capable of stopping Myers, there isn't much to dislike about this film unless you can't handle films like this. Even Carpenter's synth-heavy soundtrack still sounds fresh and perfectly matches the frantic nature of the pursuits in the story. I would have liked a stronger supporting cast around Curtis, who easily outshines the likes of Soles and Kyes and perhaps a bigger budget might have allowed filming to take place when it was supposed to - California in the spring does not look like Illinois in late autumn, no matter how many fake leaves are scattered about. It might not be as sharp as it was back in '78 but this film still cuts you deep with its genuine creepy antagonist, unsettling score and terrified leading lady.

This first version of Michael Myers feels genuinely unsettling and unstoppable, unspoilt by derivative sequels and remakes.

This first version of Michael Myers feels genuinely unsettling and unstoppable, unspoilt by derivative sequels and remakes.

Should I watch it?

Horror fans should certainly consider Halloween for their viewing consideration - if not for the film's standing and importance in the genre then because it's still an effective and disturbing thriller that feels more restrained and less silly than the sequels. Like many horror franchises, your best bet is to just stick with the original as later films often distil the potency by adding plot contrivances, needless gore and a less talented director helming the thing. Carpenter's old-school slasher might not be top of the class any more but that doesn't mean it's forgotten how to provide its chills and thrills.

Great For: Jamie Lee Curtis, Carpenter's reputation as a director, slasher fans, horror aficionados

Not So Great For: the easily scared, horror film virgins, home invasion victims, William Shatner

What else should I watch?

It's a pity that the film found itself dragged down by so many inferior sequels before getting the reboot treatment. The first attempt at a reboot came from horror icon Rob Zombie with his 2007 version, also called Halloween. Retelling the story from Carpenter's original, the film delved deeper into Myers' psyche and motivations while also delivering plenty of bloody ultraviolence. Critics weren't hugely impressed by it or the inevitable sequel so yet another reboot arrived in 2018, also called Halloween, but this one managed the trick of bringing Curtis back to the franchise for the first time since Halloween: Resurrection in 2002. Deliberately resetting the chronology of the series and ignoring the previous sequels, this latest effort was intended to be the start of a trilogy of films which, thus far, have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Halloween Kills was scheduled for release in October 2020 while Halloween Ends scheduled for the following year but at the time of writing, there has been no word on when these films will be released.

Michaets l Myers has now become one of the most recognisable serial killers in cinema alongside the likes of Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare On Elm Street), Jigsaw (Saw) and Jason Voorhees (Friday 13th) - all of whom featured in their own franchises. While essentially all the same at heart, I can't honestly recommend any of them because they don't especially appeal to me. A true horror fan would probably recommend the original Hellraiser with its otherworldly antagonist known as Pinhead. With its grotesque levels of violence, gore and sadomasochist torture, the film stands out from many other horror films by being almost deliberately off-putting and disturbing.

© 2020 Benjamin Cox