The Suspenseful Pacing of John Carpenter’s 'Halloween' (1978)
The horror movie genre can be broken down into a few different sub-genres, the slasher film being one of them. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho may have invented the slasher movie, but John Carpenter’s Halloween defined it, and the rules that it established set the bar for the slasher films that followed. This movie is played over and over every Halloween season, and it’s a required title in any horror fan’s movie library. Sequels and remakes are still green-lit by Hollywood. Film students study it. It's featured in countless documentaries. You cannot mention the genre without mentioning Halloween.
The obvious answers to why it holds up are the acting, the music, and the story, but I think it’s the pacing that really stands out. This is a story that you can tell over the face of a lit flashlight in the dark in under 10 minutes. So, what keeps it from being boring and meatless? Why do we wait almost an hour for the main, nearly bloodless kills to occur? Why does the defining slasher movie not resemble its own genre in so many ways while at the same time writes its rules? Below I discuss the film’s pacing and how it contributes to Halloween's iconic status in film history.
Please note, I will be outlining the entire plot in my analysis. So, warning! Spoilers ahead!
Halloween follows escaped murderous mental patient Michael Myers as he spends his first night of freedom in 15 years stalking, and eventually killing, a small group of teenagers in his hometown on Halloween night. Having murdered his older sister on Halloween at the age of six, he now seeks out Laurie Strode, a geeky loaner who spends the holiday babysitting for young Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace while her two friends, Lynda and Annie, and their boyfriends make plans to spend the night in Lindsey's empty house across the street. Meanwhile, Michael’s therapist, Dr. Loomis, and Annie’s Father, Sheriff Brackett, are on the hunt for the escaped patient, hoping to catch him before he kills again.
Part I: Birth of The Shape
The iconic opening sequence involves the murder of Judith Myers, Michael’s teenage sister and first kill. In one long shot, the audience follows Michael's POV as he stalks the outside of his own house before making his way inside and up the stairs to his sister’s bedroom, throwing on a clown mask before he stabs the unsuspecting (and topless) teen with a butcher knife. This sequence not only sets up Michael's kill tactics, but it serves as a prologue to establish tone, pacing, and backstory. You get the eerie, repetitive, stalking music, the POV perspective from behind Michael’s mask, and the Halloween night atmosphere. It's a very ambitious filming technique for such a low budget movie, but it's so well-executed and effective that it proves this film is going to take itself seriously, not just provide cheap thrills.
This is the last onscreen kill that the audience will see for nearly an hour. The rest of the movie takes place in the present day (present day being Halloween night 1978). Rob Zombie's remake takes its time to present the events that lead up to and directly follow Judith’s death. This original version, however, jumps forward 15 years and glosses over these details through Dr. Loomis’ exposition. It is quick to get to Laurie’s story after a brief scene where Michael escapes from his mental institution in Smith's Grove, attacking Dr. Loomis and his nurse as they approach the asylum before he takes off for his hometown of Haddonfield. No one is seriously injured in the scuffle, surprisingly missing the opportunity to add to the body count. Instead, the audience is teased with several jump scares throughout the first and second acts, building up to the actual kills gradually and at that point, unexpectedly.
Loomis’ scenes are short but intense. His character grounds the story without taking it over, saving room for a very long set up that really sets an interesting tone and establishes a solid setting and characterization of Michael’s intended victims but little else. It's clear that Michael is most effective when he is the most mysterious. He is even referred to as "The Shape" in the credits, suggesting that he is not even human, and it's Loomis' obvious fear and desperation in pursuing his murderous patient that helps to sell this more than an elaborate psychological profile ever could.
Part 2: Maneuvering the Victims into Position
Instead of riding along with Loomis, the perspective shifts to Laurie Strode's. Laurie is a 17-year-old resident of Haddonfield, Michael's hometown, whose father happens to be a realtor trying to sell the old Myers house. Laurie drops off a key, unaware of the fact that Michael is watching her from inside the house. This innocent task leads her to become his next prey.
We are presented with a festive Haddonfield in the full Halloween spirit. There are falling leaves, pumpkins, and trick-or-treaters running from house to house. We see young Tommy Doyle scared by some kids after school who tell him that the boogey man is coming to get him, and he happens to run smack into his future boogeyman while escaping their taunts. We know Michael’s capabilities, but he is unarmed and unfazed by his run in with Tommy. In fact, he generally leaves the kids alone. He might like to make them scream, but it’s the teenagers that he wants to kill.
Next, we meet Laurie’s friends, Lynda and Annie, two girls obsessed with their looks and their boyfriends when they are not busy putting down Laurie for being too smart and too geeky to go to the upcoming school dance. Their teasing is downright abusive at times, yet they have so much personality and come across as so real that you begin to like them, despite their attitude toward our heroine. Lynda is your typical blonde cheerleader, and Annie is your basic sassy big mouth, but they have witty dialogue and a very realistic demeanor. The movie takes its time to listen in on their conversations on the walk home from school, almost as if we, the audience, are stalking them like Michael, trying to get a feel for whether or not they will be worthy victims.
Laurie has had her head turned over one shoulder ever since catching a glimpse of The Shape from outside the window of her classroom at school, watching her, clad in his white mask and a jumpsuit stolen from an off-screen victim, a tow truck driver who apparently wears his size clothing. She sees him again behind some bushes and later between the clotheslines in her yard from her bedroom window. He’s just there, watching. Still. Not making a sound. Not even holding a weapon. We hang out in Laurie’s room for a scene and tense up when she receives a phone call with only breathing at the other end. The breathing turns out to be Annie playing around before she offers her a ride to their babysitting jobs across the street from each other. Still, you are sure that an attack is coming in that empty house with Michael lurking nearby, even if the sun is still out.
Instead, Michael waits for Dr. Loomis to catch up to him. We learn from his research with a groundskeeper at the local cemetery that Judith Myers’ headstone has been stolen, confirming for Loomis that Michael has returned to Haddonfield. He sets out for the Myers house, hoping to run into his patient there. A curiosity builds on top of the tension. Does Michael have a plan, or is he just making this all up as he goes along?
Laurie waits on the corner for Annie in her iconic blue jeans and blouse in preparation of her babysitting job that night. The simple but addictive piano notes of the score play as we head into late afternoon, the dead leaves slapping to the ground, the pumpkin in Laurie's arms that barely fit around its bright orange skin. There is no dialogue, character development, or plot advancement, just Laurie taking in the atmosphere and the events of the day, from the girls teasing her to the masked man who seems to be everywhere she was that day. Even more impressive is how it feels like Halloween, even though the trees are full of green leaves and the sun has only begun to set.
Annie arrives, and they drive over to their babysitting jobs, passing a joint back and forth while they do, just 70’s kids being 70’s kids. They are almost busted by Annie’s dad who is investigating a break-in at the local hardware store where a mask, some knives, and a rope were stolen. Michael seems to pick and choose when to attack and when to just be sneaky.
The intoxicated girls try to play it cool as they pull up to Mr. Brackett, and he tells them what happened. It’s obvious to the audience that Michael was behind the break-in without this exposition, but it gives Annie a realistic exchange with her dad, two characters who will play active parts in Michael's Halloween night massacre but on opposite ends of the spectrum.
After they drive off, the girls revert back to their teenage world. Laurie confesses to Annie that she’s interested in a boy at school, and Annie uses this information to her advantage later, blackmailing Laurie into watching Lindsey for her while she picks up her boyfriend, Paul, to bring him back to the Wallace house. These simple teenage conversations that we have been listening in on start to serve a purpose in maneuvering each character into their ultimate fates.
The sun is setting as the girls walk up to their respective houses for their babysitting jobs that night. Michael isn’t far behind, and the dimming light seems to charge him with murderous energy. The horror fan audience is almost desperate for him to kill, emulating the burning desire that drives killers to commit their heinous acts. We’re itching for Michael to get going so that we can watch Laurie take him on. It is clear that she is our heroine by now. She has earned our sympathy with her awful friends and our respect with her maternal ways. She is worthy to take on The Shape, but the ball is in Michael’s court now, and he still has plenty of stalking to do.
Part 3: Attack!
In an unbearably suspenseful sequence, the movie’s focus shifts to Annie and her babysitting mishaps. She and her charge do not get along. Lindsey is a couch potato, staring at the TV screen instead of helping Annie calm the barking dog and wash her clothes after she spills popcorn butter all over them. The scene could have been played for laughs. Instead, it shifts from Annie's annoyed perspective with Michael's curious one. He quietly comes to her rescue before he comes for her throat. He takes care of Lester, the barking dog, by strangling him to death and then watches Annie traipse out to the laundry room in the backyard to throw her clothes in the wash. Wearing only Mr. Wallace's dress shirt and a blanket that she found in a closet, we are sure that Annie is going to get it in the laundry room, away from innocent Lindsey and out of Laurie’s sight across the street. He even has the added advantage of Annie getting stuck in the window as he locks the door from the outside.
Instead, her boyfriend Paul inadvertently intervenes, calling to tell her that he is able to sneak out of his house if Annie picks him up. Lindsey delivers the phone to her and helps her out of the laundry room, scaring Michael away. He wants nothing to do with Lindsey, and he doesn’t want an audience when he kills Annie. So, she is safe for now. Lindsey is safe too when Annie convinces her to go over to the Doyle house so that Laurie can watch her while she goes to get Paul. Whether or not Annie saves Lindsey’s life with her selfishness, we'll never know, but it gets Lindsey out of the way so that Michael can take out his intended target without worrying about what he would have done to the little girl in the house as well.
An obvious hiding place for Michael would be in the back seat of Annie’s car as she gets into grab her boyfriend, but the obvious has come and gone so many times through the course of the movie, that now, you’re not expecting him to be there. But he is. The only problem is, his jump scare doesn’t time right with the otherwise perfect music cues, so the scare is not as effective. Still, you can’t believe that this is it for the tough, loud-mouthed Annie whose voice is silenced forever by his large hands around her throat, followed by it being slit by one of Michael’s hardware store knives.
The most chilling moment in Annie’s death is when Tommy sees Michael carrying her across the yard from his living room window. The image causes Tommy to freak out, but Laurie doesn’t see it. Instead, she dismisses it as his imagination after listening to him worry about the boogeyman all night, and she tries to distract the kids with pumpkin carving and horror movies on TV. Meanwhile, Michael is focused on his next two victims.
Enter Lynda and Bob who show up to Lindsey’s house at Annie’s invitation, not realizing that she is dead inside. The two fool around and break all of the classic slasher movie rules as they invent them at the same time. Michael decides to get rid of Bob first, pinning him to the wall with his butcher knife while Bob attempts to fetch some beers from the kitchen. His death is quicker than Annie’s, but the pacing really speeds up here. Michael wastes no time or creativity as he proceeds to change from one Shape to another, throwing on an old sheet and Bob’s glasses to disguise himself long enough to choke Lynda with a phone cord as she calls Laurie on the phone. Now we see all of the different beats that the long set up has hit in order to provide the perfect landscape for Michael to begin his motiveless blood bath.
Laurie is quick to dismiss the choking sounds on the phone as another hoax, but it’s a hoax that feels a little too real, real enough to leave her babysitting charges and investigate further. After Lynda’s death, all of these strings are pulled together to get Laurie over to the house where her victimized friends are revealed and she comes face-to-face with The Shape. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has found the car that Michael was driving in the neighborhood. He walks the neighborhood, waiting to catch his scent while clutching his loaded revolver, putting him in the right place at the right time.
Laurie’s journey across the street is slow and steady as she locks up one dark house and enters another. It’s late enough that the trick-or-treaters are all inside. The adults haven’t returned home from their Halloween parties, and the neighbors who stayed home aren’t expecting anymore ringing doorbells tonight, besides practical jokers looking to ding-dong-ditch. She enters the house, making it clear to everyone inside that she's not up for any pranks, and you can feel the uneasiness in her voice that assures her that something’s wrong .
It takes an eternity for Laurie to enter the bedroom that Lynda and Bob had occupied only to find Annie’s dead body resting in front of Judith Myers’ stolen headstone on the bed, dimly lit by a festive jack-o-lantern. Michael actually took the time to position his victim in this creepy scene like an interior decorator showing off his creativity. There has to be a point to all of this theatricality, but it's never explained, making it more interesting to ponder rather than just passing it off as a generic scary image in a scary movie.
In her shock, Laurie stumbles backward and shakes loose the body of Bob, which falls upside down and swings lifeless from inside the closet. She knocks open a cabinet and finds Lynda dead inside. The Shape appears out of the darkness, mask-first, and strikes at Laurie, his knife tearing at her shirt and causing her to fall off the banister and down the stairs. His aim is uncharacteristically off with Laurie, but the pacing has just kicked into high gear as a result.
Stunned and injured, the audience is in full horror movie mode now. All of that tension is finally released into all-out terror now that you know what Michael is capable of, even though you still don’t understand why he is doing it. He is done stalking. It’s time to kill. He has satisfied this urge three times that night, and he’s eyeing his fourth, wanting to study the victim as they die. It’s as if he can see the life escaping from them after they draw out their last breath.
The joke of the franchise is that Michael can walk faster than most victims can run. So, he gives Laurie a head start across the street as she limps to the Doyle house faster than she left it in full health. Now, we are in Laurie’s POV, running with her across the street and looking over her shoulder again and again to see how close The Shape is. There is time to get help without having to put the kids in danger. The neighbors are no help, shooing her away as she bangs on nearby doors. After all, she isn’t stupid. She tries to look for the obvious solution first. But she has hurt her leg on the fall down the steps so running for her life is out of the question. Instead, she relies on waking up Tommy and begs him to come downstairs to open the locked door, having lost the keys in her fall. The sleepy-eyed boy does so in the nick of time, just as Michael reaches Laurie on the porch.
In the movie’s climax, the pacing speeds up and slows down as Laurie must face The Shape again and again, making the audience realize that Michael can’t be killed easily, if at all. She takes him out in the living room, then in a closet, then in the bedroom, stabbing him with a knitting needle and hiding. Then, stabbing him with a hanger and his own knife.
Definitely thinking him dead this time, Laurie sends the kids for help while she takes time to breathe and nurse her wounds. The silence is broken once more as Michael rises and attacks, trying his choking method this time. Laurie throws off his mask in the scuffle, making him stop long enough to put it back on. Again, he is intent on killing in a very methodical, theatrical way, refusing to expose himself as he is doing it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has left his post and has observed Tommy and Lindsey running for help. He enters the house and climbs the stairs just in time to empty every bullet he has into his patient's body before Michael falls off of the Doyle’s balcony to the yard below. The thud on the ground lets all of the tension out of the room for good, or so you think. Then, as Loomis glances back at the body in the yard, he sees that Michael is gone. The tension returns in a rush like a wave and carries the audience through the different rooms of the house. You can hear Michael breathing through his precious white mask, but you can't see him. Like a good ghost story, it ends on a cliffhanger with the victims traumatized and the villain still out there. You’re left with uneasiness yet thrill of a roller coaster that was mainly uphill for most of the ride but built up so much tension that the series of hills at the end were well worth it.
Movies are not paced like this nowadays. Even when they are, they come off as boring and over-inflated. It takes a special kind of film making to execute this pace. It has nothing to do with cushioning a simple story with hot air or distracting with jump scares and scary music. It has to do with tone and setting and collecting information that will form a tight-fitting lid around the story as it culminates to its relentless climax. Halloween is special in the way that it pulls this off, and that is what has earned its spot as a tent pole slasher film in its genre and a triumphant accomplishment in film history.
What is your favorite scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween? Leave your answers in the comments below!