Why Halloween Still Resonates With Fans 40 Years Later
John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN is usually not viewed by the masses as indie horror – yet it is. It is one of the most successful independent horror films ever made. It’s also my absolute favorite motion picture of all time. Director John Carpenter was enamored with Panavision. This was a rare technique in a low budget indie film. He used every bit of the extra space in framing the shots. Cinematographer Dean Cundey made the film look better than most of its studio quality peers. Starring Donald Pleasence and introducing a young Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role, this is the film that launched a genre and formed the template for many horror films to come. It’s hard for some to view it objectively and in the context of the time in which it was made.
Let’s imagine for a minute that the world had never heard of a killer named Michael Myers. This was the case in the fall of 1978 when the film premiered. It wasn’t an instant success. The name meant nothing to anyone then. The film itself never referred to him by name after his mother spoke his first name only and then removed his mask. From that moment on Michael was referred to as “He” – This was the night HE came home. The film’s credits would list the killer only as “The Shape” when masked. In 1978 this was a brand new film about a psychopathic human being in a creepy, nearly featureless, white mask. Can you imagine what that must have felt like to experience those images for the first time? Before characters became household names, horror icons, or it became a largely exploited franchise?
Imagine a public not widely desensitized by the novelty of the character – and could imagine a time when there was only one film bearing the name “Halloween” – just one celluloid tale telling the story of this escaped mental patient who toys with the lives of people he will eventually murder. People he will murder in places that have always represented safety, familiarity and normal suburban life to each of them, in circumstances where they would normally have felt protected and comfortable. The killer moves almost like a ghost, a phantom even…merely a shape in the night. He isn’t just your average serial killer from the headlines. He literally plays hide and seek with his victims, he toys with them, he observes them, he follows them, he is fascinated by the way they die when he finally catches them unaware. After committing one act of murder he stands back and curiously tilts his head from side to side as if he is admiring a piece of artwork – clearly captivated by death in its many forms - drawn like a magnet to how easy it is for him to take a living thing and create something dead. This is his motivation. He’s like a child – a child without humanity. He is out on Halloween night doing what everyone else is doing – he is trick or treating. The tricks are on those who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…on the wrong night.
This is a film that has more suspense and technique than gore and shock value. This is what sets it apart from its myriad of imitators. My love for this film runs quite deep. It’s more than just a movie that scared me shitless when I was young. I mean – it is that as well, but it’s more than that for me. It’s not just a movie that features some of my favourite actors. This film represents a time in my life when I remember being part of a world much like the one painted onscreen. I was around the same age as Tommy and Lindsey in the film, maybe about a year younger. I remember kitchens that looked like the Wallace’s kitchen, track jackets like Lynda’s, cars like Annie’s, hairstyles like all of the characters in the film. I lived that. It was my reality as a child. I identified with the characters not only because they were three dimensional and genuine – but because I recognized the world in which they lived. I remember those old films on television on Halloween night, I remember watching some of them after trick or treating. Halloween was a time when us kids got to run around at night – we didn’t get a chance for that any other time. The night belonged to us on Halloween. It was as if anything was possible because we had costumes on to hide our identities and half the town’s children were running around themselves dressed incognito. When I watch this film – and I revisit it time and time again – it brings those feelings back. It fills me with the sense of anticipation, excitement, tangible expectation that anything could happen and the slight sense of fear that would come from walking down unfamiliar streets as the herd thinned out and you were left with maybe one or two friends wondering what that noise was or wondering just what that shape could be up there by those trees. This film brings all of that back to me whenever I see it.
The characters are like old friends because they have personality traits and authentic characteristics that make you care about each of them. Which one could have been you or your friends? Which one is like a classmate you went to high school with? Can you imagine what would happen if you discovered they had been murdered directly across the street from you when you had just seen and talked to them a couple hours before? They could have been anyone you or I had known. These characters were in love with life. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) was concerned with the duties of her job babysitting for the Doyle’s yet she also yearned to have the boyfriend and the popularity the other girls had. Annie (Nancy Loomis) was the one in the group who used humour to hide her insecurities “Hey, jerk! Speed Kills!!” – she was the loyal one who would do anything to look out for her friends and she was most in love with her boyfriend, though she’d never let on to her friends that she was that vulnerable. Lynda (PJ Soles) was concerned with how excited she was for the homecoming dance, what she was going to wear, what the other kids at school would think about her hair “See anything you like?” and perhaps making her boyfriend, Bob, a little jealous with all the attention she would get. Tommy (Brian Andrews) was excited that Laurie was going to babysit him that night so they could make popcorn, carve a jack-o-lantern and watch monster movies – all the fun he was going to have after going out trick or treating. You can almost see his innocence die when the monster becomes real - “Laurie, what’s the boogeyman?” None of these people had any idea they would be in any danger – some of them had no idea it would be the final night they would be alive. A line spoken by Annie to Laurie becomes all too true: “He wants to take you out tonight.” Another prophetic line is spoken by Lynda just moments before: "I'll be totally wiped out!"
Carpenter fleshed out the story of The Shape’s psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis (named after the character in Hitchcock’s Psycho) while producer Debra Hill wrote most of the girls’ dialogue. She understood those characters and John understood the darker parts of the story. The film was made in little time for little money. 21 days of shooting for $300,000 – it was managed largely due to the close knit familial relationship of the cast and crew making the film. The film was made with love, ingenuity, creative talent, passion and a youthful eagerness. Donald Pleasence, the sole big name on the film, was commissioned for $5,000 and only a few days of shooting. John was terrified and completely in awe of him. Donald trusted his director’s vision and was completely generous as an actor and the two became great friends. The film was financed by a man who would continue the Halloween legacy for years to come. This man was known as the godfather of the franchise. The fans loved him. His name was Moustapha Akkad. Before his untimely death he would continually make appearances at conventions to speak with the fans about the story of this film and all that came after. This was not just a “scary movie” – this film not only has an audience who adores it and reveres it as a classic, it had a cast and crew who cared about all they were doing in creating this piece of cinematic history. It shows. In spades. I vividly remember how frightened I was the first time I saw “Halloween” – the mask scared the hell out of me. You have to remember that at that time there were only two films that had this particular masked killer. He was shrouded in mystery – there weren’t a plethora of sequels to try to explain his existence. He just existed - existed only to kill.
The film begins with a decent amount of space between The Shape and those who would fall prey to his murderous urges. As the film progresses you’ll notice that the space in which to escape from the killer becomes smaller and smaller. It’s as if you’re being backed into a corner through the lens of the Panaglide camera. Scenes that still give me the chills are when the ghostly face of The Shape appears through the shrouded door of the laundry room and disappears just as Annie leans out the door to call out – and then moments later when the door slams and she tries to get out you see from behind her that same face peering in the window behind her, also the scene where a victim is laid out on display, throat slit, on a bed with a strategically placed headstone of the killer’s first victim, and of course the iconic scene where you think it’s all over and for the first time in horror film history – the killer sits right up behind the unsuspecting heroine and slowly turns his head to gaze at her through the eye-holes of his mask. Another piece of this film that intensifies the scare factor is the creepy and iconic score. Again, this is before the countless sequels and reboots. This was the first time moviegoers would experience the music we’ve now heard thousands of times.
The music, the mask, the characters, the iconic scenes – all brand new to audiences in 1978. Can you imagine being seated in a theatre not knowing what was about to happen on screen and seeing this film for the first time? A lot of horror films lacked the stylistic nature of “Halloween” and all the imitators that came after truly lacked the style and the heart that this film possesses. This movie represents everything I love about horror films, the autumn season, October 31st – and everything Halloween-related. I feel as if it is a part of who I am. I loved horror films at a very young age. This film made me realize that I needed to be a part of this genre on some level for the rest of my life – and that I would never turn back. I return to it over and over to achieve those aforementioned feelings that it fills me with. There has not been a year that has gone by that I have not watched this film at least twice since I first experienced it. I could never tire of it. It’s fucking flawless in its execution. Even if you think you know everything there needs to be known about “Halloween” – I urge you to watch it again – and this time pay close attention to everything playing out before you. Look at it with brand new eyes. You may come away with far more appreciation than you had before. I almost feel sad for those who weren’t old enough to know a world where there weren’t several sequels, action figures and T-shirts with countless images from the film. This is part of the reason why I feel the need to convince those of you who have written the film off for being too old, too slow, or my favorite slur “too boring” – because they’ve been desensitized by modern films with too much exposition and flashy CGI effects. Flashier isn’t always better. I tell you this: There will NEVER be another horror film like John Carpenter’s classic 1978 exercise in terror. It’s changed the face of the horror film since its initial release. America once only thought about October 31st with images of costumes, parties, candy, bobbing for apples, ghost stories, picking out pumpkins to carve, hayrides and other fun and innocent children’s games. Since 1978 we can all agree that there is a lot more that comes to mind when someone refers to the word…HALLOWEEN.