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Movie Review: Halloween (1978)

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Carpenter and Debra Hill
Compass International, 1978

Clearly the most influential horror movie of the past 30 years, Halloween is my favorite and is the standard by which I judge the genre.  I have been largely disappointed with almost every horror movie I have ever seen, mainly because I feel like scares are fairly simple to produce if you take the time.  John Carpenter took the time, with an extremely low budget, and came out with what would be the most successful independent feature of all time (probably until The Blair Witch Project).

The influence of the movie was more apparent in the next decade, where the masked killer genre was in full effect.  Friday the 13th and its many sequels began in 1980, and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Hellraiser (1987) soon joined the fray.  Halloween was the first, and best, and even its sequels had trouble matching it (especially the Michael Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch).

Michael Myers (played by Carpenter friend Nick Castle when masked) slices and dices his babysitter sister Judith (Sandy Johnson) on Halloween night at the age of 6 (played by Will Sandin) in an awesome beginning scene that appears to be one full shot (although it does have a couple of edits).  He is then sent to a mental institution.  15 years later (although the credits list the grown-up Myers as 23, go figure) the little town of Haddonfield, Illinois has moved on and forgotten that day, but the Myers house still sits abandoned in the neighborhood and has become the test of mettle for young mischievous boys.

Myers breaks out of the institution, much to the chagrin of Dr. Sam Loomis (a name taken from Hitchcock’s Psycho played by series stalwart Donald Pleasence), who knows that Myers is no longer a man and refers to him as “it,” as a pure evil presence.  Myers wants to revisit his old home town and make some more babysitter killings.

Introducing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first big movie role, the daughter of horror royalty Janet Leigh of Psycho fame), a virginal teen who is saddled with babysitting Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) on Halloween night while her friends Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) plan on screwing their boyfriends for the evening.  Eventually, Michael Myers, extraordinarily patient, comes in for the kills.  Meanwhile, Loomis has a hard time convincing the police department that he’s in town, mainly because nothing is happening even while kids trick-or-treat.

And here is the genius of Halloween: at the very beginning of the day, Myers is there in Haddonfield.  He could kill at any time but chooses not.  When Laurie walks up to the Myers house to drop something off, he’s there, behind the door, breathing (the trademark sound of his presence, very well executed).  He appears out of nowhere, not to kill (just yet), and creeps on the outside of the frame, leading a viewer to always be searching the background for his whereabouts.  So it gets to the point that when Myers does kill, it’s a genuine surprise because there are so many opportunities for him to do so.

If there is one thing dated about Halloween it would be those kills, which are unfortunately overacted by the victims.  But Myers is never cartoonish as he would be later, where you almost root for him to kill people.  The scene where he stabs a victim up against a wall and then just kind of observes what he’s done, with a slight tilt to the head, is extremely creepy and, as a movie watcher, satisfying.  You know with a scene like that, great care was put into the character of Michael Myers.

I can’t think of one horror film that comes close since this movie’s release in 1978, especially none of its aformentioned spawn.  I enjoyed Scream (1996) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) and have found certain other horror movies like The Descent (2006) good in places, but nothing nearly like this.  The use of the entire frame, where anyone could leap out at any minute, the use of sound, and a true filmmaker behind the camera (although Carpenter would later be unable to repeat the success he had in the eighties and now is nearly MIA) combine for a great experience.  Not to be missed.

Remade: Halloween (2007)

Next: Halloween II (review by Sam Loomis)


Comment from Jonathan
Time: August 29, 2007, 7:03 pm

Of course I agree with you since this is not only my favorite horror film but also my favorite film of all time. I would disagree with your automatic dismissal of “Halloween 3″ which I consider to be a pretty fun film in its own right and a highly underrated sequel. I think going that direction with the franchise would have been a lot more interesting than bastardizing the character of Michael Myers over the years. We wouldn’t have any of the bullshit druid curses or the like to deal with.

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: August 29, 2007, 10:47 pm

I’m thinking of doing a horror retrospective in the fall, and I may get to all the Halloween films then, but I found Halloween III to be hilariously bad, Mystery Science Theater bad. I liked the idea that they wanted to go in a different direction, with no connection to the first two films, but man…you might be right about “fun” although it was unintentional fun for me.

Comment from Jonathan
Time: August 30, 2007, 4:45 pm

“Hallween III” gets that reaction a lot, although I’ve never heard it refered to as “MST3K” bad. I realize that I, and a select cult audience are going to be the only ones to get any enjoyment out of the film, and that’s cool. What I like about it most is the atmosphere; I think it captures the essence of the Halloween season more than just about any other horror film set at the time with the exception of the original. Dan O’Herihly is great as the sinister Conal Cocharan. The storyline also gets some serious horror balls for having an antagonist who just wants to kill a bunch of kids, and the film actually follows through with this; not shying away from the killing of kids is always a plus for me because they get on my damn nerves most of the time. And Tom Atkins is a highly underrated actor (He also did a stand-up job in Carpenter’s “The Fog”) and very good as the lead here. The effects are cheesy, but they are in “Ghostbusters” as well and a lot of other great 80’s genre films. I don’t know; overall it works for me. Nowhere near the original, but easily the best of the sequels. Although, I’ve always thought Part IV was the best direct sequel, but I would still probably watch Part III over it most days.

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