Halloween (1978)

*Sunday Classic

“The strongest human emotion is fear. It’s the essence of any good thriller that, for a little while, you believe in the boogeyman.”
John Carpenter

The most terrifying things in the world are the things which hide in the shadows, where our own imaginations can fill in the blanks of what could be there. Apparently, when choosing the mask for Michael Myers in 1978’s “Halloween”, the final two to choose from were a crazed looking clown mask and a 1975 Captain Kirk mask with the eyebrows and sideburns ripped off, painted grey and the eyes made wider. Audiences felt that the second mask was the more terrifying, because it showed no emotion at all. And it makes sense, I can remember thinking that even the killer in “Scream” is only scary before their identity is revealed.

“Halloween” is a film purely designed to scare us, so the plot is largely redundant. After stabbing his older sister to death as a child, Michael Myers (Tony Moran) is locked up in a nearby mental institution. Fifteen years later, on Halloween, Michael escapes and returns to his home town, where he notices young high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, famously the daughter of Janet Lee, the female lead in “Psycho”) dropping off a key at long-abandoned Myers house that her father is trying to sell. Laurie starts noticing Michael around the town and outside her bedroom window, but doesn’t think too much of it and her friends tell her she’s being paranoid. That night, Laurie babysits and her girlfriends meet up with their boyfriends for sex while their parents are out of the house for the annual Halloween party. As the night goes on, Michael murders each of the teenagers, until he comes across Laurie and she proves a more difficult target…

Many critics have framed this film as a moral critique on teenage sexuality, that Laurie was spared because she was sexually repressed and didn’t give into sexual depravation like her friends did. Carpenter himself has dismissed the claim, purporting instead that the reason that all the horny teens die is simply because they were so preoccupied with getting lucky that they don’t notice that there’s a masked lunatic stalking them for an entire day. I don’t completely buy this; I don’t think its a coincidence that Michael killed his sister after she had slept with her boyfriend and that Michael targeted sexually active teenage girls and their boyfriends when he broke out of the asylum. In saying that though, its not like Michael let Laurie get away scot free, so maybe the fact that she hadn’t been thrown off guard by those randy local lads played in her favour.

What’s incredible about Halloween is how meticulously and deliberately the horror is drawn out. It’s a good fifty minutes into the eighty minute run time before anybody is actually hurt at all. Up until then, the suspense slowly builds to the point of excruciating. Sporadically throughout the first act of the film, Carpenter will establish a shot of a suburban street from Laurie’s perspective, maybe as as she’s walking somewhere with her knee high socks and backpack of biology books. Initially, there’s nothing unusual about the picture, then we notice a shadow or a figure that’s slightly darker or out of place, but then the camera cuts away so we think we’ve imagined it, but then the camera cuts back and there’s Michael standing there. He’s silent and his mask is emotionless, but then, as quickly as we think we’ve seen him, he’s gone and the world is just as it should be. Carpenter himself composed the score, and a lot of the terror generated I genuinely think comes from the creepy piano soundtrack. That tune haunted me in my dreams that night.

Where the film lost me was in its final act; where the suspense has been shot to pieces and Laurie and Michael actually go head to head. After all that suspense, the final confrontation seemed to happen so quickly and didn’t seem to have the same finesse as the first half of the film. It would have been nice to have one last twist before the credits rolled, and unfortunately all the suspense that was so beautifully built seemed to come to nothing. What Carpenter does so well is highlighting the reality which we have all felt where we don’t believe our own eyes. When Laurie sees Michael, she tells her friends and they reassure her that its nothing or that her imagination is getting carried away. Then when the kid Laurie is babysitting sees Michael and tells her that the boogeyman is outside, she doesn’t believe him either.

There’s an interesting irony to this whole dynamic; Laurie is old enough for her protestations to be heard if she makes them loud enough, but her grown up common sense tells her that there’s very little likelihood that a serial killer is following her throughout town. That little boy is screaming at the top of his lungs that the boogeyman is outside, because he trusts his instincts, but he’s only little and nobody believes a kid. Carpenter does it so well, because he’s right – he makes us believe our basest fears and instincts so that we too believe that the boogeyman could be just round the corner.

By Jock Lehman

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