US (1978) Dir. John Carpenter
Yes, I know I am a day late (November 1st) with this film, as it wasn’t shown on TV until last night, although as this is also a first time watch, I’m much later than one day – 42 years in fact!
On Halloween night in 1963, six year-old Michael Meyers (Will Sandin) murders his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson) after she sleeps with her boyfriend instead of babysitting her brother. Fifteen years later, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) arrives at Smith’s Grove sanitarium to escort Michael to court, but Meyers escapes, stealing the car and heads for his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
Meyers (Nick Castle) arrives on the morning of Halloween and has his eyes on teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), stalking her from afar and following her in the stolen car, but he is distracted by Laurie’s friends Lynda (P.J Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) calling him out. That night as they all settle in for a night of babysitting and romping with their boyfriends, Michael comes knocking but not to play trick or treat…
As the slasher horror genre was starting to grow in the late 70s, John Carpenter’s Halloween became not just one of its foundation blocks but also a seminal horror film in its own right. Eventually becoming a franchise, Halloween was able to expand and earn its place in film history through its relentless and impervious antagonist Michael Meyers, whose budget visual appearance lead to many imitators and contemporaries.
Because Carpenter wasn’t given a huge budget to work with – he himself was only paid $10,000 for writing, directing, producing, and scoring the soundtrack – everything was done on the cheap. Meyer’s now famous white mask was actually a Captain Kirk mask costing $1.98, painted white and altered to create a spookier look, yielding better results than had they been able to afford a make-up artist.
The other thing that makes Meyers such a memorable and chillingly effective character is the performance of Nick Castle, despite being given little direction by Carpenter. For the most part he simply appears in the background or foreground like a fleeting apparition before turning into a ruthless killing machine. Even with limited movement and body language he is an unsettling presence, his peak when suddenly sitting up after presumed dead, a’la The Undertaker (for any wrestling fans reading).
So what made Michael this way? This is never explored in the film, other than Loomis implying Meyers was born pure evil, describing the lad as having an “emotionless face, and the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes”. Maybe he simply objected to his sister getting her end away when she should have been looking out for him, but there are other ways he could have expressed this, even for a six year-old.
Perhaps this was his motive for targeting Laurie since she was also a babysitter though this again isn’t qualified in any way. Hints are strongly sown when Michael show up at the school of Tommy (Brian Andrews) the boy Laurie is watching that night, but left implicitly ambiguous as to who his true target may be. If Lynda and Annie had kept their mouths shut and not called out when Meyers drove past maybe they would have survived the evening.
It has been suggested by some observers that this film was to warn of the dangers of pre-marital sex, since Lynda and her boyfriend are both killed post-coitus and Annie was hoping to score with her boyfriend, dumping her young charge Lyndsey (Kyle Richards) on Laurie to accommodate this. Carpenter has always denied this, insisting Halloween is not a moral message film, which is easy to concur with considering Laurie is the chaste one of the trio and was Meyer’s original target.
Personally, I felt Lynda and Bob (John Michael Graham) fit the obnoxious teen trope that always bugs me in American films thus endorse Meyer’s offing them. Why? Because they not only had sex in someone else’s house and bed, they then lit up a post-bonk cigarette and raised the fridge for beer. The absolute nerve! Not to mention this was pre-arranged with Annie and her fellow, so in lieu of this disrespect and the taking of liberties, I’m with Meyers on this one.
Laurie becomes the nominal protagonist tasked with saving the two children and her own skin against Meyers, annoyingly proving indestructible herself by falling down a flight of stairs and being slashed at yet still able to run away with full energy and mobility. Whilst part-scream queen, Laurie is resourceful enough to arm herself with something sharp to defend herself even if her strikes were lucky blows, but like others before her, Laurie is the prototype this trope was born from.
Jamie Lee Curtis makes her film debut here, following in the footsteps of mother Janet Leigh, famous for her screaming in Psycho. P.J Soles debuted two years earlier in Carrie so playing the horror victim must be in her blood too, whilst the only marquee name, Donald pleasance, is sparingly used.
Carpenter’s direction of the cast is subtle, keeping them close to natural even during the gory death scenes, but it is in the camera work where the real terror can be found. With minimal music aside from the urgent take on Tubular Bells/Exorcist motif, the camera is used voyeuristically as Meyers watches his victims, with him occasionally stepping into the frame to remind us of his presence. Yet, it is his silent actions in the background, the things we’re not supposed to see, that engender real palpable dread and terror.
Halloween might lack the narrative substance in not fleshing out the motives of its now legendary antagonist beyond apparent derangement, but makes up for it its steady build of atmospheric suspense and creepy overtures. Through the dispassionate camera work, the audience’s paranoia supersedes that of the characters themselves, which isn’t easy to achieve. The teen slasher movie starts here and might never be bettered.