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Halloween
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HALLOWEEN (1978)

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Kyes, PJ Soles, Charles Cyphers

Written By: John Carpenter, Debra Hill Directed By: John Carpenter

The Short Version

Regardless of what may have come before, this is what gave birth to slasher movies.

John Carpenter delivers a dynamite score and flawless direction.

Halloween proves that you don’t need buckets of blood or a double digit body count for a good scare.

Still the best made slasher flick ever.

If you are a horror fan of any kind, you must own Halloween.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

WHITE CHEDDAR.

Michael’s white mask meets the tastiest cheese around.  Just sit back and enjoy!


Pairs Well With...

BUDWEISER.

I seriously have to wonder if that’s all anyone in these early slashers ever drinks.  (As with Friday the 13th, it’s true here.)  On the other hand, everybody who drinks one dies.  Maybe it’s not virginity, after all, but taste in alcohol…

“Go get me a beer.”

“I thought you were gonna go get me one.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll be right back.  Don’t get dressed.”


Without question, Halloween is one of the truly iconic films of not only the horror genre, but indeed all of motion picture history.  It brought the slasher killer to the fore, and was the first blow in the one-two punch (along with 1980’s Friday the 13th) that would cement slashers as a subgenre of their own.  Yeah, a few years before, some moviegoers experienced a Black Christmas, but when it’s all really said and done, the modern slasher’s true coming out party started with John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Halloween is an exercise in proving that it’s possible to do more with less.  Made on a budget of just $320,000 (which was small even for the time, and half that money went just to buying the cameras), Halloween brought in over 180 times that in worldwide box office, easily making it the most successful independent movie that had ever been made.  (And that’s before three plus decades of home video.)  The actors provided their own wardrobes.  (Jamie Lee Curtis got hers at Penney’s for under a hundred bucks total.)  All the cars but one belonged to people on the set, and that one car was a rental with a couple of magnets slapped on.  The iconic mask that transforms Michael Myers into “The Shape” was simply the cheapest one they could find at a store – it was a Shatner mask that they painted white.  If costs could be kept down, John Carpenter and company found a way to do it without cheapening the final product.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, aren’t we?

It all starts with one of the most memorable opening credits sequences in all of horror, which, like the movie that would follow, makes the most out of simplicity.  The visual is a black background; on the right, the credits flash, and on the left, there’s a jack o’ lantern.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  But tack on one of the most memorable pieces of theme music in motion picture history, and that’s more than enough.  Even more than three decades on, the theme from Halloween remains one of the all-time greats, something made all the more remarkable when one considers that John Carpenter wrote it himself.  Indeed, he did the score for the entire movie in just four days, and that score is played on just two instruments (piano and synthesizer).  No orchestra could have done better.

Carpenter goes on to follow up one of the most memorable opening credit sequences in all of horror with one of the most memorable setup sequences in all of horror.  It plays as a single tracking shot (technically, there are three cuts, but you won’t notice, so it might as well be continuous) from the point of view of… someone.  This someone is standing outside a house.  It’s October 31, 1963, and the house is in a town called Haddonfield, Illinois.  Through the window, we see a teenage girl and her boyfriend pawing at each other; after a moment, they run upstairs.  Our POV eyes take us around the back of the house, then inside, and then into a kitchen drawer, from which a large knife is withdrawn.  As we step into the living room, we see the boyfriend come down the stairs and leave (apparently, he only had time for a very quick make out session).  We let him pass, and head up the stairs.  A door to a child’s room is open; we see a clown mask on the floor and pick it up.  The fact that our POV shot is now seen through two oval holes indicates that we’ve put it on.  We then step into the next room, which is lit.  The teenage girl sits topless at her dressing table, brushing her hair.  She turns our way and calls us “Michael.”  We say nothing.  Instead, we stab her to death.  We then turn around, head back down the stairs, and walk out the front door.  A car pulls up front and two adults get out as the camera angle changes so we can see who we are.

We are a six year old boy named Michael Myers, dressed in a clown costume for Halloween, holding onto the bloody knife we’ve just used to murder our sister.

No matter how many horror movies I watch, that is still the best-directed opening I have ever seen, and one of the absolute creepiest.

We learn that afterwards, Michael is sent to a mental hospital, where he sits in a catatonic state under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), awaiting the turn of his 21st birthday, after which time he is set to be tried for the murder of his sister.  Dr. Loomis warns that Myers is a dangerous individual and should be kept in a maximum security facility, but no one else seems particularly worried about the catatonic boy.

On October 30, 1978, Michael escapes from the institution where he’s being held.

On Halloween, Michael comes home.

It’s really hard to put away the superlatives when discussing Halloween.  No, the movie isn’t perfect, but it feels damn close.  Indeed, even after 33 years and counting, it still stands as the best directed slasher film of all time.  Let’s start with that.

John Carpenter has made many excellent movies, but Halloween remains his greatest masterpiece.  We’ve already discussed how he handles the film’s opening moments, and the great stuff only rolls on from there.  Throughout the film, Carpenter continues to use the killer-as-camera POV shot to magnificent effect, using it as a means to keep the tension up even as he’s letting things simmer to a very slow boil.  (The POV is a particularly interesting choice considering that one of Carpenter’s stated goals was to create a killer that no one in the audience could sympathize or identify with.)  He’s also not afraid to have his killer pop up at not-so random moments throughout the movie, just waiting, stalking, planning.  Like a real killer, The Shape (as Michael is known as soon as he puts on his mask) cases his scene before the mayhem, and this, too, serves as an excellent tension builder that really pays dividends at the end, when the camera-as-killer POV revisits all the locales we’ve been watching him stalk throughout the film.  But even as he’s getting creative with the camera, Carpenter never takes it over the top.  He’s directing Halloween as a straight up horror thriller; mood is everything here, and there’s no way he’s going to allow it to become a farce.

Even more incredibly to fans of the slasher genre to follow, he also does it with next to no blood and a body count that stays well within the single digits.  Yes, the killings are horrific, but they are so here precisely because they’re so cold and relatively unmessy.  It’s the calculation of The Shape’s kills that makes them scary.  Indeed, one of the biggest chills of the entire movie comes after a kill, when we see The Shape just standing there and staring at his handiwork, occasionally cocking his head as he contemplates it like a patron at an art gallery.  Under Carpenter’s direction, that’s just plain creepy.

That’s not to say that this is just a one man show, of course.  The slow boil screenplay also benefits from the hand of Debra Hill (indeed, the first kill of the movie actually comes from the literal hand of Debra Hill, who stood in during the POV stabbing sequence), and what she does makes the characters we’re meant to root for worth rooting for.  These characters are a slice of reality; they’re not mere archetypes pulled from the corkboard.  When the knife starts coming down, that makes a big difference.

Also making a difference are the film’s two leads, Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis.  Pleasence is phenomenal as Dr. Loomis, and his portrayal here and in the films to follow would endear him to a whole new generation of movie fans.  (Christopher Lee had been offered the role and turned it down; Lee later called it the biggest mistake of his career to have done so.)  Aside from bringing the weight of experience to Halloween, he also bridges the gap between logical sensibility and grasping the situation at hand as one of true horror.  As Dr. Loomis, his voice is one of both authority and sympathy, traits that rarely are able to exist together in one body.  He also delivers one of the finest descriptions of a killer of any kind in movie history.  The words may have been written by John Carpenter, but in speaking them, Pleasence makes them all his own:

“I met him, fifteen years ago.  I was told there was nothing left.  No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong.  I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes.  The Devil's eyes.  I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.

To hear Donald Pleasence say those words is to know an involuntary shiver.

On the opposite end of the experience scale, you’d never know that that was the first big screen role for Jamie Lee Curtis without the “Introducing” line in the credits.  She plays her role like a pro with far more than the small television experience she’d had before this, and remains one of the greatest slasher heroines of all time.  Unlike so many that would try to follow in her footsteps, Curtis plays the virginal good girl without any trace smarm at all.  The audience simply can’t help but like her on the screen, and that again makes things that much more powerful when the shit finally hits the fan.  It’s no wonder that Halloween is the film that really launched her career; after a performance like this, how could her career not take off?

Before we go, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the cut of the film that you’ll probably have access to now that thirty-plus years have gone by, and that cut is called “The Extended Cut” or “The Television Cut.”  In 1980, NBC TV bought the rights to broadcast Halloween.  However, despite the overall lack of gore, their censors still demanded some massive cuts.  Once those cuts were made, the movie wasn’t long enough to fill a two-hour-with-commercials time slot.  As a result – and with no small amount of misgivings about the matter – John Carpenter filmed some extra footage for broadcast, with the help of some of the original cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, with whom he was filming Halloween II at the time.  Rare on home video for a long time, this extra footage has now become standard on pretty much every edition for the past decade-plus, spliced into the original film.  (So yes, folks, even if your copy says “The Television Cut,” you’ll still get to see the nudity.)  This footage includes the interview with Dr. Loomis early in the movie, as well as the look into Michael’s room that gives a clue as to why he really went back to Haddonfield.  There’s also a small amount of character material thrown in for the girls, and an extra shot of young Michael.  The splicing is smooth, and doesn’t at all harm the pace of the movie.

Speaking of Halloween II, by the way, consider it an ideal viewing experience to watch this movie and its immediate sequel back-to-back, as Halloween II picks up literally right where Halloween leaves off.  It’s certainly not a requirement, though; Halloween stands by itself perfectly well, too, just as it stands the overall test of time.

Bottom line, Halloween is considered a classic for a reason.  Well, probably about a hundred reasons, really.  All of them make it a movie worth watching, and if you’re any kind of horror fan whatsoever, a movie worth owning as part of your permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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