Halloween (1978) ****
It isn’t the first slasher movie; the Italians had been making the things for more than ten years by 1978. And it isn’t the first American slasher movie, either, even if we disregard (as I think we should) Psycho and its progeny from the 60’s— perhaps you remember a little movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Nor can it be said that it was the first of the “occasion” movies; Canada had already given us Black Christmas/Silent Night, Evil Night four years before. You can’t even really give it credit for setting off the great slasher explosion of the 1980’s; that dubious distinction more rightly belongs to Friday the 13th. But there’s something about John Carpenter’s Halloween that makes people want to consider it the first of something despite all that— even people who would realize that they know better if they thought about it for just a moment. Mainly, I suspect it’s that we’re so accustomed to seeing “firsts” that are also the most important examples of their kind that we trick ourselves into thinking that the two are necessarily synonymous. And while it can’t honestly be described as the first of anything, it can scarcely be denied that Halloween’s shadow looms longer and darker over the slasher subgenre than that of any other film, regardless of the fact that Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even Silent Night, Deadly Night have all been ripped off more completely and in greater detail by larger numbers of deservedly ignored cheap-ass slasher flicks. The truth is that none of those more extensively duplicated movies would ever have gotten made in the first place had it not been for Halloween.
If you don’t already know the basic outline of the story, then your cave must be even deeper than mine. On Halloween night, 1963, in the small town of Haddonfield Illinois (let’s agree to pretend we don’t notice all those California license plates, eh?), teenaged Judith Myers is murdered. Somebody sneaks up to the house, spies on Judith and her boyfriend through the window, and enters through the unlocked front door the moment the two teens go upstairs to have sex. The prowler heads into the kitchen, where he rifles through the drawers until he finds a gigantic carving knife. Then, when the boy leaves (his and Judith’s coupling can’t possibly have taken more than 40 seconds— talk about a minuteman!), the prowler grabs a discarded Halloween mask from the floor and takes his knife upstairs to Judith’s room. He watches the panty-clad girl comb her hair from just outside her bedroom door until he is noticed, and then charges in to slice her to pieces. Finally, the killer leaves the house; he’s still standing in the front yard when his victim’s parents return home from wherever it is that they’ve gone. All this has happened in a single long take, shot from the killer’s perspective. Then suddenly, when Judith’s father gets out of his car, the angle shifts, revealing that the murderer is six-year-old Michael Myers— Judith’s little brother.
Fourteen years and 364 days later, in another Illinois town some 150 miles away, psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence, from Creepers and Mutations) and a nurse are driving to the Illinois State Hospital to pick Michael up for some sort of release hearing or other. As Loomis explains to his companion, he’s doing this only because the law demands it— if it were up to him, Michael Myers would spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital, no questions asked. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that Loomis doesn’t consider his patient to be quite human. Well if Loomis is hoping to keep Myers locked up for good, then this is definitely not his night. When the station wagon he and the nurse are riding in pulls up to the hospital gate, the nurse notices that several of the patients are wandering the grounds seemingly unattended, despite the fact that it’s the middle of the night and it’s pouring down rain. Loomis is thinking faster than she is, though, and quickly surmises that there’s been an escape. And if that’s so, then there’s every chance that one of those meandering crazies is Michael Myers. Loomis leaves the car to call security from the intercom at the gate, and while he is thus occupied, a large man in a hospital gown leaps from the top of the fence to the roof of the car. The nurse just barely escapes as he forces his way inside and then speeds off down the hospital driveway, leaving her gasping for breath in a puddle of rainwater. “He’s gone from here,” Loomis says, “the evil is gone.”
The next day, back in Haddonfield, we are introduced to a teenage girl named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, from Prom Night and Terror Train, in the role that put her on the map). Laurie is shy, reserved, bookish, but not without charm for all of that. She earns her pocket money by babysitting, and if her interaction with young Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) on the way to school is any indication, she’s got just the right kind of personality for the job. Laurie is also the daughter of a real estate agent, and this morning, she’ll be taking a detour from her usual route to the school in order to drop off the key to a house her father is trying to sell. You guessed it— it’s the Myers house, which looks as though it hasn’t seen tenancy since shortly after Judith’s murder by her brother all those years ago. The place has acquired a reputation as a haunted house among the local juveniles, and Tommy is most unnerved to hear that Laurie has to go up to the front door to leave a key in the lock box. No one yet realizes this, of course, but on this particular occasion, his worries are well founded, for Michael has returned to Haddonfield, and he happens to be in the house when Laurie performs her errand. This single brief contact— of which Laurie is totally unaware, at that— is enough to fixate Michael on the girl, and he’ll spend the rest of the day following her around town just out of sight.
As bad as this is for Laurie, it will prove to be even worse for her two best friends. Cheerleader Lynda (P J Soles, of Carrie and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and sheriff’s daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis, from The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13) meet up with Laurie on the way home from school, and thus attract Michael’s attention as well. Annie is a babysitter, too, and like Laurie, she’s got a job tonight. She’s not too happy about spending Halloween night looking after Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards, from Eaten Alive and The Car), but given that her boyfriend has managed to get himself grounded, it isn’t as though she has anything better to do. As such, she and Lynda have made arrangements to use the parent-free zone of the Wallace place to stage a get-together between Lynda and her boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham). Laurie’s friends’ minds thus being otherwise occupied, neither one of them notices that the same brown LTD station wagon keeps driving by them while they walk and following behind them while they drive. Only Laurie seems to pick up on the fact that she’s being followed, even catching glimpses of Michael half-hidden behind something on a couple of occasions. But Halloween is nothing if not the night for pranksters, and she gradually allows herself to believe Lynda and Annie when they tell her she’s just imagining things.
Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has followed Michael to Haddonfield, where he wastes little time in tracking down Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers, of Escape from New York and Hunter’s Blood), Annie’s father. Loomis finds him on the job, investigating a seemingly innocuous theft at a small shop downtown— somebody broke in while the shop was closed for lunch hour and made off with a length of rope, a couple of knives, and a latex Halloween mask. Brackett doesn’t initially take Loomis’s alarmist warnings about Michael very seriously. After all, the hospital he escaped from was several hours’ drive away, and the doctor has no evidence beyond his gut feeling that Myers was headed to Haddonfield in the first place. Not only that, the doctor’s tone when talking about his fugitive patient is more than a little over the top: “Death has come to your little town, sheriff.” But a mask, a rope, and some knives aren’t the only things that have gone missing in Haddonfield this Halloween— somebody has also stolen Judith Myers’s headstone from the local cemetery! Between that and the dead, naked tow truck diver Loomis found by the side of the road halfway between the asylum and Haddonfield, it’s enough to make Brackett hear the doctor out. On Loomis’s suggestion, they pay a visit to the Myers place, where they find the half-eaten remains of a dog. “He got hungry,” Loomis deadpans.
Nightfall finds Laurie over at the Doyle place watching Tommy, while Annie is across the street with Lindsey Wallace. (A favorite touch: Laurie has Tommy carving jack-o-lanterns and reading stories and making popcorn, but Lindsey’s evening is far more focused than that. She’s rooted immovably to the sofa watching The Thing and Forbidden Planet— this is a kid after my own heart.) Eventually, Annie’s boyfriend calls the Wallace house to inform her that his parents have unexpectedly left the house for the evening, opening up an opportunity for him to un-ground himself— does Annie want to come pick him up? Sure she does, but first she’ll have to figure out what to do with Lindsey. Naturally, Annie takes the girl across the street and palms her off on Laurie. But what Annie doesn’t realize is that Michael Myers has been keeping tabs on her movements for some time now, and when she hops in her car to pick Paul up, he’s in the back seat waiting for her.
Lynda and Bob show up an hour or so later. A quick call over to the Doyle place short-circuits any worrying they might have done about where Annie has gone off to— as far as Laurie knows, she’s with her boyfriend— and the couple immediately go upstairs to take maximum advantage of the situation. I hope it’s as good a lay as it sounds, because the next thing Lynda and Bob are going to feel is Michael’s immensely powerful hands strangling them and driving those stolen knives into their thoracic cavities.
Loomis and Brackett may not be having any luck finding Michael, but the same cannot be said of Tommy Doyle. Like Laurie, he’s been catching fleeting glimpses of “the Boogeyman” all night, and he happens to be looking out the living room window when Michael carries Annie’s body from the garage to the front door. Laurie dismisses his panicked warnings, but the telephone call she gets from the Wallace house is another matter. Lynda had just picked up the phone when Michael got to her, and Laurie hears everything through the receiver as he kills her. This is enough to get her to run over and see if everything is okay; the big tip-off that it isn’t comes when she finds Annie’s corpse laid out on a bed at the foot of Judith’s tombstone and the bodies of her other friends stashed in two of the darker corners of the same room. Then Laurie meets Michael, and the movie really gets down to business.
The really remarkable thing about Halloween is that virtually alone in the subgenre it did so much to establish, it has managed to earn and retain the respect of mainstream movie critics. Even in underground circles, the slasher movie in general gets treated like a bastard stepchild with a heroin habit, yet Halloween specifically is praised to the heavens. This seems awfully strange to me, because despite its mostly well-earned reputation as the best of the bunch, it commits a majority of the same transgressions for which its innumerable descendants are so roundly castigated. Take-off-your-clothes-and-die? Check. Heroines with a baffling aversion to hanging onto a weapon between attacks by the killer? Yup. Story so simple that it’s scarcely worthy of the name? You got it. Lapses of logic that are allowed to stand simply because they are convenient to the plot? Right here. Wooden acting? Ye gods! One-dimensional characters? All over the place. Inexplicably indestructible killers? This movie practically invented them. But amid all this are a handful of features that really do raise Halloween far above the norm for a movie of its type. To begin with, in Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, it has a couple of actors with some genuine talent, and more importantly, both of them are cast in roles that actually have some depth to them— Laurie especially. In stark contrast to her friends, whose entire personalities may be summed up with a simple “they just want to fuck,” Laurie Strode is remarkably well developed and fully believable as a human being. Whereas most of her peers, both in this movie and in its countless competitors and copycats, come across as caricatures of the modern American teenager, Laurie feels like the real thing. First of all, she is impossible to shoehorn into the simplistic slut-virgin dichotomy that is such a curiously prominent feature of the slasher film. If she hasn’t managed to get laid yet, it isn’t for lack of desire— she’s just too shy to make a move on the boy she has a crush on, and she complains bitterly that “guys think [she’s] too smart.” She’s also not too squeaky clean to join Annie in a joint while the two of them ride around town in the latter girl’s car. At the same time, though, Laurie is easily the most responsible character in the movie. Her performance in school matters to her (but not to the degree that she becomes a stereotypical nerd), and she takes her babysitting duties equally seriously. In fact, the most noteworthy feature of her eventual showdown with Michael Myers is the extent to which Laurie fights to protect Tommy and Lindsey, rather than merely herself. At every turn, her first priority is the children’s safety.
The second major point in this movie’s favor is the character of Michael Myers. After more than twenty years, it’s difficult not to watch Nick Castle’s performance as the killer without also thinking of all the other people who have ripped it off to lesser effect in lesser movies, but there’s a very good reason why Michael has become a cliche. Never before, to the best of my knowledge, had a horror movie serial killer been portrayed as a completely unstoppable, completely inhuman force. Norman Bates, his spawn of the 60’s, and their Italian counterparts in the gialli had been ordinary men and women for all their psychological twistedness, and while such 70’s-vintage US movie maniacs as Leatherface and The Town that Dreaded Sundown’s Phantom Killer had been awfully tough, even they look like utter wimps beside the seemingly invulnerable Myers. This could have ended up looking stupid, as it has in so many post-Halloween slasher flicks, but it works here because the script explicitly acknowledges Michael’s exceptionality. Dr. Sam Loomis (and can it possibly be a coincidence that he has the same name as Marion Crane’s boyfriend in Psycho?) spends the entire film trying to convince people that Myers is “purely and simply evil,” and that, at best, he is human only in the strictly biological sense— when he and Sheriff Brackett find the half-eaten dog, and Brackett protests that “a man wouldn’t do this,” Loomis answers in all seriousness that “this isn’t a man.” But nothing in this movie so succinctly captures the essence of what Michael is about than the doctor’s final exchange of dialogue with Laurie. When Loomis bursts in at the climactic moment and empties his revolver into the killer, Laurie can only whimper, “It was the Boogeyman...” Loomis’s reply: “Yes. As a matter of fact, it was.” The idea here is that Michael Myers is simultaneously more and less than a homicidal madman— he’s something very much like the distilled spirit of murder itself. And with that in mind, his physical appearance and the demeanor with which Castle invests him could not be more appropriate. The ski masks, flour sacks, and pillowcases worn by most earlier masked killers were intended to hide their identities; Michael’s Halloween mask, on the other hand, reveals his true self by giving him a new face as empty, expressionless, and unchanging as his own soul. Meanwhile, Castle’s body language— in particular his refusal to hurry even in pursuit of fast-fleeing prey— emphasizes the killer’s implacability. He doesn’t need to give chase, because his eventual victory is inevitable.
The most frightening thing about Michael Myers, though, is his complete lack of motive. Granted, most people seem to come away from Halloween with the understanding that Michael’s is a sexual psychosis, that he kills his victims as punishment for their lack of chastity. But under close examination, this interpretation doesn’t hold up at all. For one thing, Laurie isn’t sexually active, and though Michael fails to kill her, you certainly can’t accuse him of not trying! If he were some kind of Puritan avenger, you’d expect him to ignore her altogether, and yet she is the very first victim Michael sizes up after making his return to Haddonfield. All she does to attract his murderous attention is to appear on the front steps of his old house and to allow herself to be briefly seen through the window. Furthermore, the much-vaunted sex motive is no more plausible in the case of those whom Myers succeeds in killing. Nevermind her intentions— Michael has absolutely no way of knowing that Annie is on her way to her boyfriend’s house when he sets up that ambush in her car. And even the seemingly obvious sexual motivation behind the six-year-old Michael’s murder of his sister vanishes into thin air upon careful consideration. Leaving aside the question of what child that age would have had even the most rudimentary idea of what sex is at the time Halloween was made, it’s quite clear that Michael intends violence against Judith even before he sees her and her boyfriend together on the living room sofa— why else would he be sneaking around the perimeter of his own house like a common burglar?! With those three cases eliminated from consideration, it seems far more likely to me that Lynda and Bob die not because their lovemaking trips some kind of crazy-switch in Michael’s mind, but rather because they had the foul luck to pick a crime scene he was in the process of cleaning up as their trysting spot. Michael’s violence is that of the most truly terrifying sort— completely random murder for its own sake.
Finally, we come to the most important reason why Halloween towers above the average slasher movie like a Brachiosaurus among tapirs, that rarest of all qualities in the slasher subgenre: conclusive evidence that the filmmakers actually cared. Whereas the Sean Cunninghams and Paul Lynches and Edwin Scott Browns of the world are mostly content to wave a few bare tits and severed limbs at the camera and call it a day, John Carpenter obviously devoted tremendous effort and thought to Halloween. If nothing else, he had the sense to hire Pleasence, Curtis, and Castle for the three key roles. But beyond that, this movie is positively littered with little details that show he knew exactly what he was doing and why. Note, for example the scene in which Loomis first talks to Sheriff Brackett out in front of the burglarized store. This scene has fully served its purpose once it has established contact between the two men and gotten them discussing the subject of the escaped killer, but Carpenter adds an extra layer by having Michael drive by in that familiar LTD, right behind the psychiatrist’s back. Then there’s the famous moment in which Michael sits up after having apparently been killed in the master bedroom of the Doyle house. The composition of this shot has been ripped off at least as many times as Castle’s treatment of the killer, and again, there is every reason in the world why it should be. And let’s not forget Carpenter’s brilliantly eerie and instantly recognizable score, which is all the more remarkable for owing not a goddamned thing to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho music. It’s odd to hear myself say this, considering how much I enjoy even quite awful slasher movies, but I kind of wish Friday the 13th hadn’t opened the door to creating so many of the fucking things— I had to watch Halloween twice before I could put the two decades’ worth of obsessively repetitive copying out of my mind and give it the appreciation it deserves.