Throughout October, I’ve been looking at a genre that I haven’t given much thought to in the past, that being the Horror genre; there’s no better time of the year to look at some spooky films than this month after all, and we now arrive at the film whose name derives from the holiday that makes October so spooky: Halloween.
I must admit I don’t buy into Halloween as a holiday all that much. Being British I am averse to anything seen as ‘too American’ and Halloween is one such thing. It isn’t really a holiday, after all, just an excuse to get dressed up and procure free sweets and candy. It doesn’t serve any other purpose.
One thing it does have going for it though is being the key time of year for all the big horror releases to make their move on the big screen; we usually see this in the form of a new addition to a big horror franchise most years, which is one of the more maligned aspects of the horror genre; the abundance of sequels. A habit it still hasn’t managed to kick even all these years later.
This franchise itself is no stranger to the unnecessary sequel it has had no less than seven sequels in this canon, one reboot with its own sequel, and ANOTHER reboot with another few sequels in the pipeline. It’s become an amorphous mass of a franchise that one would need a sizeable flow chart to keep up with. Not that we need to now, as the most recent reboot reset the series continuity, but we get ahead of ourselves.
This is also the film that set a lot of precedents for other series’ to follow within the ‘slasher’ kind of horror film. You could go as far as to call it a blueprint for all similar films to follow with such elements as the unstoppable monster, a signature weapon, and the specific targeting of promiscuous teenagers all claiming this film as their origin point.
The film’s premise is simple. 15 years before the main bulk to the story, six-year-old Michael Myers inexplicably stabs his older sister to death, after which he is committed to an asylum. The main plot kicks off after Michael escapes the institution and makes a beeline for his old house, where he comes across babysitter Lauri Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and begins a reign of terror while his physiatrist Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is in hot pursuit.
There’s something I always refer to when talking about horror films, one thing which I think is key to any movie hoping to get under someone’s skin, and that word is atmosphere. It’s often the glue that holds these experiences together and can make the difference between a fairly generic horror, and a true classic of the genre.
There’s a reason this film has been used as the blueprint for so many films after it because it’s simply the best example of how these kinds of films can work; its sense of creeping dread is second to none, the threat of Michael Myers is always looming, even when he doesn’t make an appearance he feels omnipresent, just hidden out of view, and waiting for the right time to strike.
This is especially evident during the films early stages, where we adopt the perspective of Myers himself, tracking his movements as he follows Laurie, hearing only his shallow breathing and the ever-present musical underscore that makes your hairs stand on end. It all feels so claustrophobic and restricted, even though the scenes are outside, it further adds more discomfort to the audience as we’re occupying Myers’ own space as he stalks a victim.
This tight, restricted style of filming is utilised multiple times throughout the film when it is used, it feels like the camera is Myers himself, impassively viewing the events while he waits for his moment to strike, such is the voyeuristic nature of some of the cinematography. It all comes together so nicely to create that wonderfully oppressive atmosphere that I talk about so much.
This is the film that popularised the ‘unstoppable monster’ as a horror antagonist, someone who is not outwardly supernatural but has elements of such things regardless. He’s an inhuman monster with a human exterior, the fact he’s almost recognisable just makes him all the more creepy.
Of course, when it comes to the creepiness factor, his iconic mask also helps. It’s a perfect match for his character too; it’s blank, emotionless and gives us no clue to what lurks beneath. I have often parroted the theory that what you can’t see is always scarier, and Michael Myers is an example of this because his true nature is hidden behind a pale, lifeless mask, it just makes him more imposing, coupled with his relentlessness, it makes for a truly compelling horror icon.
If I were to critique his appearance and how it is portrayed, however, I think I’d say that we see a little too much of him. In the early scenes, we only see him glanced from far away, he still has an overriding sense of mystery about him, but when we spend so much time up-close-and-personal with him, it dulls the effect somewhat. The more you get used to an image, the less frightening it becomes, and even though he is a very well executed villain, I just think less of a focus on what he looks like would have just made him that little bit more unnerving.
As for the other characters, there’s a certain amount of cliche to be had, although this is retrospective cliche, something we can only identify as such with the benefit of hindsight. We’ve had the luxury of seeing the forty-plus years of derivatives this film spawned, so we know that these characters are now overdone, but they weren’t in 1978, so a certain amount of slack has to be allowed.
That being said, however, some of the dialogue between the teenage girls seems a little bit manufactured and stilted, not helped by clunky delivery from inexperienced actors. I found myself quite averse to the actress playing Annie (Nancy Kyes), for example, as she was very wooden in parts, and this is not helped when other actors around her step up their game.
To that end, Jamie Lee Curtis was the star of this film. Unsurprisingly given how it effectively launched her career, she manages to pull off both terrified damsel-in-distress and capable protector very well, especially in the face of such a ferocious enemy. She has the vulnerability to be a shrinking violet and yet, when cornered, she can more than handle herself. Her character may have gotten messy in subsequent instalments, but here she’s well-rounded and likeable, more so than her peers, at any rate.
A lot of the success of this film comes down to the capable hands it found itself in, those hands belonging to John Carpenter, and as seen by future sequels, when his influence is removed, the franchise falls apart. It takes an incredibly strong and focused mind to create a successful horror film, one that doesn’t sit back and rest on laurels but forges new paths, and Carpenter would make a career out of doing just that.
In conclusion, then, a gripping and thrilling experience, whose flaws I am willing to overlook due to its superb atmosphere and direction, it made me forget about my previous misgivings of the genre by telling a coherent story with interesting inhabitants. You could do a lot worse on Halloween night than sitting down to watch this film.