In 1978 John Carpenter turned the horror genre on its head with the birth of his iconic slasher flick, “Halloween”. Michael Myers may not have been the first of his kind--his most notable predecessors Norman Bates (“Psycho”) and Mark Lewis (“Peeping Tom”) date from 1960--but Michael’s silence and the haunting blankness given him by his simple white mask announced the arrival of a new kind of psycho. The Shape, as he was referred to in the closing credits and came to be known, is most often characterized as pure evil, and perhaps most memorably so by Dr. Sam Loomis in this first film:
“I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of 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 that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.”
35 years later, that line and the night Michael Myers came home remain as creepily delightful as ever.
For those who have managed the seemingly impossible feat of never encountering this oft-broadcasted classic, the premise is simple: 15 years after brutally slaying his older sister on Halloween night, Michael Myers escapes from the institution where he has lived and makes his way back to his hometown of Haddonfield. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis is the only one to recognize where he is headed, or understand the grisly ramifications that will come to pass if he does. Meanwhile, bookish Laurie Strode, her obnoxious friends (who incidentally will come to set the standard for actions that will get you killed in a slasher flick) and the kids they babysit are all getting ready to celebrate what they think will be just another Halloween night in their sleepy town.
A 17-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Laurie Stode and essentially sets the bar for all future scream queens. The acting here may not be Oscar worthy, but the cast delivers performances strong enough to fully engross viewers in their nightmarish escapades. What’s far more important is that “Halloween” boasts a spooky villain, a killer score and a spine-tingling atmosphere. It would be tempting for a modern audience to call “Halloween” dated or cliched, but “Halloween” is the slasher film against which all other projects of similar ilk measure themselves and the chills and thrills to be found here are genuine.
Carpenter uses the camera, the shadows and a certain amount of slow reveal restraint to fully immerse viewers in the tale before turning up the heat, and in so doing generates some spectacular shots made up of the stuff of terror. In particular, one moment which finds The Shape stepping out of the shadows behind an unsuspecting Laurie, the white of the mask gradually swimming into view before he is fully revealed, stands out among the best and most starkly haunting images in the film.
To dismiss “Halloween” as an unlikely tale of a crazed babysitter murderer is to miss the whole point. Carpenter taps into the deep-seated irrational fears in each of us that make the things that go bump in the night alarming. The idea of an unrelenting killing machine chasing after us in the dark of night is unlikely and even outlandish, but it’s still a deeply chilling prospect. Haddonfield’s sheriff sums up the spirit of the film best, “It’s halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”