What is the seminal slasher movie of all time? The one that set the trend for all the great (and numerous not so great) movies that followed in its wake? The slasher movie that defined the many cliched trends referenced so lovingly in post-modern slasher Scream back in the 90s. Don’t say “I’ll be right back.” Don’t have sex, drink or be anything other than virginal. Don’t shoot them once because they always come back. Before Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and Candyman there was John Carpenter’s Halloween.
By modern standards, this is a relatively tame slasher movie. Only five people make the body count and two of those take place in the past (Michael’s sister) or before the infamous Michael Myers arrives in Haddonfield to enact his killing spree. If spree is technically the term for it. But it remains creepy and unsettling, atmospherically directed by John Carpenter, complete with the fantastic, evocative theme and sets the scene for every slasher movie that followed. It’s not the first slasher but it is definitely the best.
The simplicity of Halloween is its greatest asset. Michael is one of the most disturbing killers on film, completely emotionless and silent behind the surprisingly creepy William Shatner mask spray painted white. An imposing figure in the black boiler suit, he doesn’t stumble upon his victims in a bloody frenzy; the Michael of this film watches from afar, settling his dead gaze on Laurie and her friends as Halloween sets in. Some of the most unnerving moments are the scenes where Laurie spots Michael watching her from across the street, a forbidding silhouette in a white mask, while moments like little Tommy spotting him standing against the lights of the house across the street really cement the title of boogie man.
Carpenter milks the tension for all it is worth; the shots of Michael stalking Laurie interspersed with scenes of Laurie chatting with friends, arguing with Annie over a boy she likes, feeling awkward as Lynda talks about her planned sexcapades with Bob; we really get a sense of this simple suburban world Michael has walked into. All the while, we experience the warnings of just how dangerous is through his psychiatrist Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who’s ranting about the evil of Michael feel more coherent here than in later, far inferior sequels.
“I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in 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.”
It is a somewhat hammy but still rather effective speech, delivered with gusto by Pleasance. And the near-panic the character is in throughout the movie really helps sell the threat to Haddonfield.
The death of Annie (Nancy Loomis) is a pivotal moment; the tension rises as she struggles with a washer in the outhouse, the white face of Michael’s mask visible in the window. Carpenter milks it for all its worth; getting stuck in the window, flitting back through the garden, there are plenty of times where he could strike. It takes the audience and Annie a brief pause to realise that the car she has just climbed into was locked, but it is too late, his ghostly face peering through the darkness as she throttles her.
The tension rises further as Bob and Lynda (John Michael Graham and P.J. Soles) have sex in the same house, unware that their friend is dead and Michael is watching their every move. Michael surprising Bob through the side door in the kitchen is a jump scare moment replicated many times over, followed by the creepy moment that Michael stands in the doorway, the sheet over him as he wears Bob’s glasses while Lynda fails to realise the danger she is in. By the time Michael throttles her with the phone chord as she talks to Laurie, the tension is at breaking point.
The final showdown is what earned Jamie lee Curtis the title of scream queen; the sense of unease is palatable as she approaches the house, leaving the two sleeping kids Tommy and Lindsey behind). She is complete unaware of what horror awaits her until she heads upstairs and finds the prostrated Annie dead on the bed the tombstone of Michael’s sister behind her. It is wonderfully macabre, perhaps ludicrously so, made even more extreme by the discovery of the dead bodies of Lynda and Bob that Michael has laid out for her. The film barely touches on the disturbed mind of Michael beyond his need to kill but this scene is where we really see his depravity and cruelty unleashed.
The shot of Michael’s face appearing out of the shadows behind Laurie is another superb, terrifying shot, leading to a frantic escape. Michael follows her calmly, setting another classic horror movie motif, seemingly unfazed by her actions but the tension remains at breaking point as she screams for Tommy to let her in after her desperate realisation that she has lost her keys. The final attack, Laurie stabbing Michael, his unfazed reaction and the horrendous tearing through the locked wardrobe to catch her is thrilling stuff, before Loomis arrives to shoot Michael after he survives another stab to the chest. The supernatural side to Michael feels very understated but the relentless nature of his pursuit of Laurie is terrifying. Even then, the final shot of the old Myers house and his heavy breathing ends the film on a disturbing note.
READ MORE: Looking back at Rob Zombie’s Halloween
Michael would return for many more sequels; the second would establish Laurie as his half sister, giving some motif to his relentless pursuit but the rising body count would already diminish the tension of the original. He would continue his killing spree, tracked by Loomis at every point until both of them died in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers. Jamie Lee Curtis would return for the surprisingly great Halloween: H20, which would ignore every film but the first two and bore heavy post-modern references from the likes of the Scream movies. That would be undone by the crappy Halloween: Resurrection despite the closure offered by its predecessor. And now it seems as if the new Halloween will ignore everything but the original for a third go at the Michael Myers mythology with Curtis back again for one last time as Laurie Strode.
The Halloween legacy – and indeed slasher movies as a whole – owe so much to the 1978 original. It’s no wonder that the climax and music were mirrored so lovingly in Wes Craven’s Scream that bore homage to the slasher genre. The 1978 movie is a simple but incredibly effective masterpiece and in my opinion, never bettered.