It can be said that many of the genres and sub genres in Hollywood owe their formulaic trappings to a few, or maybe even a singular, films that established the rules and expectations. Superman (1978) laid the groundwork for the superhero genre – sign some big names in key roles, make the story grand, and devote a heavy amount of time to the origin story. Stagecoach (1939) helped establish the themes and archetypes depicted in the golden age of westerns. And then there’s John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a film so famous, so celebrated, and so well-memorized by the consumers of popular entertainment, we can often overlook the reasons it was so effective, as well as the negative trends it unintentionally inspired.
To be clear, Halloween is not close to being the first slasher movie. The film owes enormous assists to the likes of Peeping Tom (1960), Pyscho (1960), and Black Christmas (1974). But more so than those films, Halloween has been heavily lifted for its style, themes, mood, and plot structure. Tropes like The Final Girl, or the scene where The Final Girl returns to discover all of her dead friends, were fully realized in Carpenter’s ’78 film, and were aped relentlessly. Even the appearance of the killer – the infamous Michael Myers (The Shape) has been re-done ad-nauseum. Killer wears a mask, doesn’t speak, wears some form of nondescript clothing, and stabs his victims to death. None of this should be unexpected – Halloween was an indie film that went on to become the most profitable film of its kind at the time of release. It was a blockbuster that snuck up on everyone – and Hollywood noticed it was cheap to make and that it was a blast to watch with a crowd in theaters. What follows was an endless stream of recycled ideas in an attempt to cash in on its greatness. Some reaped the financial benefits, but almost none came close to the control that this film had and still has over audiences. Perhaps the knockoffs needed more originality and inspiration.
Halloween, as everyone knows, follows the rampage of Michael Myers on two Halloween nights. The first, in 1963, when a 6-year-old Michael murders his sister Judith with a butcher knife. It is never explained why Myers decided to kill his sister (or how he learns how to drive a car in later scenes for that matter), and the film benefits for it. Michael Myers is an unexplainable force of nature. We don’t understand his logic or reasoning, and thus we feel powerless to stop him. Michael is a disturbed man, one that seems to only relish the thrill of the kill. That’s certainly scarier than the idea that he’s influenced by a cult. As endless sequels attempted to make him supernatural, and explain his motives, the original stands above the rest because it relies on simplicity – John Carpenter’s goal was to creep out audiences, to fear the dark shadows in their neighborhood, and he succeeds tenfold. After the death of his sister, Myers is locked up in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) attempts to reach him to no avail. Loomis believes that Myers is purely evil and fights to keep him locked away – but his efforts are futile as Myers breaks out in 1978, 15 years after his original murder, and just in time for Halloween. As Myers visits his hometown, Haddonfield, IL, he sets sights on a new target – a teenaged Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Halloween did not intend to create the archetype of The Final Girl – a depiction of a sweet, virgin girl, who avoids the vices that her friends are enveloped in. Laurie Strode was simply meant to be an audience avatar. Her friends, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes), more closely represent the nonchalant attitudes of teenaged audiences in the late 70s, but Laurie is unexpectedly more relatable in a timeless, old-fashioned way. She’s an old soul, more concerned about her studies and following authority than she is in getting laid. Laurie seems like a shy woman who constantly second guesses herself, and her future. It helps that Jamie Lee Curtis herself was just a shy 19-year-old, performing in her first movie. There’s an authenticity to her performance, a genuine innocence that is juxtaposed brilliantly with the senseless violence of Myers. Laurie represents the hopefulness of what the world could be. Michael Myers is the cold, depraved reality beneath the surface in the late 70s. The relationship between these two characters is one of horror’s greatest achievements – perhaps only rivaled by Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lectur.
It’s these subtle ingredients that have made Halloween a landmark film. The reason why the knockoffs that followed did not stick with us is precisely because they felt like knockoffs – Halloween is the point of reference. Halloween has and always will feel unique. From John Carpenter’s score, the deliriously creepy main theme especially, to the film’s most unsung achievement – the cinematography. The film’s use of first person viewpoints, panaglide, steadicam, and the brilliant usage of low-key lighting – every big set piece in the film is memorable because every detail mattered to the filmmakers. The film came out in 1978, yet you could probably count on one hand how many slasher films have looked this good. Almost none of the Halloween sequels do – although kudos to the 2018 film for establishing some excellent cinematography. Yet, the original reigns supreme.
This isn’t to say that the film is without blemishes. Myers’ stealing of the car in his breakout scene near the beginning of the film is a bit awkwardly filmed. There’s also the poor decision of having Laurie inexplicably drop the knife after she believes she’s defeated Myers – perhaps setting in motion decades’ of dumb character decisions in slasher films. But these minor details can hardly distract from the sheer work of genius in the rest of the film. The script, written by Carpenter and Debra Hill, utilizes its short run time to efficiently make you familiar with its cast of characters. Annie and Lynda display a jovial and rebellious charisma. The paranoia of Tommy (Brian Andrews), the boy Laurie babysits on Halloween night, as he believes The Boogeyman is out to get him helps booster the foreboding tension. And of course, the iconic Dr. Loomis’ fearful pursuit of Myers underlies urgency in stopping this lunatic from acting out his rage. And the ending still gets reactions out of theater audiences to this day – even when you see it coming, it’s still utterly creepy and exciting at the same time.
In summation, Halloween has persisted as the gold standard of the slasher genre to the ingenuity and authenticity of its creators. Even by following the formula, you’re bound to fall short because there is no formula for magic. And in a world where sequels and reboots reign supreme, it’s nice to revisit a classic that truly stood on its own and should have inspired even more original ideas instead of the same old same old. Here’s hoping the visionaries in film continue to get an opportunity to make their passion projects. You probably won’t make a film as culturally significant as Halloween – but an original film that attempts to suprise and inspire is significance enough.