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Review: Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Directed by: John Carpenter

Premise: On Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers murders his sister. Fifteen years later he escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown, stalking a babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the children in her care.

What Works: There are different kinds of horror films. Some, like Cannibal Holocaust and Antichrist, plumb the depths of evil and depravity. Others, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Herschell Gordon Lewis, go for the gross out. These sorts of movies are endurance tests that put us through gastric and emotional ringers and oftentimes leave the viewer with an unclean feeling. Those movies are distinct from a third category of horror film, those pursuing the scare. These movies are frightening but also fun and they release the viewer’s anxieties instead of exacerbating them. 1978’s Halloween is a prime example of the clean scare. The movie is frightening but it is a pleasing sort of scare that creates tension through masterful execution. This was a modestly produced movie; the production budget is estimated around $325,000 in 1978. But Halloween looks more expensive than that because of the filmmakers’ skillful choices. The cinematography by Dean Cundey is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The filmmakers used Steadicam, which was new technology in 1978, and that allowed freedom of movement and many scenes have an unsettling fluidity. But the filmmakers don’t overdo it and there is a restraint to Halloween (either by design or necessity) that keeps it feeling real. Halloween is an excellent example of framing to create a scary mood. Potential victims wander in the darkness or they do mundane things in the foreground while danger creeps in from the edges of the screen. The excellent imagery of Halloween is matched by an adroit use of sound. The filmmakers place music and sounds effectively while also allowing silence to do its work. The music of Halloween is one of the great film scores. Like the rest of the movie, the music is so effective because of its simplicity. Composed by John Carpenter, the score to Halloween uses a basic but relentless rhythm and the music builds effectively especially in the finale. Along with one of the most memorable scores in the horror genre, Halloween also introduced one of the great villains with Michael Myers. However, Michael doesn’t actually appear much in the movie. Like the shark of Jaws, the killer of Halloween is shown just enough to be effective and the camerawork and the music fill in his presence as do the terrifically melodramatic speeches by Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. Pleasence is another key to the movie’s success. He’s cast as Michael Myers’ psychiatrist and he sells the gravity of the situation and fills in what we don’t see. His monologs also turn Michael Myers into a legendary figure and set up the ending. Another critical casting success of Halloween is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the lead babysitter. In her debut feature film role, Curtis balances intelligence and fortitude with vulnerability. Laurie Strode isn’t an action hero but she does defend herself and the children in her charge. The focus of this movie remains on Laurie and her friends, played by P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, and they feel authentic and accessible. That emphasis makes Halloween more engaging than many of the slasher films that followed. The cinematography, music, and casting coalesce in a movie that does everything right. And therein, Halloween accomplishes its goal of providing a satisfying scare. This movie has the same appeal of visiting a haunted house. Everything in it is designed to set up and pay off a scare and Halloween’s craftsmanship is evident from the opening scene to its final shot.

What Doesn’t: Halloween was released a couple of years before the slasher boom of the 1980s and although most of those films patterned themselves after Halloween, this film is different from them in some important respects. Halloween isn’t nearly as gory or as exploitative as some of the later slasher films like The Burning  or The Prowler. In fact, Halloween is less bloody than some PG-rated films of its day like Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That is generally to Halloween’s credit but some viewers come to these films looking specifically for the carnage. They’re not going to find it here. As the film that inspired a lot of subsequent slasher movies, Halloween has lost some of its novelty. In 1978 several genre conventions were already in place, having been established by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, and in the subsequent decades they became clichés. The story of Halloween isn’t particularly distinguished. The movie is really a success in execution and style. Those qualities, as well as the movie’s slow burn pacing and lack of gore, might not play as well for a contemporary audience.

DVD extras: There are two cuts of the original Halloween: the theatrical cut and a version extended for television. Both have been made available on DVD. The 2018 4K release of the theatrical cut includes a commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter, trailers, TV and radio spots, TV version footage, and featurettes. The boxed set released by Scream Factory in 2014 includes all the Halloween films released between 1978 and 2009. It also includes the theatrical and television cuts of the 1978 film as well as additional commentary tracks and featurettes.

Bottom Line: Halloween’s influence on the horror genre and on American culture can hardly be overstated and for that reason alone it is an important piece of work.  But Halloween is also one of those rare films that achieves cinematic perfection. Every aspect of the filmmaking is synchronized and the movie is executed with such intelligence and craftsmanship that it transcends its exploitative foundation to become a work of art.

Episode: #210 (October 26, 2008); Revised #722 (October 28, 2018)