Posted March 23, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

John Carpenter’s Halloween


Very few films from my adolescents have stayed with me as my film tastes have matured and changed during the intervening years. The ones that have made it into my top film lists are there for a reason. John Carpenter’s Halloween is one such film as it still resonates with me even now, after my first viewing behind a sofa on a windy Halloween night. Halloween did for babysitters what Psycho did for showers; it made something so mundane and ordinary suddenly terrifying, and horror cinema is all the richer for it.

From the very first moment this film starts – its instantly recognisable synthesised score present straight from the opening credits – with that first shocking murder, it’s clear that John Carpenter’s first stab (sorry) at horror filmmaking would go down in film history. How such a simple piece of music could evoke so much fear and terror is utterly astonishing. Few soundtracks – including John Williams’ Jaws – have been synonymous with such impending dread. The music is very much part of Myers’ character, slow and incessant like an unstoppable force that just keeps on coming.  

Taking its cues from Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho and applying a steady dose of supernatural connotations, on a low budget, Carpenter created a film that would redefine the genre and inspire countless imitators over 30 years later. It became a runaway success but a slew of increasingly poor quality sequels and more overtly gory slasher films detracted from the original Halloween’s more humble origins.

With the genre itself becoming increasingly stale – yet again – the use of more over the top violence and savagery to hook in bigger audiences is becoming commonplace. In 1978, without relying on this, Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill came up with what is as close to pure horror as it’s possible to get.

It seems as the years progress that Halloween continues to get better with age, with its melancholic score and subversive camera shots, through to its complete lack of visual blood. This film is all about tension-building scares, which over the years have been either remade, redone or ripped off. It’s truly a testament to Carpenter’s filmmaking capability that a film like Halloween still has the ability to shock and inspire awe 30 years on.

The film contains so many stand-out moments – more than would come to any viewer’s mind when the film is mentioned – such as: the classic opening murder with the young Michael; the infamous ‘sheet-ghost’ murder; the death of Anne which always produces a scare; and that incredibly nuanced moment where Michael pins Steve against a kitchen wall. The slight tilt of Michael’s head to register what he’s just done is almost dog-like and inherently more creepy then any line of dialogue.

In this film, actions certainly speak louder than words The moment where Michael finds Laurie and begins to break into the closet is an immensely tense and frightening moment. His sheer determination and need to get to her is pure aggression. With its omni-present killer, Halloween becomes something more than just a low budget exercise in horror conventions. Donald Pleasance’s manic performance, still a highlight, seems to suggest that Myers has otherworldly motives. It’s then that the film begins to explore the very idea of something so inherently evil, that it is impossible to stop it.

Halloween still looks impressive, shot as it is in epic widescreen format by one-time Spielberg regular Dean Cundey. Its daytime autumn setting is juxtaposed by the shadowy and menacing night-time. The subversive camera style makes the audience part of th action and places them in the terrifying shoes of Michael Myers. The expert use of a steadi-cam techniques provides a constant, creeping omnipresent feeling to the film’s style. Under less skilled hands it could have come off amateurish and distracting, but it thankfully all adds to the film’s voyeuristic aesthetic within its autumnal ghost-town setting.

Almost all American slasher genre clichés seem to have originated from this film, which would mark it as the starting point of the slasher film craze. Everything from sexually promiscuous teenagers, drug taking and the well behaved (single) heroine can be found in Halloween. It’s still having an effect on more recent horror films; just look at the first Scream film where the basic rules for surviving a horror film are played out in front of a drunken screening of Halloween.

 This film is a supremely well crafted piece of suspenseful cinema which shows Carpenter to be a master of crafting and understanding horror. An impressive and genre defining classic which – like all good films – is a timeless example of how to inject life into a tired genre. Without Halloween there might never have been – for better or worse – a slasher renaissance. More importantly there would never have been such a terrifying classic, still adored by fans and critics alike.

Aled Jones