The Enduring Power of “Halloween” (1978)

My love for horror movies is well documented on this site, and therefore it should come as no surprise that the month of October is one of my favorite times for watching and re-watching movies. Right up until Halloween, American pop culture flips the theoretical switch to go all-in on celebrating the spookiest and most spine-tingling movies that cinema has to offer. My discovery of this was helped along by teenage years spent hopping between movie marathons on AMC, TCM, and the (in)famous “31 Days of Halloween” on ABC Family (I know it is called FreeForm now, but my nostalgia refuses to allow that new name to stick). On those channels, I discovered a countless array of classic horror, contemporary thrillers, and all manner of adrenaline-pounding pieces that I now revisit every year. Yet, among all of them, there are those that continuously rise above the pack and astound me at every viewing with what they accomplish within the genre and how they leave their mark. One of the most enduring of this pack is John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

Any self-respecting horror fan should be well-acquainted with Carpenter’s seminal work. Even if you do not count yourself amongst our hallowed crowd of potentially psychologically disturbed filmgoers, chances are you have some sense of Halloween through the parts of it that have permanently entered the pop culture pantheon: the iconic mask that killer Michael Myers (Tony Moran) dons to carry out his string of murders, Carpenter’s sparse yet drilling theme music that helped redefine horror scores for the ensuing decades, maybe even the still of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) holding a knife and screaming her lungs out, the early pinnacle of the ‘Scream Queen’ that Curtis would spend the next decades refining.  Halloween was filmed over four weeks on a roughly $325,000 budget after screenwriters Carpenter and Debra Hill whipped out the script in a reported 10 days. While that 10-day writing period is hard to confirm, the shoot and the budget are well-documented, and therefore reveal a de rigeur production for an independent horror film. When it was released in theaters just before Halloween night in 1978, it started one of the most profitable box office runs of the era. When the dust settled, Halloween grossed $70 million dollars in its initial theatrical run. That racks up to a gross roughly 215 times what it cost to make the film, which is certifiably ludicrous in terms of a success rate for a tiny independent horror movie, or really any movie. That success of course meant that a string of disappointing sequels was imminent, and while each sequel lived up to (down to?) that expectant disappointment, their failure only seemed to further elevate the accomplishment that was, and is, the original film. 

Halloween is widely regarded as the first of the ‘slasher’ movies, pictures that feature a solo, usually male, killer who hunts mostly teenage victims, killing them with a sharp weapon of some sort, hence the ‘slasher’ moniker. Other famous entries in this genre are Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), along with their extensive list of sequels. It was the defining image of horror in the 1980s, and Halloween’s 1978 release date serves as an easy marker for the beginning of a new era. Michael Myers is a hulking man who walks around with a large kitchen knife, stabbing mostly teenagers, and mostly girls. However, what you may miss if you only know Halloween by reputation is how indebted it is to the fledgling psycho-killer movies that pre-dated it. Specifically, the DNA of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is all over Halloween, something that Carpenter does not even try to hide. Before even considering the stylistic similarities, all you need to do is look at the cast and characters list to see the lineage. Carpenter names the psychiatrist in the film Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance), a name lifted directly from John Gavin’s character in Psycho. Furthermore, Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter, the woman who portrayed the unfortunate Marion Crane.

Once the camera starts rolling, the similarities between the two films only grow. From the first sequence, a jaw-dropping long-take from Meyer’s POV as he stalks and then kills his sister features him picking up his soon-to-be infamous kitchen knife. Looking at it, the knife could be a prop replica of Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) murder weapon from Psyhco. When Meyer’s kills, both as a young boy in this first scene and then later as an early-20s psychopath, his motion of knife hand raised above head before repeatedly plunging into the victim is perfectly reminiscent of Bates’ style in the shower sequence. The Meyer’s house, where the first murder takes place and a setting that looms over the rest of the movie, strikes me as a 1970s suburbia version of the Bates Motel: gothic columns, arches, and windows that look more like empty eye sockets. As if to double down, at one point when Strode crosses the street to investigate why her friends are not responding to her phone calls, Carpenter employs an iconic Hitchcock motif: a reverse-tracking shot of the character before cutting to a tracking shot moving in on what they see, and then back and forth again as the character approaches their destination. It is obvious that Carpenter drew extensively from Psycho, which builds a solid foundation for his film, but honestly it is the ways in which he expands from that base that I believe solidify Halloween’s undying legacy.

Hitchcock had industry sway and money when he made Psycho, neither of which Carpenter had with Halloween. The resulting difference is that Carpenter needed to create tone and mood without the ability to be as exacting and precise as his guiding light. Stylistically, this means that Halloween is marked by a simplicity of set, costuming, and production design that therefore foregrounds the inventive lighting design and camerawork that Carpenter and his cinematographer Dean Cundey execute. The film is peppered with tracking shots and medium-long shots that approximate the feeling of someone watching our characters, something made literal by Meyer’s many stalking appearances during the day before his murderous rampage kicks off that night. The All-American vibe of the Illinois suburban setting is punctured by this voyeuristic camerawork, another trick Carpenter pulled from Hitchcock but repurposed in a way to make the entire suburb feel as claustrophobic as the motel. Open spaces do not seem freeing in Halloween; instead, they appear as simply more places that Myers could pop up. Of course, once we reach the night and the murdering begins, Carpenter can really show off, moving between Strode who babysits children in one house while Myers picks off her friends one-by-one in the other. When the two do finally come face-to-face, the 15 minutes they do battle is tense and morbidly beautiful. One of my favorite shots in all of cinema comes when Laurie throws herself against a wall preparing for Meyer’s attack. The wall is almost glowing with light, but the gaping maw of a pitch-black doorway looms just a few feet away from her. There is nothing in the darkness at first, but ever-so-slowly, Meyer’s masked face emerges in the top corner, the only object lit in the darkness. It is spellbindingly terrifying and a perfect encapsulation of what Carpenter achieves. 

Of course, the most distinct legacy of the movie, apart from the ‘slasher’ killer, is the teenage girl he does battle with. The concept of the ‘Final Girl’ pre-dates Halloween, but the tweaks that Carpenter gives the archetype would be taken up by lesser films for years before recent horror has worked to recontextualize the figure. What separates Strode from the horror girls that came before her, and establishes a new and much more exciting legacy, is her ability to fight against the ‘slasher.’ For much of the history of American horror, female characters are relegated to the corner to scream while male characters do battle with monsters and killers. Women are often plot devices to be kidnapped, killed, and tortured so that male heroes may rescue or avenge them. Strode, however, is on her own, and as a result, fights back as best she can. She does plenty of screaming, but it strikes me that I would also probably do plenty of screaming if I discovered that my best friends had been murdered. She struggles with doors and windows, but she always finds a way through. In a particularly nice bit of battle, she stabs Myers in the neck with a knitting needle and then takes up the knife he drops. She is far from helpless, rather a believable figure of teenage terror in the face of an evil no teenager could possibly fathom. In the end, when Loomis shoots Myers and saves her, it is only after she has stabbed, shocked, and escaped the killer on multiple occasions. Therefore Loomis’ action lands as the work of a professional protecting a child rather than a grown woman needing a man to step in because she is helpless. 

Unfortunately, most ‘slasher’ movies that came out in the subsequent 15 years did not understand this fact and grasped on only to the idea of the morally superior ‘Final Girl’ who survives because she is pure and runs instead of fighting. Instead, they doubled down on the problematic trope that Halloween preserves; teenage sexuality must result in death. Strode is marked as the most morally upstanding of the teenagers, the only named teenage girl in the movie who is not seen topless and subsequently killed. Myers’ first murder was his sister who he caught with a boy, and while the Freudian implications could fill pages, it seems Myers has a vendetta against sexuality. While Strode’s friends, both male and female, are murdered, her prudishness seems to be a sort of shield. Again, I would not argue that Halloween ever ends taking Myers’ side in any of this, but I would suggest that by carefully explicating Strode’s more reserved tendencies, the movie draws a line between those characteristics and her survival. While ever explicitly saying it, as later films such as Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead (1981) do, Halloween suggests that its viewers should consider being more like Strode instead of her friends if they want to be on the ‘right’ side of the story. In this way, Halloween somewhat anticipates the Reagan-era “Just say no!” approach to policing teenage development. 

It is in this way that we can view Halloween’s legacy as positive, but nonetheless complicated in how it fits into debates about  intent versus impact when it comes to the turn back to traditionalism in 1980s American culture. We may not be able to transport to the fall of 1978 to take stock of the landscape the movie dropped in, but considering the context now, it’s easy to see why it was able to have such an impact.  The campy horror of the 1960s which had distinctly lowered the artistic vision of the genre was being reinvented by a crop of young, independent filmmakers who had a drastically different approach. George A. Romero arguably invented the socially-conscious zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Tobe Hooper threw down a gauntlet of boundary-pushing with the deeply disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Elsewhere, William Friedkin kept the vein of stately horror alive with The Exorcist (1973), but the mood in the air was change, and so Carpenter, who had previously directed the well-regarded but only modestly successful Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), had a group of like-minded filmmakers to step into. 

It is in this way that Halloween emerged and solidified as a touchstone for horror style that nonetheless has its own shortcomings, which Carpenter addressed recently when he oversaw a direct sequel to the 1978 original directed by David Gordon Green. Halloween (2018) de-canonizes every sequel since 1978, and instead focuses on an adult Strode, her daughter, and granddaughter as they do battle with Myers once again. It explicitly course corrects the original while maintaining the incredible legacy of that movie in terms of style and impact. It is also a testament to the enduring power of the movie that started it all. Even 42 years later, audiences turned out to the tune of $255.5 million in box office returns to see what would come of another battle between Myers and Strode, and in the process delivered the single-highest gross for a horror movie starring a woman over 60. Carpenter may have begun this franchise, but in his ability to step aside and allow other filmmakers to continue developing the legacy of his creation, he does what many creators, such as Chris Carter or George Lucas have failed to do; let the past live on with an updated approach. Halloween (1978) holds up on its own terms, but it is implicitly elevated when considered in tandem with Halloween (2018). Carpenter returned to the subject that made him a star, but with four decades of experience as a filmmaker to pass onto Green and company who pulled off the impossible task of honoring a movie that never left our consciousness while giving the story space to grow. So, if you are looking for a way to ring in Spooky Season this weekend, may I suggest you grab some chocolate bars, turn down the lights, and dive into a Halloween double feature? I promise you will not be disappointed. 

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