John Carpenter’s seminal masterpiece Halloween is really the ultimate slasher film, and the first film you should be watching this October 31st.
The first time I watched Halloween, me and my dad were taking it in turns to show each other films we thought the other would appreciate. The moment that POV shot moves around the house, I knew I was in.
And from that point onward, the film doesn’t release you for one second. Every frame of the film is so perfectly crafted, each moment paced so meticulously, that you’re on tenterhooks from the beginning.
For those who don’t know about Halloween, the 1978 slasher flick is about psychotic Michael Myers, who murders his sister in her bedroom at a very young age. Michael is incarcerated, until October 30 1978, where he escapes his mental asylum and returns home to kill again.
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There’s really no point going into much more of the plot, but rest assured it is a truly iconic film, and not just of the horror genre.
I’m not the only one to think this, it is a true cult classic, and for quite a while was the highest grossing independent film ever made. It set the standard for what would become the ’80s horror, yet is still perfectly timeless. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry as being a film of major cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
The beauty of the film resides in its simplicity. The film is a slim 91 minutes, there is no overwrought backstory to bog you down. It is quite simply as efficient as its antagonistic killer.
The film begins in a supposedly safe, idyllic small-town preparing for Halloween night, unaware of the cold-blooded killing machine heading their way. Themes of fate, nature and destiny permeate through the film, and are embodied in Michael – a true unstoppable force.
The bulk of the film’s action takes place in the increasingly claustrophobic setting of two houses within the town, which protagonist Laurie Strode – played perfectly by the Queen of Scream Jamie Lee Curtis – and her friends are looking after while the parents are gone.
It’s the combination of these things, the safe setting, increasing claustrophobia, and the knowledge of Michael Myers closing in, which provide the film with its ratcheting tension, and it never breaks.
Myers is used sparingly, you never spend to long looking at him, he is mysterious and Other. Unlike in most slasher flicks, the POV isn’t used to mind-numbing effect, and nor are the tracking shots.
Despite this (and this is where the true genius of Carpenter comes to the fore), Myers is present in pretty much every shot. By that I mean he is present by his absence. Each shot is so perfectly constructed there is a negative space around the character on screen from which Myers can emerge and wreak murderous havoc.
Each time the camera moves round a corner, or sits still on an open space, your eyes dance across the frame, looking for Myers in your pure paranoia.
But his presence doesn’t amount to murder until the first 50 minutes. We see a struggle inside a steamy car, with Myers’ face blurred (we’ve still not seen him properly by this point), it isn’t accentuated with any music, and the killer’s trademark breathing is the only rhythm to the scene. It’s hard and it’s brutal. From there the murders just don’t stop coming.
This itself is an intelligent move, once the tension has sprung to breaking point it’s hard to get the audience to that point again. Instead, this is when the film starts getting creative and plays with audience expectations by extending shots and not cutting scenes as quickly, meaning each individual scene is wrapped in tension as the audience can’t help but guess what is going to happen next.
The perfect example of this is the murder of Bob Simms, whose scene in the kitchen is so filled with shadow Myers could be hiding anywhere. Bob opens the fridge door – is he behind the door? The back door creaks open – is he outside? Is he behind that door? What about that shadow? And on and on…
The thing is, all of these analyses could probably be made about a handful of other films, but Carpenter does it with such style and restraint that when that closing music starts to play, and Myers’ breathing can once again be heard, you start to realise what Carpenter was trying to do. And he’s succeeded.
In Halloween, John Carpenter created a horror villain who is so steeped in mystery, so universally evil, that he can haunt any town, any street, any room and any house. He can haunt you.
Let’s compare the film with a more recent horror success, IT, which is a good film to be sure. But when you consider the telegraphed jump scares and the predictable, almost action film-like ending, the mystery of Pennywise is somewhat diminished by the end. You see too much of him – know too much about him.
The fear comes less from Pennywise than it does the next jump round the corner. Halloween is the complete opposite, it is sustained terror, and mystery, and darkness. Halloween understands that the real horror exists within the unknown.
Far from the gorefests of the Saw series, or the ghostly goings-on in the Conjuring anthology, this type of horror sticks with you. The human darkness is the real horror here, and by God is it scary.
Since then, the series has been run into the ground, and Myers a parody of himself. But in this pure, crystallised classic, we see pure Hitchcockian terror at its best. Films have tried to copy its success, but they haven’t succeeded.
Halloween is fundamentally the defining horror film for all generations, and it should be the first film you watch with the lights off and the flickering Jack O’lanterns laughing at you this Halloween night.
But don’t watch it alone, what if you hear Michael breathing?