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My Year of Scary Movies: (Part 8) Halloween

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
By Daniel Hutchens

"He came home..."

I know, I know: this is such a cliche, writing an essay about the movie Halloween when the holiday of the same name is only a week away. Itʼs been done to death, if youʼll pardon the horror movie pun. But there are reasons we call some films classics, and this one is the real deal. Itʼs always been one of my favorites––a genuine chiller with notes of humor and well-drawn characters you can really care about thrown in––an independent film that became a money making machine at the box office, and established a new genre along the way––and at its heart just a really fun and engrossing horror film that brings back memories of watching scary movies as a kid.

Weʼre drawn in even during the opening credits, which are displayed atop an image of a jack-o-lantern with candle flickering inside, orange against an otherwise pitch black screen. Minimalist perfection. At the same time we hear the classic Halloween theme music: I really think itʼs on a par with the string score for Alfred Hitchcockʼs 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Both pieces of music are simple, undecorated, chillingly effective, and instantly recognizable. (Coincidentally the star of Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis, is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who starred eighteen years earlier in Psycho.)

Our story opens on Halloween night, 1963. We see through a six year old boyʼs eyes as he spies on his teenaged sister through the front window of their house. Sheʼs making out with her boyfriend on the couch, and then they go upstairs to the bedroom. The little boy goes inside the house and grabs a big knife from the kitchen drawer. After the boyfriend comes back downstairs and leaves, the little boy goes upstairs, picks up a Halloween mask and puts it on (weʼre now seeing POV through the eyeholes of the mask), and murders his sister. Itʼs just a brutal and weird scene, and part of its power comes from our lack of information. Thereʼs no logical buildup or explanation; our imaginations are left to roam free.

Flash to October 30th fifteen years later, and we meet Dr. Sam Loomis, who has been treating the boy from the opening scene (whose name we learn is Michael Myers). Loomis has come to believe Michael is incurable, in fact diabolical, and should never be released. The doctor and his nurse drive up to a mental institution after nightfall, only to find the patients wandering the grounds. The doctor goes to investigate, and soon Michael leaps on top of the car, smashes a window and scares the nurse away, then steals the car and makes his escape.

Loomis believes Michael will return to his hometown the next night for Halloween, and that people may be in danger. The next scene is the following morning back in that hometown––Haddonfield, Illinois. Now we meet high school student Laurie Strode (the debut screen performance of Jamie Lee Curtis). Laurie doesnʼt have a date for Halloween that night, so she has agreed to babysit a boy from the neighborhood. But walking to school she notices a strange man who seems to be following her...and now our story is set. Simple but mysterious and compelling.

Curtis turns in an absolutely great debut performance as Laurie. Sheʼs a typical high school girl, shy but sweet, a good student but a bit socially awkward, at least according to her outgoing girlfriends. And Curtis really hits the right notes for this character...then even more impressively, as the movie progresses and the action ramps up, she pulls off the neat trick of portraying fear and terror without melting into a stereotypical scream queen––when confronted by a horrific murderer, sheʼs appropriately freaked out, but never loses the sense of her characterʼs intelligence and basic personality as established earlier in the film. Sheʼs a big reason the film turned out to be such a success.

But make no mistake, Halloween was John Carpenterʼs baby. He wrote it, directed and produced it, and even composed the haunting score! This was, in fact, the third film Carpenter wrote/directed/produced/scored, but this is the one that made him. He hit a nerve, and his humble little horror flick, made for $325,000, grossed over $47 million. It sparked a revolution in the film industry, and suddenly there were legions of imitators, and a new genre was born: the slasher film. Sadly, few of these copycat films displayed even a shred of Halloweenʼs style, subtlety, or suspense. But many of those subsequent films raked in millions. The floodgates were opened, and somehow Halloween, a model of Hitchcockian implication and restraint (very little blood to be seen here, folks), had given birth to a new breed of over-the-top slicers and dicers. But none of those offspring ever were a patch on their daddy.

Those other films duplicate superficial details––a masked maniac with a knife (for the record here, it turns out the mask worn in Halloween was actually a Star Trek-era William Shatner mask painted white––apparently the filmmakers had trouble finding a visage that looked just right, and resorted to a painted Shatner likeness out of desperation––I just find this pretty funny), chasing and killing drunk/stoned teenagers after theyʼre finished (or sometimes while theyʼre still) having sex. It was such a surefire premise, I guess it was irresistable to a lot of filmmakers...but those other films lack the genuine shudders supplied by Halloween. It achieves a reawakening of our childhood fears––the bogey man, the monster in the dark––and helps us remember how that youthful fear really felt, the physical jolt of it, the rushing blood in the veins. And itʼs invigorating to be able to feel that way again, itʼs a part of us we so often have to suppress in our adult lives, in order to function day to day––but that fearful child is still down there inside us, breathless, listening for footsteps in the darkness––itʼs terror we feel, but itʼs also a kind of rush, it jacks our minds and bodies wide open awake, makes us fully aware weʼre alive and so also makes us confront death.

Itʼs a funny way to be entertained, when you really think about it, but itʼs primal and powerful––like the scene early in our film, where the little boy is quizzing Laurie, whoʼs going to babysit him on Halloween night: “Can we make jack-o-lanterns? Can we watch the monster movies? Will you read to me? Can we make popcorn?...” Heʼs giggling and excited...I absolutely remember and can feel that youthful anticipation about “monster movie night”, man, it was the greatest thing in the world...staying up past midnight after the parents were gone to bed, having a good friend spend the night, and watching those monster movies, baby...it was a great time, but it was also some sort of rite of passage...for me, anyway, “monster movie night” was mighty important.

And as I said, Halloween spikes straight into the vein of that littlekid midnight thrill ride. Later in the movie, the little boy and a little neighbor girl are sitting on a couch in a darkened living room with Laurie, watching the old spooky sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World (which is a great old black and white thriller in its own right)...and the little boy decides to scare the little girl, so he sneaks behind the window curtains and starts whispering her name...but then he looks out the window, and he sees the real monster in our movie across the street, carrying a dead body across the neighborʼs lawn...the horror has materialized. Itʼs a great scene, a great examination of how we have fun with fear, and how fear can then turn on us, threaten us for real, and in fact eventually willchase us down and that will be the moment of death––itʼs an absolute certainty; we already know how our life movie will end––and yet somehow we accept the whole idea, are fascinated by it, even attracted to it sometimes.

Itʼs all there in Halloween, those complicated fears and desires, wrapped up in a cool and classic little story. Itʼs still an unbeatable film to watch on Halloween night; hell, at this point itʼs almost a tradition.


Daniel Hutchens: My Year of Scary Movies Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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