John Carpenter’s 1978 seminal slasher film Halloween inspired nearly two decades worth of imitations and established many of the tropes that would become synonymous with the horror sub-genre.
It stars English character actor Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, The Great Escape) as psychologist Dr. Samuel Loomis, a man who’s been studying the infamous Michael Myers since his clinical incarceration from childhood, and the original scream queen Jame Lee Curtis (True Lies, Freaky Friday) as last girl Laurie Strode, a role that would influence not only the slasher sub-genre but also other sub-genres of horror in the years that follow.
On a fateful Halloween night, six-year old Michael Myers murders his 17-year old sister in her bedroom after she has sex. The child in incarcerated in a mental institution for 15 years, lying dormant. For 15 years, Michael does not speak and barely ever moves.
But when he escapes captivity during a court transfer, he returns to his childhood home of Haddonfield, Illinois to continue his hunt on Halloween night.
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As a film, Halloween draws much of its tone and mood from Psycho (1960) – its slow but careful build, its masterful use of sound and music to define emotion, its focus on the mundane to create a contrast between scenes were all used to great effect in the film.
It takes much of what worked from Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological slasher masterpiece and shaped it into something more appropriate for its time without needing to conform to the formula that its predecessor established.
Unlike the slasher flicks that followed Halloween, the film does not define itself by its genre. Films like Friday the 13th (1980) seemed as if they were, more than anything, written to satisfy slasher tropes. But Halloween, despite being a genre film itself, is pure – free of any binding definitions of its precursors. Instead, it established new tropes – particularly those of “The Final Girl”, “The Final Scare”, and “Death by Sex”.
Its use and timing of musical scoring is one of Halloween’s strongest elements, if not its strongest hand down. Director John Carpenter is also a composer who’s inspired the likes of Hans Zimmer, and his proficiency in music shows in Halloween’s now-iconic theme and as well as his use of sound and music to build and release tension and build atmosphere and drama.
The film’s simple yet lingering theme pairs perfectly with Michael Myer’s slow yet unsettling stride. Carpenter also uses music to create a subtle difference between the real and fake jump scares in the film. In fake ones, the music builds slowly to a crescendo that never comes; completely cut off by the on-screen climax. The music simply stops. It’s a technique that builds tension without releasing it. In real ones, the music also builds slowly, but here it culminates in a climactic note that embodies the on-screen terror and continues on through the scene. Releasing pent up tension in a way that the film wants it to.
A major yet subtly hinted theme in Halloween is fate – elegantly discussed in the classroom scene in the beginning of the film where Laurie is asked by her English teacher to define the contrasting views of the matter as described by Samuels and Costaine.
As the teacher says, “No matter what course of action Collins took, he was destined to his own fate; his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with.“
This reflects Laurie and her encounter with Michael – something that’s hinted at when Michael appears right across the street from Laurie’s classroom. She sees him and he sees her; and at that moment their fates are interlocked.
Michael is Laurie’s destiny. “He is no man,” as Dr. Loomis defines him as. Rather, he is a force of nature, an unstoppable force that will always return to hunt on Halloween night. He is fate and “Fate caught up with several lives here.”
Michael as figure of “personified fate” is established early on. The lines delivered by Dr. Loomis in reference of the masked murderer dehumanizes the character, establishing a larger-than-life mythos for the man. He calls Michael as “it” or “the evil”, never referring to Michael has human because he is not. Other characters such as Tommy and, later on, Laurie called him “the boogeyman”, figure that many interpret as evil incarnate or as the devil himself – a being that needs to reason to kill, but simply exist to do so.
“It was the Boogeyman…”
“As a matter of fact, it was.”
Halloween embodies everything good about the slasher genre. Relying not on the tropes that define it but on masterful storytelling through the subtle use of musical direction and the exploration of themes that bring soul to the piece, there’s a reason why this film inspired a plethora of imitations that have only ever overshadowed Halloween in popularity but never in brilliance.