Dir.: John Carpenter
Flickcharted: #120 (97.73%)
I introduced the youngest of my children to this movie this month. Here's a re-print of my review from 2018:
John Carpenter's 40-year-old horror hit is attracting fresh eyes with David Gordon Green's new sequel in theaters, raising all of the old arguments: Does Halloween deserve credit for launching the slasher wave of the 1980s? Does this subgenre deserve to be evaluated on its own terms or is it reprehensibly prurient and beneath consideration? Does Carpenter's relatively revered first installment in this long-running franchise live up to its reputation as a work of respectable film craft despite its content?
My answer to all three questions is an unqualified "Yes," and the third is the one in which I was most interested during this first re-watch of the original Halloween in over 15 years. I may well be affected by nostalgia — I was six years old when Carpenter's breakthrough movie was released, and by the time I was 12 I was on a steady diet of its imitators — but Halloween sets the aesthetic standard by which I judge most horror movies: quiet setup, establishing place and character through long takes of wide shots; naturalistic performances portraying a lack of drama, waiting for the extraordinary to crash through the mundane; minimal music, with environmental sound design establishing the verisimilitude of everyday life. Needless to say, Halloween 'has that Halloween feeling in spades,' as Jack Lipnick might say, so it's essentially perfect in that regard.
New audiences might criticize Halloween for doing too little. There is a long gap between its now-tropey opening scene and the start of Michael Myers' killing spree on Halloween night 15 years later, and, compared to the slasher movies that followed it, Halloween has a low body count with barely any gore. For me, a slasher movie is most valuable for how it handles the spaces between the murders, as those are what make the killing matter. Gore can add either macabre fun and/or visceral shock to a horror movie, but it will rarely equal the chilling effect of a death filmed at a silent distance, and the best scene in Halloween features Michael Myers, in a medium-long shot, quietly contemplating his own handiwork in almost the exact same way the audience might be watching him. This scene is key to the success of Carpenter's movie: it's not the effort of a sensationalist, but of a filmmaker taking his subject seriously.
While there are certainly absurd nits to be picked in Halloween — I've never cared for the slasher trope of dead bodies springing unnaturally from unlikely places perfectly timed to freak-out the final girl, and this might have been the movie which started that dumb business; and how did Loomis (the perfect Donald Pleasance) not see that car while standing in the same place for hours? — they aren't evidence of a director with nothing on his mind, but something bigger.
Halloween is about fear on primal and expansive levels. Even though Loomis describes Michael as pure evil, "The Shape" operates in Halloween's narrative as even more of an abstraction than that: he is the relentless encroachment of mortality, a neutral delivery system for death lurking constantly on the periphery until it's time to strike. However, Carpenter doesn't leave his exploration of fear at that alone; Halloween studies an array of fears covering a spectrum of severities. Carpenter, along with co-writer Debra Hill, depicts superficial fears like those provoked by watching scary movies, playing pranks, or buying into superstitions; then there are normal fears like embarrassment and failure and loneliness; paranoid fears like being watched or confronted by a stranger, or being caught doing something you shouldn't, or being vulnerable and trapped in an unfamiliar space without anyone around to help; or the eerie fear of streets that are too dark and too quiet; then there is the fear of waiting for something horrible to happen without knowing when or where, and the fear that your reassurances, when others are fearful, are hollow; and the fear that your cries for help will be ignored. Nearly every line of dialog evinces some sense of trepidation about something. There's a lot going on in Halloween during its slow burn between instances of the ultimate fear: random and senseless but inevitable death.
The best horror movies — and these include the best of the slashers — marry skill behind the camera with something to say about fear. The holiday Halloween is about pretending that fear is fun, part of a game that gets rewarded with sweet treats. John Carpenter's Halloween uses the surface of that holiday to reveal the trick that fear, regardless of the devices we use to cope with it, lessen it, ignore it, or dismiss it, is everywhere all of the time, and it will get all of us, someday.