Halloween (1978)

It sort of blows my mind that this is nearly forty years old film already. That means Jamie Lee Curtis is nearly sixty! I mean, sure, she’s been gray for some years now, but geez, where does the time go? I wasn’t even born when this was made and it still makes me feel old when looking at the release date. But that’s enough existential crisis, let’s get on with the film, as writing this post is several months overdue at this point.

Halloween genuinely is, in its truest sense of the word, a classic. If Hitchcock’s Psycho was what basically invented the slasher movie, Halloween was what made it go mainstream, while also laying down much of the conventions and rules that we horror fans today take entirely for granted. Initially called “The Babysitter Murders” before the sensible title change, this ended up becoming John Carpenter’s golden ticket to the big leagues, after making of a name for himself through making low budget indy movies, such as the cult classic  Assault on Precint 13. I was frankly a bit scared to watch Halloween after so many years because there was always the possibility that it might not hold up to all the hype I had started to develop over it as my fandom for Carpenter increased. It is, after all, one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. Hell, just the theme song itself is famous worldwide.

Oddly this film never really left much of an impression on me the same way some other horror movies, such as Psycho or Nightmare on Elm Street, did when I was a kid. I remember vaguely liking Halloween, but never really felt it was anything particularly special, outside of the theme music. With more adult eyes it turns out I simply was too young to truly appreciate the mastery in spooky film making, as the film blew my mind with how timeless and scary it still manages to be after all these years. Most horror movies tend to lose their bite after awhile, but not this. It’s almost like it hasn’t aged a day. In hindsight I suppose the reason for it is that the film focuses more on being spooky and atmospheric than  being flashy and gory, which is what you tend to get with most modern horror flicks. There’s also very good use of music throughout the film, which is not that surprising.  Carpenter’s soundtrack never fails carry a scene or set the mood just right on the spookiness meter. Speaking of music, there’s also a neat small cameo by the Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” song that amused me quite a bit. It can be heard playing not so subtly on the background when Laurie is taking a ride on her friend’s car, while Michael tailing them in another vehicle.

It’s hard to not be a fanboy when it comes to this film. There’s just so much to love. Carpenter shows masterful understanding of psychological horror with decisions like keeping Michael’s head and mask hidden from the viewer for most of the movie, only showing him from afar where details are obscured, or from behind, at an angle where his head and face is just cropped out of the frame. Details like this just add so much more to Michael’s menace because it keeps Michael a foreign stranger, something not completely human. It’s something Rob Zombie didn’t seem to understand at all in his remake effort. When you treat Michael as almost a supernatural being who is lurking behind every dark corner, his sheer presence is all you need to give you a fright because he’s the ultimate boogieman. If you attempt to humanize him from the beginning he turns into a generic bad guy who lacks personality.

Another thing that is very well executed in the film  is the lighting, which is used very effectively to create unnerving feeling of dread of what you can’t see. Michael is for the most part kept in the shadows, so you never really know where exactly he is hiding until you suddenly see him appear for few seconds on the screen at some dark corner, just as  when the person he is stalking isn’t looking at his direction. It’s creepy as hell because you start to place yourself in the shoes of the unwitting victim and begin frantically to look out for clues about where Michael could be lurking next. How many horror movies these days manages to still do that? Instead of any type of real tension of being built or maintained, movie makers resort to cheap jump scares that any person with a half brain can see coming a mile away, and usually the only thing making you really jump from your seat is the sudden loud noise and not the “scare” itself. Not with this film. Take the scene near the end when Laurie finally stumbles into Michael. The build up to it is masterful. There’s already fear in the air after the multiple murders that you’ve witnessed, and it only gets more intense when Laurie walks into the dark bedroom and finds a dead body laying on the bed, with the headstone of Michael’s mother looming  menacingly at the far end of the bed. The sight itself makes for a chilling imagery, and the sense of terror only intensifies when she starts to panic and starts stumbling into the several other hidden bodies inside the room.When Michael himself finally emerges from the shadows after Laurie has stumbled out of the room in utter shock, the assault is the coup de grâce to the sudden barrage of terror. Your heart skips a beat and your entire body freezes completely at the sight of him. He’s become horror personified in that instant.

In essence Halloween is a text book example of getting just about everything right in a horror movie. It doesn’t seems to make a single misstep. It’s damn near perfect as far as I’m concerned, and I know that’s to a degree just the fanboy me in talking, but I don’t really care. It tells its story with incredibly tight and well done pacing while keeping up the tension to the very end, and every single aspect of the film, from casting to the script and sets just feels so honed down and perfect that you couldn’t even come up with anything that it could do better, without feeling like it was nitpicking.

As a final word, I was really was struck by how lean, mean and to the point Carpenter’s original film truly is. It has no real fat in it, every scene knows exactly what it wants to do and does so with the sharp force of  kitchen knife stabbing you in the chest. Even when you get scenes that build the horror slowly for a long time, such as when Michael is wearing a blanket over himself and his next female victim mistakes him for her (now dead) boyfriend  messing around in a Halloween ghost costume, the drawn out silence from Michael is exactly what makes the scene scary because you never know when Michael will end the charade and lunge forward to kill her. The suspense is so thick you can practically touch it with your fingertips. That’s how you create tension, you keep your audience at your toes and never give them an opportunity to relax, and when you finally  think it’s safe, that’s when Michael emerges silently from the shadow to shatter your false sense of safety to murder you.

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