in The Vault

Halloween (1978)

If you weren’t aware a new Halloween movie is coming out on October 19th. The film is a sequel, or is it a soft reboot? Either way it’s the first Halloween film in nine years. Or as the makers want you to believe, the first in 40 years. What this means is that writer/director David Gordon Green along with his fart-ner (funny?) in crime Danny McBride have penned a direct sequel to the original Halloween. One that erases Halloween’s entire legacy after John Carpenter’s 1978 original.

What I aim to do every Friday from here until the release of this new film is answer the question “Is this a legacy worth remembering?” Which means I will review every installment in the Halloween series (even the Rob Zombie ones). I’ve seen all the films before but I thought it might be fun to revisit the franchise in this format. After all, everyone is entitled to one good scare. That’s a tagline for the original Halloween. Doesn’t really make any sense how I used it.

Is there anything I can get out of my umpteenth viewing of Halloween? Yes, there is. Because as many times as you watch a great movie chances are it will mean different things to you at different points in your life. The first time I watched Halloween as giddy elementary schooler, I jumped and squealed at the scares. As a teen, I saw more slasher films and the effect of Carpenter’s classic lessened. The last time I watched Halloween—before yesterday that is—was in college, late on Halloween night in a double bill with The Last Exorcism. Watching Halloween after a gory found footage film made the slasher feel quaint by comparison. If you see a slew of contemporary slashers before Halloween you might also think Halloween is a tame and cliched film. But is a film cliche if it’s the progenitor of said cliches? No, and I’m happy to announce that my umpteenth viewing of Halloween proved to me once again, that this is one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

I won’t go into the origins of the film, there are plenty of great documentaries (more on the way) that can do that, but I would like to establish what it is that Halloween set the template for. We all consider Halloween the first slasher but it’s more complicated than that. Hitchcock’s Psycho was released 18 years before and is built much like the modern day slasher, despite a low kill count, and a mystery plot that blurs the lines between genre. 1960’s is in this same vein. Mario Bava’s 1971 film A Bay of Blood, aka Carnage, aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, aka Blood Bath, has the high body count. What it lacks is a villain to fear and survivor to rally behind. Then there’s Black Christmas in 1974. Black Christmas has the hidden killer, young women slain, it’s even set on a holiday. In that respect, you might call Halloween a knockoff. Except there’s one thing that Halloween did better than all of these films. One thing that set it apart and put it forever on the top of the slasher movie mountain. A boogeyman.

“What about Leatherface?” This is a fair come back. Again I would argue that 1) Leatherface barely kills anybody 2) The rest of the family is just as scary (if not more) and 3) the film itself isn’t a slasher. Come at me nerds. What I mean by “Boogeyman” is an unstoppable force of evil. You don’t know why it does what it does and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Over time, we had more villains that fit this mold; Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and sure, I’ll throw in Leatherface as those films morphed into slashers in Reagan’s America. Still, Michael Meyers set the mold for the great slasher villain and is still the greatest. To think pure evil is as simple as a man in coveralls and a William Shatner mask. You can’t help but wonder why someone didn’t crack it sooner.

The plot is simple, we’re talking bare bones. A boy kills his sister after watching her in the midst of sexual congress, kills her, gets sent to an institution, and years later breaks out to return to his old stomping grounds (Haddonfield, Illinois) and kill more teenage girls having sex. Again, if you can put yourself in the mindset of a moviegoer in the ‘70s this isn’t as dated a concept.

Our three female leads are thinly written but likable nonetheless. Nancy Kyes is the cynical Sheriff’s daughter Annie, b-movie veteran PJ Soles is the resident high school airhead Lynda and then there’s our brooding, intelligent heroine, Laurie Strode played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Laurie might be the best lead in a slasher movie ever. The character doesn’t make stupid decisions, she isn’t shallow or overly naive. She’s a smart young woman thrown into a terrible situation. It’s a great performance, which isn’t something usually associated with these kinds of films. Of course, there’s another performance in Halloween that’s practically unmatched in not only other slasher films but all other horror films.

Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis is one of the great horror movie performances period. If there was a Hall of Fame he’d be in inaugural class. He’d also be one of the few horror HEROES in said Hall. If you call a child psychologist who carries a gun a hero. Loomis who studied Michael for years is relentless in his pursuit of catching the crazed killer. Only he knows of Michael’s true evil as he digresses into brilliant monologues like this one:

Loomis: I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.

What works so well is that Pleasance treats this character and this story with 100% conviction. There’s no winking at the camera or overacting. He gives the film a lot of class. An interesting side note is that Christopher Lee was offered this part. Lee turned it down to do 1941—a move he later regretted. Though Lee would have been good I don’t think he would have been able to express the teetering on the edge of sanity quality Pleasance has. That’s what I love. Loomis is so focused on stopping Michael it makes him seem insane.

Something I appreciated watching the film this time around is the strength of Halloween’s visual language. I’m not going to lie, I was multitasking while I had this on but I never felt like I was missing anything. The film goes long stretches with no talking, just characters moving about a wide frame to Carpenter’s iconic synth score. Halloween could have dialogue and work almost as well. It’s a beautifully photographed film that should be analyzed in film schools if it isn’t already. The film was shot by Dean Cundey who would go on to DP many of Carpenter’s films but also other classics including; Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, and Road House. I can’t believe Cundey has only been nominated for one Oscar. I’m going to assume it was for Road House.

All these things; the performances, the cinematography, the music, direction, Carpenter and Debra Hill’s script, work together in beautiful unison. We’ve all heard the adage less is more and this is that done with the utmost of care. I’m not sure what else to say. It’s rare that I am at a loss for words but to explain why I love Halloween is like explaining why I love air. It feels good. As for how Halloween II feels? We will find out next week when the Boogeyman is back.

And here’s a cheesy but fun retrospective from CBS Sunday Morning.