Often imitated, never equalled, John Carpenter’s low budget ($325,000) masterpiece took the suspense and knife-wielding killer of Psycho and repackaged them in colour with teenage protagonists. Although credited with spawning the slash and gore pics of the 1980s, Halloween contains relatively little blood. Instead it relies on the unrelenting build up of suspense and shock/startle mechanisms. As is usual in the slasher subgenre, the premise is simple: a teenage babysitter tries to escape the attentions of a rampaging serial killer. However, Carpenter’s deft use of shadows and an atmospheric score (he composed it himself) made it horrifying and fresh. Unfortunately, subsequent over-use of key elements have turned them into clichés.
Carpenter includes many nods to Hitchcock, not least casting Jamie Lee Curtis (Janet Leigh’s daughter in her screen debut) in the main role. This iconic casting, coupled with the Herrmannesque string notes signalling the fatal blows of the killer’s hand, and the sonorous explanations of Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance) (who is named after Sam Loomis, Marion Crane’s lover) mean Halloween’s debt to Psycho never quite fades from the screen.
Halloween is set in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. It’s an innocuous, everyday suburban setting like those visited so successfully by the likes of Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Brian Yuzna and even Peter Jackson (with a NZ flavour) throughout the 1980s. John Carpenter took a story idea (tentatively entitled The Babysitter Murders) from Irwin Yablans, and, with producer Debra Hill, wrote the script in 10 days.
Michael Myers is the stuff of local legend; fifteen years previously he murdered his teenage sister, Judith, on Halloween night, and has been incarcerated in an asylum since. But now, as the tagline tells us, is “The Night HE Came Home”. Hapless babysitter/virgin Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds herself the unlucky target of his bloodlust.
One of the great horror icons, Michael Myers is as primal and unreasoning a killer as Hitchcock’s birds, and just as deadly and inhuman. His white-masked face emerges from the shadows only slowly. He lurks on the edges, appearing as a shoulder, the back of a head, a half-glimpsed white flash until we have enough information about his past behaviour to be truly terrified for the characters onscreen – those who are still left alive.
Myers is terrifying for a range of reasons, some of them rooted in the physical performance of Tony Moran within the movie, some of them drawing on the genre as a whole. Myers is distinctive (and easily satirized) for two main visual reasons: his mask and his unhurried movements. His blank visage (a $2 William Shatner mask painted white by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace) with black eyes references a parade of distant killers, from the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the shark(s) in Jaws. His eyes, which might hint at emotion and indicate why he does such terrible things, remain hidden until a brief unveiling at the end of the movie, when all they express is confusion and a desire to replace his mask immediately. Michael is a void, a mystery that isn’t solved by the final credits.
Laurie as Final Girl
Much has been written about the character of Laurie Strode, one of the first Final Girls. These plucky sole survivors (often because of her refusal to take part in sexual initiation rites) of horror movie carnage overcome physical weakness and ineptitude to defeat the monster. Halloween establishes the formula for Final Girl behaviour, down to the slightly androgynous appearance, the “less popular virgin” status, and the ‘kicker’ – that re-appearance of the monster when the Final Girl thinks she has polished him (it’s always a him) off. Depending on your reading of the text, the Final Girl either represents a patriarchal construct (the manipulated and persecuted virgin-victim who triumphs through purity and passivity, often winning by accident) or a feminist heroine, (defeating the misogynist monster who would penetrate her with his blade).
- ‘Halloween’: 40 years ago, Laurie Strode got inside my head. She’s still there. by Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, October 18, 2018
The film had such an impact it has generated eight sequels and two remakes. Again, the quality varies. Much depends on individual directors and Jamie Lee Curtis’s willingness to reprise the role of Laurie. Inevitably, the Michael Myers story has become somewhat tangled over the years, although the 2018 instalment represented a decisive retconning of the sequels to establish the ‘official’ timeline. Who knows how long that clarity will last? At a glance, the Halloween sequels are:
Halloween II (1981)
A direct continuation of the events of the first movie – while Laurie recovers in hospital, a bullet-laden Myers continues his killing spree around Haddonfield, chased by Dr Loomis & sundry cops.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Strange wizards infiltrate corporate toy making America and plan to blow up all children’s heads come Halloween. Myers is strangely absent from proceedings
Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Michael, who has been catatonic for ten years (perhaps explaining his absence from III) wakes up, kills everyone, and lays siege to Haddonfield on (of course) Halloween, killing most of the police force in an attempt to get to his 7 year old niece, Jamie. Only Dr Loomis can save the day.
Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
One year later, it’s the end of the 1980s, and horror audiences demand horny teens, silly music and a sense of slapstick when cops pursue the killer. Dr Loomis is still there, and Jamie discovers her psychic link with Michael, whose modus operandi remains the same.
Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
It turns out that Michael is a victim of a curse that makes him seek out and kill his family members (who knew?). When Jamie gives birth to a baby, and then abandons it, crazy Dr Wynn figures the child is the ultimate way to lure Michael into the open.
Halloween: H20 (1998)
In a post-Scream world (the original treatment was written by Kevin Williamson and he exec produced), this entry ignores the events of 3-6 and brings us back to Laurie (the return of Jamie Lee), now headmistress of a private school. Still haunted by past events she must now protect her 17 year old son (Josh Hartnett) from the murderous Michael. Plenty of hommage to the original.
Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
Scholarship cash persuades a group of Haddonfield students to spend the night in the Myers’ family home. You know the rest.
Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)
Rob Zombie’s remakes.
Laurie (played once again by Jaime Lee Curtis) prepares to face Michael Myers forty years after their original confrontation. Made with John Carpenter’s blessing, this was a huge hit for Blumhouse and Universal.
Once again, HalloweenCostumes.com have a convenient cheat sheet:
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