Halloween (1978) – By David Stephenson.

 “There’s more to this film than just another big motherfuckin’ dude with a big motherfuckin’ knife…”

And so upon finding out that this month’s Roundtable was going to be Masters Of Horror, given our close proximity to Halloween, my choice of was a simple one. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, ever one for seamless originality, I bring you the finest work by legendary director John Carpenter – Halloween. I bet you never saw that one coming.

Halloween is perhaps the most influential and important horror movie to ever unleash its bloody rage upon society, with perhaps the exception of Alfred Hitchcock, whom was reportedly a massive influence upon Carpenter’s legendary outing into the world of suspense and the macabre. The effect this film has had on the film industry is like a tidal wave in its intensity and impact, sweeping aside old ideas and an increasingly stale genre with a fresh new vision – a vision that would later be raped into submission by countless re-makes, sequels, Hollywood committee thinking and the so-called ‘brain-dead 80’s MTV generation.’ One thing is for certain – many of today’s top horror directors are heavily influenced by Carpenter and his style – Wes Craven, for instance, would probably still be writing for The Twilight Zone had this movie not been made.

This is ironic, given that when this film was released into cinemas on October 25th 1978, barely anyone paid any notice – the film falling to a mixture of poor reviews and poor takings at the box office. The yawns of the world were deafening as critics quickly brushed over what they saw as a piece of unimaginative garbage by an unknown young director. Also as crippling (initially, at least) was the silent ambivalence of fans, who could have made or broken the movie, but decided to leave it alone in search of bigger and brighter things, and what other cinematic bullshit was on sale at the time. Bear in mind, this is before the era of teenage fanboys, geeky teenagers and slasher-fiends – fan groups which in my mind were invented partly by the fame this film would eventually capture.

The saviour of our story is Tom Allen, writer for The Village Voice, who saw real promise in this small and overlooked film, making comparisons with the work of the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock, praising the eerie camera work and pacing of Carpenter, and the performances of its young cast, including then unknown Jamie Lee Curtis. (This was her first role and one which would have her pigeon-holed as a ‘scream queen’ for the next decade.) Quick to jump on the bandwagon were more prominent critics like Roger Ebert, who praised the film in 1979. With such hard-hitting critical acclaim and vigorously spreading word-of-mouth, the film enjoyed something of a re-birth, grossing over $45 million in the ‘States alone – a figure made even more impressive when you consider the film cost just $315,000 to make. The commercial success of the piece would inspire countless sequels, spin-offs and clones, all clamouring for the same kind of fame and appeal the original now suddenly enjoyed.

I can almost certainly guarantee that you have seen this film before, given its mass appeal and legendary status. However, for those of you out there who’ve been living in a cave since the 70’s, here’s a recap on what to expect when you finally embrace society and the world of the moving image…

A naughty, demented little boy called Michael Myers (not to be confused with the geeky comic who brought us the Austin Powers films) brutally slays his sister with a kitchen knife after witnessing them doing the dirty. The brutal humanity of what he sees before him, it seems, triggers some kind of evil impulse to slay and rend flesh and paint the walls red. His immediate incarceration in a high-security asylum does nothing to quench his homicidal tendencies, despite being locked up until his 21st birthday. His blank, soul-less, emotionless eyes and sheer, unbridled psychosis leave fear in the hearts of whomever he comes across; most notably Dr Sam Loomis, the poor bastard charged with healing Myer’s mind. As Loomis, played with amazing skill by Donald Pleasance, solemnly puts it;

“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blind, 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 for I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil!”

But then, on Halloween, Myers goes missing from his padded cell, headed back to his home town where he first murdered his sister, hell-bent of murder, death, mayhem and all the other chaos you’d expect from such a knife-swinging madman. Indeed, no-one is safe, especially the frivolous teenagers who walk the streets, blissfully unaware of the danger that lurks in the shadows.

It’s not the violence that scares the living crap out of this film’s audiences, however. Unlike many of the recycled and unimaginative ‘slasher’ clones that would follow, there is relatively little violence and barely any blood. The very vision of Myers is scary, his face covered in a white, ghost-like mask with dark, corpse-like eyes peering out maliciously from underneath. He stands motionless in shadows, stalking his prey, watching over them with a terrifying calm – it’s almost as if he’s beyond human, one step closer to the grave than the victims he chases. By the film’s brutal third act, there has been so much tension built up around this man that he becomes almost monster-like, invincible as he prowls near-invincible after his final victim – it’s as if he’s evolved to become the very personification of unstoppable evil, as if the vengeance of hell itself courses through his sick, twisted veins. (It is little surprise that Myers is infact credited as ‘The Shape’ and would not gain the moniker Michael Myers until the 1981 sequel.)

The acting in this film is so good it seems natural – these could be real teenagers you see before you. Jamie Lee Curtis especially personifies the girl-next-door, an innocent charm seems to ooze effortlessly from her person as she goes about her Halloween painfully unknowing of the fear that lurks around the corner. The highlight, however, is certainly Donald Pleasance in possibly his best ever performance. As Dr Loomis he seems terrified to his very core of this monster that walks the streets, talking of Michael as more than a man, perhaps a pigmentation of Ze Deeevil Himself. (Is his performance here better than that of Ernst Stavro Blofeld? Time will tell.)

Perhaps the most understated aspect of this film is its awe-inspiring soundtrack, played with terrifying precision by Carpenter himself – the same creepy piano tones eerily dance through the film, raising the hairs on your skin. It’s like electricity in your veins. The soundtrack has now become almost as immortal as the film itself, instantly recognizable and in my mind the second most effective and recognizable horror theme of all time (behind the Exorcist.) Perhaps if Carpenter had seen the impact his music would have, or the commercial impact the film would attain, he would not have given credit for the music to the ‘Bowling Green Orchestra.’ Regardless, it is impressive that the author of such a haunting piece claims not to know a single note.

I could go on for days about the virtues, the ins-and-outs and various other facets of this legendary film, but I’m not going to. If you have even half a brain and even the most limited knowledge of horror cinema, you’ll have already seen this film – many of you will probably already have its DVD sitting proudly on your shelf. For those hermits out there yet to witness this epic event in cinema history, I recommend you get of your wide ass right now.

Unlike the vast majority of horror flick down the years – most of which are the absolute drizzling shit – this film brings subtlety, pacing, tension and character building to the table. Despite Myer’s “dead man walking” qualities, he seems painfully realistic in his grim humanity – a universe away from the one man army statue of self-parody he would one day become. This is by no means just another slasher flick, this is by no means another piece of retro splatter to waste your time with. This is an epic. A classic. This is, in my mind, perhaps the greatest horror movie ever made.

—–

Rogue Reviewers Roundtable Topic: Masters of Horror

David’s Review Site: Death by Cinema