Halloween is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite horror films. I don’t think there is anyone that would be willing to debate the impact it had on horror (even if you aren’t a fan of the movie). No doubt there have been countless articles and documentaries highlighting why exactly this masterpiece of horror has stood the test of time and why it was so effective in the first place. Naturally, I don’t know how much I can add to the Halloween discussion that hasn’t already been said. So instead I’m going to dig into a more personal space with this “review”. Instead of approaching this review from a more impartial lens I will lean completely into my fandom and talk about why it made a big impact on me in my own life.
I think I saw Halloween at the right time in my life. I was a horror fan but I was still a newbie in the genre. My toes were dipped in the pool but I wasn’t fully committed to diving in to be a full-time horror fan. I would walk up and down the aisle of the local Blockbuster and look at the covers of the various horror films that either I wasn’t brave enough to watch or wasn’t allowed to watch yet.
My foray in the genre was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and the Universal Monster movies. When I watched Halloween it wasn’t even the full version. The version I got to watch (because I so desperately wanted to see it) was the trimmed down version on AMC. I recorded it ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to endure the commercials. I watched it alongside with my father (who was also a big fan of the movie). When it was over I felt I had seen a whole new side to horror. Before I was obsessed with the gothic shadows of classic Universal (something I am still obsessed with) but I had no idea horror could look like Halloween. If before I was timid but curious about the horror genre, Halloween helped me take the full dive in and made me the horror fan I am today.
What was it that impacted me? It is hard to say thinking back to that pre-teenager version of me. Who knows what I initially thought? I do recall a few things that stuck in my brain at the time. I remember Michael Myers, the slow burn suspense, and the music.
It is natural Michael Myers stood out to me at the time. At the time the only horror I was consuming with great regularity and love was the Universal Monsters. I loved Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and especially the Wolfman. Being drawn to Michael Myers isn’t that big of a stretch from Dracula. In this first Halloween, Michael Myers is a monster. He isn’t a monster in the sense that Lon Channey was a monster in Phantom of the Opera. Michael Myers was a different beast altogether. He wasn’t a monster by appearance. He was a little kid who went and killed his sister. He looked like any other suburban kid. In the brief moment where director John Carpenter lets us take a peek at the man underneath the mask, he doesn’t look any different from anyone you would see on the street. Michael Myers looked like us. He wasn’t a corpse brought to life by a mad doctor or a man cursed by faith, he was evil not by appearance but by actions. He just wanted to kill.
Michael Myers was unlike any monster I had seen before. He may not have been evil by appearance but the mask he wore bore his true nature. An expressionless mask with cold black slits that lacked any sort of humanity. The makeshift Willam Shatner mask coated in pale white always looked its best in the first movie. Even more terrifying is unlike the accented Dracula or the growling Wolf Man, Michael Myers didn’t talk. The only audio you got was from him was his breathing that sounded muffled from the mask. It was chilling stuff to a young adult who was used to their villains talking a lot and monologuing.
By this point in the series, Michael Myers wasn’t bogged by family connections and overly complicated mythology. Myers was a killing machine and he stalked his prey until he found the right moment to strike. His motivation wasn’t something tangible he was the literal boogyman. As Tommy Doyle says, “You can’t kill the boogeyman.”
Oh The Suspense
Waiting for Michael to actually go out and kill someone was agonizing. This wasn’t agonizing in the, “oh my god just do something already,” sort of way. This was the edge of your seat, butterflies in stomach, nervous anticipation sort of agonizing. When was the first big kill coming? How would he do it? John Carpenter mastered the ability to create anxiety within his audience. He held back his horror in the best sort of way. Just when you think the attack is coming he pulls back playing his audience like a string on a violin.
Halloween was one of my first experiences with a slow burn story. I remember being surprised by the deliberate calculation of the pace of Halloween. With the reputation of Halloween, I was expecting a bloodbath with numerous dead bodies; I didn’t get that. Instead, I got a movie that made you wait and forced you to think about the people in front of you. The kills were so sparingly that it made it that much more impactful when the deaths did occur. Carpenter’s patience gave the somewhat blank characters something important, sympathy.
Often we mistaken knowing a lot about a character with caring about characters. Simply knowing a lot about a character doesn’t mean you will care about them. Carpenter didn’t have a story that allows for a lot of character backstory and instead, he got us to care about the character by injecting personality and getting us to sympathize with the situation they were under. Carpenter allows you to spend more time with the characters and never misses a chance to tease out Myers stalking the unsuspecting teenagers. This follows Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” philosophy. Carpenter doesn’t have Michael just appear out of nowhere and kill unsuspectingly (which according to Hitchcock would only surprise). He shows the bomb under the table (the bomb, in this case, is Myers) which gives the movie a constant stream of suspense and makes us feel increasingly dire about the teenagers’ chances, when will the bomb go off? When will Michael strike? Halloween is like waiting for the thunder to rumble after a strike of lightning. You know it is going to happen but you’re not sure when.
The Musical Score
Halloween Opening Credits [Credit Anchor Bay]
It is often said that at least half the reason why Star Wars is good is because of John Williams’s musical score. I think there is some truth to that statement. I think the same could almost be said about Halloween. That’s not to take away from the amazing direction by John Carpenter (and if the sequels are proof of anything, it is slapping the Halloween theme on top of a mediocre Halloween movies doesn’t make it scarier). But the music is just so effective here that it is undeniable that John Carpenter’s music makes this movie a lot better. The piano music is instantly iconic, even if you’ve never heard before. Carpenter’s brand of music immediately stuck out to me as the lifeblood of that movie. The music is creepy and a driving force of nature perfectly representing Michael Myer’s character.
The moment where the piano switches cues to a more imposing musical chord as Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is getting chased down the street made my blood curl first watching it (the musical track I am referring too is listed as The Shape Lurks on the soundtrack). The movie was done holding back and the music let us know that the fight for survival was on.
The music is such an ever-present element of this movie it is hard not to notice it. It is literally the first thing we are treated too. Even before there is an image on the screen, the music plays. I’ve said for a long time that I think people underestimate the value of a good musical score. Halloween has one that elevates the suspense and compounds the horror. I tried learning it on the piano (before eventually, I realized I haven’t learned how to play a single note on the piano). Looking back at silent films like Nosferatu we can clearly trace how important of a role music plays in horror films and Halloween is no exception to that.
The Legacy Halloween Left Me
Those were the things that stuck out to me the first viewing. These qualities that the movie opened up a whole new world of horror to me. Next, I wanted to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Texas Chainsaw. Halloween definitely scared me on the first viewing but it was fun. I was ready to graduate to a new breed of horror which later gave way to films like The Exorcist and The Shining.
Looking at Halloween now I can’t say the movie is perfect. This is a flawed masterpiece. The acting aside from Donald Pleasence leaves a bit to be desired and there were moments where the budget constraints began to show it’s ugly face. But those are my two small critiques. Carpenter made this movie look like a million bucks through his direction. My absolute favorite shot of this movie is Michael’s mask slowly emerging from a blackened room in the hallway to strike Strode. With brilliantly directed moments like that, it is hard to complain about the palm trees vaguely in the background when this is supposed to be Illonis.
Regardless of any of that Halloween brought me to a different breed of horror. The expert filmmaking and scares drew me in and showed me what a more “modern” horror film could do. This was still about the elemental boogyman (before the sequels retconned his purpose) who couldn’t be killed. At the end of the day, vampires don’t exist and neither do werewolves but there are serial killers in the world. Michael Myers was someone who could exist and that scared me. I have never turned my back on the horror films I loved at that time and while Halloween didn’t replace those films for me but it showed me a horror film could be slower; it could be just a guy in a mask and be made on a shoestring budget and still be terrifying. Suddenly horror was available to me now and I have Halloween to thank for helping bust that door open. Every October I always find time to watch one of my favorite horror movies of all time, Halloween.