Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Directed by John Carpenter
Few sounds in horror are as iconic as the opening notes of the Halloween theme music. Filmmaker John Carpenter was able to capture the tension of this story with such a seemingly simple score. You literally cannot make a Halloween sequel at this point without including the music; it has become as linked to the franchise as the central antagonist Michael Meyers. Everything about Halloween seems too simple at first glance, tropes that we have come to find yawn-inducing in movies now. But there is just something about how Carpenter deploys them, tongue in cheek at some moments and brutally real in others, that elevates it above the slasher shlock that was to come.
Fifteen years ago, on Halloween night 1963, in Haddonfield, Illinois, young Michael Meyers murders his sister for no apparent reason. He’s sent off Smith’s Grove sanatorium in the countryside and left to spend the rest of his days under lock and key. The night before Halloween in 1978, his longtime psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), comes to Smith’s Grove to transport Michael to court where he hopes they will order the man to be imprisoned for life. However, Michael has escaped and steals Loomis’s car, heading back to Haddonfield and his abandoned family home.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a high school student in Haddonfield; her father happens to be a real estate agent who has the Meyers house on his properties list. Laurie stops by on the way to school, leaving a key there, and is glimpsed by Michael, becoming his new prey. On Halloween night, as Laurie takes a babysitting gig, she has no idea about the bloodshed and terror that is about to happen in her life, forever changing how she sees the world and bringing her face to face with pure evil.
As I have said before, I do not like slasher movies, but damn if John Carpenter didn’t convince me that this one is better than the rest. I think the key to Halloween’s success is its simplicity. Carpenter doesn’t spend copious amounts of time trying to give Michael a backstory. We get all we need in the opening prologue and through Loomis’s dialogue as he arrives at Smith’s Grove. Michael is an embodiment of evil, and he kills for the sake of it. In turn, that makes him such a more terrifying figure, transcending him beyond human and into a force of nature. However, later slasher movies would also give bare-bones explanations, and they didn’t work as well. I think despite a lack of Michael’s voice in the story, Carpenter still gives him personality. That personality is disconnected from humanity and cold, but it still makes the killer feel like a character rather than a plot device.
It could be argued that Laure Strode is just as much a blank slate as Michael. We see her in the context of being a high school student; her conversations with her friends allude to school crushes & the typical adolescent things you would expect. I think both Laurie and Michael are character onto whom the audience places things they see in the character, rather than the filmmakers explicitly giving them histories. This “neutral” style of character development puts the audience in a pair of strange shoes, almost observing everything like a documentary. We feel the terror that Michael puts on others but not because we have grown to love those characters in any unique way. The fear present in Halloween is more primal than that, something on an animal level, reflecting Michael’s brutal nature.
There’s one element that drags down the film, in my opinion, and that is the best friends of Laurie. While Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie with subtle realism and restraint, her friends Annie & Lynda are incredibly obnoxious. They almost feel like characters from a different movie universe, the kind of sex-crazed & reckless teenagers we would see carbon-copied in slasher film after slasher film through the 1980s. Laurie is so much more interesting because she is harder to decipher without any bloated exposition to explain it. Has Laurie’s life growing up in Haddonfield done something to her so that she’s less risky than the other girls? Carpenter never says because he leaves it up to us to decide who Laurie is.
I do, however, love Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis. I think Carpenter includes him in just enough of the script that he doesn’t wear out his welcome. The same cannot be said for the sequels in the late 1980s/1990s, where Pleasance was asked to carry way too much of the films. Loomis is definitely a trope, the expert trying to warn the authorities before it is too late, putting him in good company with characters like Brody in Jaws. While Laurie and Michael give a strange, uneasy ambient tone to the picture, Loomis is this stock presence, reminding us of horror movies’ heightened reality.
It’s obvious why Halloween has endured and why so many writers & directors try and ultimately fail to recapture the magic. This is almost a film that it’s impossible to make a sequel to. The story it is telling feels truly archetypal so that all slasher films that came after are, in a way, sequels, variations on a theme that just overcomplicate a simple, perfect formula. Halloween is, alongside Hitchcock’s Psycho, an Ur-text for slasher cinema, a seed from which everything has grown and mutated, but can never compare.