Forget the endless parade of sequels (although perhaps save a small space for the second, unconnected interesting one), the awful remake and way that it changed the genre forever (in many ways for the worst), instead concentrate on the fact that Halloween is one of the most effective horror films made, an exercise in creating a sustained sense of terror on next to zero cash and without resorting to gore to shock the audience. An endless parade of slasher films may have made us all too aware of the genre’s conventions – and the subsequent torture-porn genre descended into a parade of atrocities in the name of entertainment – but Halloween rises above these in its commitment to scaring you without appalling you.
Carpenter plays to his strengths from the beginning, taking the barest bones of a plot, attaching a few memorable characters (Carpenter used to be good at creating believable characters with very little conventional interest) and then setting out the films tension – jump – recover mechanic in the opening scenes. The trick here though is that he shortens the recovery time as the film progresses, leaving us less time to prepare ourselves for the next scare. He also does away completely with motivation, Myers kills because he enjoys it, not because he’s dealing with a previous torment or recovering from a psychotic episode. Myers just wants to kill everyone he comes across, no motive, no deeper intent. Even before this we’d been able to empathize with the killer, no matter what their motives because there was always a motivation we could understand. Carpenter removed that last comfort.
In its place he added a genuinely sympathetic victim. Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie is a normal teenager, a little unsure about herself and slightly wise beyond her years, but normal all the same. She isn’t specifically targeted by Myers (as much as the genre later linked teen sex with murder, here it’s more a case of wrong place, wrong time) and to begin with thinks its friends playing a trick, but as the film progresses and she gradually begins to cotton on to the fact that something isn’t right she doesn’t immediately try to run, instead she tries to get everyone else out first and she doesn’t go looking for trouble. It may seem a little thing (especially in the post-Scream days) but it remains refreshing here because of how simply it’s presented. She even provides a link to the grand-daddy of the genre, her mother is of course Janet Leigh, the first victim of Norman Bates, although Carpenter (wisely) chose not to exploit the link. Halloween is a different proposition, the killer isn’t dealing with a psychological issue, it just exists.
The clever casting did extend to Donald Pleasence, delivering a marvellously over-the-top creepy performance as the doctor almost as unhinged as Myers. His delivery veers wildly between deadpan and manic shouting, but it also provides a breathing space, almost rooting the film in the campy traditions of Hammer, although the terror here is more sustained. It’s easy to forget how good an actor he was, given that for the most part we remember his genre work and The Great Escape rather than gems such as Death Line and Cul-de-sac.
It’s almost easy to forget how good Nick Castle is as Myers, as it must be difficult to show absolutely zero emotion through body language. Future slasher films softened in that they gave the killer a personality, the lack here is what makes it all the more frightening. There are no quips, no jokes at the expense of each victim, just a sense of moving to the next victim. The relentless nature of the villain is what makes him scary, we know he’s just a man, but we don’t know what he’s fully capable of (and the ending is perfect in this regard, yes, he vanishes into the night – who’s to say he isn’t hiding in your back garden?). And the look – Carpenter stretched a William Shatner mask out of shape and hid the killer behind it. Later films would add dirt and blood to it in an attempt to make it more scary, here it remains pristine white throughout.
Carpenter realised that the limitations of his budget and that only one identifiable actor was part of the cast could be used to his advantage. There’s a sense that everyone is fair game in this (although it never quite transgresses in the same manner that other, more infamous horrors of the time) and that everyone is a potential victim. Rather than use flashy gore effects (the film is remarkably restrained) the camera becomes the main source of dread, often shot from the point of view of the killer and utilising the then new Steadicam technology to marvellous effect – Kubrick would later utilise the same technology to deliver dread at The Overlook Hotel using much of the same language here, albeit with a greater sense of theatricality. What is even better here is that Carpenter often uses the full width of the cinemascope format, with one character in dramatic close-up at one side of the screen, a vast gulf of space reaching into the distance and (usually) a body just creeping into view on the other side. It’s hugely effective.
Halloween is a great film not because it has anything important to say (nor does it pretend to have any social commentary, something many 70’s grindhouse classics attempted to shoe-horn in) but because it sticks to its commitment of scaring the crap out of you and doesn’t deviate from it. For me, Carpenter would only deliver one other film as effective as this – The Thing – but there there’s the sense that sometimes the effects take over in terms of spectacle. I love Halloween because every time I go to watch it I almost always regret doing so the moment the music starts (something I’ve not touched on, but the simple score is hugely effective at racketing up the tension) as my skin starts to crawl. Halloween is a hugely effective horror film that remains scary after all these years.