John Carpenter is a director ruined by the studio system; the more backing he was given the worse he became a victim of his own early success. In 1978 however he was untested with only one film behind him (1976 – Assault on Precinct 13) and with a budget of only $300,000 he produces the magnificent “Halloween” and we get the birth of the first iconic slasher killer Michael Myers (Jason would not be fully formed until 1982 and Freddy until 1984) and a template that would be expanded and mimicked for years to come.
Due to its limited budget and the fact that it was made before the overly gory horror films of the late 70’s and 80’s really took hold Halloween is surprisingly sparse on gory kills. In fact only 4 people are actually killed in the film. Halloween is a great example of necessity being the mother of invention. Throughout the film where they can’t afford to show masses of blood methods of hiding it have been used, whether that’s clever lighting or the first person perspective. Instead the film focuses on building tension and creeping fear, as the viewer you know something is coming but you don’t know when.
This technique is used from the outset, having the first 5 or so minutes of the film in first person perspective. Someone is stalking a young girl and her boyfriend as they go upstairs, within minutes the person enters the house and puts on a clown mask and picking up a knife. The person moves upstairs and enters the bedroom where the young girl clearly recognises the person. Seconds later all we see is the knife moving and the girl screaming. It is revealed in the next scene that the perspective was that of a small boy, Michael Myers and that he has just killed his sister. There is no explanation for why or who this family is. This is the key thing for Michael Myers, he is dangerous and driven to kill but (in the first film at least) we don’t get a reason why and I think that not knowing makes him scarier and more unpredictable.
His mystery is heightened by his iconic design, a result of the limited budget. Originally he was going to wear a clown mask to mirror the look used as a child. However this was dropped close to production and the legend has it that a member of the design crew had to look for a new mask and bought a Captain Kirk mask, made the eye holes larger and painted it white. Add in a plain dark blue boiler suit and a simple and incredibly affective design is born. This design is so perfect because we still get a face to see but it is expressionless and using good lighting we never get to see his eyes. This could well be a hollow shell, it is only in the last act that we see below the mask and see a scared young man who panics and pulls the mask back on to regain his control. This does raise the question of what is he? Does he need to hide behind the mask to be the killer; is he scared of seeing his own face when he knows what he has done? There is so much we don’t know about what is going on in his head, leaving it so open makes it more interesting.
Michael fits very neatly into the first of the three iconic slasher killer types; silent slow moving killing machine (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees), Witty and flamboyant (Freddy Kruger, Chucky) and charming seducer (Candyman). Without a given motive and because Michael gives nothing away during the film it is for the viewer to fill in the motivation if they want to. You can be as simple or as deep as you want to be, he could just be a crazy person who is killing based on opportunity and Laurie just happens to survive, or he takes a liking to Laurie and wants to separate her from her friends.
I like to think of things a little more deeply, I have always seen Michael in this first film as a personification of conscience, like a crazy Jiminy Cricket. Each of the kids that are killed has committed some sort of sin (under age sex, drinking, smoking weed or leaving the kids unattended) which singles them out for killing, even his sister at the start of the film.
This is a morality tale for older kids, the film even calls it out when Michael is referred to as the Boogey man by the young kids, which Doctor Loomis agrees with at the end. Children are told, if you’re naughty the Boogey man will come and get you (not a practice I advise) and here we have that played out for real. Laurie is the best of them, she is the goodie two shoes of the group but even she smokes weed at one point. So despite being the best of them she still sins, this is why she is the last to be attacked. I think this also plays into the building of tension for the first two thirds of the of film. Michael is watching and picking his kills. After the opening scene we only ever see the film from a limited number of viewpoints, I have always thought that we have only followed the stories that result in kills but that Michael has actually been watching other kids as well.
This notion is driven home at the end of the film. Doctor Loomis has shot him and he has walked away from it into the night, proving that he isn’t simply human he is something more. Then we are shown a series of shots inside and outside normal homes all normal, overlaid with the sound of breathing. In modern cinema this would be an indicator of the inevitable sequel, however when they made this film there was no intention of having a sequel this was supposed to be left open ended. To me this scene is the final indicator, be good because Michael is still out there and he is watching, he is in your normal looking home or neighborhood. Be good or the Boogey man will come and get you.
The film tries to drive this home by making everything as normal as possible All the kids are normal and doing normal things. They are discussing things that we all talked about when we were that age, school, dating and what we are doing at the weekend. There are parts of the film where the conversation is almost inane to the extent of being distracting. However it all works to make the point that this could happen anywhere.
John Carpenter’s desire for the film to maintain a level of normalcy is betrayed by two key things, firstly, the fact that the film actually points out its own main plot hole. The ones that come to mind are the fact that Michael has been locked up for 15 years since he was six, yet he is able to drive a car from the Hospital to Hanndonfield. It is mentioned by a doctor and an answer is never given. It’s something that has bothered me since the first time I watch the film.
The second is Donald Pleasence and his scene chewing performance. Everyone else in the film is trying to play every scene down and be normal. Pleasence screams, overacts and goes crazy eyes every chance he gets trying to convince everyone that Michael Myers is the devil incarnate. His performance is distracting and struggles to fit in with other parts of the film, he would probably fit in better in a later Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th film rather than this more restrained suspense horror film.
The final thing to mention is the music. John Carpenter is renowned for having done his own music for many of his early films and produced some amazing yet simple scores. Halloween is a prime example of this; the title music has become a seasonal anthem and is another further highlight of how restraint and a minimalist approach can really pay off.
In summary this is a low budget horror film that uses its limitations to its advantage and tells a story about a normal neighborhood going through one night of hell. It builds tension using a brilliantly simple score, well directed photography, clever editing, restrained acting (for the most part) and some simple designs to create something iconic. As with A nightmare on Elm Street this franchise becomes something different down the line, however in this case it’s not for the better. This is a great film that gets to the route of horror, there is something hiding in the dark that will get you if you aren’t careful.