After Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween is the third key title in the development of the slasher film and is perhaps the most important. Both Hitchcock and Hooper’s films spawned imitators, but nothing like Halloween, which not only saved the apparently moribund slasher from obscurity but also rejuvenated the entire horror genre.
Before continuing, it is perhaps worth pausing for a moment to consider the debt that Halloween owes to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and to ponder a frequently repeated story about the genesis of Carpenter’s script. Although Clarke’s film had only been a moderate hit, its producers were sufficiently enthused to suggest mounting a sequel. Clarke agreed and began working on a script in which the killer from Black Christmas is caught, incarcerated in an asylum and eventually escapes on Halloween night. Clarke even called the draft script Halloween and it has been suggested that he was concurrently working on another, never made, screenplay with none other than Carpenter.
Carpenter had already had something of a dry run for Halloween earlier in the year when he’d made the Hitchcockian thriller Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) for American TV (during which, incidentally,he met his first wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau). That earlier film, a reworking of Rear Window (1954), had featured a psychotic killer stalking Lauren Hutton in an up-market apartment complex and allowed Carpenter to flex his muscles in a genre he was to dominate for the next few years.
Where Black Christmas (1973) and other early slashers like Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) or William Fruet’s Death Weekend (1976) – all worthy films in their own rights – had failed to match the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween clicked with an audience that had been primed by the spate of proto-slashers that appeared during the mid-70s and were hungry for more. There’s nothing new in Halloween – Kim Newman noted that it was “about as original as an Italian Western remake of a samurai epic, a Chinese imitation thereof or a private eye film in blackface. Yet, like A Fistful of Dollars, Fist of Fury and Shaft, Halloween went down well with the American exploitation movie-going public” 1. There was just something about Halloween, something special that elevated it above the variable offerings that had preceded it.
It certainly wasn’t originality – as already noted, the film owes a considerable debt to Black Christmas and also to the Italian gialli. But Carpenter is such a skilled craftsman and gifted artist that he is able to take well-worn material and transform it into something that appears fresh and new. He was also canny enough to strip the movie down to its bare essentials: “Its only message is ‘boo!'”asserts Newman 2 and he’s not wrong – there are no pretensions in Halloween, no attempt at clumsily delivering a message, simply a mission to scare which it manages to achieve with the sort of ruthless efficiency we’d come to associate with Carpenter.
Carpenter doesn’t have much truck with finding a motivation or even a character for his killer – serial killer Michael Myers just puts on a mask and kills people, end of story. Contrast this with the protracted and entirely unnecessary back story given to Michael in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake. Psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence) occasionally drops in to mutter a few well chosen words about his “evil eyes,” but the real success of the film lies in the almost ethereal quality of its killer, its refusal to make him in any way human. He’s a machine, dedicated only to the wholesale slaughter of teens and Carpenter has little interest in him as anything else.
Carpenter, part of the 1970s generation of American film-makers who understood thoroughly the workings of popular cinema, knows exactly what it takes to terrify his audience. The plot may be full of holes, but as the film unspools it simply doesn’t matter – the film is every bit as much a machine as Michael Myers, well-oiled, stripped-down and savagely effective. Carpenter has things and people constantly popping in and out of frame at inopportune moments and from the last direction you’d expect; the killer comes complete with his own very loud synthesiser chords; subjective camerawork frequently sets the audience up to expect something horrible only for it turn out to be a false alarm. Halloween perfectly captures the essence of the holiday it takes its name from as it plays spooky games with its audience. Carpenter was canny enough to realise that his audience were fully aware that it was all a game and he played it to the hilt.
Among Carpenter’s many coups was the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis as the ‘Final Girl’, a shrewd move in that Curtis can actually act, but also a sly nod to the grand-daddy of all slasher movies, Psycho (1960). Jamie Lee’s mum, Janet Leigh, never made it out of that motel shower, but Laurie Strode shows great resourcefulness and courage in her struggle with the killer, now transformed into the quasi-mythical “Shape”, the boogey man incarnate.
Curtis was indeed something of a find and gives a credibility to the film that it might otherwise have lacked. She brings a human element to the mayhem and Halloween was the start of a long and generally successful career (she returned to the role of Laurie Strode several times, most recently in David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel). She’s ably supported by Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles as her doomed friends and particularly by Pleasance who makes the best of his ripe dialogue (when he and the local sheriff discover a half eaten dog in the old Myers house, Loomis quips “He got hungry”) and drifts in and out of the narrative long enough to impart vital news then come to the rescue at the climax.
In the end, Michael is elevated beyond a mere serial killer when, despite having a gun emptied into him, being stabbed in the eye and falling from a balcony, he simply gets up and vanishes into the night at the fade out. It wasn’t the last we were to see of him, however as Halloween created a lucrative horror franchise that paved the way for those other long-running genre series initiated by Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Hellraiser (1987).