What exactly makes a classic horror film? Does it have to be scary? Halloween is cited as the movie that kicked off the Slasher sub-genre that dominated horror for more than a decade.
I recently sat in for a revival screening in a packed house. Obviously Halloween did something right. It was a massive hit in its original run and continued to grow its audience over that span, placing it in refined company regardless of the genre. I’ve listened to interviews from the initial screenings where theatergoers not yet familiar with the rules of slasher pictures yelled at Laurie for not hacking apart Michael Myers whenever he played dead. Likewise the tone of my audience was more incredulous than frightened. As if mutilation is the obvious behavior for someone in Laurie’s position. The much lauded score deserves its reputation, but its laid on thick, sometimes suffocating the dialog underneath. All of Michael Myers's appearances merit an audio cue.
For a film that set the next wave of horror, its notable how gore-free this affair is. Its altogether more comfortable with nudity than violence, strikingly contrary to the trajectory of American cinema.
John Carpenter’s films tend to be broad affairs that marry multiple styles and tones. Despite its reputation as straightforward and lean many subplots and themes run through the film. Laurie Strode and her friends weren’t brought to life to die, their concern is the school dance on November 1st. Michael Myers intrudes on their existence. As slasher films progressed filmmakers skimped on character building. The goal of bringing lambs to the slaughter quickly became a thankless chore. But here its really the humor and humanity that survive better than the shocks. Boyfriends half heartedly promising to call tomorrow; respectable men of science taking time off from hunting a psycho killer to scare innocent children; hookup culture as horse trading understood by all ages... these things still resonate decades later.
Halloween is a remarkably beautiful film. Nearly every interior and exterior of every building is painted plain white. While written off as a tell tale sign of a low budget, it’s turned into an asset by Carpenter and Dean Cundy, the cinematographer. They “color” the spaces of the film with either blue or the warm yellow of incandescent bulbs. At various points they go full impressionistic. Witness the scene where Laurie collapses into the couch and holds up Michael’s knife. Light pours in from off camera forming one of the films most lasting images. This is a feature that deserves to be mentioned alongside The Third Man and The Big Combo. The stark and effective look ensured that Halloween would look great on every screen format imaginable, whether full frame on VHS or blu ray decades later.
For such a distinctive visual look, its strange that none of the subsequent sequels saw fit to replicate it. They all instead turned their energies to the Myers’s home and turning it into a true haunted house something Halloween has precious little interest in.
Its especially interesting to compare Halloween to its sequels since they borrowed so little of the original. Here its evident that Michael Myers is playing a game and is at least as interested in the staging as the killing. Whereas future films would give the signature William Shatner mask a totemic importance to Myers, he wears two other masks over the course of the film: a clown mask, and a ghost disguise. While the victims are seemingly chosen at random, he seems to understand their importance to Laurie and puts a great deal of effort into arranging their bodies to add shock to their discovery.
Most tellingly, Laurie is able to pull off Myers’s mask and expose his face while they’re wrestling. Rather than finish the kill he stops to put the mask back on. Its the most enigmatic sequence of the film and the best bit of character building Myers would ever have. It should have been a rich vein to mine in the sequels but they ignored it entirely. Their Michael Myers simply kills everyone in his way to his desired target. Quite boring.