I come to John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween from an odd perspective. I'm a horror buff, and I've been getting the crap scared out of me at the cinema and on video for several decades now. Whether it be current stuff like the Saw films, classics like the Universal Monsters, or mondo obscuro delights like Paul Naschy werewolf flicks from Spain or Messiah of Evil (which I did a Retro Cinema review on a few weeks ago), I've seen it all. Well, not quite all. Despite my status as a hardcore horror junkie I only recently watched Halloween for the first time in its entirety. I've seen bits and pieces here and there over the years, but this was my first time taking in the whole thing from start to finish (and if you just said "that's what she said," then shame on me for handing you such an obvious straight line).
Having been raised on a steady diet of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines, the idea of a guy going around killing people with a big knife wasn't my idea of a scary movie. I preferred a supernatural angle to my horror, thank you very much, and Halloween just didn't appeal to me upon its initial release. Over the years my prejudice against non-supernatural horror has faded, but having seen many of the films that Halloween inspired -- whether they be sequels, homages or knock offs -- I've developed a deep dislike for slasher films, so I never saw any reason to check out the one that started it all.
A few months ago, however, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I took the Anchor Bay release of Halloween for a spin in my DVD player, and yes indeed I can see why this has become a horror classic. In 1963 a little boy named Michael Myers brutally stabs his sister to death. Fifteen years later, after having spent most of his life in a mental institution, Michael escapes from custody and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who spent eight years trying to reach Michael and another seven trying to keep him locked up, follows Michael to Haddonfield in hopes of preventing a tragedy. Along the way Michael steals his now iconic William Shatner mask along with some rope and a few knives and begins stalking young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film) after he sees her leave a key under the mat at the long since abandoned Myers homestead. That night while Laurie and her friend Annie are babysitting in neighboring houses, Michael starts reducing the population of Haddonfield, one fornicating teen at a time.
Not only does the film do for the first time a lot of the things slasher movies eventually became known for -- slow moving masked killer, sexually active teens who die and virtuous ones who survive -- but it does a few things that its descendants never did. As violent as the movie is, for example, there is little if any explicit gore. I certainly have nothing against gore in horror movies, and it can be very effective when used right, but the fake blood was notable for its absence here. I think if someone like Tom Savini had been brought on board to gore it up the effects would have been distracting.
Another surprise the film had was Michel Myer's relatively small stature. The actors/stuntmen who have played Michael in subsequent films have been monstrously huge; Tyler Mane who played the character in Rob Zombie's 2007 remake is 6' 8". The original Michael was built to human scale, though, making him seem more real and a more credible threat. The references to Michael as the boogeyman, and Dr. Loomis's assertions that there is something unique about Michael are intriguing. A friend of mine takes issue with this film because no human could survive the punishment that Michael receives (coat hanger in the eye, multiple gunshots, etc.), but I say that's the point; he survives these encounters because, as Dr. Loomis even states, he isn't human, and the fact that this is implied rather than stated outright makes it all the more chilling.
Halloween's cast is another advantage it has over its imitators. Jamie Lee Curtis had done some TV work but was basically an unknown in 1978. Her performance here is often dismissed as "scream queen" stuff, but all you have to do is compare Curtis's work in Halloween with that of any of the countless victims in slasher movies since. She's a damn fine actress, and the fact that her terror seems so genuine helps set the film apart. Curtis may be the star, but Donald Pleasance is the film's anchor. Dr. Loomis is the light of sanity in contrast to Michael's madness, and Pleasance plays him as flawed and fearful but determined.
If I could change anything, the character of Tommy Doyle, the kid Laurie is babysitting, would be recast and his part rewritten. The screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill is effective for the most part, but they don't seem to have had an ear for kids' dialogue, and Brian Andrews who played Tommy was simply awful. In the scene where Laurie rushes into the house, locks the door behind her and orders the kid to get upstairs, he whines "I'm scared." I was hoping at this point that Laurie would open the door again and toss the little brat at Michael to slow him down, but it was not to be.