It is hard to overstate the brilliance of this early John Carpenter effort, and the influence it had on the modern slasher film. It isn’t the first film of its kind nor the best, but it is masterfully made (on a small budget with a small crew and tight schedule) and deserves a viewing even if you don’t much care for horror, or if you typically find slasher films predictable and unappealing.
The movie opens on Halloween night 1963 in Haddonfield Illinois. We see through the craven eyes of a stalker, spying through a window on a sixteen year old girl and her beau. After sex the boy leaves, at which point our killer stalks and stabs the young girl to death. He emerges from the house and we discover he is the six-year old brother of the victim; his shocked parents remove his mask and he stands, staring silently, a bloody butcher knife in his hand.
Fifteen years later Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) sits through a tense car ride to pick up the grown boy, named Michael (Nick Castle), who has to be transferred to another facility. But what’s this? The killer escapes, murdering a truck driver in the process and stealing his overall uniform. He has found another mask somewhere, and he returns to cruise his hometown for unknown, sinister reasons.
It will be another hour before we are delivered another human victim (although Michael does kill two animals, because he’s a sadistic psychopath), and in that time Carpenter masterfully sets the stage. Panaglide long-shots luxuriously circle the town (laden with the green trees of Pasadena and littered with painted autumnal leaves to create a lush, parochial landscape) as children walk the streets freely, gleeful on their favorite holiday. Michael alternatively drives and walks about town, eventually circling around teens Laurie, Lynda, and Annie (Jamie Lee Curtis, P. J. Soles, and Nancy Kyes). The three young women are planning a night of babysitting, and Lynda and Annie hope to sneak their boyfriends into the parent-free domiciles. After spying Michael out of the corner of her eye a few ties Laurie is a bit uneasy, but who would suspect – on a perfect, sunlit autumn day in such a beautiful, bucolic setting – that a bogeyman lurks with malicious intent? A nervous Dr. Loomis, meanwhile, teams up with the local sheriff (Charles Cyphers) and sets up camp at the old Myers place. Once night falls, Michael sets off on his murderous mission.
The film is simply wonderful in so many senses, besides the cinematography and score. In the villain of Michael (or “The Shape”), we have a wonderful monster. He clearly enjoys murder, and he goes for quality not quantity – slowly stalking and at times deliberately unnerving his prey, before he moves in to kill them. There are plenty of horror in-jokes and references both to Hollywood stars (the name of Sam Loomis, for instance, is from the 1960 film Psycho which starred Curtis’ own mother) as well as the films that influenced Carpenter himself (like 1956’s Forbidden Planet and 1951’s The Thing From Another World). The music – absolutely iconic, today – sets up a fishbowl around the young women. They don’t know they’re being stalked – but we do. The cozy, safe living rooms of these middle-class families become Michael’s personal playground, and it isn’t until the final act that Laurie is let in on the party. Curtis and Pleasance deliver the only human charisma in the film, but they do so note-perfect.
The movie is fantastic (“totally!”), but it is not flawless. Dialogue between the young women in the film’s first third, as well as a bullying scene with young children, is embarrassingly inane. And although Laurie is a step up in terms of a heroine for the era’s horror films, and she is one of the earliest and perhaps most well-loved Final Girls in a slasher, the women in the film are otherwise abysmally portrayed. They are murdered as they writhe, helplessly and orgiastically, giving up minimal fight and moaning – boilerplate rape fantasy stuff. Dr. Loomis, carefully camped out at the Myers place for the night, fails to turn his head slightly to the left for several hours and thus misses Michael’s car. And how did Michael learn to drive, anyway, after being institutionalized all his life? Finally, in probably one of the more irritating horror tropes, the heroine fends off the killer with a stab and he collapses to the floor. Exhausted, she collapses, shaking, her eyes averted from his prostrate form. Nah, son! You’d either be up and stabbing him another fourteen times to be sure, or you’d be beating cheeks out the door!
A must-see for a horror fan, and a film that is influencing contemporary viewers a great deal (notable examples: 2014’s It Follows and recent Netflix hit “Stranger Things”), Halloween is a perfect trick-or-treat for any season.