THE NIGHT HE CAME HOME!
Much is simple about John Carpenter’s Halloween. It didn’t cost much to make. The story is very straight-forward, the actors were not stars (except the veteran Donald Pleasance who lends gravitas to his part as the concerned psychiatrist) and since Carpenter had to write the music score in a few days, it became pretty basic. And yet nothing is unremarkable about this classic horror film. When I saw it again a week ago I was surprised to see that it is still a chilling experience.
The story begins on Halloween in 1963. Six-year-old Michael Myers dons a mask and stabs his teen sister to death with a kitchen knife. His parents arrive home shortly thereafter and when they remove the mask from his face they find a calm, quiet child with lifeless eyes. Michael is locked up in a psychiatric hospital where doctor Sam Loomis (Pleasence) tries to rehabilitate him; fifteen years later he’s given up and reached the conclusion that Michael is pure evil. He’s now 21 years old and needs to be tried as an adult, but he manages to escape from the hospital. Loomis is convinced that Michael will head back to the only place he ever knew, his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The doctor contacts the sheriff’s department to warn them but is not taken too seriously; they’re busy making sure that the local kids behave during Halloween.
Meantime, Michael kills a truck driver and steals his jump suit. Once in Haddonfield, he finds his family’s old, abandoned house. There he happens to spot a local teenage girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and starts following her. Laurie spots Michael a few times; the white mask he’s found to cover his face is creeping her out…
Intimidating in spite of the light
Michael Myers and several ingredients in this film became a tremendous inspiration to most slasher flicks of the 1980s; a man in a mask, who never says a word and seems to be unkillable is always scary, and the only ones who can give him a run for his money are virgin teenagers, it would seem. There is something particularly eerie about that bone white, vaguely shaped face of the mask, with big, black holes for eyes, that make Michael seem out of this world.
Psycho (1960) did a lot to motivate Carpenter, especially in the first, brilliant scene where we see events from Michael’s perspective, behind the mask; he’s breathing heavily and first watches his sister, then the knife as it stabs her again and again. Learning at the end of the scene that he’s only a boy comes as quite a shock. Also, simple but effective parts of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Hitchcock classic are echoed in Carpenter’s music, especially in the way Michael’s attacks are scored. Much of the action takes place in broad daylight, but the few glimpses of Myers that we’re allowed to see are enough to intimidate in spite of the light. Our representative in the film is Laurie Strode, played by Curtis as a sweet, innocent girl; unlike in so many subsequent slasher flicks we honestly care about the protagonist and it’s interesting to see how a bond forms between her and Myers.
Carpenter takes time to establish characters and the suburban neighborhood before letting Michael loose in the final half hour, an approach similar to his breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); we don’t see much blood, but Carpenter knows how to play without it.
Simple – but never cheap. When the filmmakers found a Star Trek mask of Captain Kirk in a store, they realized that all they had to do to make it horrifying was change its hair, eyes and spray-paint the face white. Ingenious. It’s the small things that count.
Halloween 1978-U.S. 91 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Debra Hill. Direction, music by John Carpenter. Screenplay: John Carpenter, Debra Hill. Cinematography: Dean Cundey. Cast: Donald Pleasence (Sam Loomis), Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Nancy Loomis (Annie Brackett), P. J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards.
Trivia: Curtis’s feature film debut. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were allegedly considered for the part of Loomis. Followed by eight sequels, starting with Halloween II (1981); remade as Halloween (2007). Halloween (2018) ignored all sequels and followed the original.
Quote: “I met this six-year-old child, with this blind, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes… The devil’s eyes! I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up.” (Pleasance)
Last word: “I was afraid of everything growing up but slowly but surely that all calmed down. The reason for ‘Halloween’ and the reason behind it besides all the obvious things. I had a movie to make and a story to tell. Every little town (at least in the town I grew up in) had an old house that was abandoned. There was always a story that something happened there years ago. So I decided to take (that concept) and make a feature length film out of that. Michael Myers is on the edge of being human and being a ghost. That is why I stripped him of all back-story. He has a mask, no features. There is no personality there. You see him in one quick shot. That was all designed to make him to draw that line between the natural and the supernatural. One of the reasons why the movie struck a chord.” (Carpenter, Planet Fury)