To celebrate Friday the 13th, I thought I’d look at a genre classic that directly influenced the film with the title of today’s date.
The slasher film is a subgenre of horror that is built around the premise of a serial killer stalking and murdering a group of people who are usually all connected in some way. As far as I’m concerned, every great slasher film trope that’s ever existed amongst these kinds of films has already been perfected by Halloween. Every slasher film since then is essentially ripping it off or making slight changes. Without Halloween, there’d be no Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or any of the films that spiked to popularity in the 80s that followed the same mold. Few filmmakers have had as much success bringing the horror genre to the mainstream than John Carpenter, and not only is Halloween a masterpiece, the case can be made that it created the formula for slasher films as we still know it.
On Halloween night, six year old Michael Myers stabs his sister to death. He spends the next fifteen years in a psychiatric ward before escaping and returning to his hometown of Haddonfield to murder again. Teen Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), along with her two friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles), spend their Halloween night babysitting. Unfortunately, they are all near the house where Michael killed his sister, and Michael is now roaming this same street looking for young blood. Simultaneously, Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), has also come to Haddonfield and with the help of the town sheriff seeks to stop Michael before bad things happen.
Probably the most iconic villain in the history of horror, Michael Myers is described by Loomis as “pure evil.” It’s interesting to see how the film contrasts the innocence of the Halloween season with the cold realism of evil personified. Jack-o-lanterns frequently appear in the background of each scene. Children are frequently seen trick or treating in full costumes. Laurie is even stuck babysitting little Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), who frequently asks if the Boogeyman is real. These images portray the more naïve aspect of the season, but Michael Myers takes the physical embodiment of essentially whatever true fear you have. There are a lot of things he can do that seem implausible. Despite being imprisoned since he was a child, he’s able to drive a car perfectly. Not once does he run in the movie, yet he’s able to catch up to his victims quite easily, or enter out of seemingly impossible places. He has no face (for the most part, it’s concealed with a white mask). He stalks you and doesn’t stop until he catches you. And once you’re in his grasp, he shows no mercy. Halloween is a time where we dress up in scary costumes and celebrate our fears. We allow ourselves to have fun by getting scared. Now we even have theme parks to provide us with this thrill. Carpenter gives us both the fun thrill ride of being scared but also allows his audience to see their deepest fears embodied in the character of Michael Myers.
Modern day audiences can be forgiven for not seeing the great aspects of this film. After all, we’ve all seen one too many horror films where the killers spends copious amounts of screen time watching their victims. It’s easy for us to collectively groan at the stupidity of characters not realizing that there is a killer standing in front of them, or going down a dark hallway to investigate a strange noise. We also know that the virtuous, abstinent girl will most likely survive to the end. This was not the case back in 1978.
Carpenter masterfully expanded Alfred Hitchcock’s ideas on creating fear in his audience. Hitchcock once used an example of a bomb explosion on how to build suspense. If a film were to establish that a bomb is under a table and then two characters sit at that table and talk for fifteen minutes, the film is providing the audience with fifteen minutes of suspense. This creates anxiety because the characters don’t know what is about to happen but the audience does. Contrast this with the bomb just going off without it being established prior to the characters sitting down; here, the film has just created a surprise. This method of building suspense is prevalent throughout the entire film.
With key shots, Carpenter skillfully uses darkness to conceal information. Other shots fool us into accepting that what is in the frame is what is in the overall space of the scene. But then he will pan over to reveal something unexpectedly looming in the foreground or the background, thereby playing with our expectations. When Carpenter holds on a character walking away from the screen, and then part of Michael Myers walks into the frame staring at the character’s back, tension between protagonist and antagonist was built in a way that had never been seen before. Take a scene where Michael Myers enters a girl’s room covered in a bed sheet. The girl mistakes Michael Myers for her boyfriend, but we just saw in the previous scene Myers kill her boyfriend. We know something that this character doesn’t. In trying to escape the killer, a character may try to run out of the house, but with the door locked, she has nowhere else to go but upstairs or in the closet. These scenes are tense and frightening and work extremely well.
I’m not going to lie and say that you won’t be able to figure out exactly how this film will play out, especially if you’re watching it for the first time. You may even laugh at certain shots where Laurie looks out a window and sees Michael Myers blatantly staring at her from the outside. But try to put yourself in the position of someone at a time when these elements were not clichés because they had never been presented to you in this way before. Carpenter developed a genuinely innovative craft to create fear, from the eerie musical score to the drawn out periods of dead silence.
I admire the film even more in the sense that it’s been 36 years since this film has been released and yet filmmakers still can’t find new ways to generate suspense. It’s a testament to the film’s influence that countless slasher films have imitated almost every aspect of this film to the point where we can now laugh at when we see them appear. It’s even more to the film’s credit that despite the thousands of imitators, Halloween does it better. John Carpenter has created one of the greatest horror films of all time, not to mention the first and still the best slasher film ever made.