“Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.” – Dr Sam Loomis
Let's go back to 1981, specifically a Tuesday night in early February. It was a game changer. Up to then, I was firmly a fan of the Universal Pictures films of the thirties and forties and Hammer and Amicus movies of the sixties and seventies. I really didn’t care much for stuff like possession movies, hadn’t seen The Exorcist, home video had yet to really explode and impact the way I approached my then pastime of watching films. (Home video would become a major force in my life the following year and ultimately films would become a lifestyle)
I had seen a review of Halloween some time earlier in an issue of Starburst (back when I was regular reader and being one of their writers seemed an unattainable fantasy) but the only image of the film I had was of a girl on a bed with a tombstone at the headboard and a jack lantern beside her. I wasn’t really sure if it was “my kind of thing” as I settled down to watch its network TV premiere.
I had no idea what I was in for, no real idea of the plot, who John Carpenter was, nor how this film would change or rather expand my taste in horror.
It became instantly my favourite horror movie and has remained so, head, shoulders and kitchen knife above everything else. I had never seen anything like it back in ’81 – which, given its impact on the horror genre and the incredible number of imitators it spawned – practically a sub-genre of slasher movies (though I remember they were called “stalk’n’slash” back then).
Released theatrically in 1978, other than a Starburst review, it bypassed me completely until that TV showing in February. I don’t think it was a runaway success, but it has certainly become a celebrated cult movie with a devoted and adoring audience over the years. This was proven beyond a doubt when I attended the 40th anniversary one night only screening at the multiplex.
It was inevitable that the Pierce family would attend. But I wasn’t expecting a practically packed audience to see a horror movie that was released forty years ago. But there they all were. The audience laughed on cue for the well-remembered lines now seemingly cliched and perhaps cheesy. But the laughter was never mocking, it was the fond laughter of a shared experience in front of a movie we had all seen over and over and over during the past decades. We all gasped and fell silent and the same times as well. I haven’t been to an audience screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show where people gather to sing along and such, but I imagine that this evening was a more subdued but just as enthusiastic event as one of those.
As I’ve said, I’ve seen this film several times since that TV showing, (my best guess is somewhere around twenty times as a conservative estimate) I sourced a copy on VHS as soon as I was able to and screened it to a roomful of friends in the summer of 1983. I tried to upgrade my copy on VHS and bought Halloween 1 and 2 as a double feature tape which was a mistake. That particular edition was so damn dark you couldn’t see what was going on – no wonder it was cheap. DVD became a whole new experience and finally I could enjoy the film clearly, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it on the big screen with an audience.
Halloween may well seem cliched today because it contains all the slasher movie tropes which were widely imitated throughout the eighties. It seemed that every holiday had its own reason to spawn a maniac killer with a big knife. Halloween established THE slasher formula, successfully executed (pardon the pun) and parodied in the Scream franchise. There were ground rules to be obeyed – there had to be a collection of horny teenagers. These teenagers would fall victim to a mentally deranged killer on the loose. BUT – only the ones who were having sex or were about to would fall victim. The one virtuous “good” girl who abstained was usually the lone survivor at the end, who had to face the killer. Often, the killer had a link to that last would-be victim. The last girl would inevitably find the bodies of all her slain friends before almost falling victim herself. There was never a shortage of sharp instruments around what could be used to stab, slash or decapitate – and the last victim would always leave one beside the body of the killer whom she’d stabbed several times in a fury of self-defence. But of course, that killer was never truly dead and would pick up that knife again and again.
We’ve all probably seen those elements used over and over in these films, but this is where it truly started. But Halloween is notable for several other reasons in my mind. Take John carpenter’s music score for example – that menacing, throbbing, repetitive electronic beat, just a tad below shrill. It unnerves you. It gets right inside your head. You’re dreading something before it even happens. That music is psychologically effective. It evokes a chill down your spine.
Then, there’s the Steadicam. In common use today, we barely notice it. A camera mounted on a gyroscope so it appears to glide through the darkened rooms of the Myers house. You have a point of view of the as yet unseen killer, but your movements seem to float as you go upstairs and slaughter the girl at her dressing table before you make your way downstairs to escape. And as you are unmasked – what a shock THAT was as the perspective changes and you see that the murderer is actually a small child.
Fast forward from the 1963 prologue to the then present day of 1978, the eve of Halloween and that child, now an adult, escapes from the asylum as if triggered by a silent alarm in his head. All these years, he’s been unresponsive - until now. Now, he’s going home to finish what he started.
Following him is Dr Sam Loomis, his psychiatrist, who knows that the runaway lunatic Michael Myers is a silent calculating killing machine who is unstoppable – and has locked on to his target. The novelisation of the film explains how Myers is possessed by a spirit of pure evil that has been around for centuries.
One of the great unanswered questions in films is the speech by the graveyard caretaker who taked Loomis to the grave of Judith Myers, the girl who was killed in 1963. He says…
“Yeah, you know every town has something like this happen... I remember over in Russellville, old Charlie Bowles, about fifteen years ago... One night, he finished dinner, and he excused himself from the table. He went out to the garage, and got himself a hacksaw. Then he went back into the house, kissed his wife and his two children goodbye, and then he proceeded to...”
And then they discover the gravestone has been taken. What the hell did Charlie Bowles do?
What’s the connection between Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)? IS there a connection? Is it random? We’d have to wait until the sequel for our answer.
But for sheer menace, watch the film closely – it’s bewildering how often Myers is in the scene, whether following in a car, or standing quietly at a window, watching. You don’t realise he’s been there all the time until he moves. His casual walk when Laurie is running across the street screaming for her life, pleading for help from the neighbours who ignore her. He doesn’t hurry.
Such a simple, yet disturbing concept, so well realised on film by John Carpenter. No wonder watching it has become a loved annual tradition. It’s a masterpiece.
The only way the screening could have been improved of course would be to actually screen it on Halloween night. But with a new Halloween movie on release shortly before Oct 31, it would be both confusing and impractical – besides, Cineworld have their plan for another very special “event” screening that night – we already have our tickets for a one night only showing of the original Evil Dead.
Best build up to All Hallows Eve EVER.
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