“More than once during the movie I looked around just to make sure that no one weird was sitting behind me.”
– from Gene Siskel’s 1978 review on “Halloween”
When I watched John Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the first time in 2003, it was surely one of the most suspenseful horror films as I heard, and I still remember holding my breath during one particular moment which is a classic example of the suspense once defined by Alfred Hitchcock. We see the danger itself walking toward our heroine step by step, and the movie clearly shows that she will be killed if she cannot escape in time through the door which is unfortunately locked at that very moment. She still has a chance to survive at least, but the time is short, and it is running out second by second as she watched in horror a murderous entity approaching to…
I felt my body tightened as before during that scene in 2009, and I felt the same dread again when I revisited the movie early in this week. Although it has been 35 years since it was made, “Halloween” remains as a superlative horror masterwork armed with the skill and power to touch upon our deepest fear, and it deserves its own place right below Hitchcock’s “Psycho”(1960) as one of the rightful successors. Like “Psycho” and many other classic shockers, the movie knows well the value of mood and suspense as the backdrop for shocks to come, and the repeated viewing will induce more admiration toward its skills and techniques after the initial shock from the first viewing.
Its premise is so simple that it is more or less than the description of its whole plot. The opening sequence, which was shot by a handheld camera functioning as the view of a deranged murderer, jolts us with a terrible murder shown in front of us and then shocks us with his identity revealed in the end. After 15 years, he escapes from the mental institution at the very moment when his watchful psychiatrist arrives at the facility for another routine evaluation ordered by court, and Dr. Sam Loomis(Donald Pleasence) is quite certain that his homicidal patient is returning to his hometown: Haddonfield, Illinois.
We have encountered many variations of this familiar premise in countless films featuring mad killer driven to kill anyone in his sight, but “Halloween” is a far more absorbing experience. After setting its ominous tone to signify that something bad is about to happen sooner or later, it subtly handles its suspense level below the screen as establishing its characters amid the mundane daily rhythm of their comfortable and peaceful environment. During its first half, it feels just like your average Halloween day for every resident of Haddonfield, and Laurie Strode(Jamie Lee Curtis) and her high school friends are going to spend their Halloween night as babysitters. Their night will be a little less boring thanks to horror films shown on TV, and some of them plan to have a more fun night once kids are asleep.
Well, we already know that this night will be far less boring than they have ever imagined, and the movie skillfully plays with our expectation as it places many little but ominous signs here and there around its widescreen. As the camera slightly moves its viewpoint, we notice odd or weird things appearing in or out of the characters’ views, and Laurie also vaguely feels something is not quite right even though she cannot exactly discern what it is. She surely feels anxious when noticing a mysterious figure who keeps appearing in her sight and then disappearing in the next second, but everything around her looks fine and usual – except the occasional appearances of the creepy synthesizer score composed by John Carpenter on the soundtrack.
Halloween night finally begins, and we are more conscious of the unknown danger hovering around Laurie’s neighbourhood as it gets dark. While that ominous figure, who has been one of the most popular characters in the horror genre since the movie was released, is merely named “The Shape” in the end credit, the movie gives a little more information on him including his name through Dr. Loomis, who fortunately, or unfortunately, finds that his intuition was correct not long after he arrived in the town. According to him, his patient is simply an unstoppable evil force of nature as relentless as, say, the shark in “Jaws”(1975), and Donald Pleasence, who would be forever associated with his role in this film and its subsequent unnecessary sequels, is especially good during the scene where Dr. Loomis calmly talks about his patient’s diabolical nature observed by him for many years. Even when he savagely stabbed his elder sister for no apparent reason, he already showed the alarming signs of a merciless psychopathic killer who knows no compassion or morality, and he is certainly far more dangerous than ever as an evil monster on the loose. He is as remorseless as ever, and there is a chilling moment when he seems to look at his latest victim with detached wonder/curiosity right after killing him.
While it becomes more apparent that he is preying on Laurie and her friends outside, the movie keeps building suspense and dread on its situation instead of hurrying itself, and the director/co-writer John Carpenter masterfully manipulates our reactions through effective thriller devices including several good false alarms, which are placed well around the plot to maintain the tension or relax us a bit for a while. The movie is not entirely devoid of warmth and humor, and Laurie and her friends come to us as likable young girls rather than cardboard characters to be eliminated, and the interactions between Laurie and the kids to be babysit by her are depicted with natural intimacy.
The movie eventually pulls out all the stops for its last 20 minutes, and we cannot help but be gripped by the terrifying execution of its climax scenes. Despite being less bloody and less violent compared to other well-known slasher horror films, its scary moments are still quite effective even after 35 years thanks to Carpenter’s taut direction, and we become more frightened than before as our heroine suddenly realizes that she is facing a grave danger she may not escape from.
While Laurie’s perilous situation is a textbook case of ‘woman in danger’, Carpenter and his co-writer Debra Hill gives us a sensible heroine we can care about, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who got a career breakthrough with this film, gives a humble performance which nicely fits with her ordinary character and the mundane environment. Like anyone would in her situation, Laurie is terrified when her world is turned upside down by the sudden invasion of abnormality, but she tries her best to deal with it, and one of the surprises in the film is how she turns out to be more resourceful than we expected as she rises to the occasion in front of the unfathomable evil. When she sees a possible chance to turn the table in the nick of the time, this smart girl quickly grabs it and then uses it to full extent, and that is enough to make her a lot different from those boring and colorless characters in Dead Teenager movies. After appearing in other horror films including “Halloween II”(1981), Curtis moved to better things including “A Fish Called Wanda”(1988), but, like Pleasence, she has always been associated with “Halloween” although it is actually a minor performance if you look over her fruitful acting career.
This was John Carpenter’s third film, and, sadly, he has never attained the same level of success during the rest of his illustrious career while establishing himself as a distinctive talent of the minor league in Hollywood. “Halloween” is certainly the pinnacle of his directing career, but he has also had lots of fun while going around various genres including SF, horror, thriller, and action. While he stroke us with a sticky claustrophobic fun in “The Thing”(1982), he surprised us with an exceptionally gentle SF drama “Starman”(1984), and then he went for naughty B-movie sensibility in the amusing but flawed films like “Big Trouble in Little China”(1986).
Carpenter also composed the scores for his films at times, and his unforgettable score for “Halloween” has solidified its own classic status along with the movie. It mainly consists of simple repeating rhythms expressed by elementary instrumentation, but the unnerving mood it creates on the screen is undeniable to say the least, and we always get nervous whenever it is played to suggest the evil lurking at corners.
After its enormous box office success(as an independent film, it costed only $320,000, and then it grossed over $65 million during its initial theatrical release), “Halloween” virtually initiated slasher film genre which is mainly represented by its sequels and other cheap slasher horror films including those infamous Friday the 13th movies. Unfortunately for us, none of them has succeeded in reaching to the sheer intensity exemplified in “Halloween” – and many of them were quite bad enough to be forgotten into obscurity while their well-crafted senior has remained on the top of the scale as usual.
I must say I was sunken to despair and frustration many times as watching these crappy slasher films mindlessly and monotonously bludgeoning us with shocking violence and gory details, and that is why my appreciation on the mastery of shock and suspense in “Halloween” has been growing with repeated viewing. A good shock always requires the considerable amount of suspense before it arrives on the screen, and I can assure you that “Halloween” is amply packed with such good moments to remind you of that lesson during many Halloween nights to come.