By the late 1970s the horror movie had reached one of its natural tipping points as the so-called ‘grindhouse’ style of earlier in the decade, the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left, had broken new, and extreme ground in the American branch of the genre and it was looking for a way into the mainstream.
Whether intentionally or not it was John Carpenter who found the right balance to start this with the seminal Halloween, a film that has been an integral part of my Halloween season for the best part of two decades and that was celebrating its 40th anniversary on the very day I slid my new Blu-ray edition into the player.
The story is probably pretty much known to everyone whether they know it or not as a serial killer stalks and slashes a group of teenagers, in this case babysitters, until a face off with the ‘last girl’. Meanwhile an expert on the killer tries to track him down only for all their paths to cross at the crucial climactic moment.
So much of this has become standard to so many films it might seem tired now but in 1978 this would have been (comparatively) fresh, though elements of it had been used before, but it was the way Carpenter delivered it that I think caused it have such great effect.
At only 91 minutes there isn’t any time for fluff so, as soon as the opening titles are out the way we meet Michael Myers through a tremendous extended point of view shot that sets up pretty much everything we need to know about him both in terms of story and style for the rest of the film.
We then jump ahead fifteen years and meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends and it soon becomes clear that, besides a little guilty puffed weed, Laurie is the innocent here and so (going by the rules later laid out so effectively in Scream) becomes the film’s lead.
While the film is a fast paced slasher film Carpenter manages to pack a lot in to get reactions from a broad audience, a bit like the best Disney films just coming from a rather different angle.
From spooky suggestions of the boogeyman to creep out those sneaking in under the films age limit, to the predominant metaphor for puberty and its inherent ‘dangers’ in the eyes of middle America, highlighted by Laurie and her friends, to a nice stroke of the Hammer-esque supernatural to appeal to older viewers brought in by Donald Pleasance as Dr Loomis, Halloween has to be one of the most broadly appealing horrors of all time.
And then there’s something that is always key in Carpenter’s work and that he uses here to really up the tension and suspense in tremendous style, the music.
While relatively simple in many ways as soon as his trademark synthesiser sounds kick in we know Michael is present. As the film goes on this has a Pavlov’s dog effect so when the music appears a sense of creeping dread comes with it, whether we consciously notice it or not.
Ok so I’m probably gushing as this is one of my favourite films, but there are a few things that, to a modern audience, might be problematic about Halloween.
Most obvious is the distinct lack of gore, compared to not just current horror but even its contemporaries. Halloween is, surprisingly, virtually free of the red stuff and certainly nothing more than that, added to which the ‘kill count’ is surprisingly low and takes quite a while to begin. For me this is all in the film’s favour though as its tension and suspense that make it as good as it is.
On top of this, and supposedly addressed in the 2018 sequel as well as played upon in the post-modern likes of Scream, is the film’s gender politics. Even though we have a female heroine, if it weren’t for the older male doctor she would have ended up as dead as her friends and she does, in the end, descend into being a fairly simplistic ‘scream queen’ which watching the film now is slightly disappointing.
In all though, given not just its position in the history of horror cinema (a bit like Die Hard is to the modern action movie) but also its creation of tension and suspense and for creating an icon of cinema in Michael, Halloween remains a masterwork not just of genre cinema but of film in general.