Halloween Night 1963, six year old Michael Myers watches his sister making out with her boyfriend then later stabs her to death as she sits topless brushing her hair.
Watching it now it seems incredible how in just a few minutes director John Carpenter (Dark Star, Prince of Darkness) and his co-writer Debra Hill (The Fog, Escape From L.A.) laid out so many elements that were to become staples of the slasher film. The many years prior prologue, the prowling camera showing us the events from the killer’s POV, the mask, and the connection between sex, nudity, and death.
Of course, when it premiered on October 24, 1978, in Kansas City, Missouri nobody realized they were seeing a new genre being defined. But by the time its regional market by market release brought it my way the magazines, this before the internet when you waited weeks or months for news, were all buzzing about it.
On its surface, there really wasn’t anything to suggest Halloween would be as successful or influential as it was. The plot was extremely simple, after escaping from the asylum Michael (Nick Castle, The Boy Who Could Fly, Halloween Ends) stalks Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, Terror Train, Trading Places) and her friends Annie (Nancy Loomis, Halloween II, Assault on Precinct 13) and Lynda (P.J. Soles, The Devil’s Rejects, Hanukkah). As he does Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasence, You Only Live Twice, Phenomena) and Annie’s father Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers, Grizzly II: The Revenge, Hunter’s Blood) frantically try to catch him. Can Laurie keep herself and the kids she’s sitting alive until they do?
Halloween may not have been the first film to have a “final girl” but once again it helped define who would survive, or at least make it to the end, of these films. The wholesome, “good girl” of course. It had to be her because everyone who had sex, drank, or did drugs were dead. Laurie does take a hit off a joint, but from the way she coughs afterward, it was probably the only time she has. That rather archaic morality was annoying, but unfortunately, it stuck.
So what was it that made Halloween resonate so strongly with audiences? Craftsmanship. Carpenter and Hill wrote a tight script that fleshed out its leads enough to make the viewer care about them and keep the everyday scenes between them from being dull. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey (Without Warning, Jurassic Park) then created a sense that Michael could be anywhere. He appears and disappears like a ghost during the day, at night under the cover of darkness he could be anywhere waiting to strike.
One thing Halloween does lack is the gore that came to be associated with slasher films. It wouldn’t be until 1980 when Friday the 13th would set in motion the competition to see who could get the bloodiest deaths and most outrageous effects on the screen. That would quickly split the genre into films that were sliced up worse than their characters to get an “R” rating and unrated films such as Nightmare and Maniac.
Despite that, the kill scenes are set up and shot with enough skill that they still deliver tension and the kind of shock that will indeed make you jump. The filmmakers also get that reaction from shots like Annie’s dead body lying on a bed illuminated by Jack O’Lanterns and Judith Myers’ gravestone by her head. Unlike in later films, here Carpenter doesn’t need gore and effects to shock an audience.
Halloween is frequently credited as the first slasher, and as I mentioned, it certainly introduced or at least popularized, many of its core elements. Certainly, there were plenty of mass killer films before it, from Color Me Blood Red to Black Christmas and more than one giallo. Arguments can be made for enough of them that there may never be a definitive answer. It may be fairer to say that Halloween is the film that brought the elements together.
It’s ironic that the film that brought those elements together would see itself split into so many different and divergent timelines, plotlines, reboots, and remakes. But no matter what happens to it, there’s no denying the power of the original film.
Halloween is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and multiple Digital Platforms.