#42 — Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
The influence of John Carpenter’s Halloween exacted a lot of damage to the horror genre, at least for those who valued a certain amount of imagination in such fare. Made for a miniscule budget–half of which went to the cameras so Carpenter could film in widescreen–the film wound up leveraging its limitations into strengths and becoming wildly profitable as it wound up as the highest-grossing independent film to date. Within two years, Friday the 13th would adapt the particulars of Carpenter’s storytelling and adapt them into crass formula. From then on, it was far more likely for a new horror film to be built around a franchise-ready villain picking off young people–oversexed teenagers, preferably–who were practically indistinguishable from one another. This could be traced back to Halloween, but the film is actually completely different from its miserable descendants. It’s alive with personality, verve and invention.
The film began as an idea, which I suppose is true of all films. In this instance, though, the original germ can be identified. Producer Irwin Yablans had the idea for a film called The Babysitter Murders, a title he turned over to Carpenter, then fresh from a modest success with the excellent Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter clearly knew his way around genre filmmaking, creating a story (with screenplay collaborator and producer Debra Hill) that indulged in all the comfy tropes of horror movies while slyly playing with them at the same time. The story was tightened up to accommodate the budget and another key change took place when Yablans realized that the title Halloween had never previously been used. Several days of murderous carnage now all took place on a single holiday night in a mundane suburban town.
The film begins with an extended point of view shot that introduces the story through the eyes of a killer, an already unsettling experience that is made even more shocking when the identity of the knife-wielding brute is revealed. Having firmly established that the film will ruthlessly push back against the expected, Carpenter is freed up to trigger the audience endlessly, edging his characters obliviously into danger and bringing in Donald Pleasence as an asylum doctor to gravelly gasp about how the escaped inmate bearing down on town has “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes.” The whole film is delightfully overheated, building up the sort of impossibly vast looming menace that a movie often can’t live up to when it actually arrives. Part of the accomplishment of Halloween is that the villain, when he does shuffle into frame, is actually as terrifying as has been promised, largely because of his silent relentlessness. It’s surely far better than the snarling wisecracks that would characterize similar antagonists in the years to follow.
Carpenter shoots the film beautifully, taking full advantage of the widescreen images he paid so much to have. It lends the film a paradoxical elegance. It might be a low-budget horror film about teenagers blithely strolling to early demises, but it looks like great care was taken all the way through the process. The teenagers feel intently real–the loose, endearing performances by Jamie Lee Curtis and P.J. Soles help immeasurably in this regard–which only enhances the intensity of their peril when it arrives. Carpenter may use a knowing tone as he deploys his tricks, but that doesn’t mean he’s invested in them any less. At this point, Carpenter clearly believed in the creative excitement that could be drawn out of any film story that presented itself to him. With Halloween, he showed the great pleasure that can come from turning that possibility into reality.