#626) Halloween (1978)

#626) Halloween (1978)

OR “Life with Mikey”

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Carpenter & Debra Hill

Class of 2006 

The Plot: On Halloween 1963, Michael Myers (Nick Castle, among others) murders his sister Judith (Sandy Johnson) and is immediately institutionalized. 15 years later, his psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) – planning to petition that Michael receive a lifetime sentence – discovers that Michael has escaped. Michael returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, and begins stalking high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends Annie and Lynda (Nancy Kyes and P. J. Soles). Laurie and Annie spend Halloween babysitting two neighborhood kids (Kyle Richards and Brian Andrews), giving Michael the perfect opportunity to continue his killing spree. And from these humble beginnings comes one of the longest running and most lucrative horror franchises of all time.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “uniquely artistic, frightening and a horror film keystone”, praising the film’s “chilling tension” and “haunting piano score”. There’s also an all-encompassing essay by John Carpenter expert Murray Leeder.

But Does It Really?: As I’ve previously stated on this blog, I don’t do horror movies, mainly due to the excessive violence (also because I’m big ol’ scaredy cat). “Halloween” – however – is an exception, keeping the gore to a minimum while still producing an effectively scary movie. John Carpenter creates a straight-forward horror movie that proves low-budget doesn’t have to mean low-quality, with Jamie Lee Curtis delivering an unexpected star-making performance. Even after countless imitators, “Halloween” remains a fresh 90-minute adrenaline rush, with a legacy that ensures its standing as a Halloween standard for years to come.

Shout Outs: The characters Sam Loomis and Marion Chambers derive their names from characters in “Psycho“. Lindsey and Tommy are seen watching “Forbidden Planet” and “The Thing from Another World“, the latter being a bit of foreshadowing to Carpenter’s filmography.

Everybody Gets One: A movie lover since childhood, John Carpenter dropped out of USC after one semester to start making his own films. His second feature, the action thriller “Assault on Precinct 13, caught the attention of producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who commissioned Carpenter and his collaborative partner/then-girlfriend Debra Hill to make a movie based on the concept of a man who stalks and kills babysitters. Carpenter agreed on the condition of creative control and a cut of the profits. Elaborating on an idea from a proposed “Black Christmas” sequel, Carpenter and Hill wrote the screenplay for “Halloween” in 10 days.

Wow, That’s Dated: An unfortunate sign of the world I grew up in: It always surprises me in movies when neighborhoods have unlocked doors and no security systems. I suspect if Nextdoor had existed in 1978, this movie would have been over in five minutes.

Other notes 

  • “Halloween” was filmed in four weeks in May 1978 on a budget of $300,000 (most of which went to the cameras). Fake leaves were used to make southern California look like Illinois, and cast members often helped the crew haul equipment. Easily the film’s most iconic cost-cutting, the famous Michael Myers mask was a Captain Kirk mask purchased at a costume shop for $1.98; spray-painted white, with alterations made to its hairline and eye holes.
  • The opening prologue is scary, especially because the continuous POV shot forces us to see the viewpoint of – and potentially empathize with – the killer. That being said, the whole sequence is filmed essentially in the style of one of those old SNL “Continental” sketches, and now I just want a glass of cham-pon-ya.
  • This is Jamie Lee Curtis’ film debut! Unsurprising for the child of two movie stars, Curtis is giving a very confident performance, and already has her indefinable star quality fully intact. Fun Fact: At age 19, Curtis was the only actual teenager in the cast; PJ Soles and Nancy Kyes were, respectively, 28 and 29!
  • At this point in his career Donald Pleasence had already been making movies for 25 years, including “The Great Escape” and “You Only Live Twice”. Pleasence agreed to appear in the low-budget “Halloween” because his daughter Lucy was a fan of “Assault on Precinct 13” (that and, by his own admission, he had alimony to pay). To Pleasence’s credit, he does not phone this movie in, adding a bit of humanity and credibility to the proceedings. You can also sense that Pleasence wasn’t around for a long time, filming his entire role in five days.
  • True to Carpenter’s low-budget beginnings, several of the shorter scenes (especially the ones involving Pleasence) are in one uncut take. He even manages to time one to coincide with a passing train! Well done.
  • Carpenter et al do an excellent job of setting up the mystery of Michael Myers. With his chronic disappearing/reappearing in shots and Carpenter’s strong piano score, you become conditioned to expect Michael to show up at any moment, keeping you alert the entire runtime.
  • This movie is doing something right, because throughout I caught myself yelling back at it such horror movie standbys as “Don’t go in there!” and “He’s right behind you!”
  • In addition to her star quality, Jamie Lee Curtis is also great with kids. Always a good skill to have when endearing yourself to an audience.
  • One of my biggest problems with “Halloween” is potentially not its fault. I spent a lot of time grousing that no one in the movie thinks to turn on a light when Michael is around, with characters constantly stumbling around in the dark for no good reason. Apparently, the production’s tight budget didn’t allow for additional lighting, hence the constant darkness. I say apparently because the only source I could find this information on was the IMDb trivia page, and several clickbaity “Top ‘Halloween’ Trivia You Didn’t Know That We Definitely Didn’t Just Copy From the IMDb Trivia Page” articles.
  • Also dated: Laurie calling her friends “meatheads” when she thinks they are pranking her. Somewhere Carroll O’Connor is smiling.
  • The other great thing about this movie: nothing is explained. We never learn why Michael Myers is the way he is or why he is targeting these specific teens, nor do we ever learn what makes him seemingly indestructible or how he managed to escape. This mystery of course would be inevitably diluted in the sequels, but if you’re like me and haven’t seen any of the other “Halloween” movies, the vagary is wonderful.

Legacy 

  • “Halloween” opened October 1978 in four theaters in Kansas City before getting wider distribution in time for Halloween. Although critics were initially dismissive, positive audience word of mouth kept the film going. “Halloween” ultimately earned 70 million dollars, making it the most successful independent film up to that time.
  • Of course, “Halloween” is responsible for the “slasher film” subgenre that permeated the 1980s, amplifying this movie’s scariness, violence and overall horniness, ultimately devolving into pure misogyny. Among the tropes popularized by “Halloween” is the “Final girl” cliché, in which the female lead is the lone survivor and must face the killer alone in the climax. The “slasher film” subgenre includes “Friday the 13th“, “Final Destination” and fellow NFR entry “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
  • John Carpenter’s career kicked into high gear thanks to “Halloween”. His immediate follow-ups included “The Fog”, “Escape from New York”, and the previously-alluded to “The Thing”.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis continued her film career with a series of horror movies, earning her the moniker “The Scream Queen”. Thankfully, Curtis has stuck around long enough to show off her talents in such varied films as “A Fish Called Wanda”, “Freaky Friday”, “Knives Out”, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.
  • The “Halloween” franchise currently has 13 films in it, and has more reboots and retconning than any other major franchise. Stay with me: “Halloween II” is an immediate follow-up, “III” is an anthology film with no connection to any of the other movies, 4, 5 & 6 (“Return” “Revenge” and “Curse of Michael Myers”) follow the first two films and feature Donald Pleasence in his final film roles. “H2O” and “Resurrection” negate everything except 1 & 2, and saw Jamie Lee Curtis reprise Laurie for the first time in 17 years. “Halloween” (2007) and “Halloween II” (2009) are remakes of the originals with their own continuity. And finally: the latest trilogy – “Halloween” (2018), “Kills” and “Ends” are direct sequels to the first movie, disregarding everything else.
  • In addition to the films, the aforementioned Leeder essay mentions its countless other spinoffs including “novels and comic books and masks and memorabilia, plus a legendarily terrible 1983 video game.”
  • And finally: [Insert your own “Michael Myers/Mike Myers” joke here. Something something “Yeah, baby!” something.]

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