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Review: “Halloween” (1978)

Director: John Carpenter
Produced by: Debra Hill, John Carpenter, Kool Lusby, Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad
Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis
Music by: John Carpenter
Year: 1978

 

The original Halloween was a low budget affair. Extras were barely paid and culled from those who were already living on site in South Pasadena, California. The actors themselves were receiving significantly lower paychecks compared to what they could have made in some other production.

Despite being a fairly well-known actress today, Jamie Lee Curtis was a young, relatively unknown TV actress when this movie was made, best known possibly for being the daughter of Psycho scream queen Janet Leigh and Some Like it Hot icon Tony Curtis. Naturally, this meant a significantly smaller paycheck than what she’d get in just a few years’ time. The prolific Donald Pleasence, a name I had known but needed to look up, was the best known actor in the film at the time, known for his roles on TV and his role as the first Ernst Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, but even he had to take on a significant pay cut compared to his usual for his role as Dr. Loomis in this film.

However, Halloween, though certainly not the first slasher film, was possibly the most influential of its kind, and arguably was the first to really abide by the many famous rules for surviving these kinds of films. As Randy of the Scream franchise would point out, in order to survive a slasher film of this type, one must 1) never have sex. 2) As an extension of the first rule, you should never drink or do any illicit drugs. The sin factor and all. Finally, 3) never say “I’ll be right back,” or any variation of the phrase. Break all the rules, especially in combinations, as many of the characters here do, and you’re likely doomed.

In his own review of the film, Roger Ebert simply emphasized how scary the movie was for fear of spoiling anything in it. Maybe, for its time, it was, but it’s hard to say that it’s truly terrifying any more, at least for me. Unfortunately, I’m viewing it from a perspective that has been spoiled by other movies I consider a lot scarier. It’s possibly the same reason I didn’t really care for the first A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, two films that, no matter their differences and similarities, owe a great deal of gratitude to this film for setting in motion the slasher genre that caught fire from 1978 onward and led to their creation.

But let’s not reduce the film to its basic tropes and scares. I was scolded severely for my review of A Nightmare on Elm Street for reducing that film in a similar manner, and while my opinion of that film still stands, I’m going to try not to do that to this film. Of course, I also believe Halloween is a much stronger film than most of the other slasher films I’ve reviewed. So…

The film starts out from a first person perspective. A looming, masked figure peers in on a babysitter with her boyfriend. They flirt with each other on the couch as our host to this private peepshow moves around the house. Before long, they decide to head upstairs, and the figure goes in after them. The boyfriend leaves, the figure slips upstairs and into the naked girl’s room. She turns around and screams – “Michael!” A knife plunges inward, over and over, and before long, the screaming stops. We move downstairs and to an arriving car, as an older gentleman and his wife rush out. They confront the figure, and, as the camera pulls out, we realize we’ve been following a young boy. Michael Myers, just six years old and already bloodthirsty, has just killed his teenage sister.

The film jumps forward fifteen years, and we are introduced to Laurie Strode (Curtis), a diligent student who is planning on spending her Halloween night babysitting a young boy, Tommy, who, unlike most of the other kids in his neighborhood, isn’t heading out to trick or treat. Laurie and Tommy spend their night indoors watching scary movies that night while her friends plan to spend their nights with their boyfriends. Little do they know, Michael, having spent the past fifteen years silent in an asylum for the criminally insane, has already escaped and is on the prowl, with his psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Pleasence), on his tail.

Many have interpreted the film as being unkind towards the girls who are putting out, rewarding Laurie for her diligence and chastity. Others have criticized it for its seemingly anti-feminist message, punishing the girls for their freedoms. That’s one way of looking at it, of course, and, all interpretations being valid, one way of understanding it.

However, director John Carpenter (Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing) didn’t really intend for this. Instead, he envisioned a film where Laurie was herself tortured for her own self-imposed barriers, and, when confronted with an uninhibited and unknown threat, she begins to let out her own repressed energy on this figure — a figure she doesn’t understand and cannot see the true form of due to the featureless mask he wears, but one she still fears. Throughout the film, she fixates on this stalking figure (literally credited at the end as “The Shape”), is psychologically surrounded by him, and, finally, in the climax she takes suggestive stabs at him repeatedly, forcing the threat into submission and, ultimately, kept at bay once again.

Based on this interpretation, admittedly a bit more valid since it comes from the creator, Michael himself can be seen as symbolic of youthful lusts and inhibitions. Therefore, it could be said that Laurie’s friends, the other teens that he kills, all freely given into their temptations and sins, are destroyed by their own inhibitions. They hide their activities from their parents, shirk their responsibilities, and even Laurie herself is given into their activities when she joins her friend in smoking weed while driving around their seemingly peaceful (fictional) town of Haddonfield.

Ultimately, these sins catch up to them and destroy them. The film, it could be said, illustrates that, though giving in to your vices may not be too bad if it’s every now and then (especially if you’re a child and are being kept from trick or treating), if you’re too given in to them, you’re going to destroy yourself. In fact, that some scenes take place from Michael’s perspective seems to suggest that we are not merely the ones who are suffering, but also the ones causing the suffering of others. It’s a potent message for the generations that grew up in the drug-filled, sex-crazed youth culture so iconic of the 60s and 70s, the very crowd that no doubt filled the theatres at the time of this film’s release, and one that would no doubt go on to hold a great deal of significance to those living through the AIDS scare just a few years later, as well.

Of course, these messages still resonate today, and many more interpretations of the film’s themes will no doubt arise as time goes on. Perhaps, in this recession, Michael symbolizes money, Haddonfield the American dream, and Laurie the single mother who’s saving every 80 pennies per every male’s dollar that she earns, all the while repressing every urge to indulge just to keep herself and her kid alive.

As for the scare factor, I did say earlier in this review that it’s not nearly as scary as I would have expected, but I have to say, the film does create a good amount of tension through its restraint. It’s violent, but it isn’t especially gory or gratuitous. Blood doesn’t spurt out everywhere, and the imagery and reactions are kept realistic enough to keep everything nice and uneasy. In fact, Michael’s scenes within the first half of the film are merely of him voyeuristically driving about town, watching and stalking the residents throughout the day, which contributes to a lot more to the tension than if he had been on a killing spree from the start. We spend more time with the girls and the kids than we do with him, actually, and even when he’s on the prowl, our attention is on the protagonists. This makes sense since it is them who we have to sympathize with.

Aside from The Thing, I haven’t been too keen on Carpenter’s directing style (though I don’t hate him either). Nor have I really liked his musical scores, come to think of it, but even Halloween avoids this prejudice on my part, especially its instantly recognizable theme song, lingering over a grinning jack o’lantern during the film’s opening credits. Halloween is a much better film than I expected it to be, and definitely deserves the good reputation it has earned over the decades.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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