‘John Carpenter’s Halloween’ still haunts decades later

Hollywood Soapbox logoJohn Carpenter offered the world arguably the best horror movie with his late-1970s masterpiece Halloween. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles and Donald Pleasence, the seminal horror film created many of the genre conventions that have become cliche today. But when Carpenter utilized them in his movie, they came off as fresh and frightening.

Laurie Strode (Curtis) is a typical American teenager living in a typical American town. She’s shy around boys and hangs out with girls (Soles and Nancy Kyes) who enjoy smoking, sex and boozing. Laurie prefers staying in for the night, babysitting for a local family and living her girlfriends’ lives vicariously.

This bucolic environment is disrupted when Michael Myers (Tony Moran) escapes from an institution and begins wreaking havoc on his hometown. The backstory, which is presented in the first few minutes of Halloween, shows a young Michael killing his older sister on Halloween night. Rather than properly babysitting him, the older sister heads upstairs to fool around with her boyfriend. This leaves Michael to grab a knife (his token weapon) and take matters into his own devilish hands.

Now Michael, all grown up, is on the loose and looking for his next victim. The only one who sees the pending danger is Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleasence), the man who treated Michael and understands the patient’s violent tendencies.

The film is a classic battle between the monster lurking in the shadows and the innocent girl who needs to become a proper heroine to survive. Halloween was one of the first horror films to have a central female figure battle the bad guy until the bitter end. Curtis, who went on to great fame in Hollywood, created the stereotype so often repeated in the genre (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street and on and on). The slow-walking masked man, another genre convention, has repeated itself time and time again.

Halloween itself has spawned numerous sub-par sequels (although Halloween II is worth experiencing). Carpenter, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Debra Hill, keeps it effective by keeping it simple. The film runs a quick 90 minutes and features little complication. There’s a bad guy and a nice girl; the two meet on Halloween night. That’s it. There are victims along the way, but the movie is still a simple showdown between Michael and Laurie.

Of the many components of the film, the theme song is the most memorable. Much like Suspiria’s iconic music, Halloween uses a few simple chords to heighten the drama surrounding the Michael character. Besides the music, there’s a wonderful graininess to the film that adds to the atmosphere. Carpenter, in subtle ways, is able to use light to great effect. Whether it’s showing the murderer in the daylight, which is a little out of step for horror films, or having Laurie peer through the closet door at the intruder in the bedroom, the director is in control of his characters and his unique look for the film.

Halloween is one of my favorite horror films and always seems to compete for the top spot. It may not scare as much as when I was younger, but there’s a solid eeriness that still persists. This one is a classic.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • John Carpenter’s Halloween

  • 1978

  • Directed by John Carpenter

  • Written by Carpenter and Debra Hill

  • Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Kyes and Tony Moran

  • Running time: 90 minutes

  • Rated R

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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