(John Carpenter, 1978)
(essay by Kevin)
Much like my dilemma with what to write about in regards to Alien here I am again faced with an even more canonized film; a film that has been written about ad nauseam to the point where anything I say in this essay is going to sound cliché. Halloween is considered one of the great horror films of all time, and it is considered the quintessential slasher film. It seems odd that for a countdown whose sole purpose was to bring awareness to little-seen horror films that my list would be topped by such an obvious choice. It’s true that we wanted this countdown to be unorthodox, but I don’t think for an instant that any of us – Robert, Jamie, and Troy – felt that we could omit the obvious choices from our list all in the name of esotericism. So what makes Halloween the greatest horror film of all time? Perhaps you have preconceived notions of what the slasher film can offer, but for me it epitomizes everything – good and bad (and boy was some of it atrociously bad) – about the horror genre post-1970’s. Every cliché and every trope found in modern horror can be traced back to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Yes, Carpenter cribbed most of his film from sources ranging from the obvious (the most cribbed man when it comes to terror: Hitchcock) to the unheralded (Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas), but never once does his film feel like a mere copycat, an aping of better material. No, Halloween, even today some 30 years later, still feels fresh and still gives me the chills.
What I love about Halloween really boils down to what can be ascertained from the three screencaps I’ve presented here. Let’s start with the image that sits above the main title of this post:
From the onset the film is an example of minimalism executed to perfection. The opening credits are just a few keys on the piano, a slow zoom on a jack-o-lantern against a black backdrop, and the title of the film; three simple things that equal, arguably, the most iconic and memorable opening credit sequence to any horror film. And it’s all so basic. It’s an opening that still triggers in my mind the terror I’m about to watch unfold in the next 90 minutes. Even for a horror buff as jaded as me I’m always amazed at how effective the minimalist components of Carpenter’s film are. Halloween is a film that still makes me clench my fists in anxiety, and the opening of the film, and the famous theme that accompanies it, triggers a Pavlovian response inside me that I need something to clutch onto for the next 90 minutes.
The next image is a perfect example of Carpenter taking the terror and placing it in broad daylight.
In the image above we see “The Shape” standing by the hedges. It’s a perfect use of the widescreen format – something that is rarely utilized in the horror genre – where we see the symbol for fear and terror at a distance, like a funhouse mechanism popping out of from behind something to give us a jolt. Like Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, Laurie, we’re unsure of what we see as this figure just kind of slides back behind the hedges. It’s as if Carpenter is telling us that death is waiting for us behind any corner; it also quite literally is Carpenter telling the viewer that “The Shape” is specter-like as one of Laurie’s friends investigates behind the hedges thinking that it’s a pervert who has been harassing Laurie. When she arrives and sees nobody there, Laurie is unconvinced that what she saw was a figment of her imagination. This can again be seen when Laurie is inside of her room and she looks out her window to once again see “The Shape” standing outside of her window by the clothesline. It’s a creepy scene that seems dreamlike with how quickly it comes and then goes. The jumpiness of “The Shape” coming in and out of the frame adds to the supernatural, Bogeyman-like attributes of Michael Myers. Here is something that personifies evil: “The Shape” just pops in and out of the frame, sometimes on the very edges of that frame, and seems to have no relation to time or space. One of the biggest clichés of the slasher subgenre is that the killer can stalk its victims at a slow pace, but always end up in front of wherever they’re running to. It made sense in the nightmares of Craven’s Elm Street films, but it certainly stuck out like a sore thumb in films like Friday the 13th; however, in Halloween it adds to the symbolism of “The Shape” as the personification of death; of something you cannot predict or stop. I love that Carpenter is willing to place a lot of his film in the day-lit suburbs of Anytown, USA; and I love that Carpenter is willing to keep “The Shape” lurking on the furthest edges of the screen, utilizing the widescreen format instead of rubbing our faces in it; and I love that Carpenter is willing to be so forthright about the otherworldliness of “The Shape”, and with the final shot we that Michael Myers is not meant to be seen as some normal “killer-on-the-loose” antagonist, but he’s meant to be seen as the evil that lurks in the safety of our suburbs and in the periphery of our lives.
The third image is similar to the second in that through a very quiet moment Carpenter is able to elicit great tension and terror. Laurie has just fought off “The Shape”, and stabbed him in the eye, causing him to fall over on the ground. Laurie rushes over to the children she is babysitting for and tells them to run to the neighbors and call the police. Exhausted, Laurie simply collapses in the hallway and lets the evening’s events wash over her. It’s a short, quiet moment in an otherwise unrelenting film. But what makes the moment so wonderful is the restraint that Carpenter shows in having his camera stay at a medium shot on Laurie so that we see enough of her to get the emotion from her, but so that we also see the body of Myers lying on the ground behind her. A simple pounding of a piano chord later and “The Shape” sits up and turns its head, looking at Laurie. Again, Carpenter keeps his great scare moments in the background or in the periphery, utilizing to great effect the widescreen format in giving us a horror film that isn’t gory or gratuitous, but unrelenting to the point of almost being unbearable on our nerves. I can imagine a slew of other filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example) wanting to get the camera so close to Laurie so that we could, you know, feel her terror, and then pulling back to reveal that Myers was indeed not dead (or Zombie’s recent Halloween pictures are a good example of undisciplined horror aesthetic). I think Carpenter’s tactic works a whole lot better at evoking a true Hitchcockian mood of unrelenting tension, and it’s just one of the reasons why I think Halloween is still the greatest horror film ever made.
Halloween is the best example of just what a slasher film can be, and as much as I don’t care for Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the two films – despite their wildly different approaches to the aesthetic of horror – share a lot in common: the one thing that still makes them stand apart from all of the slashers that followed is that they leave a lot to the imagination. There’s little bloodshed in either film (especially Hooper’s, which gets a bad reputation as gorefest merely because the word “Massacre” is in the title), and in Halloween almost everything is implied. Carpenter understands that true horror doesn’t derive from who can show the most realistic killings or who can be the bloodiest, but it comes from the simple things – the implied terror that is lurking in the peripheries of our life, and waiting for us in the dark. There is nothing scarier than what is left for us to imagine and what we can’t get away from, and Halloween is like a 90 minute nightmare (in a good, thrilling way) where you feel like you’re running away from the killer – from death – as fast as you can, but no matter how fast you run “it” is always behind you. It’s a masterpiece in horror filmmaking, and shows just how effective the slasher film can be.
(this film appeared on Kevin’s list at #1–obviously–, Robert’s at #27, and Troy’s at #7)