“I met [Michael Myers] fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, expressionless face, and the blackest of eyes. The devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.” - Dr. Sam Loomis
The newest chapter in the Halloween series of films opened in theaters earlier this month to critical acclaim and box-office success. Its story officially erased any and all sequels that came before and focused on a sixty-something Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who after being hunted and nearly killed by Michael Myers on Halloween night in 1978, has become an older, angrier, and tougher woman who has spent nearly her entire life training and preparing herself and her family for the day that Michael Myers were to ever come after her again. But to truly understand Laurie and to understand her story, you have to go back to when and how it all began: on October 25, 1978 when Halloween, directed and co-written by John Carpenter, opened in theaters forty years ago.
Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers, a six-year-old boy who inexplicably murdered his older sister, Judith, on Halloween night in 1963 by stabbing her to death in her bedroom. He then spends the next fifteen years locked away in a mental institution, treated by psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who eventually realizes that nothing can be said or done to help Michael because of the fact that he is without mercy or humanity and is just flat-out evil. As Michael is about to be transported from the mental institution to appear in court, he escapes by breaking out, setting the other patients loose and stealing the nearest car so that he can drive back to his hometown: Haddonfield, Illinois, where high-school student Laurie Strode (Curtis) and her two best friends, Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda Van der Klok (P.J. Soles), will have their Halloween night of babysitting, watching scary movies, and hanging out with their boyfriends, turned into a bloodbath in which Laurie must struggle to keep herself and the two young children she’s looking after alive, while Dr. Loomis does what he can to find Michael as he warns the local authorities to do everything possible to help find and stop him.
The creation of Halloween all started when Carpenter’s previous film Assault On Precinct 13 was viewed at the Milan Film Festival by film producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad. They were interested in doing a horror film about teenage girls being hunted by a psychotic killer, and so they decided to approach Carpenter. He agreed to the job as long as he was allowed to have creative control of the film and alongside producer/co-writer Debra Hill, the two of them wrote the screenplay for Halloween (which was originally titled The Babysitter Murders) in ten days.
The things that helped make Halloween so successful and influential, and have given so many people so many reasons to re-watch and discuss the film these last forty years, are deceptively simple, and also terrifying and effective in leaving audiences feeling unnerved. There’s the musical score composed by Carpenter, particularly its theme music, which uses only a few piano notes to instantly create an overwhelming feeling of dread that lets anyone know, whether they’re watching the film or just listening to the score on their headphones, that someone or something is coming to inflict harm. There’s the beautiful cinematography by Dean Cundey, which succeeds in making a suburb in California look like a suburb in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, and making every location we see onscreen, no matter how mundane and no matter whether it’s brightest day or blackest night, into a place where Michael Myers could be hiding and watching from a distance, ready to strike at any given moment.
And most importantly, there’s Michael Myers, a.k.a. The Shape (Nick Castle). Much like The Joker in The Dark Knight, we’re given little to no motivation or explanation as to why he is doing the things he does and killing nearly everyone in his path, nor are we given any reason to believe that there’s some semblance of humanity or morality lurking beneath the surface. He’s an evil and near-unstoppable force of nature in a modified Captain Kirk mask, unleashed on people who are unwilling and unprepared to handle him, and that is what gives Halloween much of its power.
The performances in Halloween are all solid and effective in making you like and care about the characters before they eventually end up crossing paths with The Shape himself.
Kyle Richards (yes, that Kyle Richards) and Brian Andrews play Tommy and Lindsey as a couple of kids who enjoy both Halloween night and each other’s company as they want nothing more than to eat popcorn and watch old horror movies, when they’re not trying to scare each other, get scared by bullying classmates about the existence of the Boogeyman, give their babysitters a hard time for getting stuck in a window while attempting to do laundry, or running for their lives when Michael Myers makes his presence felt as only he can.
Nancy Loomis as Annie is sarcastic (especially when talking to Laurie) and refuses to suffer any fools gladly (judging from how quickly she’s willing to confront Michael when Laurie points out that he’s hiding behind the bushes), but behind all of that is someone who does care about Laurie and hates seeing her spend all of her time alone and either studying or babysitting, hence her willingness to set her up with another classmate that Laurie has a crush on, whether Laurie agrees with her plan or not. P.J. Soles is totally memorable as Lynda, who couldn’t care less about her academic life (judging from the amount of textbooks she keeps leaving in her locker at school), comes off as a bit ditzy (her overusage of the word “Totally!” doesn’t help), and whose primary concerns are her cigarettes, her beer, and her boyfriend Bob (whose last name isn’t Belcher, as far as I know).
Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis provides the aforementioned quote at the beginning of this post, and it’s this belief he has about Michael Myers and what he’s truly capable of that has him both terrified of what he will do and determined to stop him before it’s too late. As part of horror-movie tradition, he’s both the spooky old man trying to warn everyone in town that they’re all going to die, as well as the town protector who is in way over his head, but refuses to let that prevent him from doing what’s right.
And finally, we come to Jamie Lee Curtis who made her feature-film debut in Halloween as Laurie Strode. When Carpenter was casting for the role of Laurie and met Curtis who was auditioning for the role, not only did she do an impressive job, but it didn’t take Carpenter long to realize that in casting a lead actress whose mother was none other than Janet Leigh from Psycho, he had pretty much struck gold in putting Halloween together and getting the film the attention it needed for box-office success.
Fiercely intelligent, unapologetically nerdy back when being considered a nerd was a bad thing, and refusing to indulge in self-pity about her friends having active social lives on Halloween night or any other night while she spends most of her free time babysitting kids like Tommy and Lindsey, Laurie (and Curtis herself) pretty much earned the title of “scream queen” when she discovers the corpses of her friends and runs for her life upon realizing that she’s being targeted by Michael Myers. And as much as she’s willing to run and scream and beg for help from neighbors who would rather ignore her pleas, Laurie refuses to let her fear overwhelm her and refuses to just roll over and die. Thanks to her ingenuity with any weapon she can use to defend herself (whether it’s a knitting needle, a wire hanger, or Michael’s own knife) and her determination to keep herself and Tommy and Lindsey alive, Laurie doesn’t make it easy whatsoever for Michael to come after her, and even before Dr. Loomis and his revolver come through with the last-minute save at film’s end, she does everything possible to make sure that Michael doesn’t walk away unscathed before giving in to tears upon the startling revelation that Tommy was right all along, and that the Boogeyman is real.
When Halloween first opened in theaters, it was performing incredibly well with audiences at the box office, and yet, many critics responded to the film like Shania Twain in letting people know that the film didn’t impress them much. And for a while, it seemed as if that reaction to the film amongst critics was going to remain permanent. But it was one review that convinced them (and moviegoers who were reluctant to go see Halloween for themselves) to give Halloween a closer look and realize that it was actually better than they were willing to give it credit for, and that it was deserving of their time and their money.
According to Jason Zinoman, who wrote Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror:
Some of the early reviews of Halloween described just another “woman in trouble” horror film. In a glib review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that the movie lacked rhythm and “may satisfy in a childish way that more sophisticated horror films do not.” But it didn’t take long for mainstream critics to catch on that this was a uniquely frightening movie made by a director in love with his craft. Roger Ebert singled it out on his popular television show At The Movies, arguing that it proved that horror films did not have to be immoral and crass.
A turning point was a rave review by Tom Allen of The Village Voice that called it “an instant schlock horror classic,” putting it alongside Psycho and Night Of The Living Dead. Allen was also insightful enough to distinguish that Carpenter, working with warm colors and sleek tracking shots, was breaking away from the “realistic school” of horror…Carpenter had made a new scary movie for a mass audience. It was the beginning of an artistic trend, and the end of a business model.
The success of Halloween among both critics and audiences caused many movie studio executives to sit up and take notice. Despite experiencing previous success with big-budget prestige horror films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, they soon realized that there was just as much money to be made with low-budget exploitation horror films, even if some of them were of lower quality. And with that decision came plenty of low-budget horror movies opening at your friendly neighborhood movie theater (and of course, many of them were centered on a holiday), including Prom Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, April Fool’s Day, Silent Night Deadly Night, and of course…Friday The 13th.
The producers of Halloween had no intention of sitting on the sidelines during all of this, and immediately decided to make more sequels to Halloween, even though nearly all of them paled greatly in comparison to the original.
There was Halloween II, the one where it was revealed that Michael and Laurie are actually brother and sister…
Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, which was meant to close the book on the Loomis/Laurie/Michael Myers story and have Halloween become an anthology of different horror-themed stories…
Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, which brought Michael back to life to kill more pretty White kids with problems after the third film was an unfortunate box-office failure…
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, which had Michael broken out of jail by a machine gun-toting stranger who looked like Darkman…
Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, which revealed that Michael was actually connected to druids and…some other bullshit that I barely remember. All you need to know is that Paul Rudd is in it and he looks the same now as he did in this movie…
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, in which Laurie, after being in hiding for two decades, is found by Michael and finally decides to stop running and confront him once and for all…
Halloween: Resurrection, in which this film shits all over the ending of the last film by having Michael remain alive to kill Laurie and then get himself repeatedly karate-kicked by Busta Rhymes, who treats their entire scene like it’s his audition tape to play Sho’nuff in a remake of The Last Dragon…
And in 2007, Rob Zombie wrote and directed a remake of Halloween in which he gives Michael Myers a sympathetic origin story that he didn’t need and that most die-hard Halloween fans didn’t want, as well as a sequel to his remake.
Halloween also did amazing things for the career of John Carpenter, who went on to remain incredibly busy in the Eighties and early Nineties with films such as The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing (which was ravaged by critics and failed at the box office, only to find much greater success on home video and those same critics who hated it eating their words not too long after), Christine, Starman, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince Of Darkness, They Live, In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned, Escape From L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts Of Mars.
Debra Hill, who co-wrote Halloween with Carpenter and also produced it, went on to plenty of success as she started her own production company with Lynda Obst called Hill/Obst Productions and produced such films as The Dead Zone, Clue, Adventures In Babysitting, The Fisher King, Escape From L.A. (which she co-wrote with Carpenter and its star, Kurt Russell), and World Trade Center. She was honored with the Crystal Award by the Women In Film organization and continued to work until she died of cancer at the age of 54. After her death, Carpenter said this about working with Hill: “[It was] “one of the greatest experiences of my life - she had a passion for not just movies about women or women’s ideas but films for everybody”. In honor of Hill’s memory, the Producers Guild of America established The Debra Hill Fellowship in 2005. According to their website, it is “…to honor and extend Debra’s legacy, including her ardent support of such issues as producers’ creative rights, women in entertainment, and a variety of green and environmental initiatives, as well as her commitment to teaching and mentoring succeeding generations of producers…[and is] typically awarded annually to a man or woman completing an accredited graduate program in producing, and whose work, interests, professionalism and passion mirror that of Debra Hill.”
Halloween’s influence continues to be seen and felt in the horror movies of today, particularly Scream, which (unintentionally) established the three most important rules on how to survive a horror movie because of Laurie and her friends in Halloween, despite the fact that Carpenter and many other critics stated that Laurie’s survival due to her being a virgin and her friends being sexually active was ridiculous…
…as well as Trick ‘r Treat, which achieved greater success and popularity on DVD than in theaters, and was the anthology series that Carpenter had originally hoped for Halloween to become.
It also inspired this hottest of Hot Takes that I didn’t have the patience or willingness to read, so if anyone else feels like doing so, you’re more than welcome to it:
Forty years after its original release, Halloween continues to deservedly be seen as the stuff of legend, in that it’s not just one of the best horror movies ever made, but just a damn great movie, period. And depending on how you choose to view the continuation of Laurie and Michael’s story in Halloween (2018), it somehow manages to become even more scary, powerful, and hard-hitting when viewing both films back to back. Because both the original Halloween and this newest chapter of Halloween come together to tell a forty-year-long story about a young woman who suffers one of the most traumatic experiences of her life, and is unable to move on and truly live until she is finally able to face her tormentor and bring him down once and for all, while also protecting the women in her life from having to suffer the exact same fate that she once did.
And if that isn’t a story that carries plenty of relevance in the year 2018, as we continue to see many other women of all ages speak out and fight back against their own tormentors, then I don’t know what else to tell you.
Header Image Source: Compass International