Halloween (1978) is one of those rare movies that can literally be considered a candidate for the “greatest horror movie ever made.” It isn’t necessarily the first slasher movie, there’s Black Christmas (1974) and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) that took place four years before Halloween. Indeed, there’s a legend that Black Christmas‘ sequel was going to be about Billy escaping a mental institution and going on to menace a bunch of babysitters. Allegedly, writer Roy Moore shared this idea with John Carpenter not long after the original movie’s premiere. It may or may not be true, but Roy was comfortable sharing the story at conventions.
No, Halloween isn’t the first slasher movie, but it is the one that created most tropes that have since become synonymous with the genre. The invincible silent masked killer, the collection of beautiful young women, the seeming indestructible nature of the slasher, the “killer cam” perspective, and the virginal protagonist. While both Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had “Final Girl” protagonists, neither of them were “good girls” necessarily.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) would exemplify the good girl who survives while her pot smoking sex fiend friends are killed. It’s a testament to how good an actress Jaime Lee Curtis is that the “dull” one is charismatic enough that she remains one of the most popular heroines in horror cinema. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) are about the only people who approach how beloved she is in the genre.
The premise for Halloween almost doesn’t require summary but I’m going to do it anyway. Michael Myers is an eight-year-old boy who murders his sister after she has speed sex with her boyfriend. Institutionalized, Michael grows into a formidable six-foot-tall killing machine. His doctor, Loomis (Donald Pleasence), recognizes Michael is “pure evil” and should never be let loose. Michael escapes in the opening of the movie by stealing a car (how he can drive is never explained despite the movie bringing it up). From there he stalks a group of teenage girls he spies around his old house and methodically kills them one after the other along with their boyfriends.
Part of what makes Michael Myers so terrifying and what many of the Halloween sequels got wrong is the fact that there’s no actual method to his madness. He’s not stalking Laurie Strode because she’s his long-lost sibling, which wouldn’t explain his other victims anyway, but because she’s caught his attention. Michael Meyers is an enigmatic figure that obeys no known pathology and is someone that has frightened his psychologist into believing he has to put down like a rabid animal. His silence is deliberate because we can’t pierce the interior of his soul. Michael, rather than a flat character, is an enigmatic one and thus one of the greatest slashers of all time.
The movie also makes a good decision in letting us get to know Annie, Laurie, Lynda, and other characters are all given ample time to become likable. Unlike the flat characters of imitators, including future Halloween sequels, the movie gives Michael’s victims enough room to grow. It’s not immediately obvious who will live and who will die either. While new viewers may suspect that Jaime Lee Curtis will be the only survivor, they’d not be entirely correct and that’s part of what makes the movie fun.
Above all, Haddonfield, Illinois feels believable (except for the occasional palm tree in the background). There’s a kind of small town feel that isn’t hackneyed enough to be silly but is retro enough to be authentic. The evil of Michael Meyers is something that’s a stranger to the community, even though almost all the teenagers are dying to escape the place. Sheriff Brackett is way in over his head despite his desperate desire to protect not only the community at large but his daughter, Annie, in particular.
John Carpenter is a master of ratchetting up tension and his use of his ultra-simple Halloween piano motif is enough to make the movie. Whenever that few bars start playing, the audience’s fear goes into overdrive. Michael Meyers car is often in the backgrounds of shots, showing that he’s already begun to stalk our helpless teenagers. The fact there’s actual children at risk also increases the tension. Michael is the kind of monster who won’t spare the innocent and Laurie’s concern for them is enough to make her as well as a survivor.
In simple terms, if you haven’t watched Halloween, rectify that immediately.
Buy Halloween (1978)