This Halloween Jokerside turns to a true original, the definitive horror that to carved out the 1980s slasher genre as easily as dicing pumpkin. Halloween, one story, two films of two distinct halves…
IT WAS 1976’S HUMBLY PRODUCED AND KINETIC ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 THAT BROUGHT PRODUCERS TO JOHN CARPENTER’S SUBURBAN PORCH (MAYBE…) WITH THE AIM OF EMULATING WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S THE EXORCIST. A SCRIPT FOR THE BABYSITTER MURDERS WOULD SOON TRANSFORM INTO THE FILM THAT’S CREDITED WITH CREATING THE HORROR SLASHER GENRE. Sure, producer Irwin Yablans suggested the name and setting it during that ready-made night, but the main spark came from his trust in a low budget and inexperienced director and a tight shooting schedule. The Shape had arrived in a very, very real world.
Psycho’s Norman Bates had shocked audiences in 1960, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface appeared four years before Halloween. But the Shape, Michael Myers, was something else. An unstoppable force that didn’t wait, but hunted. He came for you, unrelentingly, following a repeating formula and putting the homicidal figure of uncertain and damaged origins front and centre, rather than the victims. Jason and his mum would follow within two years, Freddy four years after that. Halloween, 1978. When the slasher horror film arrived.
“The night HE came back”
It was a gift of a name, Halloween. And having impressed with thrilling actioner Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter and horror was to prove a genre match in ‘heaven’. Much of what makes Halloween the film it is comes from its limited resources. But many of those traits, from the long sequential tension, the apparently simple choice of shots, and use of point of view, soon became definitive marks of a resurgent horror genre. Looking back along a franchise now numbering 10 films, via one sort-of reboot, this first film is a glorious trip back to ponderous lingering shots of banal suburbia. One that shows a defiant lack of gore.
Carpenter has named the shot that brings us bang up to date (Haddonfield on Halloween 1978) as his favourite. A short title set against the wide shot of a suburban street cross-section, autumn leaves falling in the light wind, no one in sight. It’s the first of many hanging shots, and perhaps the one that reminds most of The Exorcist. A film that Halloween would seek to outgrow, just as that 1971 classic had bricked up the crypts of the gothic horror films that came before it.
Leaves aren’t the only things falling there. That shot drips with anticipation following confident sequences of a strikingly different character. First, the simple titles. The black backdrop, unveiling the credits as a carved Pumpkin looms ever closer, just like the unstoppable Shape to come. And all the way to that close-up on the pumpkin’s eye and the nose, that music. As Carpenter has said of his score that it was a luxury to have three days, after only having only one to soundtrack Assault on Precinct 13. Iconic, chilling, relentless, over-melodic, unreal. Long before we see the Myers’ house, Halloween is iconic. And in preparing us for the necessary and riveting monotony of athe original slasher, it’s the perfect primer.
Haddonfield USA, Halloween night 1963
“Don’t forget to drop off the key at the Myers place…”
Revelations may pop up later in the franchise, but Halloween has little regard for flashbacks. The central character and his 15 missing years, require only a few lines to bring us up to speed. In that decade and a half, nothing has happened to Myers bar convince one particular Doctor that he is pure evil. The creators would later frame that as simply as Doctor Loomis. The film hangs on the almost preternatural assumption that those 15 years allowed evil to consume and prepare him; whichever of the subsequent theories the series throws up you believe. But in 1978 we had no idea. And those later films that added rhyme, reason, and backstory to the Shape would show how precious that original lack of explanation was.
Open the door
The film opens with the extended POV shot that would become synonymous with the franchise. Looking back on this and its immediate sequel, it’s astonishing how little is revealed to the audience or the characters. The first lines we hear “We are alone aren’t we?” “Michael’s around someplace,” pretty much sum it up. If there was any doubt before, it’s suddenly clear that we’re seeing through the eyes of an unknown. And that position of privilege reveals nothing; the clinical movements that take in the victim, then the upstairs light going out, before on the first floor an arm picks up a mask and we see a clown’s sleeve.
Then the vicious attack, the climb down the stairs and the revelation that we’ve been Michael. A small emotionless boy of six carrying a huge knife. Descendant chords rub in the incipient horror, while Carpenter has the camera detach and distance itself – one of the few times it rises into the air to summon judgement on the act we’ve been implicit in. It’s a masterclass. And we’ve only just begun.
Smith’s Grove, Illinois. Oct 30 1978
“Just try to understand what we’re dealing with here.”
The night he came home. If only that sub-title had made the opening Haddonfield still frame. This is all about the killer. And as he never speaks, Halloween portrays the Shape through two other players. There’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, with her strangely heightened awareness of Myers from the first time she senses him. And then there’s Donald Pleasance’s wonderfully off-beat Dr Loomis, first seen during the asylum break-out. Wanting to pump Myers full of Thorazine, we realise the magnitude of the threat through the doctor’s fear – although until the end of his story some six films later, he never escapes the wrongful appropriation of blame, and the mounting consequences of his mistakes.
The absurdity of that institution break-out, as scary as it is baffling, does propel the plot. And it brings the characters first strange realisation: Loomis has gifted Myers a car to travel 100 miles to Haddonfield; to arrive back home just as Dracula landed aboard The Demeter at Whitby a century before. After 15 years of silent incarceration, of unknowable preparation, Myers can drive. A necessarily unaddressed inexplicability. Later comes, Loomis chilling deduction is that he’s been 15 years in silent preparation, “waiting for this hour”. A powerful idea, that explains the actions and absolves them of any logical need. Not only does he drive, he stays in that car for some time; his methodical, calm control shows us far more about the character than the promised bouts of violence.
Exploring the town
“He’s waited for it, inhumanly patient”
While cars play their part, much of the build-up during the day of Halloween itself, is taken up with walking. First the handy plot point that has Laurie Strode drop off some keys at the old Myers’ house on behalf of her realty company owning father. And inside the sudden realisation that Myers is there too. As he walks onto the path, and for the first time we hover just behind his shoulder, just off POV, we hear the distinctive breathing of the Shape. He already has his victim in sight. It would take a long time to realise what the plan is, and not entirely in this film, but there is one. There has to be.
At this point, we haven’t seen his face – although we see the reaction of a boy who later runs into him. Curiously, or cunningly, Myers lets him run away in favour of continuing to hunt his quarry. Directed versus indeterminate slaughter would haunt the Shape for years to come.
Laurie and Loomis
“So he came home”
Fine lines of foreshadowing run through Halloween, Carpenter layers themes to repeat and explore. As Laurie sits in school, the subject under discussion is fate and she demonstrates her fine grasp of the topic for and to us, even as she sees the Shape across the street. “Fate never changes” is the message, and at that point the message is clear: Laurie Strode will meet her end, and there he is.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays a classic ingénue here. Obeying her parents, teased by her friends, having trouble with boys, but babysitting well and responsibly. All she is lacking is the traditional naivety, as she’s clearly a bright student. And crucially, Laurie is supernaturally aware of the threat from the beginning.
“You can ignore it, or you can help me stop it.”
On the other side of the equation, Loomis’ worst fears are confirmed when he finds Myer’s sister’s grave has been disturbed, the gravestone taken. While that supports Loomis’ supposition, it doesn’t make him anymore of a believable expert for the people of Haddonfield. In recent years, John Carpenter’s pointed out that no one really talks to him when they come to remaking his films, and there’s a wry feeling that Loomis foreshadows that.
Laying out the cards
““Annie, someday you’re going to get all of us in deep trouble.”
Laurie and her friends have various encounters with the Shape, but it’s only Laurie who has a heightened awareness that adds something extra to his unsettling presence. For the rest of the group, it’s misdirection. “I hate a guy with a car and no sense of humour” says Annie at one point, apropos of little.
The audience is often aware of where Myers is, but Carpenter still manages to pull a growing sense of tension from his circling, even in the broad daylight, amid the lined drives of suburban Haddonfield. His hedge appearance is particularly effective. It’s hard not to see the future unfold in front of the girls during that short return from school; Laurie loses her friends to their homes one by one. In a reverse of the earlier shoulder hover, Myers gets close to Laurie in one infamous scene: where he stands behind a hedge. Of course, he’s gone when she arrives, after some prodding by her mischievous friend Annie, and then one of the film’s best scares as she bumps into Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett.
Later Myers appears in porches, under trees, amid clothes on washing lines. His plan may not require menace, but it also isn’t derailed by him making himself very visible. That said, he’s clearly exercising some caution, as he is only detected by certain individual characters until the endgame.
It’s an approach all the more effective as his first onscreen murder (in the main time frame) occurs 51 minutes into the film: a prolonged strangulation. When Loomis had earlier stumbled across an abandoned truck on his way to Haddonfield, he had failed to find the former occupant’s body that the audience is forced to sees. Halloween‘s famous and influential build-up has foundations in this clever knowledge disconnect.
While Myers’ game unwinds, Loomis is arbitrarily circling him. When Annie and Laurie (meta-listening to Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, from 1976) come across the store break-in, we also find Loomis there, waiting for the Sherriff as Myers’ station wagon slides quietly past in pursuit of Laurie. “All they took was a Halloween mask, rope and a couple of knives,” says the sheriff of the robbery, influencing not only horrors to come but future film characters – you can see the echoes in The Dark Knight’s version of the Joker (2008).
“Halloween night is when you play tricks on people and scare them. It’s all make believe.”
It’s in these cars that we reach the night of Halloween and the fruition of Myers’ impossible plan. And having reached that night, we see him in the distinctive blanched mask for the first time. That face has become the stuff of legend. When no disguise passed muster it was a modified Captain Kirk mask picked up on the morning of the shoot that became the Shape. And it’s effective. Roughly human, but emotionless. It’s not the equivalent of the hockey mask to come, or a disfigurement like Freddy’s. It’s effective throughout the series whether you can see his impassive eyes underneath it, or just the dark absense of them. Many slashers have donned a mask, but none are as dehumanising as Myers’. Sure, no store would sell that.. But if they did the only taker would be one who, as Loomis states, “isn’t a man”.
Part of the reason that Loomis is impossible to believe is because he’s so devout, unswerving and dedicated. It’s with him that we walk through the derelict Myers house for the first time since his errant patient’s murderous stalk. As the Sheriff deduces, “seems to me you’re just plain scared”. One of the finer moments comes later, when Loomis chuckles as he scares some of trick and treating kids. A generous, silly moment to breathe, although he remains jumpy.
“Death has come to your little town Sherriff”
Loomis describes Myers as possessing “no conscience, no reason, no understanding”. More tellingly he describes first meeting the six year old with his “blank, pale, emotionless face”. That mask, the famous dehumanising mask, is just a representation of what’s underneath.
Incarcerated and silent, Myers’ abilities are more than those fastidiously remembered from the first six years of his life. Loomis says that “what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil”. It’s implied that he is driven by another force. In the second film Loomis states that he didn’t move for 15 years, implying that his incredible muscle ability matches the oddity of his smooth driving.
For a film that helped shove another, killing nail in the cofficn of gothic horror, the legacy of film’s greatest brand of horror is clear. There’s little nominal jump from the vampire appearing at the window to Myers’ appearance at a door. When he later approaches Annie’s house, the family Alsatian barks at him, a sure sign of the supernatural.
And then there’s the immortality.
“Can’t I get your ghost, Bob?”
Myers only has one victim in mind, the reason for that remains unclear during the first film’s 90 minutes. Although the reappearance of Judith Myers’ tombstone shows that he has a message in mind, other deaths only serve to help him reach that final goal. In both cases, Laurie’s two best friends fulfil much of what would become a slasher staples – extra-marital sex, loose morals, substance abuse, reckless abandon and disrespect. Still, in between the tense cupboard lurking, the Shape takes his time for some extraordinary moments. These little details would carry through the franchise. Slaying Lynda’s boyfriend Bob by pinning him to a door with a single jab, Carpenter lets the camera linger on Myers as he surveys his work. Again, the only sound is his breathing. And then, in what might be the only moment of improvisation, he oddly confronts Lynda in a sheet, wearing Bob’s glasses. Myers employs artifice without any apparent need, but that helps add to the mystery.
It’s easy to think of that knife being perpetually melded to the Shape’s hand. He uses strangulation just as much however, and the only time his aim is noticeably and strangely off is when he finally has Laurie in range. The final act of the film repositions the main players into separate houses. In this suburbia, those houses act like islands, a brilliant device that frames the action as much as it sucks terror into the heart of America. It would later be picked up to similarly good effect in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Laurie has to leave her house and cross the sea of a road to come into contact with Myers. A necessary confrontation. Loomis is similarly adrift in that sea for most of the film, floating around like flotsam, until the flare of the escaping children brings him to the right house. As the action switches from the Wallace to the Doyle House, where Laurie has two charges, one of the tensest moments comes as she can’t get through the threshold. When she does gain entrance at the last moment, the trick is that neither she nor the audience had any idea where Myers is as soon as the door to that ‘safe house’ closes. The fact, that this house isn’t her own, is a vague hint to her origins, not that we’d learn them in this film.
An unexpected result, framed by the franchise that follows, is that this house evens things up. laurie is able to wound Myers when he mis-hits once again. there’s a horrifying fallibility to this monster…
“You can’t kill the boogeyman”
The personification of Myers as boogeyman is something the film makes expressly clear come the end. Earlier, Laurie’s young charge, Tommy Doyle, is taunted about the boogeyman by school bullies, and later becomes transfixed with the idea. Laurie and Loomis are the only ones capable of harming Myers. Indeed, it’s Myers’ home invasion that turns Laurie into a killer herself. When she takes refuge in yet another cupboard she shapes a remarkable weapon from a wire coat hanger. But soon realises that she’s foolish to leave him for dead. Along with multiple stabbings, Myers survives five bullets from Loomis and a fall from a first-storey balcony.
His unnatural rising behind Laurie for his final attack is one for the film’s definitive moments. And it would be repeated often. Myers’ unmasking, where for just a split-second we see his perfectly human, slightly injured face is affecting, especially when he pulls the mask back on before continuing his plan. He needs to have a mask. And that pause gives Loomis his crucial moment.
“It was the boogeyman” “As a matter of fact, it was”
But of course, despite mass injury the body is gone. There is something else at work, and Carpenter is right to leave on that strangely knowing look on Loomis’s face. That this isn’t over, says Pleasance’s gaze. Although that look would be the first thing the sequel changed as it fulfilled the potential, the shots of the rooms around the neighbourhood, backed by the same un-stuttered breathing, that follow demonstrate one thing: Myers is built into the fabric of Haddonfield.
Halloween II (1981)
“Miss Strode allegedly shot and killed Myers herself after being abducted on Halloween night…”
Produced three years after the phenomenal success of the original (generating 200 times its budget in returns), Carpenter stepped back from directing to produce the sequel that added gore to the formula. And those weren’t the only changes in a film that takes place the same night as the original Halloween.
There’s a mighty twist in the wings, and a reconstruction of the first film’s final moments that make some changes immediately clear. In the repeated scramble with Laurie, this time Michael Myer’s face is obscured when his mask is removed. He remains the Shape. And following the plunge there’s no haunted look from Loomis. This time the doctor makes his way down to the grass to find, in rather more disbelief, that the impression and blood are there but the body is not. With the knowing glance of the previous film removed, Loomis’ desperation is reset.
Later comes the story’s big reveal. A twist that indirectly makes more sense of the tight original while demanding some factual changes. As Loomis is forcibly recalled from Haddonfield he learns that Laurie is Michael’s younger sister, removed from the name and all knowledge of events following her older brother’s actions. Her heightened awareness, here a little more obvious in her dreams, and Myers’ pursuit suddenly has a reason. It doesn’t destroy the original concept, it transforms it. That said, it requires slightly more suspension of disbelief. It was clear that a meditated plot carried out with such dedication and calm perseverance required a grand purpose, and the sequel provides just as it should. But it’s more difficult to swallow the timing than the fact its true. That said, there are other surprising reminders: It’s half an hour into the film, two hours into the story, that Laurie discovers her attacker was ‘the’ Michael Myers. He’s remembered, but throughout the first film, the victim never knew it was him.
In this film, bookended by the Chordettes’ Mr Sandman, the chief intent is to explore what happens when an unstoppable killer’s deliberately laid plan goes awry.
“I shot him six times! This guy he’s not human!”
Unfortunately, as Roger Ebert neatly surmised, Halloween II depends on the idiot plot. Having lost many of the original players, the action follows Laurie Strode to the local hospital, wherein work a new cast of victims. The family connection isn’t the only piece of retconning here: now Laurie has male attention that was crucially lacking from the first film. Other hospital workers are there to make up the body count, setting up a phenomenal spree of 10 as we are informed at the close. One particularly excruciating side note sees the film’s belligerent joker lure his nurse girlfriend to a hydrotherapy pool they can use it as a hot tub. Erratic behaviour, especially with the murderous rampage that’s unravelling in the nearby town. While an utterly superfluous murder for its own sake, something the first film managed to skirt around, Myer’s silent murder and then the sickening sight of the victim’s girlfriend mistaking the shape’s hand for her boyfriend’s, are memorable. It’s an indication of exploitative filler. And means that, for all the streets of the first film boiled down to the narrower confines of hospital corridors, the tightly coiled cat and mouse chase of the original is lost.
The perfect disguise
“Haddonfield was a pretty quiet town before tonight…”
There are parts of the concept that the second film expands succesfuly. The most effective, for all the talk of the boogeyman and Halloween pranks that the first film played on, is that here we are truly shown that this is the one night Myers can walk the streets unimpeded, hidden among trick or treaters. There is an effective return of the over shoulder shot, and the web of circumstance, when Myers hears from the news reports where Laurie has been taken.
That’s another addition. While the first film played on mystery, the later part of the night unfolds against the press reports: not only that a killer is on the loose in Haddonfield, but that it’s Michael Myers. It’s a whole different canvas, with effective scenes remind us of the first film’s events through the news while Myers gathers a weapon and sets about Laurie’s neighbours. In the café, rumours have already spiralled into speculation that someone swore they saw Myers himself. As the Shape follows his victim to the hospital, he leaves a mob in his wake throwing stones at the Myers house. The anonymous killer, rading on the wave of the growing terror he created.
“One of their number was butchered…”
Weakness of gore
“I suppose if we left the door open we could hear if someone was coming or if the kids started to cry“
Myer’s may seem more knife happy now, but that would change. The upping of gore is instantly noticeable. Halloween II brings us the whites of Myers’ eyes, as his first onscreen victim’s blood splatters from her throat. But there’s an inherent weakness from diversifying Myers’ MO in pursuit of this. Although Halloween II was designed to end his story, it’s caught a distinct and classic case of sequelitus. During the pointless hot tub scene, the Shape increases the pool temperature to lure the couple apart, a sign of unnecessary stealth – before drowning the nurse in boiling water. It’s a level above the sheet and glasses trap of the first film becuase it’s so removed from the killer’s purpose. At other times Myers abandons strangulation and the knife to bludgeon a security guard with a hammer, and particularly oddly, is controlled enough to inject a nurse in the eye with a hypodermic needle ( a nurse who came across Laurie’s doctor a similar state).
That said, Myers had no doubt seen a fair few syringes during his 15 years of incarceration.
From the discovery of Doctor Mixter’s corpse, the audience is one step behind the killer; other characters uncover a body at a time. It’s a simplified build that reaches a peak when Laurie’s flame discovers the dragon nurse of the ward has had her blood let across the floor and promptly slips in it and knocks himself out. It’s a startling image, but poses more questions about Myers’ abilities, and why such a methodical killer would employ such tactics to achieve what was a pure and singular goal earlier in the day.
Alongside this, Myers’ supernatural powers develop further. One poor nurse is impaled and lifted from the floor by scalpel on one arm. Later, his growing immortality is already shown to have the power to affect events, as a fearful Loomis takes efforts to keep a Marshall away from his prostrate body. Of course: he fails.
Raising the stakes
“You don’t know what death is”
Dramatically, Halloween II isn’t as tight as its predecessor. Much of that comes from its attempt to recapture and grow the concept of the original. Expanding the compact is tricky. Aside from the early reframing of Loomis, Myers needs to be allowed time to escape and regain his menace. And that comes from a tragic mistake by Loomis himself. The falliable and increasingly deranged doctor mistakes a trick or treater for Myers only for the suspect to be hit by a car and engulfed in a fireball. A savage death from a moment of mistaken identity. Unlike the characters, the audience is absolutely aware that this is an innocent. While it buys the plot time to grow and puts Loomis back into his lone-voice role, it sticks in the mind that this horror isn’t confronted, and Loomis doesn’t get any moral punishment before his noble final scene. The implication is that trick or treaters have it coming; or perhaps that any fatalities are acceptable in this web of terror. It’s all the worse when we find the police car that ran the innocent over was carrying the news of Annie’s death to her Sherriff’s father. While it’s believable that the news would remove him from the picture, it also serves to deny him dramatic revenge. The Myers effect removes revenge from the picture for directed, familial murder.
“Damn you, what have you done?”
The Celtic Twist
“It’s the unconscious mind, we’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves”
Halloween II may continue a number of tropes from the first film through its cut phone lines and handy cupboards (although, those are any more red herring than in the first film), but a new expanded mythology takes precedence. That’s particularly acute when direct reference are made to sequences in Halloween. Near the end there’s a nice nod back to the street chase and locked front door of the first film, this time enacted just a few hours later in the hospital carpark. This is a sequel though. Once Laurie has gained entrance, the unstoppable killer proves the point by smashing through the glass door that had so easily blocked Laurie. The odds are firmly stacked in his favour, especially considering his growing immortality. And by this time, another twist has brought ancient themes to the mix.
Combined and tangled with the familial revelation, Halloween II’s storytelling is broader and more confused than its predecessor. Loomis discovers that Myers has scrawled “Samhain” in blood on a school wall shortly before the doctor’s removed from the action (only for that to direct him straight back into it, thanks to his desperation and concealed familial information). The ancient Celtic festival drags the idea of ritual and sacrifice uneasily into Myers’ motivation.
“He waited with extraordinary patience. There was a force inside him biding its time”
Not as neat as the first film’s foreshadowing, it does set up an inevitable conclusion in fire. The endgame to the hospital boiler room where Loomis chooses a terrible time to hesitate, and is wounded as a result. A reversal of the moment afforded him t the end of the first film. This time, while Laurie’s once and only drawing on her brother’s name, causes the killer to pause himself, she displays her own inexplicable skill and unswerving accuracy in shooting both his eyes. The sight of the malevolent giant impaired, swiping blindly, sticks in the mind as Loomis and Laurie prime the gas.
“It’s time Michael”
Of course, it ends in flame: The Samhain prophecy predicted that. Although fire, nature’s greatest cleanser isn’t quite enough to wipe out the excess baggage of the sequel that concludes the direct story of the lean original. While the second film isn’t as nuanced in its foreshadowing, at least it had conviction enough to finish the story. While the first ended on a question and shots of the domestic, now it’s a burning mask that’s seared into Laurie’s mind as much as ours.
The story is ended, Myers, Loomis and other victims along with it.
The Shape was gone. For seven years…
This Halloween retrospective will continue without the Shape in Halloween III, before his miraculous recovery In Halloweens IV, V and VI