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. Continue reading “Halloween I: Michael Myers’ First Blood”