The Legacy of Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ – 40 Years Later
Whenever I watch a movie that’s considered a classic for the first time, I always ask myself, “What makes this film a classic?” There are a number of components to that question and one of them is asking whether the film has changed or added anything new to its respective genre? In the case of Halloween (1978), director John Carpenter created a new landmark in the horror genre by re-defining the slasher sub-genre.
Inspired by the psychological thrillers (Psycho) and Italian Giallo (Deep Red) of the 60’s, the slasher genre predominantly follows a serial killer stalking its victims and murdering them with a bladed weapon. A simple premise that has evolved through the years and lives on in other classics such as: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, etc.
One thing that Halloween and the other films I previously mentioned have in common, is that they all have their own franchises. With Halloween being tied with Friday the 13th, each having a total of 11 films of sequels & remakes/reboots. However, I firmly believe no sequel or reboot has been able to replicate or compete with the famous iconography of the original Halloween. In Carpenter’s entire filmography, Halloween is the one that stands as the most influential to the horror genre. And with the film turning 40 years old, it holds up incredibly well and is practically the blueprint for modern-day slasher films. In this article, we will go over some of the elements that made Halloween so iconic.
Although I am a horror fan, I came to watch the original film rather late, only first viewing it 2 years ago. After I first watched it, I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve seen this before.” With the plethora of horror films out there, everything about this film seemed recognizable to me despite having never seen it before. This in no way diminishes the film, in fact, I believe it only enhances it. All the horror tropes and motifs we see today; a character running and then inexplicably falling to the ground; a character dropping a weapon after they seemingly have the upper hand against the killer; characters being murdered after doing something considered deviant, etc. all were utilized and heightened in this film. Of course, there will be those that might call the film boring and outdated, and with recent horror films, I can see why one might think that. But very few of them are able to match an antagonist as iconic as The Shape.
The film starts with a POV shot of an unknown individual walking towards a house. The individual moves to the side of the house and sees two teenagers enjoying themselves as they head upstairs. The individual proceeds to walk in through the unlocked side entrance into the kitchen and grabs a knife. They notice a Halloween mask on the floor, they pick it up and wear it. This move covers the camera as though it is their face.
The male teenager has left and there is only the young woman upstairs. The individual proceeds to walk upstairs with the knife and by this point, we know what’s about to happen. As the character approaches the girl, she says his name, “Michael” right before he kills her. Right there we are told that the two know each other but we are unaware of their relationship or what prompted Michael to kill her. Afterwards, Michael walks out the front of the house where two adults confront him and remove his mask where it is revealed Michael is only a kid, and he just killed his teenaged sister.
We know very little about Michael and as the film progresses we have more questions than answers. He is a large figure that towers over his victims and seems to possess superhuman strength and endurance that makes him terrifying when in close quarters. There is a level of intelligence and mystery that surrounds Michael, that actually borders on the supernatural and that isn’t discussed enough. After the murder of his sister Michael was sent to an institution under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), and while speaking to a nurse he refers to as Michael ‘It.’ He refuses to acknowledge Michael as a man because he sees Michael for what he is, pure evil. He states: “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.”
15 years after being institutionalized, Michael Myers escapes. As Loomis and a co-worker arrive at the sanitorium they notice that patients have escaped and Michael is able to hijack the car and drive off. Soon, Michael Meyers arrives at Haddonfield, Illinois, and he begins to stalk his new prey. But, how did he learn to drive if he was in the sanitorium for 15 years? Was he planning his escape all these 15 years? Carpenter has described Michael Myers is a supernatural force, a force of nature. And, as such, very little can stop him.
A classic horror motif is when our protagonist sees the antagonist outside a window, looks away for a second, looks back out and they’re gone. In Halloween, Carpenter plays with this convention and has Laurie looking out a window, and the audience is shown Michael staring at her. We cut back to her noticing him, but when we cut back to Michael, he isn’t there. Not once did Laurie look away, which begs the question was he ever really there? And this is where the horror in slashers comes from; it’s a guessing game. Where the killer is hiding? When will he strike?
Of the three murders, the murder of Annie Bracker is arguably the most terrifying. Michael quietly moves through the shadows stalking his prey. Carpenter cranks up the suspense and tension by presenting us with several moments where Michael could’ve attacked her, but doesn’t. When Michael finally does, it gives us a genuine reaction of shock and horror.
Halloween’s success and enduring popularity lie solely on Carpenter’s creation, The Shape. The anonymous, silent, and deadly predator that stalks and kills the innocent residents of Haddonfield is what sells the movie. Michael isn’t even credited. For some time he was only known as The Shape. He is so iconic many have attempted to replicate him, the most famous being Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th franchise. However, what differentiates Jason and Michael, is that Jason was given a relatable and personal background story to illuminate why he became the cold-blooded killer that he is. Michael is devoid of all humanity, nothing about him is sympathetic.
When Michael escapes after being shot and falling off a balcony, Carpenter leaves the audience with the sound Michael’s deep breathing as the film cuts to interior shots of the house, the neighbourhood, and the several houses he’s attacked, signifying that he could be anywhere and we have no idea where exactly. Evil will continue to stalk the streets of Haddonfield.
When directing Nick Castle who played The Shape, Carpenter would just tell him to stand in place and then start walking from point A to point B. Fun fact: the Michael Myers mask is actually a bleached Captain Kirk mask of Star Trek. Carpenter made this film cheap and he knew exactly what he was doing by creating amazing compositions and fluid shots. As previously mentioned, he took inspiration from Italian Giallo films, which prominently feature a gloved killer, he just took it a step further by giving us a masked killer and leaving us with questions as to who or what he really is. The less the audience, the more unpredictable the villain becomes. Knowing what might come next sucks the horror out of the situation, and Carpenter knows that.
Of course, I can’t talk about this film without mentioning our Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Sex in slasher films practically go hand-in-hand and while the threat of Michael Myers is present in Laurie and her friends, their focus and ultimately their story doesn’t concern Michael, but about getting laid. Laurie is the most sexually uptight one of her group, as she likes this boy, but she doesn’t want this boy to know that she likes her. She’s sexually repressed compared to her friends who are far more liberated as they talk openly about it with glee, as Laurie remains quiet.
As all her friends go off and have sex, (with one being unsuccessful), there is always the trope that the virgin is the one that survives. But Carpenter has actually stated that: “The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. She’s the one that’s killed him. Not because she’s a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy.” Laurie is just an innocent bystander in the middle of a killer’s path and I’m excited to see the character return in the latest Halloween film and see how much she’s progressed.
The greatest success of Halloween is that we are never told why Laurie Strode became The Shape’s target. Although the sequels did attempt to explain, it only worked to counter the brilliance of Halloween. It isn’t the answers that make the horror, it is the not knowing. And, in the end, we are left with that sinking feeling that Haddonfield will never be safe, and Strode will always look behind her shoulder in fear.
As a lover of horror, Carpenter’s Halloween is a staple to the genre and I am glad it is revered as a classic years later. If you’ve never seen the film, I urge you to see it this Halloween season and realize the iconography the film has shaped and influenced the horror genre for the last 40 years.
David Gordan Green’s Halloween is a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s masterpiece and hits theatres October 19th.