FILM REVIEW: Hallowe'en (1978)

Hallowe'en (USA, 1978)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, P. J. Soles, Nancy Loomis

In my review of Dark Star, I referred to John Carpenter as "the most accidental of pioneers", since the films which he created simply to get by have since become widely recognised as innovative and culturally significant. Just as Dark Star bridged the gap between old-school sci-fi and space opera, so Hallowe'en is a cinematic bridge from Psycho and Black Christmas to full-on, nuts-and-bolts slashers like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. But even taken outside of its legacy, it remains a memorably terrifying film, and the high point of Carpenter's career.Contrary to popular belief, Hallowe'en is not the first slasher film. To some extent that title belongs to Psycho, which is also one of the classiest considering its strong psychological underpinning. The serial killer motifs therein were taken up by Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which explored serial killings within a context of complete moral nihilism; no explanation was ever offered for what Leatherface did, or the way in which he did it.

takes the sexual elements of Psycho, blends it with the motiveless excesses of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and serves it up with Carpenter's unique sense of rhythm and love of the unknown. If Psycho was the film which made serial killing an art form (a tradition proudly continued by Dario Argento), Hallowe'en was the film that helped to take it into the mainstream. It made the slasher sexual again, setting the template for most of what followed until Wes Craven retuned things in A Nightmare on Elm Street.So much modern horror, including the Hallowe'en 're-imaginings', try to explain everything to their audience; they feel the need to find a reason for every aspect of the killer, and no back-story must be left incomplete. Doing this often neglects the elements of uncertainty and menace which are essential parts of being scared; Alien wouldn't be half as scary if we had a complete psychological profile of the creature.

What makes Hallowe'en so special, and so brilliant, is its ruthless and brutal simplicity. There are no sadistic, lingering deaths, no confusing subplots, no unnecessary gore and no gratuitous nudity - just genuine fear and genuine terror. Michael Myers doesn't need his motives explaining - the fact that he is so singular makes it more terrifying.Hallowe'en was designed as a drive-in movie, an exploitation film made on the cheap that would play for two weeks and then disappear. Under these circumstances they couldn't be any indulgences, whether creatively or financially. But like all the best low-budget films, it manages to get beyond its limitations and be innovative in the process. It takes several elements which on paper seem completely hokey and somehow makes them scary again. There have been dozens of horror films involving escaped mental patients, ignorant parents, or a police force which doesn't believe our hero or heroine. But the atmosphere which Carpenter creates, and the precise way in which the encounters are handled, conspire to give us the creeps.

Running through the whole film is an undercurrent about how the notion of being scared has become instititionalised. Laurie Strode comforts the child she is babysitting by telling him the bogeyman can only come out on Hallowe'en night. The fact that Hallowe'en is so widely observed and its practices so commonplace have taken the edge off it; it is no longer associated as a night of evil spirits preying on the weak, but as an excuse for the kids to have fun, the adults to go out and everyone in-between to have sex. This trend is even bound up in the production of the film, which was originally titled "The Babysitter Murders".Carpenter seeks to redress this balance, proving there are still things to be scared of which cannot be confined artificially to a single day. The children Laurie babysits are never scared by the films they watch on TV (including The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would later remake) and so assume that there is nothing to be scared of. But as soon as the boy catches a glimpse of Myers, he starts screaming hysterically and fearing for his life.

The fear of the unknown is present in Hallowe'en right from the opening shot. As the camera approaches the house and we move inside, we have no idea from whose perspective we are seeing the events. The repeated use of a steadicam (or pana-glide, as it was originally called) gives the impression of seeing events from a first-person viewpoint, and the film keeps shifting so you are never sure whether or not you are seeing things through the eyes of the killer. This, coupled with the fantastic synthesizer score played in 5/4 time, creates an unmatched level of unease, predating Stanley Kubrick's work on The Shining by two whole years.The fear of the unknown manifests itself in the character of Michael Myers, described by Dr. Loomis as "purely and simply... evil". Although Myers appears to be human in appearance and movement, there is something supernatural about him, demonstrated by his inability to be killed and his way of appearing and disappearing with great speed. There is no emotion with Myers, no sense of pleasure in his killings; he kills for no other reason other than that is what he does. Like Dr. Loomis, we spend time trying to understand him but eventually conclude that the only thing we can do is contain him. He is an archetypal bogeyman onto whom individuals project their own fears; the blank face masks serve as a canvas, a mirror in which we look and see our deepest fears.

Much has been made of Hallowe'en being a twisted morality tale, which borrows from the old 'tale of the hook' to warn people about the perils of having sex. Proponents of this view do have a point, considering that all of Myers' victims are people who are doing what they shouldn't be doing, and the only teenager who manages to stand up to him is a virgin. But Carpenter has long downplayed this view, claiming that the film is more about temptation and repression than the physical role of sex. While her classmates are content to drink under-age and tease each other about boys, Laurie is quiet and introverted. She is also the most intelligent of the group, and is the first to be aware of Myers' presence; hence she is better-equipped to deal with him, regardless of her sexual status.It's easy to look at the ending of Hallowe'en as an excuse for a sequel, but this does pre-suppose that such a thing was intended. Unlike today, where many sequels are green-lit before the original has made its money back, this was intended as a stand-alone piece; Carpenter refused to direct Hallowe'en II despite a massive increase in the budget. As it stands, the ending is brilliant, with Donald Pleasance's facial reactions perfectly conveying the final chill: that Myers is still out there, and remains unstoppable. The film then puts the icing on the cake with a montage backed by Myers' heavy breathing, indicating that now he could be anywhere, and that we could be next.Hallowe'en remains a masterpiece of horror, tapping into archetypal fears and scaring us to death with brilliant efficiency. The central performances by Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis are note-perfect, the camerawork is superb, and Carpenter shoots the entire film with the perfect balance of shock value and suspense. None of the sequels, knock-offs or remakes have dented it reputation, and thirty years from now it will still be as scary as ever. A triumph of low-budget cinema and a real must-see.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: A thrilling, chilling, terrifying masterpiece


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