Like the great Michael Myers himself, you can never really kill a horror franchise. This month, 40 years after the original slashed its way onto movie screens and into our hearts, Halloween returns. Pointedly disregarding the seven sequels that came before it, this new outing by David Gordon Green has made a point of only linking itself to John Carpenter’s original. But what is it about the first movie that continues to fascinate and frighten, even four decades on?
It’s a simple enough setup. Fifteen years after murdering his older sister Judith, Michael Myers escapes from the high-security psychiatric facility housing him and makes his way back to his hometown of Haddonfield to kill again, pursued by his former psychiatrist Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is caught up in the night of bloodshed as Michael terrorises her and her friends.
In true slasher style, we see Laurie and pals repeatedly defy the laws of People Who Want to Survive a Horror Movie. They leave windows and doors open, explore poorly-lit rooms, say “I’ll be right back”, try to escape by running upstairs, and, most egregiously of all, Laurie repeatedly throws her weapon down and turns her back on Michael’s apparent “corpse”. But if things seem cliched, it’s because, of course, Halloween helped to build those cliches. Many slashers have followed in Halloween’s footsteps, but few have truly managed to recreate its creeping suspense.
Then just the 19-year-old daughter of Tony Curtis and Psycho’s Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis soon saw herself become something of a horror icon when she accepted the role of Laurie Strode. This bookish babysitter became one of cinema’s first (and most beloved) Final Girls, and it’s an impressive early performance from Curtis. Laurie doesn’t have the tenacity of an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor (or rather she doesn’t yet, if Halloween 2018 is anything to go by). She’s a girl who spends more time watching old horror movies with the 12 year-olds she babysits than talking to boys. But unlike her predecessors (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sally Hardesty, or The Last House on the Left’s Mari Collingwood for example), Laurie isn’t solely a victim. Sure, she cries and stumbles like the best of them, but crucially she also fights back. She stabs Michael three times – once with her knitting needle, once with his own knife, and once with a bent wire coat-hanger (a nifty bit of improvisation when she’s cornered in a closet). She’s a believable heroine – frightened, but scrappily persistent. This girl, terrified as she may be, isn’t going down without a struggle.
It’s a good thing too, because she’s facing down one of cinema’s most iconic horror villains. Halloween’s simple setup (the holiday setting and gloomy lighting, both implemented thanks to budget limitations) creates an unbeatable atmosphere, but the film’s greatest strength is of course its monster, Michael Myers:
I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes.
Dr Loomis’ haunted description of Michael’s “blank, pale, emotionless face” with “the Devil’s eyes” seems a little excessive at first. He’s just a man, after all. But one sight of that famous mask drags this hyperbole into a squarely physical realm. Michael’s mask (famously just an inside-out William Shatner mask painted white) was selected largely because it was one of the two cheapest masks available. The other, an Emmett Kelly clown mask, certainly would have been grotesque in an obvious sort of way, but lacks that unnerving emptiness that Loomis spoke of. Michael’s mask, uncanny and unsettling, blocks off his humanity completely. This simple white mask inspires utter dread – whether we see it staring at Laurie from across the street, or slowly and silently looming out of the shadows behind her like a spectre (in what is unequivocally the film’s best and most chilling visual).
Michael’s motives, too, are left completely vague, although the sequels would go on to try and ascribe meaning to his actions. Some are vaguely logical, if a little hokey (“he’s actually Laurie’s brother!”). Some are enjoyably bananas (“he’s actually under a druid’s curse!”). Carpenter’s original film leaves us in the dark. Why is Michael stalking Laurie and co. in Haddonfield on Halloween night? Well, why not? The only quasi-explanation seems to come early on. Laurie drops off a set of keys for her realtor father at the Myers house, unaware that Michael himself is mere metres away, watching her from behind the front door. He watches her drop the keys, joke with Tommy and walk off down the street. And… that’s it. It’s a horrible implication, this idea that Michael becomes fixated with hurting Laurie (and by extension, her friends) not for any material reason, but through a simple twist of fate – she’s the first person he sees upon his return.
And so, to the killings. Halloween’s murders aren’t especially numerous or violent by modern standards. Including his sister Judith, Michael kills just five people over the course of the film. (One of them, the unfortunate mechanic from whom Michael takes his iconic overalls, dies offscreen.) Laurie’s unfortunate friends Annie, Lynda, and Bob all meet with Michael’s trusty kitchen knife at some point. But the focus here is not on Michael’s bloody deeds; rather, it’s the unbearable sense of impending dread that precedes these deeds from which the film draws its real scares. Carpenter doesn’t abide by the “Scary Things Only Happen at Night” rule. Having selected his victims, Myers openly stalks them in broad daylight; watching Laurie at her school from across the street, or standing barely obscured behind hanging laundry in her garden. Elsewhere, if we can’t see Michael, often we can hear him; Michael’s presence is frequently heralded not by a loud orchestral jolt, but by his steady, heavy breathing. It’s predatory and unnerving, a weirdly animalistic element for such a cold and emotionless figure.
Equally important is the fact that Michael never runs. There’s something uniquely scary about seeing a killer dispassionately walk as his victims flee in terror. Michael is a persistence hunter, content to simply tire his prey out. There’s a clear influence on movies like It Follows, where the futility of running coupled with the inevitability of capture provides a horror far more visceral than any blood-soaked murder ever could. There’s no rush, because he’ll get them in the end. And when he does get them? Nothing. Michael takes no apparent joy in any of the murders. After pinning Lynda’s boyfriend Bob to a cupboard door with the sheer force of a single powerful stab, Michael pauses. He watches the corpse, tilting his head to the side like a curious dog – or perhaps more aptly a cat, wondering why the mouse it had been toying with has suddenly stopped wriggling. In Halloween, Carpenter set out to create a villain audiences couldn’t possibly relate to. With Michael’s utter lack of humanity palpable in every scene, Carpenter pretty much nails it.
With such pains taken to make Michael as monstrous as possible, who could possible be tasked with stopping him? Enter Donald Pleasence’s jaded Dr Loomis. Loomis has long since shed any feeling of doctorly compassion towards his patient. He often refers to Michael as “it” or even “the Evil”, and darkly monologues to bewildered law enforcement officers about the depths of Michael’s depravity. Pleasence brings a welcome gravitas to Loomis, although one could argue that, as three teenagers die while he implements his cunning plan (which largely consists of Waiting for Michael to Return to the Myers House) he’s not the most adept foil.
In the film’s final scene, Loomis finally catches up with Michael, shooting him five or six times and watching as he falls from the house’s first floor to the garden below. Loomis moves to inspect the corpse – which has of course vanished. Michael’s apparent immortality combined with Loomis’ obvious fear of his patient lends a dash of almost gothic melodrama to an otherwise fairly grounded horror universe. Dr Loomis becomes a sort of Van Helsing to Michael’s Dracula – a comparison which becomes even more apt when you consider both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Hammer Horror staples, turned the role down. His look of fear is soon replaced by one of grim determination – an acceptance that his hunt is far from over.
With Michael having apparently escaped once more, the film ends by revisiting some familiar locations. Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme kicks in, soon accompanied by Michael’s familiar heavy breathing. We see Laurie’s living room. The Wallace’s staircase. The streets of Haddonfield. Finally, the place where it all began: the Myers house. Of course, it’s the ideal setup for a sequel (or eight). But more importantly, it leaves the audience with a pleasing chill down their spines.
Michael’s alive, Carpenter wants us to know. And he could be just about anywhere.