I’ve been trying to find a good horror movie all month. Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a winner here! I was beginning to lose hope there for a while. But it just goes to show that every once in a while, the classics of a genre are indeed classics. Halloween should be a template for how to make a decent horror film; sadly, while there are many films which ape it, most of them seem to take the wrong lessons to heart.
The first of several films under the Halloween franchise introduces us not only to the character of Michael Myers, but to the movie career of Jamie Lee Curtis. On Halloween night, 1963, then-child Michael Myers picked up a kitchen knife and stabbed his sister to death. 15 years later, he is still a local bogeyman to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois, where his house is abandoned and rumored by children to be haunted. Myers himself is in an institute for the criminally insane, and hasn’t spoken a word since the murder.
Naturally, the night before Halloween, he escapes.
I don’t think a time-out is going to work here.
Myers is pursued by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), a psychiatrist who has been studying him for the past 15 years. In Loomis’s words, he “spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” Loomis is able to convince the town Sheriff (Charles Cyphers) of the danger, but to avoid a panic they agree to keep the news of Myers’ escape and probable arrival in town to themselves and the other officers.
We’re then introduced to the movie’s core cast of victims, high school student Laurie (Curtis) and her friends Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis). Lynda is a cheerleader, Annie is the sarcastic daughter of the Sheriff; both are focused primarily on plans to sleep with their boyfriends. Laurie is more studious and more serious, and in fact winds up taking on Annie’s babysitting duties in addition to her own when Annie leaves to pick up her boyfriend later in the night. A genre-savvy viewer already knows who is going to live and who is going to die, but the film builds up to it slowly with Michael Myers quietly stalking Laurie as she goes about her business during the day.
Oh, there’s Waldo! No, wait. No hat.
This is one area where Halloween differs from a lot of slasher films. Often the killer/monster in such films is kept off screen, or is constantly shown but always mid-rampage. Halloween shows Michael Myers quite a bit, but it’s always fleeting glimpses, both for the characters and for the viewers. Even though the viewer knows what’s going on, it makes it very believable for the characters to wonder if they really saw what they think they saw. Rather than trying to rely on shock and gore, it plays with the psychology of being stalked in order to build up suspense. Actor Tony Moran, who plays Michael Myers, probably had the simplest stage directions for a major character in film history. Myers never speaks, not even a little, and except for the brief moments of killing, he seldom even moves. He just stands there. Staring. Watching. Waiting.
Even when he does act, it’s not the frenzied rampage in most horror movies. It’s a calm, deliberate motion. It’s easy to believe that he really is as devoid of emotions as Dr. Loomis says he is. We can infer that he’s stalking these girls because they remind him of his sister on some level, but there’s no apparent wrath in his actions, just a mechanical precision. The only time we see him have a more visceral reaction is when his mask is pulled off and he scrambles to put it back on. All in all, it adds up to a quietly creepy killer.
Some killers would quip here. He just… stares.
“Quiet” is the order of the day for other aspects of the movie as well. The theme music is hauntingly simple, and played only when the audience is looking over Myers’s shoulder. The rest of the time, there’s only ambient noise, and not much of it. The whole neighborhood is eerily quiet, making it easier to believe Laurie’s increasingly jangled nerves. But she’s not a wild screamer jumping at every little bump; she has more mundane, normal reactions. When she thinks she sees Myers out the window, and then he disappears, the reaction that plays out on Jamie Lee Curtis’s face is a subtle “What the hell?” with no vocal expression of fear or surprise.
Also helping the movie is the fact that none of the characters seem to be brainless idiots. Sure, Laurie’s friends and their boyfriends are just typical somewhat-dumb high schoolers… but that’s as far as it goes. I didn’t find myself saying “what an idiot” all the time the way I did with, say, Hell Night. Probably the worst offender was Laurie herself dropping the knife more than once, but that was minor and believable, and at any rate she made up for it by being one of the few horror movie heroines to recognize the notion that anything can be a weapon.
I’ll grant that Halloween hasn’t broken the trend of horror movies failing to frighten me. But with its more psychological basis, and its intelligent camera direction, I can more easily see how it could be frightening to someone else. More importantly, even though I wasn’t frightened, I was enjoying the movie. I wavered a bit on what ranking to give it, initially feeling it was a 4 star film, but ultimately decided that since I feel that it’s setting the bar for the genre, it deserves full marks.
Halloween is regarded as a classic by horror fans, and at least this once, I’m in agreement.