Any conversation around the greatest horror films of all time will invariably include mention of 1978’s Hallowe’en. A lean, mean, straight razor of a film, this surprise underground hit launched the careers of Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter and sculpted the template for the modern slasher film. What followed was a massive boom in horror and in retrospect, this was part of a golden run of films for Carpenter.
The story is straightforward. On a rainy night, Michael Myers escapes from the mental hospital where he has been incarcerated since he brutally murdered his sister as a child. Pursued by his psychiatrist Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance), he heads back to his old neighbourhood to continue his killing spree. His targets are quickly set as wholesome babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. And he arrives…on Hallowe’en night.
It is on this simple set-up that writer/director John Carpenter cuts loose, setting out a variety of techniques that would – in an incredibly short time – become staples of horror films. The masked killer who appears dead but isn’t. The young teens having flirtatious fun getting picked off one by one. The virtuous survivor girl. And numerous more such elements.
This cavalcade of moments, combined with the purity of the killer, create an almost mythic feel to the film. We never see Michael Myers’ face (save for a one-second glimpse at the climax), he never speaks a word of dialogue. Instead, he is as blank as his expressionless white mask, a void with which you cannot reason, cannot bargain. He is the embodiment of childhood fear, lent gravitas by the constant warnings from his psychiatrist and becomes a horror icon par excellence.
Further contributing to the film’s effectiveness is a careful lighting scheme and wonderful use of the cinemascope frame. Time and again, Myers lurks at the far edges of the screen or in the shadows, unseen by the characters in the foreground. Over it all runs the distinctive and immediately recognisable theme tune, written by Carpenter himself. A simple, almost childlike piano melody vaguely reminscent of The Exorcist overlaid with menacing chords, with the whole thing stuttering uneasily in 5:4 time, it is elegantly sinister.
Hallowe’en was a massive financial and critical success in 1978. On a shoestring budget of just over US$300,000 it racked up some $47million at the box office which at the time made it the most profitable film in history. It launched careers, sequels, remakes and…a whole lot of rip-offs.
The intervening three decades and more have not been kind to Hallowe’en. While the movie itself remains remarkably valid and still looks current, its effectiveness has been drastically undercut by the onslaught of imitators that followed in its wake. Chief among these is undoubtedly the Friday the 13th series, with its carbon copy villain and promiscuous teen victims, but every scare and moment in Hallowe’en has been recycled in some form or another to the point that it is near-impossible to view the original with any sense of surprise or tension.
Regardless of the eroding of its impact, Hallowe’en stands as a masterclass in filmmaking and essential viewing for even the most casual horror fan.
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