The Lasting Terror of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

I talk a lot about Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but by far my favorite horror filmmaking story is John Carpenter’s Halloween. Both were low-budget independent horror movies, though with one key difference – Raimi had to scrounge for $300,000 to make his cabin in the woods-movie, whereas Carpenter was given that same amount for his movie about some guy in a mask. This was Carpenter’s first “blank check,” so to speak, where he had total creative control. Lo and behold, he’d go on to create a popular spooky season mainstay. (For Film Daze, I wrote about David Gordon Green’s Halloween. For the blog, I’m writing about John Carpenter’s original.)

We all participate in the ritual viewing of Halloween whether we realize it or not; it’s synonymous with dressing up and passing out candy. Growing up, Halloween was always – and I mean ALWAYS – playing on AMC long before the channel had TV shows part of its programming. Every October, AMC had the slasher franchises on repeat: Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and the GOAT, Michael Myers. 90s kids cut our teeth on Hocus Pocus and Halloweentown. But we always hovered on that AMC channel number didn’t we?

So why, or how did Halloween last all through four decades? I’ve narrowed it down to 5 ingredients: babysitters, no gore, the iconic mask, John Carpenter’s score, and a fine-tuned sense of the CREEPS.

1. Babysitters

Producer Irwin Yablans wanted a horror movie about babysitters because, well, we’re all babysitters or we all get babysat at one point. That doesn’t make it scary but it sure as hell makes it relatable to everybody. It’s as genius as naming the movie after a yearly date on the calendar. This adds to that sense of foreboding—that this could happen to anyone. Some of us might not believe in ghosts, in demons, and some of us don’t live near the ocean in fear of JAWS, but everyone has a fear of being stalked by a serial killer. (As the film’s opening damn-near mimicked, it’s JAWS on land.) Carpenter’s movie brought that fear home.

2. Zero Gore

Unlike its other slasher brethren, Halloween is a gore-free movie. Michael Myers’ first kill in the movie is the bloodiest one by far. It’s shot to purposefully avoid the grislier details, but is nonetheless John Carpenter’s tribute to Psycho. A clever subversion: Hitchcock’s edited Psycho’s shower scene to induce terror, whereas Carpenter shows us Michael’s ghastly first deed in one seemingly unbroken take.

The kills that follow? Michael dispenses with a mechanic offscreen for his overalls. He proceeds to kill two babysitters via strangulation, while one of the babysitter’s poor boyfriend gets the knife end. This is why Carpenter is an OG horror auteur. He knows that once the kill happens, the tension and suspense is over.  It’s all about the buildup, the guessing game of where Michael will pop up.

I think this is why more of us are familiar with Michael over Freddy or Jason. Because aside from the opening nudity and bloodshed, you could show this movie on TV with light edits, whereas Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and ESPECIALLY Raimi’s Evil Dead packed on the profanity, nudity, and the blood by the buckets.

As much as I enjoy David Gordon Green’s legacyquel route, I understand the complaints that more and more Halloween movies feel like diminishing returns. All the sequels and reboots including the current timeline have indulged in the brutality just to measure up to the slashers borne in Halloween’s wake. But Halloween was never about such things. Carpenter’s original is so much more subtle, artful by comparison.

3. The Mask

The fun thing about revisiting the other Halloween sequels is how they proceeded to get the mask WRONG. It’s such a simple thing that has to feel just right. I personally dig the aged and withered mask we see in David Gordon Green’s saga, but the clean look of the original mask is unbeatable.

There’s ambiguity in Carpenter’s original that the other movies can’t recapture. For one, there’s absolutely no importance to the mask at all. Michael Myers escaped the mental institution and was evading authorities so of course he needs to hide his face. Better yet it’s Halloween! Michael is nothing if not festive! It’s for the rest of us to wax poetically about why THAT mask or any mask at all. The mystique is essential to the enduring terror of Michael Myers.

He has all the signposts of a human being but none of those that count. He doesn’t talk; according to Loomis, he hasn’t spoken in years. All he does is stalk and kill, rendering him inhuman. Yet we always hear him breathing. The story might mythologize him as pure evil, but he’s still a flesh and blood human. This is where the mask does its nightmarish wonder – total blackness where the eyes should be, like an abyss staring back. Even when the mask comes off briefly in the movie, it doesn’t resolve any of this, only further complication. Why is he doing this? Why is he after Laurie? What does he get out of killing? We don’t know. All we get is what we see – a man stalking and killing for no apparent reason. The terror of the imagination runs rampant on that blank face.

4. The Score

We all know the theme. It’s the Jingle Bells of Halloween. Now THAT’S having a cultural impact. The thing that boggles my mind to this day? Carpenter only had 3 days to record the score. (A procrastinating MAESTRO.) He keyed in on the sound of fear using a lone piano melody played in 5/4-time signature. It might move up an octave or down, throw in some synth keys underlying the melody, but that’s it. It’s the sound of evil taking shape in Michael Myers.

If the mask is the shape of fear, then Carpenter’s score is the sound of fear. He uses sound to enhance the very minimal things that Michael Myers does: staring at Laurie Strode from across the street, lurking around the corner, stopping a poor kid in his tracks. Sometimes the terror is as quiet as a piano, or as jumpy as slamming on roll of synth keys. To each their own, but these were all jump-y scares to me as a kid. And that ominous piano tune when Michael chases Laurie, it’s as damned iconic in horror as John Williams score in JAWS. Music can make a sweeping camera underwater feel monstrous, just as a minimalist score can make a guy in a mask the most alarming sight in the suburbs.

5. Terror in Widescreen

The widescreen look of Carpenter’s original is unmatched. From its ambitious opening shot, to Laurie’s not-quite-so-lonely walks from home, to the utter stillness of the stone-quiet neighborhood – Carpenter zeroed in on the wide open and abject terror of the suburbs.

Ridley Scott’s Alien bore the iconic tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Though it came out before, Carpenter’s Halloween should’ve been marketed: “In the suburbs, no one cares if you scream.” When Laurie screams for her life and runs to a next-door neighbor, the front porch lights flicker on before going black again, and Laurie is all alone in her fright. No one wants to help. People just want to be left alone in their homes.

It’s supposed to be safe and quiet; this is what we want from our home surroundings, to be undisturbed. Laurie and her friends are surrounded by a sea of homes and open windows, yet they’re isolated like prey. It’s terror in daylight as Michael Myers lurks stark and plain in the frame. He’s just there. It ain’t jumpy, but it’s sure as hell creepy, and that creepiness burrows deep like an unbroken stare.

It’s worth noting that the character isn’t listed as Michael Myers in the credits. He’s credited as The Shape. When he chases after Laurie across the street, he looks like the night taking form as a man. Later in the house and you know he’s in there but you don’t know where exactly, he takes on those shapes too. He could be creeping in the backyard, behind the couch, in the closet, in the darkest corner, waiting.

In the climax, Loomis saves Laurie Strode and shoots him off the balcony. A momentary reprieve. When Michael then disappears from Loomis’ view, he’s now entered the space beyond the frame. He’s exited the movie and lingers in the periphery, in our blind spots where we feel the most vulnerable. You may be able to shoot a man, but you can’t kill the boogeyman.

The final montage is a series of the spaces Michael Myers terrorized in the movie. But you don’t see Michael Myers occupying them anymore. You hear him breathing, and the main theme plays as if the night – the terror – is far from over, and it just might follow you home.

Happy Halloween! 🎃🔪

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