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'Halloween': Celebrating 45 Years of The Night HE Came Home

source: Compass International Pictures

I've seen few horror movies that have approached, much less surpassed, the fear factor generated for me by John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). It is timeless, well-staged, a naturalistic slice of life, and often relentlessly tense, all topped by a villain who is scary precisely because he is the human equivalent of nothingness. I want to explore why, almost half a century later, this classic is such a masterpiece.

What's the Premise?

source: Compass International Pictures

The film opens in 1963 in Haddonfield, IL, where a young kid named Michael Myers murders his older sister Judith. Promptly being institutionalized thereafter, the psychopath manages to escape fifteen years later, and returns to his hometown to wreak havoc once again. Meanwhile, the introverted Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), plan for a fun Halloween night full of sex, babysitting, and what will soon devolve into nonstop terror as Myers goes on a murder rampage.

What Works So Well About It?

source: Compass International Pictures

Halloween works so incredibly well decades later because of a few key ingredients: the cinematography, the staging/blocking, the performances, and the lack of characterization for Mr. Myers. The legendary Dean Cundey (Jurassic Park, The Thing, Apollo 13) lensed this, and he always knows where to place the camera in order to build and sustain tension. We are constantly on edge waiting for something horrible to happen to the people we're watching, and it's all because of where that camera is, how it moves. Carpenter also is an expert at how to position actors in the frame in order to bolster that intensity. When I saw this at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts last night, the audience- myself included- were shouting, screaming and nervously laughing all throughout its ninety-minute runtime.

source: Compass International Pictures

In addition, the performances don't feel like the actors want to win an Oscar. Laurie, Annie and Lynda feel like genuine people, who are just trying to live their lives before that routine is brutally interrupted. This also lends itself to the dialogue, which was written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill. That the screenplay and acting don't try to do more than just observe these characters makes the scares even more frightening, because it feels like something that could happen to us.

But what seals the deal in terms of this movie remaining so disturbing, iconic and influential so many years later, is Michael Myers himself. While yes, there are many masked villains who don't speak a word, this guy stands out amongst the pack because he has zero motivation. He's just a blank, thoughtless machine, whose only purpose is to find any innocent person and bring them to an end. Because of that, he functions perfectly as the personification of evil. This is a force that needs no reason, has no emotion, nothing to it, will never die, but which always manages to inflict irreversible pain on people in so many ways, every single day. I think that's truly why this picture still inspires filmmakers and frightens moviegoers, because it taps into a simple, uncomfortable baseline of truth.

What Doesn't Work About It?

Truth be told, the actors do occasionally overplay their hand. I can't convey it in words, but when Laurie and her friends talk on the phone, or Lynda and her boyfriend talk about sex, it doesn't feel natural. Moments like that are outliers, though.

source: Compass International Pictures

I also find the explanation for Michael's escape from institutionalization rather inexplicable. If he was imprisoned since childhood, how could this man drive a car to return to Haddonfield? Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), his lifelong psychiatrist, blurts out "Someone must have given him lessons!" as he rushes to stop Myers from committing more murders. That moment got a deserved chuckle from the Lucas Theatre audience, since John Carpenter and Debra Hill clearly just needed a quick, convenient way to progress to the next major piece of plot development.

Closing Thoughts

In the end, Halloween is one of the finest of all horror films precisely because of its simplicity. It assembles all the ingredients needed to make it work, along with just a touch of profundity, and just goes and goes and goes. I also want to note that this, along with The Thing, solidified my horror fandom as a kid. If I had a friend who was looking to get into the genre, this would be my first recommendation.

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