John Carpenter’s film “Halloween” is a classic 1978 horror film turns 45 this year. The film is widely regarded as one of the most influential and iconic films in the horror genre. The film was directed by John Carpenter and written by Carpenter and Debra Hill. One of the most profitable independent films of all time, grossing $70 million on a budget of a little more than $300,000. It made a star out of Jamie Lee Curtis in her feature film debut—but it also made a star out of a psychopathic killer, Michael Myers.
Halloween is one of the most totemic and influential films in American history. Not the first slasher—those honors got to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, both had been released four years earlier. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had come out another fourteen years before either of them–the many Italian giallo films that are a key strand in the DNA of the slasher.
But Halloween did set the template for the wave of horror movies, particularly the ones that feature iconic masked killers.
As the series progressed, Michael Myers has been a killer, brother, uncle, supernatural entity, and misunderstood anti-hero, each identity abandoned once a new creative direction proves more fruitful. He’s worn a lot of different masks over the years, both figuratively and literally–or some reason, they cannot seem to get the mask exactly right since the first film.
The original is still the best.
The film’s relative simplicity stands in stark contrast to some of the later versions. While the revolutionary camerawork is prurient and voyeuristic at times, in terms of its narrative, Halloween is almost Hemingway-esque in its austerity. Michael Myers (played by Nick Castle while masked and Tony Moran unmasked) escapes from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium on the night before Halloween, and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, at some point along the way acquiring a rubber mask.
His psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis is convinced that Michael is going to kill again and resolves to track him down and stop him. Along the way, we meet high-schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her friends, Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles). Most of the film is spent watching Laurie and her friends go about their day, dealing with classes, boys, and babysitting, all while Michael skulks around in the background and Loomis fails to locate him; Michael doesn’t kill anyone on screen until nearly an hour into the movie. Once night falls, however, he kills Annie, Lynda, Lynda’s boyfriend Bob, and then sets his sights on Laurie and the two children she is babysitting. He nearly succeeds before he is shot six times by Loomis and falls out a second-story window—but when Loomis looks out to check on him, he’s nowhere to be found.
As an antagonist, Michael is identified as “The Shape”. His motivation? He does choose to return home in the first place, and he demonstrates a certain kind of pathology.
Michael seems to be recreating his sister’s murder, even going so far as to steal her headstone from the cemetery where she was buried. He seems to take pleasure in his kills, from donning a makeshift ghost costume and Bob’s glasses in order to toy with Lynda before killing her, to the infamous head tilt moment, in which Michael cocks his head from side to side after pinning Bob to the wall with his knife as if in silent admiration for his own handiwork.
Carpenter famously drew inspiration from a college psychology class visit to a psychiatric institution in Kentucky where he encountered a young boy whose blank, unsettling stare stayed with Carpenter; Dr. Loomis’ description of a young Michael, quoted at the beginning of this piece, is based on this incident. Michael has been a killer ever since he was six years old.
Halloween’s simple, clean, pared-down approach to narrative and character almost makes it seem like a documentary. The power of the film also lies in the way the characters are simply drawn, which makes it easier to imagine yourself in that town. Yes, Michael Myers could be coming for you.