Dissecting what makes John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ an enduring classic and the best horror movie of all time.
I remember my Dad letting me stay up late when I was 11 and we watched ‘Halloween‘ on cable in the early 80’s. I was hooked.
Now many will say “Halloween” isn’t the scariest horror film. Fair enough. But its atmosphere, mythology, and holiday trappings, make it the “It’s A Wonderful Life” of scary films.
So what makes ‘Halloween‘ the best horror movie of all time? Let’s break it down.
John Carpenter was on a roll in the 70’s & 80’s, and remains a beloved cult director (“The Thing” is my favorite film of all time). No one can do panicked isolation better. And he was ably assisted by cinematographer Dean Cundey.
Their use of the steadicam (a device new to filmmaking at the time) was crucial. Suddenly a handheld camera was fluid; perfect for the POV shots of Michael as the killer, and those long gliding stretches of an unaware suburbia.
They turned sunny L.A. into the autumnal midwest (although the occasionally palm tree sticks out). The neighborhoods felt at once idyllic and haunted. In the late 70’s we were entering the age of serial killers and increased violent crime. Things didn’t feel safe. Our parent’s tales of the wholesome 1950’s seemed like a fairy tale. Carpenter stressed that psychic nerve.
Carpenter’s iconic score is masterful minimalism used for dramatic effect. It feels like Michael Myer’s psyche, making up for his silence. It emits unending sonic dread. The main theme is haunting, but the whole score is amazing, from the spooky etherealism of “Laurie’s Theme” to the two note sucker punch of “The Shape Stalks/Lurks“.
Jamie Lee Curtis’s casting was inspired; she was the daughter of ‘Psycho‘ actress Janet Leigh, which was Carpenter’s acknowledged main influence for the movie. She clearly inherited the scream queen gene for her mother, but took it in a new direction as Laurie Strode, the heroine who fought back, refusing to be a victim. This set the template to countless other horror movies.
And Donald Pleasance gave the film immediate grace as Myer’s psychiatrist Dr. Loomis. He made dialogue that was admittedly wonky seem credible.
- Michael Myers:
The biggest piece in the puzzle. As a society, we’re obsessed with explanations. Randomness makes us uneasy. But sometimes bad things happen to good people, and no explanation will satisfy. ‘Halloween‘ doesn’t play fair with its audience; a killer embodies pure evil and can’t die. By defying logic it pulls away the safety net.
There is no reasoning with this blank slate. No ability to persuade or dissuade him from his cause. Myers cuts this line off. He’s a dead-end in every respect.
And in this era of smart phones, instant messaging and the need for constant interactivity, ‘Halloween‘ is even more unsettling. This film came out even before call waiting and answering machines. If no one picked up the phone, you were on your own.
On the credits to the original ‘Halloween‘ actor Nick Castle is credited as ‘The Shape‘ instead of ‘Michael Myers‘. While he’s never referred as such in the film (his nickname there is appropriately, ‘The Boogeyman‘), it’s an apt moniker; all husk, no soul. And Castle’s performance is key. Sure he says nothing, but his eerie automaton movements are brilliant, showing that Myer’s is human in name and name alone.
(the above image is from the scariest scene IMHO)
- The Mask:
William Shatner is a man of huge ego, so it speaks to poor manufacturing that the Captain Kirk mask made in the 70’s had no life in it. Carpenter seized on this; and painting it white made it even more diffuse and formless.
It’s part clown, part mime, part corpse and part ghost. When it’s in shadow the eyes are blank and when eyes are visible their predatorial gaze is discomfiting. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. So the lack of a soul makes the eyes bleak mirrors to the viewer’s (victim’s) discomfort.
I remember buying the mask when I was in high school. It creeped me out even then. There is just something jarring about it, even when I stared at myself in the mirror, it made me feel less human.