As one of horror cinema’s most iconic characters celebrates 40 years of celluloid immortality, and with the eleventh film in the franchise set to arrive on the big screen this month it’s time to look at what made this low-budget indie film such a colossal success.
I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall; not seeing the wall, looking past the wall; looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.
Dr Loomis, Halloween (1978)
Small-Town U.S.A, a bunch of disposable teenagers save one last girl, a homicidal maniac and the doctor trying to stop him. It’s easy to dismiss this as derivative and cliché now, but John Carpenter’s first foray into horror laid down the foundation for the nascent slasher horror movie to be imitated across the past few decades.
Halloween is a film of firsts. from Jamie Lee Curtis’ first feature film outing that immediately established her scream queen credentials, to pioneering the use of Steadicam in order to capture Michael’s first kill – a sequence that launched a thousand copycat director’s careers.
Perhaps most significantly though, not just for horror but across the film industry, it was one of, if not the first time that a small picture from an independent studio had blown the big studios’ efforts out of the water and proved that the traditional studio system of getting films made and distributed was not the only way of doing things in Hollywood.
John Carpenter’s minimalist, electronica-tinged score is immediately recognisable after 40 years too, and the opening theme – repeated throughout the movie as Myers cleaves his way through Laurie Strode’s friends – is as unsettling an ear-worm as could be dreamt up today.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that Halloween was entirely original: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre predates Carpenter’s feature by 4 years and of course, any psychopath killer will inevitably bring itself back to Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho – a movie that remains the highest watermark for such thrillers.
All of these landmarks have one common origin at their heart – that of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield himself who remains the iconic figure of all things masked and murder-y.
What sets Halloween and its homicidal antagonist apart here though, is that nothing he does is ever justified or explained by some tragic backstory. One day he just decided to take up a knife and murder somebody for no discernible reason. For some that could easily be dismissed as mindless violence, but nothing is more terrifying than the unknown, and with Michael Myers it’s not just not knowing what he looks like underneath that inside-out Shatner mask, but not knowing why he has a compulsion to kill is deeply unsettling and something that many of Halloween‘s imitators fail to remember.
Of course, the horror of Michael Myers himself has been diluted down the years due to countless sequels, reboots and spin-offs in various different media. It’s the Darth Vader Effect – what was scary on film once loses its creepy factor the more you see it and the more that the character is explored and examined, the less impactful their appearance becomes.
By becoming iconic, the film becomes a victim of its own success and first-timers to the movie may not feel the effect as strongly as someone who was completely blind to the endless exposure of Halloween upon popular culture.
Whether Halloween‘s appeal lasts another 40 years will be a matter of speculation. However, as long as Hollywood and horror movies around the world continue to draw reference from John Carpenter’s most influential work, there can be little doubt that we’ll be seeing Michael Myers sating his bloodlust for many more years to come. All that’s left to hope is that the quality of the end products is at least enjoyable.