And now I must admit that I really have absolutely nothing to say. The third feature made by director John Carpenter, 1978's Halloween has been pulled apart and analysed from every conceivable angle in the 30 years since it set the record as the most profitable film in history ($47 million on a $320,000 budget, half of which famously went to a Panavision camera and Steadicam rig). For good reason, given that it is one of the most perfect horror films ever created in the world. But that doesn't change the fact that if you've ever read anything about this film, most of what I'm about to say will sound familiar. If you want to skip to next weekend, where I'll be pissing and moaning about how Halloween II craps all over its predecessor, I shan't be offended.

For everybody still here, let's get right down to it. The funny thing about Halloween - not "funny" maybe, but odd - is that it's most famous for being something that it isn't, namely the first slasher movie. That's just flat-out wrong; both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas predate Carpenter's film as possibly the first North American slasher films, and Italy had been home to the extremely similar gialli films for a good decade and a half prior (and then there's the argument that Psycho and its clones were the first slashers, but I'm fairly dubious on that count). Nor, despite its remarkable box-office returns, did Halloween ignite the giant wave of 1980s slasher films - it took another two years for the Halloween-tinged Friday the 13th to get that party started. If I were a cynic, I'd wonder if maybe the Sensible Critics of the world latch onto Halloween as the first and most influential of all slasher films because it's good enough that they don't feel that they're getting themselves dirty in the genre film swamps when they praise it. That is, when they call it a slasher film at all - the amount of effort spent trying to rebrand this film as any other possible genre is as amusing as it is frustrating, because obviously nothing this good could possibly be indebted to something so base as the lowly gore pictures of the '60s and '70s.

In fact, the most amazing thing about Halloween may well be how virtually nothing about the film can be plausibly called "original." The film's story structure, we've just noted, is completely indebted to the gialli, as well as Carpenter's terrifically eerie imagery, undeniably influenced by Dario Argento and especially Mario Bava. The other half of the film's landmark visuals, the atmospheric lighting and color of Dean Cundey's cinematography, was based upon the autumn sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis.

Of course, the mere fact that Halloween does not invent but aggregates influences doesn't mean in any small way that it's not a brilliant aggregation. Making a film that a virtually perfect expression of existing idioms is barely less an achievement than inventing those idioms in the first place, and this film is by all means virtually perfect. It is the one horror film that I would beg each and every lover of movies to watch, if I could pick only one - over The Shining, over Romero's zombie movies, over Eyes Without a Face, over Nosferatu.

Before I get too far along, there are two things I ought to bring up, where Halloween plausibly can be credited with inventing something. The first of these is the musical score, composed by the director himself, and a ridiculously iconic thing it is - take this and Bernard Hermann's Psycho score, and you've pretty much isolated the sources of the music for every horror film made in the US subsequently. A terrifying little ditty in 5/4 time, Carpenter's main theme for Halloween is simply one of the creepiest and even scariest pieces of music ever composed, and its appearances throughout the film give it as much of a jolt as all the cats jumping out of all the closets ever filmed put together.

The other thing that the film plausibly "invents" is something that I really wish it didn't, because it's the very same thing that makes the slasher sub-genre so easy to despise and belittle. Namely, if you are a character in Halloween, know that If You Have Sex, You Will Die. I'm not certain that this idea was born in Carpenter and Debra Hill's screenplay, but I'm positive that I've never seen it expressed so nakedly in any earlier film. Certainly, it's totally absent from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, with its pregnant heroine, but that doesn't mean it never popped up in a giallo - at any rate, it certainly appears in germinal form at least as early as 1971, with Bava's Reazione a catena (that swell little murder mystery with a truly staggering number of English-language release titles). But it's hardly that film's raison d'Γͺtre: far more of the killings are totally sex-free than otherwise. Psycho had a sort of "sex=death" attitude to it, but that's an obviously different animal. I hardly need say that the intersection of sex and psychopathology is an old subject for storytellers, older by centuries than motion pictures. Still, it is motion pictures that we're concerned with here.

It's commonly observed that the filmmakers of all those slasher films could hardly have been anti-sex activists; their films were made for and usually about teenagers, a group of people uniquely unlikely in all of humankind to genuinely think that sexual activity should be punished. It's also observed that the sex/death element of the traditional slasher is at least partly a pragmatic affair: the teen boys in the audience want to see blood, and they want to see naked breasts, and it's parsimonious to give them both of those things at one time. I'd add that in Halloween, it's fairly clear that sex doesn't mean "copulating"; the film is not a realist work but a fable or fairy tale about Good and Evil, and virginity (which, notably, the heroine isn't happy about) is as much about elemental Purity in a mythic sense, that only the holy maiden can survive the rampaging destroyer.

Still, from Jason Voorhees into the modern day, as wave after wave of filmmaker not remotely so talented as John Carpenter has failed entirely to tap into his mythic framework, the children of this noble impulse have become degraded and nobbly, and they look a little something like this: if you have sex, and you enjoy it, you're going to get chopped apart; and if all that happens and you're a woman, you're going to be stalked for a bit first. It's a poor legacy for an outstanding masterpiece.

You may have noticed that I haven't done too much with the plot so far, and that is because I can't imagine anyone with the remotest interest in horror films (or really, in films period) not knowing the shape of Halloween's story, not because it is famous necessarily, but because it is so very simple - elemental, in fact. On October 31, 1963, a murderer stalks the Myers home in Haddonfield, IL, creeping around the house in one of the very best Steadicam shots ever put to film, moving inside to outside and up the stairs over the course of about four minutes. It's also, I think, the first time the very Italian trick of the "POV Cam" - a tracking shot from the killer's perspective that either a) makes us identify with the killer or b) hides the killer's identity while creeping us out something fierce, based on your level of moral outrage - was used in an American horror film. At the end of this very long take, someone stabs 17-year-old Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) to death, while she's still topless after having the quickest quickie in history with her boyfriend. "Someone" is her six-year-old brother Michael (played in one shot by Will Sandin, doing nothing but standing and looking at the camera, and giving me the fucking willies every time I see the movie), and he is forthwith brought to a psychiatric hospital.

On the rainy evening of October 30, 1978 in Smith's Grove, IL, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) - named for Marion's boyfriend in Psycho - drives to that same hospital on the occasion of Michael's latest parole hearing, which the good doctor is hellbent on scuttling. Upon arriving, he finds that a breakout is in progress, and who should happen to steal his car but the now 21-year-old (or 23, according to the continuity-starved ending credits) Myers (Nick Castle, who gives the single best "silent killer" performance in history, and no, that isn't meant to be faint praise).

The next morning, back in Haddonfield, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh) swings by the old abandoned Myers house to drop off keys for her realtor dad, failing to notice a dark shape watching her through the front window. She does notice, however, as a man in a white mask follows her in a brown police wagon throughout the day, though her sex-crazy friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) are happy to call her paranoid. Dr. Loomis arrives in Haddonfield early in the afternoon, and determines quickly that Michael is about, whereupon he decides that the best way to catch a killer is to sit at said killer's boyhood home.

Come nightfall, Laurie is babysitting little Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) while Annie - her boyfriend having been unsexily grounded - reluctantly babysits the awesome Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards) - awesome because she would rather watch sci-fi films on TV than escape a killer* - across the street, while Lynda and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) make plans to come over, hang out, and fuck. Without going into the details, some of those people, for no reason other than getting in Michael's way while he's spying on Laurie, end up very dead, while Dr. Loomis doesn't realise until hours after nightfall that chasing his quarry might be more effective than scaring pre-teens from behind the bushes.

Though Halloween II and beyond would completely fuck it up, the core, to me, of why the original film is so goddamn effective - I'd say "scary", but I've never honestly been all that frightened by it - is that Laurie just happens to cross paths with Michael Myers, and he fixates on her by chance. The rest of the film is all just the playing out of one arbitrary moment, in which Evil, driven by its nature to kill, hunts the purely Good figure who first caught its eye. Because that's all that Myers is, as Loomis notes many times in terribly purple dialogue that Pleasence eats whole in a completely invaluable performance. He is Evil taken human shape, killing not because he is defending his home or his grave, or because he demands sexual gratification, because he is hungry, because he is crazy. He kills because it is the nature of Evil to destroy.

Elegance itself!

From that rigorously simple backbone, the filmmakers create a singular experience, at once observational and surreal, stylish and plain. Anchored by two of the best actors ever to grace a horror film in Pleasence and Curtis, playing two of the best-written characters, Halloween is heavy with wonderful little moments that at once define character, advance the plot and ratchet up the uncanny mood. Nearly anything Loomis says meets that definition, but the one great moment of acting I always think of is about 20 minutes into the film as Annie mocks Laurie for seeing stalkers all around town. Annie makes some snide remark about how Laurie never goes on dates - one gets the feeling that she works that into most of their conversations, and Laurie's response, as she not-quite looks over her shoulder, is to reply "Guys think I'm too smart." From Curtis's tone of voice and body language, it's clear that Laurie isn't really thinking about what she's saying - it's probably a stock response - and the viewer responds to her discomfort with the following Myers, while being given an important dollop of exposition - not only that Laurie is smart, but that she wishes not to be, if that would get her a boyfriend - almost invisibly.

That being said, and while Halloween would be a far lesser thing without its stars, the chief success of the film is not a matter of what happens to whom, but what it all looks like. Shot in California in the summer, the film looks absolutely nothing like Illinois in late October - there are green leaves, green grass, and the odd palm tree. So here is what Dean Cundey did: he did not use standard color timing on the raw footage, but pushed the daylight scenes ludicrously far to the orange and the night scenes ludicrously far to the blue, and thus made something that doesn't look exactly like reality anymore (the proper color timing, incidentally, is a vexing hard thing to find on home video. The 1999 DVD has the right colors, but a soft image, the 2003 DVD is sharp but much more normal-looking, and the 2007 Blu-Ray is sharp and has the right colors for the daylight scenes, but the night shots aren't nearly blue enough). The bizarre effect this has on the sky, for example, is hard to put into words; not exactly a midwestern sky in the autumn, but close to the idea of that sky, while also being moody and dreamlike.

Meanwhile, Carpenter's compositions are the stuff of legend, with two shots in particular being famous even to those who have never considered watching Halloween: Laurie, standing in front of a black door, as Michael's white mask slowly appears in the corner; and Laurie in close-up, shaking, as Michael is out of focus, lying "dead" in the background, until he smoothly rises after several seconds (the use of long takes in the film is quite a thing, and indeed all of the editing therein would be a worthy topic of study, if I'd thought of it about 1000 words ago). I'd add a third shot to complete the trifecta of flawless, iconic imagery: after killing Bob by pinning him to a wall (with virtually no blood, I might add - the film is almost completely bloodless, which adds incalculable volumes to its fable-esque tone), Michael just stands there, his head askew, as if admiring his handywork, or wondering, "what now?" The European influence on these images is essentially impossible to overstate, and in the history of the horror film, that might be what makes Halloween unique: it combines the gauzy, artistic imagery of the Italians with an actual narrative that makes sense on any level.

In a nutshell, I believe that the best way to think of Halloween is as a bedtime story, though it be a grim one. That explains the simple plot, the cardboard characterisations of everyone besides Laurie and possible Loomis, and it follows hard upon the iconic final moments of the film: after Laurie pulls off Michael's mask briefly (revealing not Nick Castle, but Tony Moran, whose bland features are just about the most unsettling thing in the whole film), the doctor shoots Michael several times, knocking him from a second-story window to lie crumpled on the ground it below. "It was the boogeyman", whimpers Laurie (calling back to a conversation she had with Tommy). "As a matter of fact, it was" says Loomis, and he looks back out the window. Michael is gone. Of course he can't die - he's the thing that goes bump in the night, the embodiment of fear and death more than he is a mortal man. And the film thus ends on a montage of the places we've seen him throughout the film, places that have been touched by Evil and won't ever be free of it again. Because you can't stop those things, evil and death and the dark. You can just box them up in stories, and be their master for a little while at least. But in the end, they're bigger than we are.

Good night, pleasant dreams.

Body Count: 5 people and 2 dogs (one off-camera).

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)
Halloween (Green, 2018)
Halloween Kills (Green, 2021)

*One of those films being The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would shortly remake.