This isn’t a man.
I wish I could go back in time and watch Halloween upon its release because I can’t help being underwhelmed by it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary. John Carpenter‘s horror opus is a very effective thriller that earns its place as an inspirational slasher icon. Its score is unparalleled (and honestly a huge part of the film’s appeal whether fans are cognizant of its impact or not); its use of a lumbering, emotionless boogeyman inspired; and its portrayal of teens grounded despite sex-crazed hormones. Yet nothing really happens. So much of the runtime demands that we wait, driving anticipation through the roof. Those moments when “The Shape” (Nick Castle‘s mask-wearing evolution of Michael Myers’ violence) kills inevitably feel so anticlimactic that they become a letdown.
And that’s not the present-day me seeing it through twenty-first century eyes. That’s how I felt the first time I saw it in the 90s too. This is only the second time I’ve ever watched the film because of it and my hope was that two decades-plus of age and cinematic appreciation would show my teenage brain was simply not ready for its brilliance. But that’s the thing about art, right? Recognizing a work’s cultural significance and craft doesn’t automatically make it a masterpiece if it cannot also impact you emotionally. I personally have never quite gotten there with this title no matter how hard I try. Carpenter and Debra Hill‘s script unrolls in a matter-of-fact way with few surprises and has forever kept me at arm’s length.
The mythology is great, though. It must be to have spawned so many sequels. That it’s introduced from a first-person vantage point only makes it better as the opening truly places us into the cold, calculating mind of killer. We are young Michael Myers in this long-take opening. We’re watching through the front window as his sister and her boyfriend fool around on the couch. We’re turning up towards her bedroom as the lights go out and over to the door to enter and find a knife. Seeing his hand at the corner of the frame disorients us because it looks too little to be preparing for what’s coming. We therefore question what’s going to occur right up to the point where he stabs her in the chest.
From there we fast-forward fifteen years to find Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) readying for his latest parole appearance with the now twenty-three-year-old Myers—a formality he’s long-since intentionally sabotaged so that his patient’s evil could never see the light of day. The darkness and rain are sufficiently creepy as we move towards the mental institution to see men and women roaming the yard in their white gowns. It’s as eerie as it is surreal with Loomis’ ever-present fear towards what it might mean ratcheting up the tension even further until Michael assaults his nurse and steals their car. The doctor’s worst nightmare has come true with nobody daring to believe him. They say Myers was incarcerated as a boy. That he can’t drive. That Loomis lost the plot.
To move from these undeniably impressive sequences to Myers’ sleepy hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois is thus a jarring transition because we’re meant to be on-edge despite none of the residents knowing they should be too. We’re thrust into a second round of exposition that’s nowhere near as compelling courtesy of three teen girls organizing how they will spend their Halloween night. Annie (Nancy Kyes) is babysitting a neighborhood girl with the hope her boyfriend might come over. Lynda (P.J. Soles) is planning to use the house Annie is watching as a sex den for her and Bob (John Michael Graham). And Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis)—the “girl scout”—will be babysitting across the street just in case they need someone “responsible” to help facilitate their lewd intentions.
And all the while “The Shape” gazes at them from afar. He’s driving by, lurking, and biding his time to pounce. Will it be when Annie spills butter on her shirt and needs to go outside to the laundry room? Will it be when a drunk Lynda and Bob arrive with nothing but hedonism on their minds? We know it won’t be Laurie because she’s perfectly positioned as our surrogate to watch the chaos unfold. Every time little Tommy (Brian Andrews) sees the “boogeyman” across the street where Annie is, she looks and finds nothing. The Thing from Another World plays on the television to get everyone a bit riled up as phone calls and favors start moving them on the board to better serve Michael’s malicious needs.
Loomis waits at the old, abandoned Myers house with his gun. Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) roams the streets, skeptical of the doctor’s fears yet unwilling to ignore them. Laurie carves a pumpkin to occupy her ward (and Annie’s once she escorts her over to empty the house). And Michael shuffles back and forth, inside the houses and out, until he’s ready to attack. It’s quick when he does too: choking, stabbing, tilting his head in fascination at the aftermath. That sense of calm is supposed to be unnerving and yet I’ve always found it impersonal instead. This character is meant to die and does. Then the next. And the next. Only at the climax—when Laurie investigates her friends’ disappearances and earns Michael’s attention—do things click again.
The ending is almost as good as the beginning even if it’s generally populated with Myers getting back up from an attack that no human being ever should. That is what gets me unnerved. The uncertain potential that maybe Loomis’ talk about evil isn’t hyperbole. Maybe the younger kids’ talk of boogeymen is more than mere ghost story and Haddonfield just happens to be ground zero for the latest proof that the supernatural exists. Carpenter and Hill pull no punches in this regard either. They even add to the horror by letting Loomis be as afraid of what Michael represents as Laurie and the rest. And then to cap it off with an unapologetic cliffhanger leaving everyone’s fate unfinished? A stroke of genius. My brain simply needed more.