Halloween (1978)

Halloween. Compass International Pictures 1978.

Before watching the movie:

For such an iconic movie, foundational to the modern horror genre, I find myself realizing how little I know about this movie. I know a lot around it, like how it was meant to be an anthology franchise, but continuing the Michael Myers story in the second movie locked in audiences to expect the series to be about him, the mask is a modified Captain Kirk mask, Jamie Lee Curtis began her film career here and is amazingly making direct sequels to it almost 45 years later. But what goes on within the movie? Well, there’s a slasher, and he kills people. Maybe that’s all that was necessary back when the slasher genre was being invented.

After watching the movie:

Fifteen years ago, six-year old Michael Myers stabbed his teenage sister to death on Halloween night. After years in a sanitarium, Myers’ psychiatrist Dr. Loomis is tasked with bringing Myers to a court appearance to decide whether there is a chance he could be released, though Loomis hopes not, as the last decade and a half have shown there is nothing to be redeemed in Michael Myers. On arriving at the sanitarium, Loomis and his colleague are attacked and their car is stolen by an escaping Myers. Laurie Strode’s father is trying to sell the old Myers house, and after she leaves the key on the porch for her father, she starts to notice someone shadowing her, though her friends Annie and Lynda wave it off. Loomis goes to the town sheriff and convinces him to hunt for Myers while Loomis waits to catch him at his old home. On Halloween night, Laurie babysits young Tommy while her friend Annie babysits Lindsey across the street. Tommy sees Myers outside of Lindsey’s house and asks Laurie about the boogeyman outside. As Laurie’s friends and their boyfriends make their own plans for Halloween fun, Laurie assures Tommy that she won’t let any boogeyman harm him.

This really doesn’t play like what we expect of slasher movies now. It’s very slowly paced, playing on suspense rather than shock (though it was probably more shocking in the 70s) and gore. Loomis and the sheriff find a dog that Myers killed and mutilated, and I’m pretty sure we never see what they see. It takes about two thirds of the runtime to set up all the conditions for what is now the meat and potatoes of a slasher movie. The movie isn’t about Myers killing, it’s about Myers stalking. It’s about being increasingly concerned for the characters who are blissfully unaware that there’s a killer watching them, waiting for an opportunity.

The visuals are often highly engaging, even gorgeous sometimes. Just because so much of the movie is dark doesn’t mean it’s at all difficult to understand what’s happening. Though the film has gotten a lot of critical attention for its use of first-person camera for killings to make the audience feel more participatory, I found it, especially the child Michael killing, the cheesiest, most immersion-wrecking part of what is otherwise perhaps the most grounded horror movie I’ve ever seen.

While I pretty much exclusively know Jamie Lee Curtis in her later career, as one of the lucky few women who have managed to become even bigger stars after their 30s, I will say that I’m surprised she’s only about 20 playing a teenager. This movie has unbelievably old-looking “teenagers” even for Hollywood. I would’ve thought the actors were all in their late 20s or early 30s. For as much as people talk up Donald Pleasence, I didn’t see as much of him as I expected, but he is definitely the most commanding presence on screen in all of his scenes.

This isn’t fun in the way that I have a sense that modern slasher movies are supposed to be fun, but it is a magnetic thriller. It seems highly rewatchable as a pure drama that happens to have unattended teens getting murdered for no good reason. The two leads do an incredible amount of carrying it, but the direction and cinematography are the real heroes of this movie. Looking ahead on the series, the franchise seems to have become a self-cannibalizing parody of itself, but this is a solid piece of cinema.

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