You know those countless slasher flicks in which a psychotic maniac slices his way through horny teenagers, only to be thwarted by the virginal heroine in the end? Halloween is the fountainhead. Despite countless imitators, however, few have been able to match the level of craft and psychological depth on display here. Halloween is a landmark, and a legitimately enduring classic.
The movie opens not on an image, but with its iconic score, which was composed by director John Carpenter. (He also co-wrote the script with producer Debra Hill.) Driven by a needling piano and stabbing synthesizer, the music seems to enter your body through your spine. It’s as insinuating as the constricted breathing we hear whenever the looming shape of Michael Myers (Nick Castle) appears on the screen, muffled behind that mask.
You might think this is Michael Myers’ story, given that the movie famously opens with a bravura, extended single take from his perspective when he was 6 years old. Previewing a technique that will be continued throughout the film, Carpenter begins the shot from behind an obstruction of some kind, sliding to the left to reveal Michael’s house in quiet, suburban, Haddonfield, Ill. It’s the first of many clever, sudden reveals. The shot proceeds as Michael (Will Sandin here) watches through the window as his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson) makes out with her boyfriend (David Kyle) on the couch, then leads him upstairs. Little Michael dons a clown mask—it’s Halloween night, after all—grabs a kitchen knife, and proceeds to make Judith pay for her sins.
At least this is how the movie struck me the first time I saw it: puerile and puritanical, more akin to Friday the 13th, a low point in the slasher genre. But I think I was (perhaps understandably, given the POV shot) seeing things only through Michael’s eyes. It turns out that Halloween is less interested in his psychology than that of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Laurie is a teenager living in Haddonfield some 15 years after the Myers murder. And she’s deeply conflicted about sex. On this Halloween night, she’s stuck babysitting while her friends scheme to get together with their boyfriends. Laurie is both jealous and disapproving. She’s interested in boys, even unwisely letting slip that she has a crush on a classmate, but she’s also uncomfortable about following through on that impulse. Curtis gives by far the best performance, suggesting the complicated experience of missing out on something you don’t even know if you really want. When Laurie, while babysitting, dons a matronly apron to carve a pumpkin, she seems perfectly content—as if she found a way to skip sex altogether and go straight to being a middle-aged mom (it helps that Curtis looks 35).
Carpenter’s score seems to enter your body through your spine.
And so, upon closer inspection, Halloween isn’t so much about Michael Myers, unstoppable punisher of sexual sin, as it is about Laurie’s sexual anxiety—as embodied by the nightmare that is Michael Myers. Sure, we get more of Michael’s back story via Donald Pleasence, playing the doctor whose facility Michael escapes from. But that framing device is awkward, contrived, and could probably be taken out of the movie altogether. Michael Myers is much more compelling as a metaphorical manifestation of Laurie Strode’s sexual fears.
This fits with the way Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey portray him: as a metaphysical presence, if not an imaginary one. When he arrives in Haddonfield and begins stalking Laurie, Michael often suddenly appears standing in broad daylight, wearing that awful mask. It’s as if he doesn’t care if others see him, or perhaps he knows that only Laurie can. Often, he disappears as inexplicably as he arrived. Then there is the brilliant shot in the climactic showdown between them, in which Laurie stands terrified against a wall as the mask imperceptibly emerges from the darkened doorway next to her. It’s a horrifying image of the stalking subconscious.
But what to make of the climactic showdown between Michael and Laurie, which struck me as so clumsy the first time I saw the film that I discounted much of the craft that came before. Even on repeat viewings there are moments that feel laughably, ineptly staged. More than once Michael has Laurie easily in his grasp, only to stab or slice ludicrously off target. And why does this smart girl suddenly become so dumb: throwing away the knife before she’s sure he’s dead; turning her back on his body repeatedly; refusing to just leave that house when she has the chance—twice?
It’s unlikely that Carpenter would suddenly lose his facility for blocking and framing, especially for so crucial a section of the film. So perhaps this confrontation, too, is best taken metaphorically. The physical space doesn’t matter as much if this is all taking place in Laurie’s head, where she’s fully confronting her fears about her sexuality. (Notice that when she approaches the house where Michael waits, she’s sporting an unbuttoned blouse, a far cry from that matronly apron.) And perhaps this is why Pleasence’s doctor is the one who arrives to save her: after all, this is a psychological struggle. And maybe this is also why Michael Myers vanishes once again, disappearing into the dark. We can wrestle our demons and occasionally win, but they’ll always be there another day.