“Halloween,” directed by John Carpenter and starring Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role, has become a classic horror movie in the four decades since its 1978 release. Filmed on a budget of $300,000, it eventually grossed about $70 million at the box office and garnered acclaim from several critics, including Roger Ebert. Its timeless themes and solid execution make it a must-see for college students today.
The movie follows Michael Myers, a psychopath who killed his sister at age 6 and was locked up in a high-security mental institution. Fifteen years later, he escapes from the institution and sets out to murder several teenagers in his old hometown. Only two people are aware of his escape: his old psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, and one of the locals, Sheriff Brackett.
From the first sequence, John Carpenter’s camerawork elevates the film and immerses the audience in the story he is trying to tell. Several shots of the movie were filmed from Michael Myers’ point of view, first out of the eyeholes of a creepy clown mask and later out of the eyeholes of an inhumane, expressionless ski mask. This creates a claustrophobic, fish-eye effect that forces the audience to watch as Myers’ brutal crimes unfold.
By contrast, Carpenter exercised restraint in depicting actual blood and gore. Instead, he carefully built tension in scenes through a clever integration of audio and visual elements. A now-iconic musical score written by Carpenter himself announces to the audience that killing is about to take place. To ratchet up the anticipation even further, Myers’ labored breathing through his mask echoes all around as he stares down his victims. Carpenter sidestepped the blood and guts that other movies exploit for shock value by approaching “Halloween” more like a thriller.
The movie also showcases how filmmakers can raise the stakes across entire films and within certain scenes. There are three female main characters that eventually encounter Michael Myers: Annie Brackett, Lynda Van der Klok and Laurie Strode. Over the course of the film, Myers strangles Annie, suffocates Lynda and stabs her boyfriend, Bob. Laurie discovers their murders in a horrifying scene that delivers a one-two punch. First, she enters the room to find Annie’s dead body lying on a bed. Then, in quick succession, Bob’s dead body swings down behind her and a cabinet swings open to reveal Lynda’s dead body. The ensuing chase sequence between Myers and Laurie is nothing short of nerve-wracking.
Another way Carpenter added to the tension was through dramatic irony. A subplot in the film follows Dr. Loomis and the local sheriff, the only two people in the town who are aware of Michael Myers’ escape and are actively working to stop him. Dr. Loomis cautions the sheriff against telling other people because then “they’ll see him on every corner [and] search for him in every house.” Carpenter invites the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief and repays it in Laurie and Michael’s final showdown. Near the end of “Halloween,” Laurie is locked in a house with two defenseless children, a cut phone line and no parents in sight. The isolation forces her to take the situation into her own hands, heroically defending the children from Myers’ wrath and stabbing him with his own knife.
While some view Laurie’s heroism as feminist, the callous, brutal treatment of other women in the film has drawn a fair share of criticism. John Carpenter and his writing partner, Debra Hill, denied consciously originating the final girl trope in fiction. However, from the start, Hill and Carpenter drew a stark contrast between Annie and Lynda — both flirtatious, sexually active girls with boyfriends — and lonely, squarish Laurie. Every conversation the girls have with one another revolves around spending time with their boyfriends or teasing Laurie for not having one.
The ways in which Annie and Lynda are killed also cast suspicion onto Carpenter and Hill’s claims. Annie is killed by Michael Myers on the way to meeting her boyfriend, while Lynda and her boyfriend are killed in the middle of their intimate scene. Both girls are defenseless, unprepared and rendered especially vulnerable compared to Laurie, who is given a chance to defend herself because she chooses to babysit kids across the street instead. These voyeuristic, vaguely misogynistic elements hold back “Halloween” and come off as unnecessary and outdated.
The (admittedly somewhat heavy-handed) symbolism deployed in “Halloween” redeems some of its more unsavory elements and thematically reinforces its storyline. Characters in the film imply multiple times that Michael Myers is a human incarnation of the devil. Myers kills other people with impunity and even kills a dog who gets in his way. Dr. Loomis calls him “the most dangerous patient [he] has ever observed” and “purely and simply evil.” In the most pointed exchange of the film, Laurie asks whether Myers is the “boogeyman” and Loomis grimly confirms her suspicions.
All of this begs the question: If Michael Myers represents the devil, can he really be judged by human standards? Is he in any way meant to be a sympathetic villain? Who, in their right mind, would identify with him and his crimes?
The symbolism makes the final scene of the film especially eerie. After Laurie stabs Myers, he gets back up, still alive. Dr. Loomis arrives on the scene and shoots him six times, eventually pushing him off the side of the house balcony. One moment, Myers’ body lays on the ground below; the next, he has vanished into thin air. The camera flashes to many locations around town that Myers has visited, while the sound of his labored breathing through the mask can be heard all around.
Michael Myers can be anywhere, and anyone can be his victim. After all, it is Halloween.