Halloween (1978)

4 out of 5

Directed by: John Carpenter

Carpenter’s deliciously patient widescreen camera work gives the opening hour or so of Halloween an appreciable ominousness, leading to a still terrifically effective final section of Michael Myers frights and Jamie Lee Curtis shrieks.  …And these strengths help to smooth out the film’s flaws, with its tonal flubs, and weak dialogue, and relative plotlessness.

It’s Halloween.  Young Michael Myers – six years old – for reasons completely unknown to us, peeps on his sister gettin’ down with her boyfriend, then decides to don a mask, pick up a knife, and stab her to death.  He wanders downstairs and outside rather unhurriedly, and confronts his confused parents in outfit, with knife.  Director John Carpenter delivers the whole sequence, prior to Michael heading outside, from the kid’s perspective, setting a voyeuristic point of view for what’s to come, which indirectly removes the need for any real explanation for Michael’s actions: we’re in his head; we don’t need a reason.

Flash forward some time later, and a Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is driving with a nurse to the nuthouse to pick up the incarcerated Michael for a transfer.  This is where some of the hokiness comes into play, as Carpenter almost seems entirely uninterested in trying to make this setup feasible at all – it’s all about putting Michael back in a position where he can creep on girls and kill them, and so there’s no security for this transfer, and this apparently incredibly dangerous patient is allowed to run outside in the rain with the other patients, and the nurse screams and now Michael has stolen their car…

Cut to Laurie (Curtis) and friends, planning their Halloween evenings.  Laurie is boyfriendless and doing the babysitter shtick; her girlfriends are plotting how to spend time with their relative boyfriends, away from parents’ prying eyes.  Throughout the day, Laurie sees a man watching her from afar – Michael, already having made the several hour drive back to his hometown – and we learn that the Myers house is now considered haunted.  This is all stock stuff, the prowler watching from afar, suddenly disappearing whenever someone tries to confront him, but Carpenter works the wide angles and just holds them; he’s working the stock nature of things to get your eyes crawling over the screen for spooks, while also essentially writing the playbook for how these slashers would be structured for years to follow.

The effectiveness of this is is juggled with some ridiculously dumb dialogue from Dr. Loomis, trying to convince the local police to be on the lookout for Michael, and the kind of odd decisions to include some groundwork around Michael’s outfit, and where he gets his killing tools from, while already showing us Mike in all of his plain overalls / white masked glory.  When the scenes arrive with these details, they thus feel rather pointless; Carpenter’s m.o. of establishing the killer as rather random – as a force of evil – is better served by keeping the story is sparse as possible.  When narrative interrupts this, it just feels forced.

However, none of this really matters when we get to the film’s final section.  Dumb horror decisions persist – don’t check on the killer being dead when you attack him, several times in a row – and Carpenter maybe goes for visual impact over sticking with the force of evil shtick, but nonetheless, some classic moments that are still exciting today, and must’ve been killer decades ago when this was all brand new.