“Spook Show 2019 – 07: Halloween (1978)” by Richard F. Yates
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Halloween is a 1978 horror thriller, directed by John Carpenter and starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. I would have thought, until today, that almost everybody in the world had seen this film---until my brother came over this morning and said he’d never watched it! I immediately threw it into my machine and hit play.
For those who haven’t seen this movie, it has a very basic premise, a young boy, named Michael, murders his sister on Halloween when he is only six years old. He spends the next 15 years in a mental institution, but escapes and returns to his hometown where, again on Halloween night, he stalks and kills a bunch of teenagers. Simple, straightforward, slasher movie, right? Except there really WEREN’T that many slasher movies, yet, when this came out. Sure, there was Psycho (1960), but that was a brilliant and highly respected thriller (and a bit of an anomaly), and there were a couple of weirdo movies, like Black Christmas (1974) and Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), which were fairly murder-y, and there were the Italian giallo films, sure, but in the days before VCRs were commonplace, the only people who saw those movies were art-house patrons or people who watched late night horror shows (which were usually heavily edited for television).
THIS film, however, was a box office SMASH!
The film was a low budget affair, with only one A-lister, Donald Pleasence, in the cast, and this new girl, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the lead role. (This was Curtis’s first motion picture.) Curtis WAS, however, already connected with the horror genre, as her mother was Janet Lee, the victim in the infamous “Shower Scene” in Psycho. What made Halloween so special was how absolutely SUCCESSFUL it ended up being. Made on a budget of only around $300,000.00, it went on to make MILLIONS at the box office, sparking a FLOOD of knock off, low budget “slasher” films (most of them MUCH gorier than this movie but hardly ever as GOOD), and ensuring the places of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis is film history.
Speaking of gore, where the slasher glut of films that came after Halloween were filled with Tom Savini-style splatter effects, in this movie the violence really isn’t particularly explicit. Carpenter borrows from the Hitchcock playbook, often SUGGESTING violence---knife movements seen through the eye-holes of a mask, or having “kills” take place in extremely dark rooms so we know something horrible is happening but we can’t see exactly what---but there isn’t really much blood ever shown on the screen. (In fact, a few of the kills take place off camera, and there are a couple of strangulation scenes, which are gruesome and unpleasant, but not splattery.) Other Hitchcock tropes that Carpenter borrows are silhouette shots, angled shots (where we look down or up at various characters), and point of view shots in which we see what “The Shape” sees (the killer isn’t called “Michael Myers” in the credits; Nick Castle, who plays Michael in most scenes in the film, is listed in the credits as “The Shape!” AND---a bit of trivia---according to a little documentary on the DVD that I have, the mask that “The Shape” wears is actually a modified William Shatner mask!!!), and all of these techniques are used to establish an uneasy mood and increase tension. Visually, the movie holds up quite well, and Nick Castle’s performance as the killer is genuinely chilling---and this is, at least partially, because he never says a word throughout the entire film.
Another element of this film that I think makes it wildly entertaining is Donald Pleasence, who plays Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist who has been treating Michael Myers since he was institutionalized as a young boy. Pleasence is completely BOMBASTIC in this film, constantly throwing out these brilliant, hilarious, over-the-top lines, like when he’s trying to convince the local sheriff that they need to take his prediction, that Michael is about to start killing people again, seriously---and he says, “I met this six year old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes…the Devil’s eyes…” Sure! Very convincing! As a policeman, I’m certain I’d hear that description and go, “Okay. We’ll take your word for it!” and not think that the good doctor has HIMSELF gone over the edge. Yet Dr. Loomis (who is, of course, right) keeps going on about how Michael is evil and he’s the devil… It’s all great! Other characters in the film, especially the young boy, Tommy, who Jamie Lee Curtis is babysitting, call Michael the Boogeyman, and when Curtis asks Dr. Loomis if Michael IS, in fact, the Boogeyman, the doctor, naturally, says yes!
There are a lot of things about this movie that are fun. Dr. Loomis’s overblown rhetoric, the way that Michael Myers seems to be EVERYWHERE in the film (including “following” Jamie Lee Curtis around in a car---which he drives for almost two full days without ever running out of gasoline! Thanks, Brother Dave, for pointing that out!), and there are tons of goofy antics from the teenage characters (who don’t really look very much like teenagers to ME). These figures, the teenage victims, all have extremely cheesy and annoying personalities, and they are constantly engaged in “naughty” behavior: smoking pot, ignoring the kids they’re supposed to be babysitting, and (worst of all) having pre-marital sexual relations!!! (Certainly a justifiable reason for being murdered in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.) However, despite the goofiness of most of the scenes that are centered on the high school kids, once Michael Myers starts his rampage, the movie DOES manage to create some seriously unnerving moments. My brother, who hadn’t seen the movie until today, said he was surprised at how effective the film was at building suspense, and I think that has to do with both the film’s cinematography (lots of shadows and contrasting, dark vs light, effects) and thanks to the movie’s SCORE, which was composed and performed by Carpenter. (In the documentary on this DVD, he claims that the had to write the score in about three days. If so, he’s a genius, as it’s still an effective accompaniment to this day.)
For all its graphic tameness, the movie IS still rated “R,” so I should probably mention a few of the elements that some folks might find objectionable. There isn’t too much foul language, but there is some nudity and a couple of sex scenes, although these aren’t THAT explicit. Like the gore, the sexual content is mostly suggested. There is some drug use in the film, and although there isn’t much BLOOD, the strangulation sequences are disturbing to watch. So a bit of violence, a little bit of nudity, some drug use---Hey! It was the late ‘70s! What did you expect?
All in all, though, the movie is still fun to watch, if you like horror films or suspense thrillers. There is a HINT that Michael Myers might be, somehow, a bit supernatural, but he’s not Freddy Kruger or Pinhead by any means, and the movie is nowhere near as gory as Hellraiser or even Friday the 13th, but it’s still an effective horror movie. Plus, the idea that a young suburban kid, who hasn’t been abused, hasn’t been neglected or traumatized in any way, can just be BORN BAD and randomly decide, one day, to start killing people, is still frightening. (And the reason I definitely prefer THIS version of Halloween to Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake is specifically BECAUSE he gave his killer a traumatic back story---effectively erasing what made the original film so chilling in the first place.) This is a classic movie, an indie box office success, and an entertaining and scary work of art, which (perhaps accidentally) helped usher in the ‘80s slasher horror genre, and I would argue, is STILL the top of that heap---that pile ol’ “Guy with a mask kills teenagers” garbage pile. If you’re only going to watch ONE slasher picture this Halloween, make sure it’s THIS one!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
SUPPORT INDEPENDENT FOLKS WHO ARE JUST MAKING STUFF BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!!!
P.S. – I said I was going to include my complete Spook Show recommendations list with each Spooky review, just in case this is some reader’s first encounter with this series---even though I've already forgotten to include the list in one review! My memory is garbage!!! Anyway, here are the films I’ve already looked at:
SPOOK SHOW 2019 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2019 – 01: The Shining (1980)”
“Spook Show 2019 - 02: Salem's Lot (1979)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 03: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (2003)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 04: House by the Cemetery (1981)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 05: Beetlejuice (1988)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 06: The Sentinel (1977)”
SPOOK SHOW 2018 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2018 – 01: The Exorcist (1973)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 02: Curse of the Demon (1957)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 03: Frogs (1972)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 04: Child’s Play (1988)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 05: The Haunting (1963)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 06: Shaun of the Dead (2004)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 07: Fright Night (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 08: Mr. Vampire (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 09: The Devil Rides Out (1968)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 10: Ghoulies (1985)”