Retro Review – Halloween (1978)

Halloween poster

Overview

Synopsis On Halloween night, in the small suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois, three teenage girls are unknowingly stalked by a murderous psychopath, who had killed his own sister fifteen years prior.

Length 1 hour, 31 minutes

Release Date October 27, 1978

 

Rating R

Distribution Columbia Pictures Corporation (1978, theatrical), Compass International Pictures (1978, theatrical), Lionsgate Home Entertainment (2018, all media), Scream Factory (2021, Blu-ray)

Directing John Carpenter

Writing John Carpenter, Debra Hill

Composition John Carpenter

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran, Donald Pleasence

Psycho may have been one of the first films to contribute to the creation of the slasher horror sub-genre (ironically starring Janet Leigh, the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis), but Halloween (1978) was certainly the film to popularize the now overused “final girl” template. While that formula is the movie’s most obvious legacy, John Carpenter denies it being an intentional choice. Indeed, over forty years later, the film still holds up well, despite its meagre budget and the hundreds of copycat stories it has spawned. So what makes the original stand out, deserving a spot on the AFI’s list of the most thrilling films in American cinema?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film, therefore the movie aims to scare its audience. The story centres on a psychopathic killer that stalks and kills people for no reason that’s directly explained in the film. Be aware the following information may spoil the suspense for some viewers:

Several people are stabbed. Some of the wounds can be seen, along with some blood, but this wouldn’t be considered a gory film in today’s time. One person is pinned to the wall by the knife. Corpses are found within a house – one is hanging upside-down. A character is strangled. One person is shot repeatedly. A coat hanger is used to poke someone in the eye. The bottom half a dog is seen going limp. It is mentioned the killer eats dogs.

Language/Crude Humor: Some name-calling.

Drug/Alcohol References: Underage teens are seen smoking (cigarettes and illicit substances) and drinking beer.

Sexual Content: Nearly all the female characters (older teens) in this film spend some time being scantily clad. Two characters are seen topless. Two sex scenes; one occurs off camera and the other cuts to the end of the act. An unmarried couple kiss and grope each other, talking about ripping each other’s clothes off. There is a joke about ripping the clothes off a little girl. 

Spiritual Content: There is a brief classroom discussion about the different theories surrounding the concept of fate. The psychopathic killer is frequently described as being pure evil, not worthy of being called a human.

Other Negative Content: Some characters are quick to shirk their responsibilities in favour of having casual sex. Voyeurism is a major aspect of the movie, explored through the film’s cinematography, but in doing so, it means that the audience is forced to adopt a voyeuristic view of the characters as well.

Positive Content: This is the film that popularised and set the rules of the slasher genre. Therefore, if one were to simplify it, good triumphs over evil, where those who commit sins are punished, and the virginal “final girl” is spared. However, the concept that evil can walk amongst us, combined with the movie’s voyeuristic camera angles, conveys the idea that we all share a slice of evilness, begging the audience to fear this side of our own nature.

Review

Even though the 1978 film started it all, it’s hard to talk just about the movie without also addressing its legacy. There are now thirteen films within this franchise, so it can be quite daunting when it comes to choosing where to begin. Some may feel that it’s obvious to start with this film, though there are actually two cases where it’s not required. So let’s clear up this mess before digging deeper into why Halloween (1978) should be viewed no matter what order you’re following.

The Halloween Series Timeline

A bit of a trivia for you: Halloween was originally conceived as anthology series. Michael Myers, the now-legendary psychopathic killer, was meant to be the spook for just one film. John Carpenter and Debra Hill therefore envisioned the Halloween franchise to be an exploration of the holiday, providing lots of different bone-chilling stories, almost a bit like what The Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horror” episodes have become. However, the success of the 1978 movie meant the studio was keen to invest in a sequel, so Halloween II was produced in 1981, still featuring Michael much to the writers’ chagrin.

The anthology concept was finally explored in 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. With only a loose reference to the previous two films (kind of like how Stephen King links his books), Halloween III: Season of the Witch exists on its own, the only member of its solitary timeline. Unfortunately the idea of turning the franchise into an anthology wasn’t advertised well, so fans were confused and ended up hating the film, begging for Michael Myers’ return. They got their wish with Halloween 4: The Return to Michael Myers, which continued the story established in Halloween II. Two more films followed: Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (there are two cuts of this film with alternate endings). By that stage the current direction of the franchise had reached its natural end.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later decided to explore another direction, though it only used the original film and Halloween II as its base, retconning all the others that followed. Despite its rather definitive ending, sure enough, once again the studio pushed for more sequels, and Halloween: Resurrection was evilly produced. Considered one of the worst in the franchise, interest in the film series died, killing that timeline. Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) rebooted the entire thing, offering a prequel that explored Michael’s past while also creating an alternative universe to the events of the original. Like always, a sequel of this new timeline was produced, confusingly titled Halloween II (2009). Catching up to present day, the franchise was rebooted again as a way to course correct previous cinema sins. Halloween (2018) is a sequel to the original Halloween (1978) and ignores all others in the series, with Halloween Kills as a follow up, before finishing with the latest movie on offer in cinemas now, Halloween Ends.

Confused?

Let’s sum it up:

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a standalone film that has barely any connection to Michael Myers.

The original timeline includes: Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.

First retconned timeline includes: Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, and Halloween: Resurrection.

The rebooted timeline contains: Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009).

Lastly, the second retconned timeline includes: Halloween (1978), Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills, and Halloween Ends.

Halloween (1978) and its Legacy

There are three films created within a close period of time which are commonly attributed as being the progenitors of the modern slasher horror subgenre. They are: Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). If a fourth had to be added, then it would be 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There are other films, such as Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho (1960), and Black Christmas (1974) that certainly had a hand in contributing to the tropes we recognize today, but Michael, Jason, and Freddy were the villains that popularized the formula and are widely considered to be part of the “Golden Age” of the slasher genre.

A slasher movie typically features a (usually masked) psychopathic killer that indiscriminatingly murders teenagers on a special calendar date with bladed weapons one by one, until only the “Final Girl” remains (normally the most conservative teenage girl who’s not only chaste but uses everything she’s learned from her ordeal to best the killer in a final showdown). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hit a number of these narrative beats, mainly the masked killer (Leatherface), the piling up of dead teenage bodies, and the traumatized final girl. Though most cinephiles admire the film’s final shot, where the movie deviated from past horror films with its suggestion that evil will continue to persist. Yet the film is a bit of genre hybrid; it features the ridiculous cannibalistic redneck stereotype complete with exploitative gore that belongs firmly within the grindhouse subgenre. Regardless, it was a cheaply made production that saw phenomenal returns at the box office, which laid both the financial and narrative foundations for Halloween’s creation.

A product of its time, Halloween isn’t set amongst unknown backwoods but rather within the familiar territory of quaint American suburbia. The majority of society had been disillusioned by the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, so the years that immediately followed were marked with a carefree sense of abandonment alongside a desire for a return to some semblance of normality. Enter Halloween and its unforgettable villain, Michael Myers.

While it’s not immediately obvious, it’s interesting to note the underlying conservative values hidden within the slasher genre, with its moralistic viewpoint becoming a mainstay feature until it was reconstructed in Scream, and later parodied in Scary Movie. The teenage victims in Halloween all tended to hold what were considered the more progressive views of the time. They were laidback, shirking the older generation’s worries, and feeling confident in exploring their sexuality and recreational drugs. No doubt some members in the audience would have seen themselves in their carefree outlook on life, making it even more chilling when they are dispatched one by one. Meanwhile the character of Loomis represented society’s older worldview and the generation that was hardened by the horrors of the Vietnam War, becoming disillusioned enough to recognize that evil is never destroyed, warning that it would always rise up again.

Then there is Laurie—an old soul in living within the new generation. Shy, conscientious and conservative, her level of wariness compared to her friends is what sets her apart from them, and ultimately it’s those traits that help her to heed the warnings and survive against evil incarnate (personified by Michael Myers). There’s an almost Old Testament quality to the events in the story, where if one sins, they die. Overall there’s an unsettling message that evil is persistent and inevitable, and one must always be vigilant if they hope to avoid its life-destroying nature.

Well, that’s at least one explanation as to why Halloween left such a mark on cinema. Deeper analysis aside, on its surface the film is very straight-forward and disarming with its simplicity. Michael’s backstory is hardly explored, with the movie mostly portraying him as an emotionless masked “shape” that kills without remorse. There’s really not much to the story. Yet out of the three main slashers in the Golden Age of the late 70s and early 80s, Halloween manages to be a cut above the others despite featuring the least complex plot, and that is to do with its technical achievements.

It’s nearly impossible to critique Halloween without mentioning its iconic cinematography. While it’s not the first film to stalk characters with the camera—letting the audience view the world through the eyes of the antagonist—it is the movie that popularized the idea since it utilized the technique to great effect, causing the approach to still be seen in many films today. With the exception of one shot that is inconsistent with the rest (Michael is seen from behind whilst sitting in a car, leading one to wonder who in turn is stalking him), the camerawork creates a magnificent sense of tension as the audience knows how close the killer is to succeeding, and it masterfully toys with the concept of close calls with many moments passing where a potential victim escapes death without even knowing how fragile their life had become.

What ties it all together is the music. It’s toe-tapping, certainly memorable, but also nerve-wracking. Famously composed by John Carpenter himself in only a short session of experimentation, the theme song is set to an unnerving 5/4 time signature. Its rapid off-kilter pacing operates at a subconscious level, allowing audiences to sense that something isn’t quite right whenever its high-pitched beat is heard. Using an odd time signature is a technique that is possibly best noted in Halloween, as its memorable tune is one of the most recognisable within the genre, with only Jaws, Psycho, and The Exorcist being the others in contention—no doubt it’s a score which is studied by composers when they are first learning their craft and the subliminal ways they can influence viewers. While I will always be partial towards the original Suspiria soundtrack, Halloween is frequently seen in the number one spot in “Best Horror Movie Soundtrack” lists, and if it’s not, then it’s certainly found near the top. The film is nearing half a century of age, and it’s genuinely surprising that another movie hasn’t challenged this iconic tune since its creation, which gives power to the effectiveness of this simple beat.

Halloween in Modern Times

With so much praise, it’s understandable that new viewers of this iconic landmark of a film will inevitably experience some level of disappointment. When it comes to the horror genre, a movie’s quality is usually equated with its scariness, though the emotion of fear is a fickle entity that ebbs away with time and context.

Dare I say that in today’s times, Halloween wouldn’t be seen as scary by modern audiences. At least not in the traditional sense. It’s the case with many influential movies; the elements that made them fresh, original, and ground-breaking at the time are now seen as cliché and tired, as younger audiences would have most likely viewed the works they inspired before they had a chance to watch the progenitor in its full glory. A lot of Halloween’s cinematic elements were borrowed, explored, and exaggerated throughout the decades.

Most notable is the lack of blood and gore. The more modern slashers have taken it to new extremes, so it’s shocking to watch the famous grandaddy of this subgenre and realize just how tame it is on this front. Its reputation precedes itself; Michael Myers is said to be an unstoppable killing machine and a force of evil, and while he is still that entity in the first movie, his penchant for creative and gory deaths is an aspect that is established in later films in the franchise. Halloween inspired the trend, and those other movies then pushed this franchise to follow the same route, fuelling each other into some gory oblivion.

Meanwhile, the stalker style cinematography now feels overdone. Halloween has gone the same way with its POV shots as The Matrix did with its bullet time effects—it was the film that popularized the effect, which was then replicated ad nauseum in the industry until the next big thing came along, making the original source material look horribly cliché if you’re studying these films and the genre in reverse release order. The cinematography, however, was never a gimmick, unlike other films that may have adopted the killer POV technique. It will always be considered a strong creative choice which enhances the narrative because the technique was chosen for such a reason, not because it was popular. However, modern viewers may note just how much stalking is involved as it is exceptionally long compared to more recent films. At one point, a character manages to get a full load of washing completed before Michael commits to a lethal blow! Halloween features long periods of suspense, something which is abnormal and possibly even seen as boring in modern cinema.

Other aspects also haven’t aged well. The shots where Michael stands off in the background only to disappear when the character glances back is now so commonplace in horror that it’s comical. Yet no matter how dated some of the filmmaking techniques seem today, Michael Myers still manages to make an impression. There have been other terrifying entities that also embody evil itself or are just as relentless within genre—like Ju-On/The Grudge or It Follows—and while they have made their own impact on cinema, there hasn’t been anything that has shaken Michael Myers’ legacy from society’s subconsciousness.

For instance, as an Australian and as someone that has studied criminology, I sometimes listen to Americans speak about the gun debate as it’s a different culture to mine and I wish to learn. When the debate is whittled away to its core essence, there have been multiple times when I’ve heard pro-gun advocates ask, in regards to protecting their family, “What if Michael Myers comes?” Despite the prolific nature of the horror genre, it is Halloween’s character that still manages to represent the propensity of evil within our own humanity. He’s the epitome of a person that will commit atrocities just for the sake of it. He represents the fear of serial killers. The fear of being intruded. Of being overpowered. We take our darkest thoughts and “shape” it into Michael Myers. We know deep down that it’s irrational—if a person like Michael ever did exist, then it would be a statistical anomaly (as people, particularly women, are more likely to be murdered by a loved one, which is terrifying when you stop to think about it). But despite the ridiculousness, the concept of his existence still haunts the psyche, making his moniker as the bogeyman truly apt.

Possibly the aspect that has aged the worst is the film’s sexualization of women. With the opening scene in particular shot through Michael’s eyes, the female victims in the film laze about half clothed, only to gasp and utter erotically as they are attacked. Much has been written about this, so I don’t feel the need to go into great depths here, but essentially this choice was made to encapsulate Michael’s mindset—he viewed murder as something pleasurable. It’s Halloween’s worst legacy. Since the film pushed the boundaries and was critically praised, copycat movies followed suit, and an entire wave of horror films seemed to believe that gratuitous nudity should be synonymous with this subgenre. Eventually the pendulum has swung back and viewers have begun to criticize films that take this route.

It’s easy to point fingers and shame this film, looking at this aspect as little more than something to despise. However, on deeper reflection, it’s actually now the film’s most chilling aspect in modern times. As the female characters erotically swoon as they die by Michael’s hand, the film is intentionally creating an uncomfortable contrast between two wildly opposing stimuli. Remember: we’re seeing the world through Michael’s eyes, and he, a true psychopath, mixes violence and arousal. It all seems so quaint now; back in 1978 this was seen as something disturbing. Now with other films mimicking this without the psychopathic context and the explosion of pornography, not only is it horrific to revisit this film and find it tame by today’s standards, but also that violent acts are now commonplace in erotica. I have read studies that quote upwards of 90% of today’s porn contain violent acts against women. Therefore, the vast majority of people who consume porn are potentially literally masturbating to violence against women—a mindset which back in 1978 was attributed to one of the most psychopathic entities in cinema. The fear Halloween produces may not be through an elevated heart rate or a jolt from a jump scare, but rather through the realization at how far our society has fallen since the film’s release by embracing a behaviour that was once considered evil and depraved.

It’s understandable if viewers may ultimately find this film to be overhyped, but one cannot deny that Halloween is a piece of cinematic history, acting like a snapshot of the world at the time of 1978, and offering a timestamp on the sudden popularity of film techniques and narrative trends with the art form itself. In this way, Halloween is a film that shouldn’t be disregarded.

Positives

+ Dialogue
+ Cinematography
+ Music
+ Establishing an entire subgenre
+ Crafted one of the greatest villains in cinematic history
+ Continues to leave a scar on society's psyche

Negatives

- Scares now seem comedic
- Who's stalking Michael?
- Sexualization of women
- Started some horrid trends in cinema

The Bottom Line

Some aspects of Halloween haven’t aged well, however it’s a film that has created a legacy thanks to its technical achievements. It may not scare audiences as much as it did in the past, but it does offer a glimpse into the world of 1978, featuring society’s fears and sense of morality, which may cause a chill when we compare them to today’s standards.

 

9.2

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

Leave a Comment