Hallow Ground: Review of Halloween 1978

Image taken from Mental Floss and owned by Trancas International Pictures

Micheal Myers wasn’t the first of his kind, the slasher antagonist. There was Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 Psycho. There was Leatherface from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). There was the one-off slasher Black Christmas. Halloween, however, solidified a genre’s popularity throughout the 80s and 90s and many cliches and tropes originated in John Carpenter’s original. To put it another way, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho were for slashers what Wolfenstein 3D was for the first person shooter and Halloween and Doom in that same respect. Forget Jack Skellington. Micheal Myers is the king of Halloween and he changed the face of both the holiday and William Shatner for many forevermore.

I haven’t yet seen the forty year later followup that ignores the nine other films in the franchise, so I’ll hold my thoughts on the surprise blockbuster. What I can say as a first time viewer is how surprised I was at how effective the original remains. The first person camera meant to simulate Micheal’s perspective was a new idea for a horror film back then and it remains surprisingly easy to see it as somehow unique to Halloween even though the first Friday the 13th would copy that same technique to hide the killer’s identity two years later. The setting of small town, rural Illinois in Fall conveys both a cold yet at times oddly comfortable slice of the late 70s’ aesthetic. Despite being filmed in LA county, it simulates Illinois as far as I can tell quite convincingly.  Carpenter is one of the master indie filmmakers, managing to take a small budget and make it look bigger than it really is. While the scope of Halloween is necessarily small and tight, as befits the tone, it feels as if for what was intended, no expense was spared.

The cliches are unavoidable but feel acceptable especially due to execution and as an early example of what was worn out over countless imitators. The sexually promiscuous, drunken teenagers. The high school age dialect which in some respects hasn’t changed that much. As the Honest Trailers send up of the film pointed out, you can make a drinking game out of one of the character’s use of the word “totally”.

What grounds the film is the overall performances, especially Jamie Lee Curtis’ beloved Laurie Strode. Though unintended on Carpenter’s part, she is the most enduring example of the “final girl”, the sole female survivor who doesn’t drink, smoke, toke or have intercourse of a sexual nature. Instead, she dutifully acts babysitter to a duo of kids on Halloween night. It’s not so much karma that saves Laurie I feel in the end from Micheal’s murderous rampage, but luck and some really on the spot quick thinking. It seems really credible that she could’ve died, especially if Micheal had chased, rather than sadistically stalked her. Even after Micheal is driven off, you feel that Laurie will never be the same again, all because she had to drop off something at the abandoned Myer’s residence for a friend, which Micheal was spying out of. It was all random chance and if not her, someone else. That’s one reason why Micheal Myers works.

The other, even more unnerving reason is that it’s implied Micheal doesn’t even know why he kills. In the infamous opening where a 6 year old Micheal slays his sister on Halloween night in a clown outfit, all in first person, once he’s unmasked, he has a glazed, confused expression. Why did he do it? No one knows, not Micheal, not his parents, not his terrified, dying sister, maybe not even John Carpenter.

Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist who hunts for Michael after his break out from the asylum, after so many years of study, comes to the conclusion that he’s just evil, and that nothing save for life imprisonment or death will ever stop him. Donald Pleasance, in a rare heroic role that stuck with him for Halloweens 2,4,5 and 6, expertly conveys a man who is both resigned yet gravely anxious, knowing what is loose in Haddonfield, IL. He has effectively given up on rehabilitation and would rather see Micheal dead if it spares lives.

It’s the creepy yet involving atmosphere of this fictional Illinois town and Curtis and Pleasance’s roles that gives the first Halloween an enduring leg up on most of its successors and competitors. At best, other franchises like Jason’s Friday the 13th and Freddy’s Nightmare on Elm Street are (mostly) enjoyable for how much they are just guilty pleasures with rare instances of legitimate quality. Halloween set a precedent that has rarely, by other’s accounts, been surpassed for the often dismissed slasher genre. Micheal’s first night creeps up on you in how resilient it’s quality is and even if you can see certain stuff coming a mile away, you can’t help but be gripped all the same. And Micheal is very good at holding you by the jugular.

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