Directed by John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, P.J. Soles
In retrospect, it’s astonishing to think that John Carpenter’s visionary (he wrote, directed and banged down Hollywood doors for financing) horror film could have been so lightly regarded upon initial release. The capital -“D” definitive suburban horror film, “Halloween” is an exquisite, minimally violent, Jungian explication of singularly American fear.
Each scene is a lesson in pacing, lighting and the beauty of small, stock characters (how is it that the little kids know what is happening the whole time?). Shot for less than the price of a modern, high-end luxury car, “Halloween” puts a then-unknown Jamie Lee Curtis, veteran British character actor Donald Pleasence and a hastily sprayed-painted white mask in the driver’s seat and slowly scares every jaded bone in your post-ironic body. Take notes: sparse dialogue, actually effective self-referential humor, minutes of silence in the soundtrack, minimal exposition and that goddamned mask are all touchstones and jumping off-points for hundreds of trash slashers and thousands of adolescent nightmares.
Even describing it is a delicate dance. It’s almost irresponsible to describe the film in too much detail; it transcends rational discussion of art because it’s so purely unsettling. Your academic centers in your brain are supposed to shut down. Carpenter crafted a truly smart, artful, literally breath-stealingly beautiful film – watch the lighting on Curtis during the final scenes as she fights back against Meyers – but it’s supposed to be a visceral experience. The film pulls you between brain and guts in the best way; you try and think the film out and you shit yourself. You get too hysterical and you miss all the carefully placed symbols and philosophical arguments. The movie hunts you down.
And yet at the core of the diamond-cut film is the oldest story in the book: a bucolic suburban holiday; teenagers on shaky moral ground; one block of pretty little houses; a virginal, upstanding babysitter; a raving Cassandra of a psychologist; and the hazy, just out-of-range vision of a terrible black shape.
Even that’s unstable. Michael Meyers, the man behind the mask, is the ultimate abstraction of fear. The script calls him “the shape,” the kids think he’s the boogeyman and no one ever knows what’s really going on. The adults are clueless, the kids are helpless, and fate is unstoppable. “Halloween” is the most passionate cinematic display of American fear and disorder we have. But as much as it’s intellectualized, there’s no avoiding the emotional: This is the scariest film you have ever seen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
– Evan McGarvey, managing arts editor