More than forty years since its release, John Carpenter’s Halloween still has the power to unnerve. For all the imitators, sequels and remakes that have come in its wake, the raw, primal power of the 1978 original is undiminished. From the arresting opening to the atmosphere of the middle section and the rising terror of the final act, Halloween is a textbook exercise in suspense, dread and shocks. Yes, one can object to Michael Myers’ ability to move very quickly at some moments and very slowly at others, but this adds to the uncanny quality of the Shape (Nick Castle), making him a threat both human and yet something Other.
Carpenter’s greatest tool is simplicity. Narratively, we follow a killer who escapes from incarceration, selects, stalks and strikes his targets; our heroine Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) goes about her normal life then responds to the sudden threat; Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance) provides the background. The events of the narrative are brief, aside from the opening 1963 sequence the story covers barely 24 hours. And in stark contrast to most slashers, the body count is low. Only five people are killed over the course of the film, and each death carries weight. Far from being a group of anonymous teens, we see pain, injury and gain a sense of Michael’s sadism, especially in perhaps the film’s most distressing moment as he strangles Lynda (P. J. Soles) with a telephone cord.
Stylistically, Carpenter makes great use of long takes and wide angles, which raise suspense by compelling the viewer to look for the threat within the wide frame, and we also wait for something to happen as the prolonged take continues. Not only does this increase our sense of fear, but the film also implicates the viewer in the violence – we are waiting for something to happen and thus complicit in Michael’s murders. This point is emphasised in the extended point-of-view shot in the opening sequence, while the reverse angle makes the universality of violence all the more apparent. We think of ourselves as good people, but if a little child can viciously stab their sibling to death, what might any of us be capable of? The film continues this conceit by showing evil’s ubiquity – Michael escapes from the asylum and returns to his family home, but while the people of Haddonfield fear the Myers house it is notable that Michael only stops there briefly. Most of the violence takes place in the homes where Laurie and Annie (Nancy Loomis) babysit, both of which are plunged into shadow where Michael lurks and then emerges with cruel intent. Though in the final moments Michael is literally cast out, the final montage presents various domestic spaces that Michael previously occupied, expressing the potential for evil to occupy any area that we might regard as safe.