Considered by many to be a modern horror classic, Halloween succeeds through simplicity. This thriller — a veritable kickoff for 25-plus years of slasher films — works because director John Carpenter keeps the story neat and the presentation basic. It’s an approach that gives Halloween an easy, no-frills realism, and a likable indie style that shines through even today. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill turn a few suburban streets into a house of horrors for some unsuspecting teenagers — with no special effects and very few cheap thrills.
A 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis makes her film debut as Laurie Strode, a bookish, anti-social highschooler unaware that while she babysits on Halloween night, a psychotic maniac lurks in the neighborhood. The strong, silent type, this hulking being quietly walks the town in which he killed his sister 15 years earlier, back for more after a hospital escape. Meanwhile, his horrified doctor (the ominous Donald Pleasance) waits, as single-mindedly obsessed as the killer he’s chasing.
Forget heavy backstory and emotional structure. With Halloween, what you see is what you get: kids as sitting ducks, faceless evil, and nail-biting suspense. With a reported $300,000 budget and a deep knowledge of film, Carpenter pays homage to Romero, Hitchcock, and favorite horror films from the ’50s and ’60s. But rather than create an antagonist that’s a freak of nature (like a vampire or a werewolf), or a man-made deformity (Frankenstein’s monster), Carpenter devises a mysterious non-entity. “The Shape,” as he’s called in the end credits, is certainly human but encompasses other indefinable details. He walks like a zombie and stares like a child, but what is he? Could he really be the Boogeyman of folklore and slumber party stories?
In creating shock value, Carpenter uses no blood, no gore, and no cats leaping through windows unexpectedly. Instead, he utilizes smooth, creepy camera moves — peering around corners with just the right speed — and the frustrating moments that crop up when a killer’s on the loose: stuck doorknobs, lost keys and painfully slow-moving characters. And Carpenter’s opening sequence, with its long single shot from a slasher’s point of view, is still fun and surprising a quarter-century later.
Fans of the genre will appreciate broad references to horror history — such as placing terror in an otherwise peaceful location — as well as specific stuff, like naming the doctor Sam Loomis (the boyfriend character in Psycho) or casting Curtis, best known at the time as Janet Leigh’s daughter.
The experts and fans that name the same films over and over when listing fine 1970s independent movies should include Halloween. It’s an inexpensive, efficient non-studio thriller made by a hungry group of young filmmakers. Many sequels would follow, as would Jason, Freddy, and other unstoppable mad slashers. But many of them forgot to take a lesson from John Carpenter and his “psycho,” Michael Myers — keep it simple, stupid.