Halloween ’78

The Shape/Michael Myers is the psychotic subject of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s infamous 1978 babysitter-come-heroine tale, Halloween. The film is iconic in nearly every facet of cinematic culture, from its claustrophobic camera work that induces anxiety and the feeling of being stalked for the audience, to the universally known score (that only took John Carpenter three days to complete). The main characters of the film are legendary with Donald Pleasence’s portrayal of the foreboding and stoic Dr. Sam Loomis and Jamie Lee Curtis debuting as Laurie Strode, becoming known as the “Scream Queen” from the role. Halloween was shot over a 21-day period, with a budget of just over $300,000. The film opened in four theaters in Kansas City and made only $200 in ticket sales per theater. Soon, the film would go on to gross around $50m in the United States, making it the most successful and highest grossing independent film of its time.

Halloween begins in Haddonfield, Illinois, in 1963. I don’t know much about Illinois in 1963 because I was negative 25 years old at the time, but the opening sequence of the film shows us two young and probably pretty hip cats, about to get down with the free love vibe of the ’60s. The voyeuristic camera work lets us know that we are looking through the eyes of someone stalking their prey. What we don’t know is that the stalker in question is a 6-year-old in a clown suit. Once the girl (later named Judith) and her date have finished their business, the stalker very casually strolls into the bedroom and murders her. The scene itself is now eye-roll-inducing since Judith’s only concern is covering her breasts instead of trying to punch whoever is trying to stab her in the throat. Also, who swoons like that when they’re being stabbed? I thankfully have never been stabbed, but I assume if I were to be stabbed, I’d react a little less demurely. After Mr. Stabby is done killing Judith, he walks out the house and into what the audience will assume are his parents as the camera pans around to a shot of his father pulling off a clown mask to reveal that our murderer is a small child. My first real laugh in the movie is in this scene. Michael’s mother just purses her lips and shoves her hands in her pockets like, “Oh great, he’s probably gone and murdered someone with my expensive kitchen knife and I’ll have to deep clean the carpet again.

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The film jumps 15 years into the future where we meet Dr. Sam Loomis, who is traveling with a nurse to go pick up Michael and take him up to Hardin County to presumably appear before a judge to figure out what to do with him, now that he’s been institutionalized for a decade and a half with no progress. Dr. Loomis will only refer to Michael as it and suggests using Thorazine to tranquilize him once put in front of the court. My personal favorite shot in the movie occurs as Loomis and the nurse pull up to the institution and patients are wandering around the grounds during a thunderstorm. The lighting is eerie and off-putting and reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. The shot sets a dreadful tone. When Michael finally makes his move on the driving nurse, the clear winner for the most humorous scene in the movie goes to Nick Castle for his portrayal of The Shape, who can steal a car and drive it perfectly all the way back to Haddonfield without having to even stop and ask for directions. The only real answer for Michael knowing how to drive was produced years later by Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet) in his Halloween short, Driving Lessons (2012).

Michael travels over 150 miles back to Haddonfield without incident, besides killing a Phelps Garage employee for his clothing (you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette though, of course). We reach Haddonfield on Halloween day of 1978. All of the movie’s main and secondary characters are introduced at a quick pace, and thankfully there are only about 10 named characters. Dr. Loomis meets Sheriff Brackett, who like most people doesn’t believe that Michael is anywhere near the threat that Loomis proposes he is. We meet Laurie’s two friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P. J. Soles). Neither of whom seem likable, more apathetic and obsessed with “extracurricular” activities than anything else. There is a stark contrast between Laurie and her friends. Laurie represents a stronger more forthright and determined teenage girl who, while clearly in high school, also has a refreshing no-nonsense attitude, instead of just being a virginal good girl that lacked brains.

Since the film is about babysitters being stalked by evil, it’s truly convenient that Annie and Laurie end up babysitting on Halloween night just a few houses apart from one another. Annie is babysitting Lindsey Wallace, and Laurie is sitting Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews). As we watch Annie try and get ready for her date with Paul, we meet one of Halloween’s best characters, Lester the dog. Then breaking the most sacred rule in the universe, Michael kills the dog to stop it from barking. If there was any sympathy to be had for his character, he sufficiently snuffed it out in that scene. You don’t kill the bartender, or the dog, we all know this. After Michael takes care of Lester, and Annie has blackmailed Laurie into watching Lindsey for her, Michael is poised to begin his rampage. Annie’s death scene is to me the most believable in the movie. Annie tries to evade Michael as he starts choking her but is impaled by what must be either the longest butcher knife ever made, or a magical one that can somehow go through an entire car seat, and then also through a whole teenage girl. She was skinny, but come on…

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Blue backlighting is used throughout the movie in every one of the houses to give the audience an uneasy but very familiar feeling. The blue glow of a television set is something that was a constant in a lot of homes where a TV would usually be on in the background. When we see Lynda again, she’s with her date Bob, whose whole look and vibe is just screaming, “Please someone stab me.” Which Michael delivers on. Bob did break the cardinal rule of never saying, “I’ll be right back.” He’s also drinking, and just got done having (fantastic) sex. He’s pretty much done this to himself. Bob is also taken out by the magical butcher knife. This time, though, he’s impaled by such dark wizardry that his corpse—while stabbed into a closet door—somehow manages to remain upright even though he’s a foot off the ground, and only being held in by maybe two inches of kitchen knife. That’s impressive. When Michael is done with Bob, he steps back to survey the damage and tilts his head from side to side as if admiring his work. Michael dons a white sheet and puts on Bob’s glasses—the cheapest and best Halloween costume I ever had thanks to this movie—to trick Lynda into thinking it’s her boyfriend (one of Halloween’s many iconic moments is captured). Knowing that the man under the sheet is Michael and not Bob will have audiences for decades to come screaming, “RUN, LYNDA! YOU MORON, RUN!” Lynda obviously doesn’t run, and instead gets choked to death with a telephone cord, which was a real possibility for all of us that used to have to use corded telephone lines. I personally tripped over a telephone cord no less than 146 times when I was younger, so that kill holds a warm place in my heart.

Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett are still out in the town trying to scare children off from the Myers house, and keep teens from being murdered—neither are doing a fantastic job. Sheriff Brackett often makes me want to pull my hair out in the film. Honestly, if a doctor came and told me that a murderous psychopath was loose in my town, I’d do whatever he told me to, even if I thought he was being dramatic. Better to err on the side of caution than let all the babysitters in town be brutally butchered.

Back at the Doyle residence, Laurie starts to think to herself, “How’s Annie?” Laurie is also worried about the phone call she just had with Lynda, which was obscene even for her character. So, Laurie trots over to the Wallace house to see what’s happening and discovers all her friends are dead. Annie is dead in a bed with Judith Myers’ gravestone planted over her corpse, and the rest of her friends are shoved into various linen closets. Finally, we get to see Michael and Laurie have their standoff. With magnificent use of lighting and timing, we see Michael’s mask come into view behind Laurie. Here, I have to think that either Michael has a hilarious case of stage fright—as he is literally only a foot away from Laurie but only manages to cut her arm open—or he’s trying to savor murdering her, trying to scare her as much as possible before he finishes the job. Either way, it works for me—one option is hilarious and the other is frightening. That scene kicks off the screaming of the audience, whether it’s a huge theater or just you and a few friends watching this movie. Once you see Michael’s mask behind Laurie, everyone starts yelling at the screen and don’t stop until the movie is over.

The next moment that makes me want to scream is whoever the neighbor is next door that won’t open the door for a girl that is clearly in distress, bleeding, and screaming actual bloody murder. The real angry screams don’t start until Laurie is trying to get back into the Doyle house, and Tommy takes an entire 29 years to open the door for his babysitter who is on the front porch having a nervous breakdown. I have never before and most likely never will again hear people so quickly and vehemently curse at a child, as they do at Tommy in this scene. Finally, Laurie gets in the house and tells Tommy to run upstairs and apparently now this kid is related to The Flash because he’s outta frame in no time. Laurie successfully stabs Michael in the neck with a knitting needle and goes to tell the kids that all is well now…but no. No, here comes Tommy with the “You can’t kill the boogeyman” line. While Tommy is correct, at this point no one wants to hear anything from him. Next, when Laurie is trapped in the closet, I lean to think that Michael is just doing everything he can to scare her before he gets to kill her. Those closet doors are intensely flimsy, and it seems like he’s just shaking them to hear her scream. Laurie stabs Michael again. This time, though, Dr. Loomis has decided to show up and help shoot Michael out of a second-story window. This should have effectively killed Michael, like, super dead. So far Michael has been:

  • Stabbed twice
  • Shot six times
  • Fallen out of a second-story window

None of these things matter, though, as Loomis finds out when he peers over the balcony to find that Michael has disappeared once again.

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The ending to this movie leaves so many questions unanswered:

  • Did the kids make it to the Mackenzies?
  • Is there now going to be a citywide manhunt?
  • Why weren’t Tommy and Lindsey out trick-or-treating so ALL OF THIS COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
  • What was the end of the graveyard keeper’s story?

Without question, though, this is one of the most iconic films made in the last 40 years, and it laid the groundwork for my favorite style of ’80s slasher movies and campy horror. The blue backlighting used in the film was and still is mimicked in and out of horror cinematography. Besides Jaws, I don’t know of a more simplistic and iconic score to a movie that carried its weight for this long. The staying power of this movie is noted yearly in the scores of fan-made and Hollywood-produced films that either reference it or pay homage to it in some way. Even I’m not tired of it, and I rewatched it about eight times while I wrote this, and I’ll probably watch it again in a couple of weeks just for fun.

Next week, my friend and cohort Mr. @RealBlameTruth will be discussing Halloween II, so you’ll have to tune in to see what kind of hi-jinks Michael Myers gets up to in the next film in the franchise.


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