This is it, the one that started it all. Before Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger (who likely would have never been created if this film hadn’t come first) there was Michael Myers. Directed by John Carpenter, who co-wrote it with Debra Hill, and released in Oct. 1978 (just a few days before Halloween), this film opened with what appears to be a rather standard horror scene. A teenage girl and a teenage boy alone in a house at night, going up to the bedroom to have sex. After the boy leaves, we see from the POV of a silent figure who goes into the kitchen to retrieve a big knife, then walks up to the bedroom and stabs the still-undressed girl to death, and then calmly walks outside. The figure is standing outside when the girl’s parents arrive, and we see that the killer is a very young boy in a clown costume, whose face appears to be catatonic when his mask is removed.
Flash forward 15 years, we learn that the boy’s name is Michael Myers and he’s been in a mental institution ever since that night. But on Oct. 30th he escapes, and his therapist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) suspects that Michael will return to his hometown of Haddenfield, Illinois, and so he goes to the town to warn the authorities. Michael has indeed gone to Haddenfield (having somehow obtained the ability to drive a car, despite being locked up since he was 6…) and, for no apparent reason, becomes fixated on a local teenager named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and proceeds to follow her around for the next day and night, systematically killing her friends, before finally attempting to kill her on Halloween night, while she is babysitting two young children. All the while Dr. Loomis is on the hunt for Michael, after not having much success convincing the local Sherriff of the potential danger.
On the face of it, this is sounds like a rather standard “slasher” film. But Carpenter’s direction helps set a uniquely sinister and suspenseful tone. Many of the deaths scenes are filmed in shadows, with implied violence, which is very effective in that it lets you use your imagination, instead of just overwhelming us with blood and gore. A running theme through the film is the concept of a “boogeyman”, and that’s how Michael is presented here. With his blank white mask, and his slow but deliberate moves, he seems more like a force of nature than a man. He’s that something scary hiding in the bushes, or under the bed, or in the closet. There’s also something particularly terrifying in the way that, in this film, there is no explanation or apparent motive for Michael’s obsession with Laurie. He just gets back to Haddonfield, seemingly spots Laurie at random, and decides to terrorize her, and won’t stop until he gets her. The idea that this could have happened to anyone helps make this even more of a frightening concept (you could be next!).
And of course since Michael is a silent and expressionless figure, the majority of the weight of this film is on the shoulders of Curtis and Pleasence in the lead roles. Curtis presents Laurie as the quintessential all-American girl next door, which makes you anxious and fearful for her safety as she’s being stalked by Michael. You can’t help but root for her survival. And Pleasence plays Dr. Loomis as a man that you can see becoming increasingly desperate as the film goes on. He holds himself personally responsible for not being able to cure Michael, or keep him locked up for good, and it’s this very desperation that probably makes the authorities less likely to believe him, as he sometimes seems a bit crazy himself. But my favorite scene is the very final act. Dr. Loomis shoots Michael directly, several times, and Michael falls off the balcony of a 2nd story house to his apparent death. But when Loomis looks over the balcony, Michael is gone.
But Loomis doesn’t freak out, or even react in shock. He just calmly starts too look around, and within his eyes you can almost see him thinking “This isn’t over.” And the film then gives us several shots of different places around town, sort of telling us that Michael, the boogeyman, could be ANYWHERE…that’s got to give you chills. And the now-iconic theme music definitely helps.
As far as horror films go, this is one of the best ever.