Of all the Shocktober films I’d planned on watching, I was looking forward to Halloween the most. I feel like I’ve spent the whole summer being reminded of John Carpenter’s influence on the genre, and I was especially looking forward to the iconic score after the synth-fest that was Stranger Things. So imagine my shock – and not in a good Shocktober way – when I was disappointed.
That’s not to say Halloween doesn’t have its great moments. The scene of crusading psychiatrist Dr. Loomis and a nurse approaching an asylum on a rainy night and finding the patients milling around the fenceline is still incredibly creepy, and the “Captain Kirk” mask Carpenter selected for Michael Myers lives up to its reputation as an inspired bit of wardrobe design. It’s also interesting to watch film history being made. Halloween DOP Dean Cundey was one of the first to use a Panaglide camera – basically the Betamax to Steadicam’s VHS – for some of the iconic tracking shots. (This is easiest to see in the scene of the three girls walking home, and it’s also clear that Cundey was learning as he went as occasionally the camera pivots just in time to avoid bumping someone.)
And it’s easy to forget that some of the plot devices that Scream later immortalized as “the rules” were being used for the first time here: the unstoppable killer, the post-coital murder, and the final girl really make their debuts in Halloween. So while they may seem dated in 2016, in 1978 they were ground breaking.
But even viewed through the lens of 1978 horror films, there’s a lot about Halloween that just doesn’t hold up. Other than Jamie Lee Curtis, none of the other teenage actors can sell a line. (The film was made for $300,000 and Carpenter got what he paid for.) Beyond poor line delivery, however, is questionable character motivation. Michael Tucker’s YouTube series Lessons from the Screenplay recently examined The Shining (tied with The Exorcist as the my scariest film of all time, by the way) and featured a quote from co-screenwriter Diane Johnson describing her standard for the script: “It must be plausible, use no cheap tricks, have no holes in the plot, no failures of motivation.” Sadly, Halloween does not meet this standard. It’s got its share of “Why are you going in there alone?!” and “Turn on the lights!” moments, but those can be dismissed as genre conventions. But why does the local sheriff decide to let Loomis, packing his own gun, hunt Myers himself? How does Loomis somehow miss Myers parking his car a block away from his vantage point? And why does Curtis’ Laurie Strode toss away her knife immediately after stabbing Myers and then turn her back and stand still . . . three times in a row?
More than these fumbles, the thing that disappointed me the most was the lack of suspense, especially from a film that supposedly exemplifies it. Much is made about the voyeuristic quasi-POV shots or the use of the Panaglide to stalk the characters. But in the first 15 minutes of his arrival in town, Myers is everywhere: in his old house, watching Laurie from outside the school, scaring boys, following one boy home, driving by Laurie and her friends and then standing in front of them, and finally standing outside Laurie’s window. His ubiquity removes any terror from something that, if seen only once or twice, could have been an effective suspense builder.
Like lots of “first” movies, Halloween is a fascinating piece of cinematic history. So many things it did first were copied, and sometimes improved upon, over the years (with its score being the only thing that hasn’t been tinkered with successfully). Watching it is a great reminder that Carpenter may have been first, but others have been better.