Film Critic Sam Denyer looks back forty years to Halloween, John Carpenter’s horror classic

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John Carpenter’s Halloween begins with an anxiety-inducing set piece that sets the tone for the rest of his story. A unique first-person perspective is employed to show us the murder of Judith Myers, sister of series-spanning antagonist Michael Myers. Years after killing his sister, he escapes from the psychiatric institution where he has been held ever since. From here, he returns to his long-abandoned family home – on Halloween night, of course.

But the sleepy town has moved on. Laurie Strode (the brilliant Jamie Lee Curtis) runs into a boy she babysits by the old Myers house. ‘It is just an empty house,’ she insists. But what happened there decades ago has already become such a part of history that her estate agent father is selling it. She drops a key at the door on the way to school. Unbeknownst to her, Myers’ return has made this much more than an empty house. He skulks behind the door as she leaves, noticeable only for his heavy breathing, smartly weaved into the sound mix. This one banal act triggers a day which is anything but for Laurie and her friends.

Carpenter spends most of the film piling on the tension until its climax provides complete catharsis

While Halloween (2018) may rejuvenate the oversaturated, tired franchise, the original 1978 film is back in cinemas for its fortieth anniversary – and it is still a perverse treat to watch Myers stalk Laurie Strode. Carpenter spends most of the film piling on the tension until its climax provides complete catharsis. He is willing to make the audience wait for the really big moments, and his self-composed music (one of the great horror scores) keeps us constantly on our toes. Equally essential is his use of the widescreen camera, which gives his frames so much space that you are never sure where Myers will appear from. Every dark corner, door left ajar and opened window are suspicious, forcing you to question where he is – and even when you know, you don’t know how long he will linger and leer before he acts.

Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill’s characters are deliberately designed in ways that have since defined the genre. One of them is promiscuous, another likes to gossip on the phone. Modern audiences know not to grow too attached to characters like these, but it is because of Halloween that these conventions exist at all. Even more significant is Jamie Lee Curtis’s role as the typical ‘final girl’, whose climactic showdown with the antagonist is critical in offering a satisfying ending to audiences after such extended tension. She is introverted and astute compared to her more outgoing counterparts. Such works to her advantage; her growing scepticism of Myers’s presence is met with scoffs from her friends, but this disregard hardly seems to do them any good by act three. Carpenter has repeatedly stressed that he was just trying to make a horror film, but one can certainly read a lot into the divergent fates of these characters. You do not need to reach far to read this as a critique of the moral deterioration of the American youth. That Laurie’s fight for survival is so much more of a sticking point for the film than her more promiscuous friends’ only aids this interpretation. Additionally, our participation in Myers’ stalking through voyeuristic perspective shots only heightens the eventual impact of Laurie’s quasi-victory. She is a heroine in a genre which before 1978 did little to make women anything but victims. She is the progenitor of the role which has been used in more prominently feminist angles by the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream and continues to grow today. Curtis’ promotion of this year’s Halloween sequel suggests that the series will explore long-term trauma, an innovation which might bolster her standing in the genre even more.

Laurie Strode is a heroine in a genre which before 1978 did little to make women anything but victims

It helps that she faces off against such an intimidating figure in Myers. He wears a murdered mechanic’s overalls and a Halloween mask which robs him of any humanity. He carries out these awful acts with a banality that mirrors Laurie’s life at the film’s beginning. After one of the first deaths in the third act, he simply walks across the road with the body in his arms. It is bizarre to see such horror unfolding so openly in suburbia. Laurie is also backed by Donald Pleasance’s Dr Loomis, whose B-plot exhibits the film’s wry sense of humour without undercutting its tension. The story may be simple, but Carpenter deftly juggles these multiple complications which could have easily offset the tension he so painstakingly builds. That it still scares today is a testament to his success in doing so.

VERDICT: John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis are the MVPs of a horror classic that still scares today.