It seems pointless to try and find something new to say about John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) in 2021. It’s status as a masterpiece of horror has long been assured, and rightly so, but the result has been a deluge of DVD’s, blu-rays, books, podcasts, and documentaries exploring every facet of its production and release. Fans of Halloween can now recite its trivia like the lyrics of a song; the Michael mask was a Captain Kirk mask sprayed white, the film was shot in May so paper leaves had to be dropped on set to replicate Autumn, Laurie Strode was named after one of Carpenter’s ex-girlfriends, and so on. Anyone on their way to being a fan will be tripping over trivia after just a cursory look.
And then there’s the film’s impact. It arguably not the first slasher movie (Black Christmas (1974), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), numerous giallo offerings) but it was the first one that had huge success at the box office, taking a staggering $70million from a mere $325,000 budget. Reviews at the time were mixed but after seeing the huge amount of money that it made studios were keen to capitalise on a potential new money-spinning sub-genre. The slasher movie was born.
While there were undoubtedly some great movies during the golden age of the slasher, Friday the 13th (1980), The Burning (1981), The House On Sorority Row (1982), the bad outweighed the good. Critics were often scathing in their reviews and the slasher sub-genre quickly got a reputation for low-brow, cheap movies. While some of the criticism was just, much of it wasn’t, with many critics missing the point of some slice and dice pictures. Guilty by association, Halloween’s reputation took a hit to. It was some years after the slasher golden age ended in 1984 when Carpenter’s movie started to get the credit it deserved. In 1996 its reputation was finally fully restored thanks to the homage paid by a new classic of the horror genre, Scream (1996).
And that is where I first came across Halloween. By 1997 I was a film hungry sixteen-year-old, discovering the world of movies beyond my previously narrow focus of Schwarzenegger action hits and buddy cop blockbusters. Scary movies had always appealed and I had started picking up as many as I could, thankful that the cost of VHS had started to plummet. A new full price video I had to have though was Scream, a film whose reviews had nearly all been faultless. I needed to see what all the fuss was about.
Scream was of course a post-modern delight, genuinely funny thanks to its knowing dialogue and tributes to the slasher genre, but not at the cost of the scares. Wes Craven was adamant he was going to make Scream a scary movie and that is exactly what he did. Of the many films nodded to throughout the movie, one stood out from the pack; Halloween. In a clever mirroring of the on-screen action, Carpenter’s film is seen playing on a television in the background during the finale, his brilliant soundtrack momentarily becoming Craven’s soundtrack. If this was the main film Scream was honouring it had to be good.
I picked up a second hand widescreen copy of Halloween a week after seeing Scream and settled in for what I hoped would be a Saturday night of popcorn hurling thrills. But when the credits rolled though, I was a bit disappointed.
In hindsight, I couldn’t have given Halloween a worse canvas on which to try and paint its magic. I only had a 14-inch colour portable television with mono speaker in my room. Running a widescreen version of the film on it meant that even less of the tiny screen was used. I’d also seen numerous other horror films by this point, released later than 1978, which upped the action and gore quotient, most notably some of the Friday the 13th sequels. In comparison, the plot of Halloween seemed decidedly low-key. I popped my Halloween VHS back on the shelf and didn’t revisit the film until some years later.
In December 2003 I purchased my first house. My moving in treat was a new television and I went for the most state of the art set I could afford at the time, a 32-inch Samsung widescreen with 100hz display, and 5.1 surround sound system. It was like having my own cinema in the living room. DVDs were now the norm and the improvement in picture quality from VHS was startling. A few months later in the run up to Halloween 2004, the first two-disc special edition of Halloween was released. Feeling that I needed something special to mark the first All Hallow’s Eve in our new home, I picked it up.
On 31st October 2004 I gave Halloween a second watch and couldn’t believe how I had so readily dismissed the picture first time around. It was a taut and terrifying masterpiece, and a lesson in how the presentation of a film is just as important as the film itself. On this large widescreen canvas, with pristine picture quality, the brilliance of Carpenter’s movie was indisputable.
When concocting the script for the film, Carpenter and Debra Hill came up with all of the scares first, then built the plot around those set-pieces. Though it was an odd way off writing the story, it worked perfectly. The pace is perfect; an initial shocking kill grabs the viewer, before the pace slows then begins its steady climb back up to a series of even more heart-stopping scares during the finale. Considering how over the top the series went on to become, the kills in Halloween are straight forward and without flourish or fanfare. But this only makes them all the more shocking. This isn’t a colourful carnival ride or a hokey adventure horror; this really is the story of an escaped mental patient and the tragic death of a group of babysitting teenagers.
Casting was key, and Carpenter was lucky enough to have performers who made every role in to a little icon for the genre. A mistake so many subsequent slasher films made was to not make their cast of teen fodder sympathetic enough. No such problem here; Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles, and Nancy Kyes were eminently likeable from the get go. Charles Cyphers was cheeky and fatherly as Sheriff Brackett, while Nick Castle under the mask of Michael Myers created a monster for the ages with his minimalist movement and measured but unstoppable march. Stealing the show though was Donald Pleasence as Doctor Sam Loomis. Getting the most out of the veteran actor for the few days they had him on set, Pleasence handles all the story exposition with a sure hand, ensuring that lines which could sound potentially cheesy, “He’s gone from here, the evil is gone”, land with weight and class.
The rest was down to Carpenter. His soundtrack was destined be an all time horror masterpiece, rotating around three central themes depending on the pace of each scene. Creepy, foreboding, dread inducing, it is one of the best pieces of soundtrack music ever created. Equal to the aural delights though are the visuals. Carpenter insisted on shooting in widescreen ratio to maximise the use of space for extra atmosphere and frights. And maximise he does, with Myers cropping up in small spaces here and there amongst what feels like a sprawling picture of suburbia with too many places to hide and too many places to come a cropper. Despite being filmed in the Spring, the film also captures the feeling of Halloween better than any film before or since.
It’s rare for a film to be called perfect, and genuinely perfect whereby not one element could be changed to implement an improvement; but Halloween is one of those rare movies. After my second viewing in 2004 I returned to the film a third time the following year on All Hallow’s Eve, and it wowed me all over again. I then decided to make the movie my Halloween tradition, saving it for airing on 31st October only. Eighteen viewings later, including a real treat of seeing it on the big screen for the first time when Odeon re-released it in 2018, the film has lost none of its power to scare, entertain, and provide, somewhat bizarrely given the subject matter, a comforting Halloween hug every October. Seeing Laurie, Annie, and Lynda every Autumn feels like visiting old friends, and the trappings of late seventies American suburbia provides a cosiness that's difficult to explain, part longing for a perfect teenage life I never got to live (stabbings aside), part nostalgia for the horror films I use to watch late at night on VHS in my little bedroom on my portable television.
Despite all that Carpenter achieved with the film the budget for Halloween was miniscule. The director requested a mere $300,000.00 once he had sold his idea of ‘killer stalks babysitters’ to financer Moustapha Akkad. Carpenter's own fee for writing, directing, and creating the soundtrack was a paltry $10,000.00. Thinking ahead though Carpenter agreed to take a ten percent cut of the films profits, a fantastic payday once the film crossed the $75million profit line. Akkad was keen to repeat the success and a sequel was discussed almost immediately. Carpenter wanted to move on to other projects though, so agreed to take on script writing duties only, with Debra Hill lending a hand once again. Paying much less attention to the plot second time round, Carpenter later recalled how he knocked out the script in one evening with a six pack of beer for company. Directing duties went to Rick Rosenthal.
Rather than a ‘few years later’ plot, Halloween II (1981) picks up the story from the exact moment the first film ends. Myers is being tracked around the alleyways of Haddonfield, somehow surviving the bullet wounds delivered by Loomis. Meanwhile, Laurie heads off to the oddly empty Halloween Memorial Hospital. Laurie is revealed to be Michael’s sister, while Loomis theorises on Michael’s possible supernatural powers of evil.
While the film includes some fantastically tense set pieces, the franchise’s heroine is comatose for a large portion of the film, as Michael dispenses with side characters that the viewer could care less about. The film was also missing the exceptional look of the first film, dry hospital corridors and empty car parks offering nothing like the backdrops Carpenter so artfully deployed first time around. Even his chilling piano soundtrack was given a cheap synthesiser redo by Alan Howarth. Still, compared to many of the other slasher films that littered cinemas in 1981, Halloween II was a solid thriller which brought Michael and Laurie’s two part story to a fiery end. Or so filmgoers thought at the time.
When a sequel was first discussed, Carpenter brought up his original idea that the Halloween franchise should tell a different, self-enclosed story with each film in the franchise. The idea was dropped for the second film, with producers assuming that a second Halloween film with no Michael, Laurie, or Doctor Loomis wouldn’t be something viewers would be interested in. Strangely, the idea was picked up for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Written and directed by Carpenter alumni Tommy Lee Wallace, the story has no links at all to Haddonfield, and instead tells of a toy maker trying to bring about the end of the world by selling booby trapped Halloween masks. The excellent Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin task themselves with bringing down the evil cult of mask makers.
One of the best Halloween sequels, precisely because it has nothing to do with the Myers story, Halloween III is a succinct thriller with an absurd premise but some excellent chills. However, having already had one Myers inspired sequel, expectations had been set and fans were confused by a Halloween film that had no similarities or links to the first two films in the series. Halloween II earned $26million off of a $2.3million budget, but Halloween III earned just $14million off of a $2.5million budget.
Meanwhile, the original Halloween had received a slight recut when NBC purchased the rights to the film for home broadcasting. Cutting some of the more violent scenes, something producer and writer Debra Hill fought against given that the brief moments of violence were essential to the plot, NBC commissioned a small number of insert scenes to bring the running time back up to a more respectable amount. Carpenter agreed and filmed twelve minutes of additional scenes, including an intriguing scene between Doctor Loomis and a six year old Michael. Fans had to satisfy themselves with this alternate version, known later as the 'Television Cut/Version', for additional Myers action for a few more years.
Eventually Michael made a return. In 1988, four years after the slasher film had burnt itself out, Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) was released. Directed by Dwight Little, Donald Pleasence was the only returning actor and character from the original two pictures. Michael, comatose from the explosion at the end of part two, awakens and escapes whilst on patient transfer. Laurie has died in a car accident, but has left behind a daughter, Jamie. Michael, unable to kill his actual sister turns his attention to his niece instead. Despite sharing so much in common with the first two films, part four is a drag with few stand out characters, few scares and little to recommend it. Its only saving grace is a nice final twist, a sting in the tail that at least makes the preceding eighty-seven minutes just about worth it.
A box office take of $17million off of a $5million budget was enough for producers to green-light Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) a year later. The plot fell face first in to ridiculousness this time around though, with improbable returns from death, dubious twists, and a mysterious man in black who isn’t explained beyond being a marker for yet another sequel no one asked for. The producers at least had the good graces to give theatre goers time to wipe Halloween 5 from their memories, with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) not arriving for another six years. Pleasence returned for his fifth and final film in the series, joined by a young Paul Rudd playing the role of Tommy Doyle from the original story, now grown up. The plot becomes even more absurd, with druid curses and the cult of ‘Thorn’ all linked to Michael, who has by now moved on from dangerous escaped mental patient to full on supernatural unkillable bogeyman of mystical origin. While profits were slightly up, critics and fans lambasted the film. Not even the release of the supposedly long awaited 'Producers Cut' of the film in 2014 could save its reputation.
A return to form seemed in the offing in 1998 when slasher veteran director Steve Miner got behind the camera for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), based on a script part written by Scream writer Kevin Williamson. Early reports were promising, with Jamie Lee Curtis returning as Laurie, in a form of witness protection in California as the headmistress of a school. Her mother and fellow screen-queen veteran Janet Leigh would also be staring, along with some of the crop of new young talent gracing screens in the late nineties, Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Despite an excellent premise fans were left disappointed yet again. While Laurie made for an interesting study in post traumatic stress, her son and his fellow rule breaking friends were hugely unlikeable 'Your over protection and paranoia is inhibiting my growing process'. The scares were few and far between, and worse still was the handling of Michael himself. It shouldn’t be that difficult to make a replica of the ‘Kirk’ mask from 1978 but it was seemingly a stretch too far for the effects department who lumbered their Myers with a series of knock-off looking masks with hair colour that changed at will, sometimes within the same scene. Not even the final confrontation between Myers and Strode could raise any excitement, the ultimate bogeyman seemingly undone by something as mundane as a car accident.
Unbelievably, much worse was to come in the franchise. Lee Curtis was somehow convinced to give up the big moment of Michael finally killing Laurie (improbable mask switching shenanigans saved him from H20’s car accident) for the absolute disaster of a film that was Halloween: Resurrection (2002). Rick Rosenthal returned to the series to direct, though one assumes he now wished he hadn't. The plot sees a reality television company wanting to stage a fright-night style show inside the old Myers house, a crass move considering, in the story, it was the sight of real homicides. The Myers house somehow quadrupled in size, as the plot set-pieces required, and the story sprinkled in the dumbest collection of one-dimensional characters seen in a slasher film since the early eighties. Stupid and instantly forgettable, fans wondered where the franchise might go next.
Sadly, the answer was Rob Zombie. In 2007 and 2009 he wrote and directed his own two part Halloween story, remaking the first two films. If Resurrection was ridiculous fluff, Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009) were the headache inducing, thoroughly unpleasant antithesis of everything that made Halloween (1978) great. Every other word in the scripts for both films was ‘fuck’, every single character on screen, including the heroes and heroines, were completely unlikeable, self-pitying, whiney, and grating, and Michael was unmasked in the early running as a nasty child from the wrong side of the tracks following in the footsteps of his ‘white trash’ family. There were no scares as there was no one on screen to care about, and the atmosphere was pure goth and grime, sleaze without any of the camp and colour to make it bearable. Precisely who Zombie thought would have a good time with his films remains a mystery to this day. The only plus point critics could find was that at least he tried to offer something different, even if the end result was a pair of failed films.
The Halloween franchise seemingly an empty husk of a corpse with its heyday nearly four decades behind it, fans got a surprise reprieve when it was announced that David Gordon Green would be directing a brand new film, with John Carpenter’s blessing. Halloween (2018) scrapped all of the sequels, instead presenting a new part two where Laurie is no longer Michael’s sister and is instead living as a loner in the woods, a Myers ‘prepper’ awaiting what she believes is the killer’s inevitable return. Her estranged family think she’s close to losing the plot, but when Myers escapes during a prisoner transfer, grandma Strode is proven right.
Still not a patch on Carpenter’s original classic, the 2018 offering at least righted some of the franchise wrongs. The awful Dr. Sartain was a huge misstep, as perhaps was Michael's new penchant for ultra violent kills, but elsewhere Judy Greer and Andi Matichak make for engaging Strode daughter and granddaughter respectively, finally giving Laurie some much needed character support. Will Patton also made for a welcome addition. Most pleasing of all though was the return of Carpenter on soundtrack duty, offering a fantastic update on all of his original themes. The film cleared up at the box office, taking a surprising $255million off of a slight $15million budget. It was a success not even new franchise keepers Blumhouse saw coming, though their script ensured a sequel could be squeezed out without too many plot take-backs; though you question Laurie’s logic when, despite being so desperate to see Michael dead, she doesn’t hang around to give his charred corpse a kick. Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends look set to complete the new trilogy and, one assumes, kill off Myers for good. Or not, as these things tend to go.
You wonder, looking back, if John Carpenter had an idea of the amount of mayhem he was going to unleash back in 1978 with his breakout movie. Halloween is not just a perfect film, but a perfectly contained one. No sequels were needed, and in all honesty if they all vanished from Hollywood history they probably wouldn't be missed. Myers disappears from the Doyle’s back yard at the end leaving a perfect Michael shaped dent in the leaf littered lawn; but there was no sense that this was a money making, sequel spinning ploy though, no sense that we would get another instalment where Myers is brought to justice and the people of Haddonfield live happily ever after. This was Carpenter wanting to squeeze one last scare out of his film. You think Myers is dead? You think it’s safe out there? You think it’s safe to turn off the lights and go to bed relaxed and relieved in the knowledge that Myers has been taken down? No chance. Myers is still out there, and he always will be. ‘Was that the bogeyman? … as a matter of fact, it was.’
See also Halloween II (1981), Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982), Halloween IV: The Return Of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween V: The Revenge Of Michael Myers (1989), Halloween VI: The Curse Of Michael Myers (1995), Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Halloween (2007), Halloween II (2009), Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills (2021), Halloween Ends (2022)