Halloween. Since the sixteenth century, the night also known as All Hallows’ Eve has evolved from its pagan origins to become a celebration of all things sinister and spooky, from pumpkin carving to the ritual of trick-or-treating. Since 1978, it has also become a symbol of horror cinema, courtesy of John Carpenter’s slasher classic that appropriates the holiday as its temporal setting and moniker.
Prior to Carpenter’s breakthrough effort, the date more commonly adorned comedies and family fare, as seen in Arsenic and Old Lace and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and TV special Halloween with the New Addams Family combined the humourous with the horrific, however only The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane with Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen stood out amongst the Halloween-themed thrilling content.
With co-scribe and long-term collaborator Debra Hill, the filmmaker that would enliven audiences with many of the great scary 1980s offerings (The Fog, The Thing, Christine and They Live among them) revitalised the date and its terrifying potential. His vision of the hallowed evening not only electrified viewers for decades, perpetuated a narrative formula for similar efforts and popularised many tropes now synonymous with horror, but reclaimed that fateful night as a bastion of the genre.
Two instances of the titular eve inform the feature, spanning a fifteen year period. The first, in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963, sees six-year-old Michael (Will Sandin, in his only acting role to date) spy on his teenage sister Judith (Sandy Johnson, Surfer Girls) as she cavorts with her boyfriend (David Kyle, Cat Murkil and the Silks). His reaction – wielding a butcher’s knife with fatal intent – belies his youthful age, as well as his seemingly innocent demeanour.
The second, in the same locale, again seethes with untoward intentions. When the night prior, adult Michael (Tony Moran, TV’s James at 15) escapes from the sanatorium that has been his home since the incident, his psychiatrist Dr Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence, Wake in Fright) springs into action to stop another act of slaughter. Alas, the local sheriff (Charles Cyphers, Coming Home) doesn’t share the doctor’s apprehension. His cavalier attitude soon proves mistaken, as Loomis’ fears come to fruition.
After delivering a key to Michael’s abandoned family home on behalf of her realtor father, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her film debut) becomes the focal point for his attentions. Over the course of the school day, she sees his masked form watching her every move, setting her nerves on end. Her more socially confident friends – Annie (Nancy Loomis, Assault on Precinct 13) and Lynda (P.J. Soles, Carrie) – contend that her concerns are mere overreactions, but Laurie is not so certain. During her Halloween night babysitting gig watching neighbour Tommy (Brian Andrews, I Love You… Good-bye), Michael acts upon his obsession.
More than thirty years after its initial release, the mention of Halloween may conjure the sound of the instantly unsettling piano melody composed and performed by Carpenter, as well as iconic images Michael’s disguised figure. However, the film’s impact upon all things frightening extends beyond these recognisable elements, as imitated in the Friday the Thirteenth and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises that followed, and skewered in genre referential satires such as Scream.
Instead, the feature that spawned seven sequels – 1981’s Halloween II, 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1988’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, 1989’s Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection – as well as Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake and 2009 continuation, is the definitive instance of Halloween horror. Its influence extends beyond its title, villain and legacy (young adult novels, comic books and an Atari game included), as it not only established a new breed of the genre, but continues to proliferate three decades later.
Every intertwined aesthetic, narrative and thematic element of Carpenter’s film – its reliance upon obscured perception in story and style, slow yet substantial handling of death scenes, physical and emotional concealing of its anti-hero, elevation of the restrained over the promiscuous, and examination of the underside of suburbia – have since emerged as staples of horror. Each may hail from simplicity in imagery (point of view shots and a lingering frame) and idea (a sexually repressed teen is stalked by a seemingly unassailable serial killer), yet along with the truly terrifying Halloween they stemmed from, each changed the face of modern horror.