*. It’s hard, but you have to try and separate your thoughts on this movie from its status as a cultural watershed and everything that came after.
*. It was one of the most successful independent films of all time, shot in twenty days on a budget of around $300,000 it went on gross nearly $50 million in domestic box office. That kind of money opened the floodgates of imitation, and led to countless sequels and remakes.
*. It wasn’t the first slasher film. It was the child of Psycho. It was preceded by Black Christmas. But it effectively set down the grammar of the genre for years to come, a formula so rigid that it would eventually lead to a whole sub-genre of parodies.
*. The two key components were to be the supernatural killer who can’t be killed, and the voyeuristic prurience over teen sexuality (with the virginal “last girl” as survivor).
*. With regard to the first, we have Michael Myers, the embodiment of Evil, Fate, or the Bogeyman. He didn’t have to be taught how to drive, it’s something he just knows. He can appear and disappear at will. (Note how he vanishes from Laurie’s backyard while she’s looking at him. She doesn’t turn away: he’s just there and then he isn’t.) He can be stabbed and shot repeatedly but still get up and walk around. And he has superhuman strength. Bob is not a small guy but Michael lifts him up off his feet with one extended arm, while he’s trying to fight back. That is physically impossible. I leave aside the question of how he lugs that tombstone upstairs.
*. Does Michael have a psychology though? I don’t think so. I like Danny Peary’s observation on his childishness, and perhaps we can see him as a child murderer who never developed. But Dr. Loomis’s diagnosis of pure evil isn’t grounded in anything. What sort of an evaluation could he do of a child who never spoke a word? One would just assume autism, not limitless evil.
*. Then there is the sexy stuff. You can’t deny it. As the movie opens we’re peering through a window watching a pair of teenagers making out (again we’re reminded of the opening of Psycho). Then we’re going to see a topless girl in her panties being stabbed. And Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie is a proper girl scout, whose resourcefulness (if not lack of sexuality) is what saves her.
*. As far as formulas go, sex and violence are hard to beat, especially when your target audience is teenagers.
*. Some people find the score repetitive and annoying. I like it. Carpenter was struck by the theme of The Exorcist, and came up with an obviously derivative jingle. But I still find it very effective, and I don’t think it’s overplayed.
*. It’s not a gory film at all. You don’t even see the dead dog in the abandoned Myers house. And there is very little blood outside of the opening murder.
*. Landing Donald Pleasence was a real stroke of luck. Originally Carpenter had wanted Hammer stand-bys Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, but I’m not sure they would have fit the demented Ahab of Sam Loomis quite as well. Pleasence is given utterly ridiculous lines to spout, and he has a comic presence that complements them.
*. The script has a tight structure, jamming all of the events into a couple of days. The dialogue duties were split between Debra Hill, who did a good job with the girls, and Carpenter, who struggled with Dr. Loomis. There are little signs of intelligence and cleverness throughout. I particularly like the way Michael carries the dead Annie over the threshold of the house in a shot that is repeated exactly when Bob carries Lynda through the same doorway.
*. Carpenter loves Panavision’s wide screen (he spent half the film’s budget on the cameras), and it works really well in the first part of the film here. We’re supposedly in the Midwest (actually Pasadena, but whatever), and the widescreen effect stretches those streets out into a kind of prairie-style flatness. There’s a shot where Michael (driving a station wagon) pulls out from the street behind Loomis and you think the car is going to bend like a Disney cartoon because it takes so long to cover that long stretch of space behind Loomis’s head.
*. How does Laurie get locked inside the house at the end? How? Did Michael nail the doors shut from the outside?
*. I love the use of the location, and space, with all the glimpses of Michael about his business from across the street. He really is a ghostly “Shape,” and his slow walk across the street to the house where Laurie is babysitting is the suspense highlight of the film, perfectly prolonged as sleepy Tommy drags himself downstairs to unlock the door.
*. The way the neighbours ignore Laurie’s screams has to be a nod to the Kitty Genovese story.
*. Pauline Kael: “Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but nightmarish dumb scariness and sudden shocks it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.” Maybe?
*. It’s become a cult film, and is, remarkably, still quite watchable after so many years and so many imitators. There are problems. For example, I think Carpenter goes to the well way too often with the shots of Michael popping up behind people.
*. It’s not a personal favourite of mine, though I think it’s quite effective. Carpenter would later be blamed for indulging a violent and misogynist attitude toward women, but the biggest fault I have with it is its laziness in coming up with a villain.
*. Michael Myers is a cipher, a blank, or (as Jason Voorhees was imagined in Friday the 13th) a creature like the shark in Jaws. Evil is both more interesting and more real than that. Hell, Norman Bates was more interesting and more real than that. Michael Myers is comic book evil, complete with a host of superpowers. In 1978 we weren’t in comic book world yet, but you could see where things were heading.
What an excellent review. I love it when a “classic” is taken apart and exposed for what it is. 😀