Even if you don’t like horror films you’ve seen “”Halloween” and probably a few of its sequels. It was an independent film that took a startling simple concept (unstoppable masked killer returns to his hometown and starts killing people) and mixed it with a great soundtrack and outstanding direction to make it one of the most effective slasher films of all time. It’s been copied, parodied and was even the subject of a splendid Atari 2600 game, a sign the movie has become bigger than itself.
John Carpenter’s film struck a nerve with audiences. Its monster felt real enough (he was a man, after all) with just a hint of the supernatural. (It should be noted that in the novelization by Curtis Richards there was an actual origin involving an old curse a king asked a shaman to place over what was left of the body of a murderer. The curse was such that the murderer’s “”soul shall roam the earth till the end of time.” The soul was to relive its “”foul deed” and “”foul punishment,” and be visited with “”every affliction.” This was wisely left out of the film, as any explanation would have diluted the fear.) The movie took place in a small town on a night that was supposed to be both safe and scary. In other words, it could be anywhere happening to anyone. It wasn’t like the killer was an outsider (he was one of their own who had been sent away), and the setting wasn’t out of place (like the school in “”Suspiria”). No, this was hometown horror, and that always works well with viewers.
The film, like most horror films and especially slashers, also had a very conservative tone. The teens who had premarital sex were killed. The virginal one, the one who actually seemed to care about protecting the children, gets to live — only to be reminded that the person who was after her still roams free. (In a conservative’s view, outside forces are always threatening the status quo and must be guarded against by staying true to one’s values.) These conservative messages in horror films are often lost on audiences except at a subconscious level, but they still have an impact. Horror movies often serve to reinforce society’s mores and values, and “”Halloween” did a thorough job of that. Whether or not audiences picked up on that as it was happening didn’t really matter. The message was still there.
“”Halloween,” for all its strengths (most notable are those shifts in narrative focus that give the film an often paranoid sense of fear) seemed to have much going against it. It was an independent film. Its subject matter, while not graphic, still boiled down to cold-blooded murder. And while Jamie Lee Curtis starred in it, she wasn’t a “”star” at that time. It should have never done as well as it did, but good movies often transcend their hurdles, and this was one of them.
Anyone who thinks the film is outdated and really doesn’t have much of a place in horror or cinematic history must be ignorant of the imitators that came after it. They still exist to this day. There have even been films that are responses to that phenomenon (“”Scream” and its sequels).
“”Halloween” spawned many of its own sequels, too. (The original plan was to do a brand new horror film every Halloween, but the first one went so well that a direct sequel to it was almost mandatory.) The second film was more a continuation of the first than an actual sequel, and it suffers somewhat, but is still a fine film. The third totally deviated from the first two, and even treated them as works of fiction, as can be seen in the one scene where a television commercial is seen that advertises the first film. That third movie, “”Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” was actually a very original movie that is still fun to watch. It was not what people were expecting, however, and the franchise remained silent for many years following it. It was later revived, but only the most delusional think it has any of the spunk it originally possessed.
If there is one bit of praise you rarely ever hear for “”Halloween” it is that it is an American film that feels very foreign. The soundtrack harkens back to Dario Argento’s masterpieces (and the entire film actually feels like an Argento project at times, especially when combined with its direct sequel), and it is, as noted before, more subtle than your average slasher film. It understands what is scary and never exploits it beyond its means. That’s something that’s rare in American horror films. (If one beheading is good, three are even better.)
Carpenter’s career has had its ups and downs since then, and now that Rob Zombie is doing the remake, the original will be in the media again. None of that will affect the legacy of the original film, however, as it is powerful enough to be able to withstand all of that. It will outlive its director, stars, inferior sequels and copycats. “”Halloween” just isn’t a movie, it’s a legend … and with good reason.