Who would’ve thought the quiet release of Halloween would fire through a box office success so great it would spawn sequels, remakes, Rob Zombie adaptations and a culture of fear around kitchen knives and masked freaks. Halloween is the blast site for that mainstream slasher, or at least it does feel like one of the founding fathers of American entertainment and the crossover it has with the slasher genre. John Carpenter conducts Halloween like an early prototype for the slasher flick that was soon to flood the 1980s. At least here there is a grip on the fear inherent to the style of Carpenter, even though he borrows rather frequently from the shock and tonal consistencies of the Giallo sub-genre.
It is upsetting to see he borrows the mood but not the gore. Halloween depends on the fear we have for the man in the mask, Michael Myers. Dependant it may be, there is only so much to do with this silent protagonist, this representation of all the bumps in the night and the terror that comes from the unknowable. Halloween has flutters of creativity, its experience and its innovations are notable and engaging, but they are not fully realised. Not yet, but nothing can be firm or consistent so early into a career. Carpenter is still experimenting; it is just here that he creates segments or great scenes through potluck and a desire to inflict some level of fear onto the audience. Jamie Lee Curtis’ role as Laurie Strode is the encapsulation of what an audience should fear, and Myers is a hesitant explanation of why viewers should be scared. It is who these two interact with that shapes the formula for Halloween.
There are the typical, archetype supporting characters that have been preserved for decades as cannon fodder for the killer. Here, it feels prevalent and exciting though. It is earnest and surprising at times, and much of that comes from the build-up. We can predict when these characters are in danger because Carpenter is keen to show his hand. A box of tricks is spilt out all over the place and it causes Halloween to be not just unpredictable, but hectic. His lack of non-diegetic sound in the moments that matter, the slow crawls towards the patio, the shift of the camera as we take in the surroundings, is unnerving. Naturally, those high-pitched notes that come and go so frequently are a real strength for the feature, and Carpenter relies on them with a daring frequency.
Simple and scary, Halloween enlists Curtis’ strong lead to convince an audience of its most terrifying moments. Myers may be a uniquely imposing figure, but the fear comes from the actions, rather than the man. The mask and the boiler suit are synonymous with the modern horror party-goer, it is an easy costume to replicate, but Halloween never grips the backstory or the deeper meaning. It does not need to. A madman is on the loose and hacking and slashing his way through the neighbourhood, and that is more than enough to create efficient tension and remarkable moments that fare better when entering into the feature with low expectations and a desire to be frightened.