Guest Writer: Ted Berg
It’s weird to watch “Halloween” now, after Wes Craven’s meta-horror pic “Scream” explicitly exposed all the clichéd slasher-film conventions that were essentially founded by John Carpenter in his 1978 classic.
We know going in that the nerdy, chaste babysitter – played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her big-screen debut – will survive the attacks of the deranged madman and her more promiscuous friends will not. We know that the couple that has sex is pretty much doomed upon penetration. And we understand that the murderer will exhibit superhuman resolve, inexorably marching forward toward his next victim despite repeated stabbings and gunshots.
Plus, “Halloween’s” characters are flat, its dialogue wooden and its plot inane. For no clear reason, a six-year-old stabs his sister on Halloween in suburbia. Fifteen years later, he escapes a mental facility and returns to his hometown with a lust for blood.
What’s wrong with him? His doctor’s best diagnosis is, essentially, that he’s evil. Why does he choose to stalk Laurie Strode – Curtis’ character – and her friends? Well, he just kind of does. Her father is a real estate agent and she has to drop off a key at Michael Myers’ old house, and that’s apparently reason enough.
And yet despite all that, it plays, even now. Halloween is a testament to Carpenter’s directorial touch. The plot and characters, really, are secondary to perpetual cycle of suspense and startle. “Halloween” forces you to constantly scan the screen for background movement; Michael Myers is expert at the sneak-up.
Carpenter frequently uses a single, shaky, hand-held camera to simulate his killer’s field of vision. It creates an unsteady, unanchored feeling, and it’s spooky as hell. And that effect is amplified by Carpenter’s classic 5/4-timed score. The odd meter is probably important; the song feels innately disruptive and unsettling.
Curtis, for her part, proves to be a master of the terrified whimper, well-cast as the unlikely but virtuous heroine. Donald Pleasence, as Myers’ psychiatrist, is just creepy enough to deliver his ominous, heavy-handed lines with appropriate horror-movie gravitas without ever seeming totally ridiculous.
Plus the plot’s downright arbitrary nature taps into a classic element of suburban terror: At any given moment, for no clear reason, there might be a man with a huge knife peering in your window, waiting to stab all your slutty friends.