‘Halloween’ 1978: Fear Continues to Resonate

Posted October 17, 2018 5:53 p.m. EDT

When “Halloween” was released in October 1978, The New York Times didn’t review it. But it wasn’t out of snobbery. Printing press workers were on strike, and nothing was being published (not even the news of a new pope). Vincent Canby, the chief film critic then, did circle back to the movie the next year, but we’ve never given this horror classic a proper review. So, with a new “Halloween” due Friday, we asked Jason Zinoman to rectify a 40-year oversight.

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The original “Halloween” always struck me as an experimental art film in a bloody exploitation mask.

John Carpenter’s relentlessly terrifying masterpiece about baby sitters and the murderous Michael Myers has been imitated, paid homage to and remade (an update of the original opens Friday) so many times since its premiere in 1978 that its radicalism is easy to overlook. Michael Myers is not like other movie monsters. He doesn’t lurch or creep or race. He walks, steadily. His physicality and clothes tell you nothing about him. He never speaks and offers no hint of a motivation for his killing spree. He is not a character so much as an absence of one, an abstraction in the middle of a mundane slice of suburban life.

What little the movie tells us about this founding father of the slasher film comes from Dr. Loomis, his former psychiatrist, played with brio by Donald Pleasence. “I was told there was nothing left,” he says about Myers. “No reason, no conscience, no understanding.”

Michael Myers’ mask isn’t hiding anything. It is all there is.

Most great horror monsters are stand-ins for some cultural anxiety like fear in the atomic age or scientific overreach or racism. Part of the reason “Halloween” has aged so well — when it screened at a Times Square theater this month, the crowd still gasped and screamed — is that it plays no topical notes and wastes little time on character development, plot, theme or any other elements extraneous to the critical business of sending shudders down your spine.

It’s tempting to be cynical or dismissive about this bare-bones moviemaking. In The Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the movie aimed so low, “analysis has no place.” In her New Yorker review, Pauline Kael called “Halloween” just “dumb scariness.”

“Halloween” certainly is ruthlessly simple, pivoting between a group of teenage girls talking about and having sex and the perspective of a sociopathic killer who escaped from a hospital to terrorize them. Some have read conservative sexual politics into the story, and Carpenter has spent decades denying that he was trying to punish the promiscuous, a tough case to make when (spoiler alert!) the girls who have sex are killed while the virgin survives. A moralistic streak, not to mention a prurient one, is buried in the DNA of cheap horror that is part of this movie.

But what’s on screen is a marriage of commerce and art. The marketable standby of a killer stalking scantily clad women is elevated by elegantly orchestrated camerawork that keeps you disoriented, moment by moment, as the beating notes of the soundtrack remind you something bad and unstoppable is on the way. From the first shot to the last, this movie is confidently guided by a specific and committed vision.

Carpenter was no novice. You can see the hallmarks of “Halloween” in his previous work, including two slick genre movies — “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13” — that also featured unmotivated killers, as well his screenplay for “Eyes of Laura Mars,” which is about a fashion photographer who via a psychic connection suddenly starts seeing through the eyes of a serial killer. But “Halloween” was a purer and more uncompromising example of his brand of suspense filmmaking.

The precision and timing of the movie’s chilling chase scenes reveal an artist who understands that truly resonant scariness could not be dumb. It required deft craft and a coherent perspective on fear. Horror common wisdom states that the scariest evil is unknown, inexplicable and random; once the monster is revealed in a movie and the mind makes sense of it, much of the fear it inspires dissipates. So keeping Michael Myers a blank navigates around this problem. But he’s not the only void here.

Carpenter pointedly ends the movie with a montage of empty spaces: Bare rooms, abandoned streets, a darkened house. His signature propulsive synthesizer music, which has become perhaps his most influential aesthetic contribution to the current vogue of horror, is playing as the breathing of Michael Myers gets louder. You hear the air go in his mouth and then escape. He’s everywhere and nowhere.

Decades before “Scream” ushered in the trend of horror movies that knowingly commented on themselves, “Halloween” adopted a wry self-consciousness that constantly drew attention to itself. By casting Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as his heroine, Laurie Strode, Carpenter invites comparisons to “Psycho,” which starred Leigh. Curtis, making her film debut, turned out to be a natural, delivering a persuasive performance of operatic panic that suggested a ferocious core. The movie repeatedly places the viewer in the perspective of the killer, but it also often puts Michael Myers near the audience, lurking at the corner of the screen with his back to us like the characters in “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Michael likes to watch, and he often seems more interested in a good scare than an efficient kill. In one memorable scene, he stages a grave for one of his victims, and when Laurie discovers it, two other corpses pop out at her, a jury-rigged spectacle. If Michael Myers betrays any personality at all, it’s as a showman of scares, albeit a much cruder one than John Carpenter.

In horror, the jack-in-the-box scare (think of the head floating out of the boat in “Jaws”) is the quickest way to get a scream, but the still shocks (the twin girls in “The Shining”) are the ones that linger with you. “Halloween” has them both, but it specializes in the second.

After the credit sequence, “Halloween” takes the point of view of a 6-year-old Michael Myers. It’s not as famous as the virtuoso tracking shot, but the most jarring moment occurs after the boy steps outside and his mask is pulled off. As the camera recedes, his parents stare at him, barely moving, while Michael gazes into the distance. This paralyzed threesome just stands there for nearly 30 seconds. It feels like a crazily long time, escalating tension and turning this scene into a stylized uncanny, a simulacrum of a freeze frame.

It’s an odd choice — to hold the pause this long — but it’s the kind of unpredictable one that makes this movie such an unsettling and fascinating classic.

“Halloween" is rated R. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.