Halloween (1978)

Halloween might be the most imitated, riffed-upon, winked-at American horror film in history. To say nothing of multiple novels and comic book series starring the serial killer Michael Myers, the film franchise itself now stands at ten installments, of which — you guessed it! — nine are pretty much crap. Judging by the box office landscape of the next few years, it won’t be long before Halloween 11: We Can Out-Sequel Saw hits a theater near you. But outside of the canon there are hundreds of Halloweens, from subtle copies to straight-up rip-offs, especially with the original being the film that most credit as the start of the slasher genre (“what about Hitchcock?!”).

One case-in-point is It Follows, one of the most recent nods to John Carpenter’s first true horror flick (although we sought out the elements of horror in his feature debut Assault on Precinct 13). The similarities are numerous and unmistakable, from the suburban setting to the shot of the classroom to the sense that this thing is stalking only the protagonist with everyone else standing in as collateral damage. That Michael Myers is a thing or an it — certainly not a him — is made clear by his psychiatrist Sam Loomis, and the idea of the human form as a vessel for something more sinister is also at the heart of It Follows. The music by Disasterpeace, too, is just one more obvious piece of evidence of the influence of Halloween in movies like It Follows; go listen to “Playpen” and try not to picture a flickering jack-o’-lantern against a black backdrop.

That’s definitely one of the more palatable examples, more of an homage than a copy, more of a slight nod than a gleaming wink. With Halloween John Carpenter crafted a mood of dread that built steadily from one scene to the next, starting with the 1963-set prologue tracking shot (more on that in a second). We reach the present-day 1978 and find young girls talking about boys, griping about babysitting, puffing a joint in the car and panicking when dad comes around. We see Michael Myers after his escape from the sanitarium where he’s been held for the past fifteen years, and we hear Dr. Loomis provide foreboding soliloquies on Michael’s true and dangerous nature. But it takes nearly an hour for anyone to die in the 1978 portion of Halloween, which in modern horror movie time is a damned eternity. When those killings do start, they’re far more effective because we’re practically begging for it to happen at that point.

And that hour is really the most frightening part of Halloween, because it’s not Michael killing people that scares us — it’s the unfathomable possibility of what he could do that’s far more terrifying. Carpenter holds tension like few before (“what about Hitchcock?!”) or since, and the sense of the dramatic truth in the dialectic between what Carpenter the writer envisioned and what Carpenter the director captured onscreen is impressive, and is its own kind of tension. An hour of young girls lugging their schoolbooks home as Michael stands motionless across the street doesn’t sound particularly terrifying, but the restraint and the perpetuation of tension in that half of Halloween heightens the blood and gore that opened the film and forecasts something much worse still to come.

Take a look at that opening shot of the film (the very beginning of this clip is cut off, but it’s just an extended zoom from the street into the front door of the Myers home). Note the drawn-out, super-prolonged march leading up to the actual mini-climax, and note that this is only the first of a dozen such tracking shots throughout Halloween:

Every single time a tracking shot occurs from this point forward, this opening scene is foremost in our minds. It’s effective in its simplicity, somehow conditioning us — especially us modern viewers watching Halloween almost 40 years after the fact — to enjoy the march leading up to the climax. From where I’m sitting, that’s the most enjoyable part of Halloween.

Fast forward almost three decades after Carpenter’s first masterpiece to 2007, when Rob Zombie dispensed with any silly suffixes like II or III or IV or Resurrection and simply made a movie called Halloween. This was an ostensible reboot to the franchise, a new imagining of the terror that bridged October and November in that Illinois town all those years ago. But there’s hardly any tension here at all, at least of the non-fabricated sort John Carpenter did so well, and it seems the esteemed Mr. Zombie was intent on removing everything else that made Michael scary as well. The Halloween reboot explains Michael away into a guy with a knife, and 90% of the “homages” to the original Halloween do the same. The best of them don’t care so much about showing you this guy with a knife, focusing instead on making you worry that maybe, just maybe, he might.

And yes — Michael’s mask is actually a William Shatner Kirk mask:

Halloween (1978)

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