Michael Myers has been in an institution since he was a young boy, after murdering his sister. Now he's escaped and is heading back home to terrorise the quiet community which still remembers him.
John Carpenter, a young director with only two films behind him — expanded college project Dark Star (1974) and thriller Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) — intended Halloween to be a ruthless machine of a movie, a thrill ride designed simply to leave the audience shaking with fear. He succeeded. It became the single most successful independent production at that time and changed the face of the horror movie. If Universal's 1931 Frankenstein is "the most important horror movie ever made" then Halloween runs it a close second.
After Carpenter's film no co-ed taking a shower was safe from the legion of masked psychotics who haunted high schools, college dorms, summer camps and slumber parties. The formula was so outrageously successful that by 1981 over 60 per cent of American releases were of the stalk'n'slash genre. Without Michael Myers there would be no Jason Voorhees (Friday The 13th) or Freddy Krueger (Nightmare On Elm Street). The ripples continue to roll across horror's dark millpond with ironic horrors like Scream and Urban Legend themselves being spoofed in Scary Movie, while I Know What You Did Last Summer simply returns to the tried and tested formula. But no movie since Carpenter's has
delivered the requisite shocks with such exuberant elegance. Halloween's main influences are probably Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (both 1960), the tale of a voyeuristic killer who forces his victims to watch their own deaths. That element of voyeurism is present in Carpenter's lurking camera and extensive use of point-of-view (POV) shots, both from the killer and his victim's perspectives. It's a technique that dazzles from the start of the movie.
The celebrated opening sequence, in which we peer through the windows of a white clapboard house at a couple of canoodling teens, before tracking them upstairs, remains one of the greatest deployments of Steadicam (or, strictly speaking, Panaglide, Panavision's now defunct version of the system) in cinema. In fact, it's a type of shot peculiarly suited to building tension and therefore to horror, as Stanley Kubrick would demonstrate two years later in The Shining. What appears here to be a fluid sequence actually has at least one cut: one when the child puts the clown's mask on and another that Carpenter claims is in there but refuses to reveal where. It also audaciously compresses time — we are lead to believe that the canoodling couple have bumped uglies. Certainly the boy is pulling his shirt back on as he comes downstairs and the bedsheets show signs of some energetic romping.
But in fact they've been up there for less than two minutes. Either it's the least satisfying shag in film history or Carpenter is already putting his cards on the table. All extraneous matter is stripped away leaving a drag racer of a fright machine. The technical achievements don't end with Panaglide. If, like most people, you've only seen Halloween on tape then you've only actually seen about two thirds of it. Carpenter elected to shoot in widescreen, one of the first horror directors to do so, and then used the oceans of space the format offered to further unnerve his audience. Compositions are deliberately unbalanced with gaping holes into which something could jump at any time. (Normally the jumping was done by co-screenwriter Nick Castle. Billed as "The Shape", he would go on to make his directorial debut with TAG: The Assassination Game in 1982).
Then there's Carpenter's insistent synth-score, certainly one of the best ever composed for a horror movie, which juxtaposes tinkling electronic piano with doom-laden organ chords and enough sudden "stingers" to keep adrenaline levels uncomfortably high. The heart of Halloween is its simplicity. It establishes the rules of teen-horror — so eloquently mocked in Scream — and obeys them slavishly. Teens fall victim to The Shape only after they have committed some anti-authoritarian crime, usually having sex, but occasionally boozing or smoking dope. It was Carpenter's counter-intuitive discovery that adolescents, at whom the film is squarely aimed, were, by the late 70s, a deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgressions.
Hardly the free spirits of the Easy Rider decade, but then Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner. Much of Carpenter's success would become cliche in the following years: the lurking camera, slaughtered teens and a killer who refuses to lie down and die (indeed, like the arm bursting out of the ground at the end of Carrie, the shot of the "dead" shape rising behind Laurie (Curtis) would become the stuff of spoof — but only because it was so effective in the first place).
Regardless of the limp comedies that followed, Halloween remains about as distilled, raw an experience in terror as is ever likely to be committed to celluloid.