A Teen Horror Classic Created The Slasher Movie Blueprint... And Still Has Much To Teach Us
Often imitated, never replicated.
There are few horror movies that have impacted the genre like John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween. It isn’t the first slasher film by any means (it was preceded by ‘60s proto-slashers like Peeping Tom and Psycho, gory Italian giallo like Bay of Blood, and early ‘70s luminaries like the macabre Black Christmas and the ferocious Texas Chain Saw Massacre.) But it did provide a blueprint of sorts that would inform all films like it going forward.
A lot of that is due to the fact that Halloween, on paper, looks very easy to recreate. Concoct a silent, masked killer, throw together a loose bit of a backstory for them, let the camera glide around a little bit, murder some teens and leave the ending open for a sequel. Boom, you’ve got the next hit low-budget horror film. However, even 45 years after its release, Halloween still has a lot to teach us — much of which has been outright ignored by the studios eager to capitalize on it.
One thing that a filmmaker can learn from Halloween is how to effectively employ empty space. A lot of films like Halloween end up turning empty space into a sort of rote procedure — as soon as you watch the victim back up into a corner or to the side of a wide space, you know that something is going to pop out of that space. Now, Halloween does this as well, like the iconic shot of Laurie resting against a door frame while, in the blackness of the room behind her, Michael’s white mask appears, almost floating in the dark.
However, what makes this sequence so eerily effective is that the whole movie is like this, turning any extra space in a setting into a pure loss of audience control. Not many filmmakers can handle a wide screen like Carpenter, but even from the introduction of Haddonfield, where the director’s eternally roaming camera takes us across an autumn suburbia, we’re left trying to maintain a foothold. It turns any feelings of normalcy into helplessness, and when we have to focus on something (sometimes a small figure in the frame,) it’s truly striking. When Michael watches Laurie walk down the street by herself or Laurie sees Michael looking up at her from the yard, it becomes almost inescapable. Carpenter is hurtling you toward the boogeyman, and there’s nothing you can grab onto to stop yourself.
For the most part, the film takes place over the course of a day and as afternoon turns into night, the shadows come out. Again, there are few horror movie tactics more widely enjoyed than something lurking in the night or amongst the shadows. Halloween is obviously no different, as one needs to only look at Michael Myers stalking around the side of the Wallace house to see Carpenter make the most of the interplay between light and dark. These shots, sometimes shown from the eyes of a child, are haunting, that aforementioned loss of control amplified by just who the (onscreen) viewer is.
Even after the main action of the movie is over, though, Carpenter refuses to let up. Unlike many films, there is no real allure of relief. After Michael has been shot by Dr. Loomis and disappears from the backyard, we get a series of still shots. They’re all places that Michael has been at one point, but they all remain bathed in shadow while Myers’ breathing carries over the main musical theme. Their stillness lends them almost a true crime sense of creepiness, but the lingering shadows in them, ones that indicate that Michael could be waiting anywhere, is an atmospheric triumph. They aren’t just shadows anymore but physically unknowable spaces of danger in a poisoned town. It refuses to devolve the film’s locations back to their prior, gentle domesticity and assures that the audience will be rushing for their light switches as soon as they get home from the theater.
The slasher film wave that followed Halloween would be immensely successful but often lacked its punch. Friday the 13th, Halloween’s most famous heir apparent, is marked by a more gleeful approach to the killing, focusing on the creative ways that a character can die rather than the stylized process that gets you there. Prom Night, starring Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis, opted for Halloween’s slower approach, but its cinematography is uninspired. Terror Train, also featuring Curtis, oozes atmosphere at times, but is far more visually incoherent than Halloween. He Knows You’re Alone treats Halloween’s qualities in grab-bag fashion, throwing in errant shadows and “suspenseful” sequences with little thought as to how they should fit together.
All of these films were released in 1980 and all of them would embody the genre going forward. Even Halloween’s own sequels would fall prey to it — in 1981, Halloween 2 had to keep up with the body counts of its contemporaries and ultimately, combined with a plot that usurped the mystery of the first film, even its best moments feel like an admiring homage to the original rather than a true follow-up. They all treat the 1978 movie not as an effective whole, but as ingredients in a recipe to strew about when needed. Halloween had turned a familiar suburbia into a place where pure evil can lurk anywhere. Its successors would never have the same sweeping effect, and instead often used the genre as a sequence of new, interchangeable places to put stabbed teens.
When it comes to John Carpenter’s best film, his filmography is so full of now-classics that Halloween has to go up against stuff like the near perfect The Thing, the dystopian Escape from New York, the uproarious Big Trouble in Little China, and the anti-authoritiarian They Live. But no other piece of his filmography has been as ceaselessly copied as Halloween. And as such, no other film of his stands out quite like Halloween, because only a handful of its imitators have ever been able to actually grasp its cinematic power.