Most people are familiar with the plot, in which the psychotic Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and embarks on a killing spree in small-town America. His victims: a group of helpless, unlucky teenagers, led by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first major role). Meanwhile, Myers’ psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) works desperately throughout the night to find Myers and put an end to his rampage. Loomis acts as an earnest but ultimately flawed compass when it comes to our understanding of Myers, who acts as a force that Loomis refers to as “purely and simply…evil.”
All of the devices that would become known as the conventions of modern horror are here. The teenagers are killed off, one by one, with the most promiscuous being the first to go; first-person camera shots from Myers’ point of view heighten the sense of the teens’ vulnerability; and a character is killed after speaking that most infamous of horror movie lines: “I’ll be back.” But somehow, these elements don’t seem the least bit cliché. Perhaps it’s because of the relative purity of these tropes in the late 1970s – Halloween was the first film to ever use them in the way that it did.
Unfortunately, the slasher movies that began to rise from the wake of Halloween’s success in the 1980s mistook these aspects of the movie for substance rather than style. Even Halloween’s sequels (there have been seven so far, as well as a remake – none of which were directed by John Carpenter) have fallen trap to this error, replacing the suspense and terror of the original movie with increasing amounts of violence and gore. The first film is not overly violent in comparison, though, relying instead on the viewer’s ability to sympathize with the teens’ desperation. Halloween may have created a formula for later horror movies to follow, but it did so unwittingly and in a way that has yet to be replicated to better effect.