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.
Most importantly, and in stark contrast to nearly every horror movie that has been released since, Halloween reaches back to a time before popular culture ruled our lives – to a time when folklore and urban legend constituted the heart of the small community. The movie’s structure and plot even parallel the themes of a number of oft-repeated urban myths, making the experience at once familiar and frightening. Halloween reminds us of a time, perhaps even a real time that we experienced when we were younger, when good and evil were palpable entities and when terror seemed to lurk around every unknown corner.
Unlike most modern horror movies, there is no guilt to be found in being frightened by Halloween. It earns its scares by reincorporating folk culture into something new and terrifying, by becoming something more than the sum of its parts – and due to its familiarity with and mastery over our own subconscious, we have little choice but to follow it into the darkness of our own fears. For fans of the genre there are few films that can compete with Halloween’s particular brand of horror, and even less that can lay similar claim to being one of the best horror movies ever made.