With Halloween only a few days away, I have been watching classic horror films for the past week and I recently saw one of my favorite horror films, John Carpenter’s Halloween. While watching, I had just realized Halloween is the movie that revolutionized the film industry and pioneered the modern horror film.
In terms of horror films, there seem to be two different eras: before Halloween and after Halloween. Scary movies before were characteristic of those centralizing around castles or tombs with figures such as Dracula, the Wolfman, or Frankenstein. These films often took place in places overseas and had a romantic subplot to go along with it. The situations in which the characters were placed in were of pure fiction and the horror was more in the monster’s appearance rather than the experience of watching the movie. The person that started to push away from these cliché and overused themes was Alfred Hitchcock. With movies like Psycho and The Birds, he brought the horror genre out of the realm of fictional, fantasy characters and into a more modern setting. However, the real push would begin when John Carpenter would create the first modern horror film in 1978, Halloween.
At the time, John Carpenter was a film student graduate who was looking for his first major project and suddenly he ran into the idea of a movie about a babysitter killer. This idea eventually evolved into what we would consider a modern slasher flick today, a man going around and murdering teenagers. The film would have to have a budget of $300,000 and would have to feature new-coming actors in as well, like the novice Jamie Lee Curtis. The film would revolve around a masked stranger, a real human being, not a vampire or a monster but a flesh and bones human being. Carpenter purposely left out information regarding this figure, Michael Myers, to depict how he had no motive and to let the audience’s imagination run wild. The premise of the story is that in 1963 a young boy, Michael Myers, murders his sister on Halloween night and is then kept in a mental institution. The night before Halloween many years later when he is an adult, Michael escapes from the institution and finds his way back to his hometown, Haddonfield, Illinois. Now a changed town, the unsuspecting town of Haddonfield is taken by surprise when on Halloween night he goes on a killing spree despite his former physician warning the authorities.
Carpenter’s focus in the film was to let the audience’s imagination do the work and to build up the suspense throughout the entire film. This explains why so little is known about the masked Michael Myers despite what landed him in the mental institution. The audience has to create their own perception of Michael Myers, using only his body language and his actions to build off of. In addition, surprisingly there is little to no blood seen throughout the film, there is literally no gore. However, the audience doesn’t even notice this as they are the ones who fill in the blood and the gore while the movie goes on. Another important element to the terror invoked by the film is how revolutionary it is as far as how it drops the situation, as in it is all very normal.
Carpenter sets up the story to where it is very believable as if it could happen in the average American town to the average person. His characters are actually played by teenagers and they speak like teenagers, this was never really done well before in film. The idea that it could happen to anyone in the real world brought the fear outside of just the realm of cinema. For filming, many new techniques had to be utilized such as the single unbroken panning shot and using dimming lighting to show Michael Myer’s face in the background, as if your eyes are adjusting to the darkness. The creativity and innovative ideas used were only costume possible if they entire crew worked together, which they did. Due to the low budget, everybody was doing each other’s job (in fact 5 people wore the Myer’s costume). Carpenter refused to have the film edited and filmed with the best quality possible and being a perfectionist he ended up doing most of the work himself in the editing room. The last component of fear was the score, the chilling and deceivingly simple piano melody. This score’s simple and repetitive progression only increases the tension and is what added the ambiance to the film.
If you haven’t seen Halloween I highly suggest watching it, not only for its contribution to film but also for the film itself. It is a wonderful horror film for the tension it builds and for the masked villain, Michael Myers. His body language and how he is shown in the movie is so eerie and creepy, as if he has no soul and just wanders.