John Carpenter’s low-budget classic wrings every possible chill out of its story of a psychopath called Michael Myers (not the Austin Powers one) terrorising Jamie Lee Curtis and her fellow babysitters on Halloween eve.
The film begins in a Midwestern town on Halloween night in 1963 with the brutal stabbing of a teenager – by her brother. The psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) believes that Myers is “the most dangerous patient” he has ever observed, and cautions authorities about lax security at the mental hospital where the killer is incarcerated.
Fifteen years later, the doctor’s concern turns to alarm: Michael escapes and returns to his hometown – on Halloween.
Wearing a mask and wielding a knife, he brazenly stalks three high school girls in the daytime, waiting for darkness to strike.
Carpenter was only 24 when, during the spring of 1978, he shot Halloween in just 20 days on a budget of just over $300,000 (for the meagre salary of $10,000, a cut of the profits and his name above the title.) It was probably the best deal he ever made!
He had written the film in just 10 days with Debra Hill, based on an idea by Irwin Yablans about a killer who stalks babysitters, tentatively titled The Babysitter Murders.
After a faltering opening run, the film quickly became a critically acclaimed box-office smash that went on to gross over $50 million and spawned a raft of sequels and an entire industry of (mostly inferior) slasher movies.
It also made Carpenter the hottest young director in Hollywood, although the relationship quickly soured after a series of costly flops.
Halloween is a masterpiece of sustained tension and looming terror, notable for its pioneering use of Steadicam, brilliant simplicity – babysitters in peril! – and the sheer audacity of the direction.
There are plenty of violent incidents, but no lashings of pointless guts and gore. What Carpenter at his best did better than anyone, was create an atmosphere of dread in which lurked suggestions of even worse things to come.
In other words, he kept the audience in a state of permanent fright – and this movie still has the power to make you scream out loud.
The slasher formula that Carpenter laid down has proved so influential on horror cinema of all budgets in the decades since that the Scary Movie team consider it ripe for spoofing 20/30 years later.
But you can still watch the 1978 original and feel the same dread: those point-of-view shots that lurk around houses and outside windows; the opening credits with that eternally suspended jack o’ lantern and Carpenter’s own electrifying score; the chilling moment when Donald Pleasence’s doctor arrives at the asylum and realises the inmates are loose in the dark around his car . . .
Paper leaves were painted in autumnal colours to help create the season, and the budget was so tight on the film that they were collected and re-used.
The terrifying blank-faced mask worn by killer Michael Myers is actually a William Shatner Star Trek mask sprayed white.
Jamie Lee Curtis
Dr Sam Loomis
Lynda van der Klok