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Halloween (1978)



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John Carpenter's Halloween is considered a horror classic, partly for its skillful building of tension and partly because it was the first of its kind. My impression? I agree, with reservations.

The movie does one key thing right: it puts the emphasis on suspense rather than gore. There's almost no gore in this movie, actually -- nor is any needed. Carpenter builds all the atmosphere and tension he needs from what is not seen. What's lurking around the corner? What's hiding in the shadows? We know that pure evil is out there, but we don't know its manner. We don't know when it will strike or how, and that's what makes the movie effective. On the other hand, I think the movie spends too much time building a chilly atmosphere, because not enough time is spent building characters we are concerned about. Or exploring the means and nature of the psychotic killer, Michael Myers. Much of the fun of Psycho and the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, to name two very different approaches to the same basic genre, is figuring out how the killer works and what makes him tick. Michael Myers is just a bad guy. So what do we have when all is done? A guy kills some people, while others survive. Sure, it's creepier when his motivation is an unknown, but it's also unsatisfying when it stays that way.

I should also interject that the music is absolutely terrible. The now-famous Halloween theme, that John Carpenter composed himself, is well remembered, because it plays practically non-stop. The theme is put to better use later in the series, but here it's repetitive and shrill and actually weakens the suspense at times when pure silence would have been more effective. It's creepy seeing evil appear out of the shadows, but it's just overblown to see evil appear out of the shadows accompanied by a loud electronic cat shriek chord.

What was terrifying in 1978 has significantly less impact today. I found myself appreciating the technical aspects of the movie (except the soundtrack) and the skillful way in which it suggests evil is always hiding just outside the frame, but I did not particularly enjoy it on a visceral level until the outstanding final act. Contrast this with Psycho, an older film which nevertheless remains effective on all levels.

There is one scene in the movie that is very telling. In a very creepy moment, Michael Myers stands in a doorway with a sheet over his head and glasses over the sheet. He looks very goofy. In a lesser movie, the scene would have sunk it. I knew Halloween was doing something right when I realized I wasn't laughing.

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