“The Night He Came Home” was the sell line for 1978’s HALLOWEEN, directed by John Carpenter. The “he” was Michael Myers, seen in an effectively eerie subjective camera prologue sequence at age 6 slaughtering his sister with a knife on Halloween night for no discernible reason. (Well, except for one, which we’ll discuss later.)
Fifteen years later, Michael escapes from his asylum to return home on Halloween to stalk babysitting teen girls and their friends, foremost among them Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of PSYCHO star Janet Leigh.)
The adult Michael is a looming, ominously silent figure carrying a knife, wearing a blank-faced mask that makes him the repository of all our primal fears.
Psychological horror? Not so much, since we’re given no past trauma, no motivation whatsoever to justify Michael’s murderous behavior. Is the devil or some other supernatural agency behind it all? We’re given no such indication, although Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) describes the boy Michael as having had “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes.”
HALLOWEEN dares to present us with a figure who represents pure evil, a malevolent force that is neither explained or justified.
Part of the pleasure of the film is Carpenter’s depiction of the naturalistic interplay between Laurie and her two friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P. J. Soles). (Lynda, for instance, adds “totally” to almost every sentence.) They surreptitiously smoke pot and tease each other about boyfriends, and seem like real friends.
In the film’s setting, Haddonfield, Illinois, Carpenter gives us a peaceful, almost idyllic looking suburban town, with fake leaves imported in during filming, which took play in May.
That peace is violated by Michael’s rampage, which is rendered in a series of taut sequences in which characters go about their business unaware that Michael is stalking them. He may not be a supernatural figure, but he has an uncanny ability to fade almost invisibly into the background, and then pop up suddenly to deliver the killing blow. These scenes are staged with minimal blood but considerable Hitchcockian skill by Carpenter.
Are Laurie and Lynda targeted first because both like to get frisky with their boyfriends? That’s the same activity Michael’s teen sister was engaging in when something was triggered and Michael became a murderer for the first time.
Much has been made of this “sex equals death” idea, which was played out ad nauseum in the HALLOWEEN sequels, the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films and other teen slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. (The more recent IT FOLLOWS riffs brilliantly on this familiar horror film trope.)
And yet if that’s the real reason, why does Michael’s primary target seem to be the more modest and chaste Laurie? Will the fact the Laurie is less sexually experienced than the others help assure her survival?
Carpenter himself never had much to say about these ideas, and perhaps to obsess on them is to miss the point. The point being that HALLOWEEN is full of wonderfully scary suspense sequences, punctuated by shocking but not over-the-top gory kill scenes.
The fact that we care about the characters helps give the scare scenes more weight. Curtis’ Laurie Strode is a likable, earnest character, and one who proves surprisingly resourceful and resilient during her final climactic sequence being pursued by Michael.
Donald Pleasence is fun in a slightly loopy performance as Loomis, a man so intensely focused on killing Michael that he seems to have forgotten he is Michael’s physician. Lurking in the dark and making goo goo eyes, he’s given to such ripe pronouncements as “He’s gone from here! The evil is gone!”
Carpenter’s minimalist keyboard-based music score is an asset, and the three-note HALLOWEEN main theme is instantly recognizable to any classic horror fan.
Most of the sequels and the sleazy Rob Zombie remake can be safely avoided, although the sequels in which Jamie Lee Curtis returns as star are at least worth a look.