Retro Review: Halloween (1978)

Halloween Opening from IMDb

With the new film already hailing a triumphant return for the series at the box office, on this most spooky of weeks, it is time to look back at the original film that started it all. A film hailed by many to be the grandfather of the slasher genre and one of the scariest films of all time. But after all the sequels, reboots, rip-offs and increasingly violent films that came after it, how does the original Halloween hold up?

The story

On Halloween night, 1963, in the small town of Haddonfield, a young boy named Michael Myers murders his sister, Judith Myers for seemingly no reason. Michael then spends the next fifteen years locked up in Smiths Grove Sanatorium under the eye of doctor Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). But on one fateful night, Michael escapes and returns to his hometown. He then begins stalking teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. With Dr. Loomis hot on his trail, will the girls be able to survive Michael’s onslaught? And more frighteningly, can Michael actually be stopped?

What did I like?

I have an odd history with the original Halloween. When I first saw it, I dismissed it because it seemed like every other slasher movie. Over the years, however, I now appreciate what the original Halloween is. A stripped down, supremely suspenseful horror classic.

Halloween does not need gory kills to set its audience on edge. Because Halloween effectively generates a thick atmosphere of creeping, unknown dread. There are several factors for why it is able to build this so successfully. Chief amongst them being the films iconic killer.

Michael Myers is terrifying in Halloween because there is no rhyme or reason to his actions. The opening revelation that he was only a child when killed his older sister, is truly haunting. Especially since he shows no remorse or comprehension of what he did. He then stalks and murders the high school friends simply because he can. Tapping into our fear of the unknown. This is helped by other various touches. For example, Michael’s mask is a blank, expressionless parody of a human face (a white painted William Shatner mask) that is troubling because of its indifference to the slaughter Michael commits. And there are things about him that never sync with reality. His average build and almost superhuman strength, as well as his undying nature and his ability to disappear at will, transforms Michael into a nightmarishly surreal figure. And he has terrified generations of moviegoers ever since.

The performances are another way the movie evokes a feeling of dread. Donald Pleasence’s Doctor Loomis is one of cinemas greatest harbingers of doom. Despite hardly interacting with Myers during the movie, he instils a sense of fear in the audience for how calmly assured he is of Michaels evil nature. He knows what Michael is capable of and that he is the only one who can stop him. Jamie Lee Curtis also makes her film debut as one of the horror genres most fondly remembered final girls. Curtis plays Laurie with humility and innocence that makes her easy to root for. And all the other performers, despite some occasional cheesiness, come across as likeable, everyday people. Making it all the more tragic when the bogeyman rips through their lives.

Lastly, the films production elements help to elevate the unease. The film had a shoestring budget and could not afford lavish location work and set design. So, the film was forced to economize. Thus, the set design is minimal and the action confined to a handful of locations. Making the audience feel a sense of claustrophobia and helping the setting feel more intimate than the overblown nature of many of its higher budgeted counterparts. John Carpenters score and directing are also excellent at building tension. The simple but effective score gives Michael a great sense of presence and constantly sets the audience on edge. And the way Carpenter builds suspense through having Michael in the background of shots without lingering on him is masterful. It puts the audience one step ahead of the characters and makes the scenes where the shape slowly creeps towards his prey nail-bitingly taut.

What I do not like?

While Halloween is a classic, there are aspects that will not satisfy everyone. The films loose connection with reality regarding Michael works. It makes him more unpredictable and the characters feel more vulnerable. But some of the characters actions also have a loose connection with reality and can remove the audience, momentarily from the experience. For example, during the finale when Laurie drops Michaels knife right next to him, it seems like a leap of logic. Especially, as she is still not sure if Michael is actually dead.

The plot can also feel a bit meandering at times. The teen’s story is necessary thematically and Loomis’ scenes are always effective. But at times the plot leans too hard on the teenager’s story to engage the audience. Which can be a problem if you don’t find the teenagers and their dated slang interesting. And as a result, Loomis does not directly affect the plot aside from at the beginning and end of the film. Making Loomis seem like an afterthought.

Finally, while the score is iconic, it does become a crutch after a while. Often during the films second act, the score will dramatically increase to ensure that the audience knows that Michael is still around. And to make sure they have not lost interest. Which feels very cheap. A little goes a long way after all.

Bottom Line

Despite my minor misgivings, the original Halloween is nothing short of a classic and a testament to what can be done on a low budget. The combination of a great production crew, fantastic performances, and a scary villain helped Halloween become one of the most profitable horror films ever made. And while the sequels, remakes and slasher derivatives may have weakened it in the eyes of general viewers over the years, Halloween is essential viewing. Especially around this time of year. Because on Halloween, everyone is entitled to one good scare.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.