From beginning to end, John Carpenter’s primitive Halloween (1978) introduced a vast amount of novel horror elements to the big screen. Not only did Carpenter’s monumental film ignite a later repetitive series of remakes, but it established the groundwork for the subgenre we know as the slasher film. The resultant sub-genre is corroborated through subsequent films of comparable structure and cinematographic elements such as Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Being revered for its stalking characteristics, the pith of Halloween’s progressive escalation revolves around Michael Myers (Tony Moran) slow, sociopathic approach to his prospective victims. Carpenter underscores Myers’ approach through multiple point-of-view shots, leitmotifs and long shots of Michael silently watching the protagonist, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), from afar. Through these rudimentary but meticulous film implements, Carpenter delivers a grasping, trendsetting film operating on a highly restricted budget of just $325,000.
One outstanding convention of Halloween is the film’s ability to cross boundaries as displayed in the first scene where the viewer is placed into the perspective of the killer, young Michael, using Carpenter’s famous I-camera. As we enter the first scene, the viewer is subjected to a long take through a point-of-view shot using a handheld camera. Consequently, we are immersed in young Michael’s perspective as he slowly creeps around the outside and inside of his home where he witnesses sexual relations between his sister and her presumed boyfriend. Carpenter personalizes the historic cinematography of the scene even further as Michael puts on a mask altering our perspective to the mask’s two eyeholes in opposition to the full field of view. The gradual transition proves to be a guileful method ultimately straying from traditional horror by aligning the viewer with our soon revealed killer. By the end of the scene, Carpenter has both introduced an unorthodox element of horror while displaying an example of intertextuality by echoing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) through the scene’s implicit knife killing.
Parallel to many horror films in the late 20th century, the audience is provided with various allegories alluding to contemporary society. Throughout the film, Carpenter’s most hyperbolic motif is that of promiscuity and the implications it has on a character’s role in a slasher film. The ideology bolstering the film’s mores can be closely related to that of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative delineating an individual’s means of maximizing potential. Through this imperative, Kant utilizes a model of contradiction to convey how the devotion of one’s time to recreational activities such as drugs, leisurely sex, or unproductive entertainment seemingly contradict one’s ability to grow and develop as human; resulting in unmaximized potential. Within Halloween, Carpenter translates this categorical imperative to the big screen through a consistency of death among characters who dabble in drug-use and premarital sex. Conversely, sex-starved characters such as Michael and Laurie continuously survive the other’s onslaught through their resourcefulness, subliminal purity, and highlighted phallic weapons. The theme of abstinence bridges with Kant’s ideology in respect to those who refrain from extraneous pleasures tend to find a means of “development”, or in Laurie and Michael’s case, survival.
In addition to promiscuity, Carpenter utilizes Carol J. Clover’s trope of the “final girl” throughout the film to articulate female solidarity and resolve in opposition to horror’s notorious defamatory scenes of violence and voyeurism used to delineate the “final girl”. This is recognized as the viewer often sees Laurie wearing modest attire such as the black turtleneck early in the film. Additionally, the viewer is immediately subjected to Laurie’s more reserved persona and perspective, which contrasts with the more rousing, wild take on the other female characters. Before being exposed to Laurie’s ability to escape and resist, Carpenter implements multiple elements of suspense to affiliate both male and female viewers with Laurie. However, the approach to doing so is particularly unique considering how Carpenter avoids utilizing an audience’s male gaze or voyeurism when constructing his “final girl”. Instead, such calumnious themes are replaced with segments of thrilling suspense eliciting fear for Laurie’s life. This tactic can be observed early in the film as the eerie leitmotif, being the famous piano theme, is established to indicate Michael’s presence. We witness this recurring element in the various scenes as Michael slowly drives his stolen, brown station wagon behind Laurie and her friends in a predator-like fashion. Moreover, Carpenter presses further by employing another leitmotif: the twinkling sound emitted as Michael lurks in the shadows near a prospective victim. These simple yet strategic non-diegetic motifs allow Carpenter to slowly instill an uncomfortable atmosphere that makes the audience feel as if they are being stalked resulting in the subliminal alignment with Laurie’s character.
Although Carpenter refrains from using voyeuristic shots to align us with Laurie, he does not hesitate to entice his male audience with a surfeit of sex-appealing shots in other components of the film. In the first scene, as we look through the I-camera, the audience views Michael’s nude sister brushing her long brown hair in the mirror. Through this opening scene, Carpenter promptly grasps the attention of his male audience. However, while this technique superficially targets a male audience, we also see instances where a voyeuristic scene is used to suggest Michael’s lust and sexual frustrations. Such instances are projected from a point-of-view shot as Michael watches Annie undress along with his confrontation of a nude Lynda holding a blanket to her bosom in bed. The mere length of the scenes is enough for the audience to surmise Michael’s inherent sexual desires, which fuel his sadistic serial-killing passion. The repositioning of voyeurism from the traditional depiction of the “final girl” to extraneous female characters in the film is one of Carpenter’s many innovative constructs that unifies Halloween in its time.
Carpenter’s array of strategic cinematographic elements constitutes a masterful collage of suspense in contrast to other films that utilize overwhelming, hackneyed gore-comprised scenes to elicit fear. Due to the constrained budget for Halloween, it feels as if Carpenter is playing a game of chess rather than directing a film. By sprinkling the narrative with suspense-eliciting camera shots and leitmotifs, Carpenter forms a sense of realism imperative to captivating his audience. Furthermore, the conveyed verisimilitude is exacting in its ability to induce a sense of discomfort analogous to how an individual would feel if they were being stalked. Much like other horror films of Halloween’s time, the film ends with a lack of catharsis allowing for both the creation of the cyclical mock-series along with a final reassured sense of lacking control. By holding fast to the trope conveying that abstinence leads to perseverance, the viewer is left with a disquieting fear of Michael’s tenacious ability to survive. John Carpenter’s Halloween is a venerable example of his capacity to manipulate basic cinematography and character roles to deliver a long-praised primitive stalker film.
Dika, V. (1990). Games of terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the films of the stalker cycle. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Worland, R. (2007). The horror film: An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.
— Levi R. Schmillen, Film Blogger