A lot of movies try to transcend cinema, to become something more than just 'movies.' Halloween succeeds.
Halloween is far from just a slasher movie. It's quite far from just a horror movie, for that matter. Halloween is a movie that feels so real and connects so well with the audience that it ceases to be 'just a movie' and becomes something else; something that's almost tangible; and, yes, something very, very scary.
With a bare-bones plot and a small, simple assortment of characters, John Carpenter created one of the most genuinely frightening films of all-time when he made Halloween. The film began as a story called The Babysitter Murders, and had it not been for Carpenter's keen mind, it might have ended up as that; a cheap exploitation flick that may have fulfilled all of the slasher qualification, but would hardly have been the masterpiece that Carpenter made it. In an effort to make his simple, low-budget film as scary as possible, Carpenter decided to set it on the scariest day of the year. Taking that logic one more step, he decided that the figure stalking these teenage babysitters would be no mindless killer, but the very incarnation of fear itself: the boogeyman.
Certainly Halloween is a simple and subtle film, but that is where it draws its strengths from. Rather than overstating and exaggerating the story or scares, Carpenter keeps things tight, fast, and direct. Each and every shot is picture-perfect, both in terms of composition and the evolution of the story. There's no frills, no unneeded scenes. The film moves at a rapid pace, and yet it feels quite natural and free-flowing. There's an incredibly sense of slow, natural reality in the way Carpenter just stalks the suburbs of Haddonfield with his camera; so much so that things so slight and unassuming as those calm and lingering shots of suburban streets start to scare you themselves!
This suburban setting is part of what made the film connect so well with audiences upon the movie's initial release, and is certainly one of the reasons why the film remains a classic to this day. There just weren't many films by that dealt with outright horror in the suburbs. Carpenter's film gave life to those tree-lined streets that children walked every day on the way to school, and re-invented the notion of the neighborhood 'haunted house.' He took a setting that everyone could connect and relate to and he made it scary.
Credit for the film's ability to connect so well with an audience must also be given to the exceptional cast, and the incredible script written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill. Amazingly, hardly any time is given for traditional exposition in Halloween. We know nothing about Dr. Loomis, the hero of the film, except that he is Michael's doctor. We don't know his background, his personality (initially the film did indicate that Loomis had a wife, but this idea was dropped to maintain that all-important element of simplicity). Yet thanks to some great dialogue and seemingly effortless acting on the part of Donald Pleasance, we know Loomis. Likewise, our only glimpses into the lives of the three teenage girls that Michael Myers terrorizes on this particular Halloween night is about a five minute conversation shared by them on their walk home from school, yet the amount of character conveyed in this short sequence tells us all that we need to know about these people to prepare us for what is going to happen to them.
And when things do start to happen, Halloween becomes a non-stop experience of fright. The final half-hour of Halloween is one of the most compelling and suspenseful sequences ever put on film. The scene where Michael chases Laurie Strode across the street, so expertly handled by Carpenter, has been copied and recreated dozens of times over the past two decades, but never to the degree of success as in Halloween. Furthermore, the film remains scary right up until the end credits begin to roll, maximizing every possible opportunity to make Halloween the scariest film it could possibly be.
It's also impossible to talk about Halloween without mentioning the classic and truly terrifying musical score the Carpenter composed for the film. Once again keeping things simple, Carpenter used a music scale his father had taught him as a child as the basis for his chilling piano theme, highly regarded as one of the greatest musical scores of all-time. Legend states that when the film was first test-screened, minus music, the results were horrible. One month later, once the score had been finished and attached the film, the entire audience was scared out of their minds.
Finally, no review of Halloween would be complete without mentioning how well the film has both reflected and defined the nature of the holiday itself. As stated in my introduction, many films try to become something more than just movies, but Halloween is one of the few that succeeds. This movie is Halloween. Stories of the boogeyman, carved pumpkins, streets alive with dead leaves (imported from the Midwest, since the leaves in California don't change), and that subtle yet ever-present sense of dread, of something not quite right, all combine to make Halloween the definitive movie of the holiday.
Halloween ranks not just as one of the greatest horror films of all-time, but one of the greatest movies ever. It is a true masterpiece of cinema, a film that will never lose its edge, never go out of style, and never stop being scary.