I’m not sure that there’s a specific name for the recurring cultural phenomenon that I have in mind. It’s when a piece of art or media is so influential that its ideas get recycled and remixed and baked into the cultural consciousness such that the original seems somewhat rudimentary to fresh eyes discovering it for the first time. I’ve called it “influencer’s syndrome” in the past, but that sounds like something that’d be in the DSM-5 to describe social media-induced narcissism, so I don’t think it will do as a label. Whatever you want to call it, it’s undeniable that at some threshold of success, a film (or album, or book, or show, etc) has some of its joys self-cannibalized due to all the subsequent works that refine its formula.
This is especially a risk for something so functionally straightforward as 1978’s Halloween, which is composed of very basic storytelling threads. A wacko — a psycho, I suppose — escapes prison, puts on an eerily quasi-human costume mask, and starts murdering horny teens in a small town neighborhood, one by one. But there’s one girl, someone who still values modesty and caution in the face of the lust of her peers, that survives and ultimately takes down the killer. Today, we recognize the majority of these plot points as core structural and thematic elements of the “slasher” subgenre of horror films. Halloween codified the template straight out of the gate. Perfected it, too.
It’s true that Halloween feels a bit minimal and predictable in 2022, long after the genre has been deconstructed and reconstructed a half dozen times over — most famously in the self-aware metacommentary of Scream. But it doesn’t matter. Perhaps Halloween should feel tired, undone by the long, bloody trail of its own success — in its own franchise and beyond — but it never does. It just feels like great filmmaking from start to finish.
The majority of Halloween’s success comes straight from the craft of the director. John Carpenter takes the simple premise and turns it into waking nightmare. But despite that sense of looming, almost ethereal, danger that accompanies the frequently-vanishing shape of a masked killer, the film never, for a second, loses its sense of physical space. You are deep inside this film as you watch it — surrounded by walls, stalked by a killer, just as desperate for escape and afraid of shadows as any character within.
What really struck me is the elegance of the film. I can’t imagine a slasher ever feeling as “pure” as this. There’s no need for twists, just a few stock characters and simple sets. It’s always perfectly arranged so when Michael Myers appears — occasionally via jump scare, more often as a quiet, distant shadow, stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — it twists your insides. The theme of the inherent violence and scariness of sex is always on the surface, from the very first scene — no cerebral subtext required.
I’m mixed on the very ending of the film; the device of the “final girl” would come to be something of a feminist construct as the slasher evolved, so it’s disappointing to see Laurie saved by a cop with a gun rather than finishing the deed herself. And the cliffhanger disappearance is so blunt it borders on the artless. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, and even if it is, it’s barely a tarnish on the film that has appropriately gone down as a classic.
If there’s one element of the filmmaking that elevates the film outside of Carpenter’s direction, it’s his other contribution — its spellbinding, creepy, jittery musical score. The theme song of this film is the sound of “scary movies” distilled. Utter perfection.
I can see why the film not only spawned a massive film franchise and entire subgenre, but became a anually-watched, cult-adored object. It’s just that immersive and effective at telling its story in huge, bloody strokes. Slashes, if you will.
- Review Project: Halloween Retrospective