It's Halloween. Everyone's entitled to one good scare.
-- Sheriff Leigh Brackett
Is John Carpenter's Halloween terribly dated? In the 28 years since its release, has it lost its impact?
First let me state that such questions are ridiculous, and are akin to disputing the staying power and significance of such monumental breakthroughs in cinema as animated feature films and stop-motion special effects. Sure, the CGI age has perhaps lessened the output and use, respectively, of each; but it certainly has not affected their relevance. Is a 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville any less majestic because of the automobiles which would come later? Is the Roman Coliseum any less extraordinary when compared to structures built during the nearly 2000 years since its erection?
Absolutely not. Only an untrained or uneducated mind could harbor such nonsense. No, the important question, the one which bears careful consideration, is Is it still scary? Is it still an unforgettable experience? In the intervening years between 1978 and 2006, has Halloween become tame? Has it become boring?
It is important to note that the film never was a gore-fest, its violence somewhat restrained even for its time and genre. Blood is only seen once in the film, and most of the film's violence occurs off-screen. Compare this to almost any other slasher film of today or yesteryear, and the film may seem tame -- but only to those with little or no imagination.
Remember the old adage of suspense and horror: that not seen is often immeasurably more frightening than what is. This is what makes the shark in Spielberg's Jaws so intimidating. It is also the reason why the ear-cutting scene in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs -- or about a billion scenes from Hitchcock films -- are so disquieting. Gratuitous blood and gore will never be as effective in scaring an audience as the suggestion of blood and gore, much in the same way that full-frontal nudity will never have as big an effect on the libido as wondering what lies underneath that sexy pin-up's bathing suit or lingerie.
And this is how Halloween ropes the viewer in. Michael Myers and the violence he inflicts is shown so sparsely, so restrainedly, that his menace grows to a palpable fever-pitch, culminating in the film's final, horrifying moments. Contrast this symphonic build up of tension to the wall-to-wall gore of most films in its genre, and then try to tell me that Halloween isn't a scarier film than, say, the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes remakes.
Halloween is the cinematic equivalent of a nightmare. I believe that that is the highest compliment anyone can pay the film. After all, people watch horror movies because they want to enjoy a good scare, right?
For Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), though, the nightmare doesn't end; and viewers looking for a happy resolution are instead treated to, in the film's closing seconds, a series of shots of suburban houses -- suggesting that the story could take place in any town in middle America.
Halloween didn't pioneer the slasher genre (Hitchcock's Psycho, the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Bob Clark's Black Christmas were all released prior to Carpenter's masterpiece, and thus hold precedence), but it revolutionized it in terms of both direction and concept.
Naturally, anyone who has seen his or her fair share of horror movies can easily recognize the genre cliches that the success of Halloween birthed: female heroine, deaths of promiscuous and/or drug-using teenagers, unstoppable killing machine antagonist, creepy phone calls...and so on, and so forth. And this leads back to the question of whether or not Halloween is still as effective today as when it was first released.
Again, the answer is yes.
For while modern viewers are undoubtedly used to -- and likely tired of -- the cliched horror film devices made popular by Halloween, there is no denying that, in the film, they are extremely effective. Likewise, even to the most accustomed or jaded horror fan, there is no denying that Halloween is one of -- if not the -- most frightening films ever made. It certainly gets my vote.
Watch it in the dark. Watch it alone.
And later, when you have trouble sleeping without the light on, or wake up in a cold sweat, try telling me it's lost its impact.