MOTW: "Halloween": Why is the 1978 Thriller Considered a Classic?

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On Halloween night in 1963, a six-year-old Michael Myers murders his older sister. Fifteen years later, he escapes from a psychiatric hospital, and stalks teenager Laurie Strode and her friends. Michael's psychiatrist suspects Michael's intentions, and follows him to try and prevent him from killing.
Photo Credit: Compass International Pictures
October 28th, 2013

MOTW: "Halloween": Why is the 1978 Thriller Considered a Classic?

Cowritten and directed by now-famous director John Carpenter, 1978's "Halloween" was made with a meager budget of $325,000. After earning $70 million at the box office, it was widely hailed as one of greatest independent releases of all time. While other films with similar success have faded into obscurity, however, "Halloween" remains a staple of the horror genre, and it's aired on cable stations every year during late October. No list of top horror or thriller films is complete without its mention. Why has it remained so popular?

Horror films can only be as good as their monsters are terrifying. The film's antagonist, Michael Myers, is shown as a troubled child wrestling with either mental problems or, perhaps, some supernatural force that causes him do evil. Myers is not a monster in a classic sense; instead, he is a human with a strong compulsion to kill. His primary superpower seems to be his ability to withstand violence that would kill a normal person. While the true reason for his murderous behavior is not revealed in the original film, the idea of a normal person being capable of acting like a monster adds an element of fear to the film. Audiences, familiar with stories of serial killers in real life, are aware that such evil does exist.

Perhaps the most terrifying element of Myers is his relatively benign appearance. He lacks fangs, claws, and other traditional elements of movie monsters. His clothing is nondescript; his blue overalls contrast with the imposing capes and other elaborate outfits human-like monsters traditionally wear. His plain white mask, a painted, slightly modified William Shatner mask, lacks any traces of elements used to induce fear in his victims. Audiences both in 1978 and today are accustomed to knowing what evil looks like; Myers fails to meet this expectation.

Behind his seemingly human appearance, however, lies something supernatural. Myers is shot, yet he continues to live. His strength, while not matching that of Superman, is far greater than any human, especially for a person who's been living in a mental hospital since childhood. His slow, sometimes meandering pace is always directed, and simply running is not enough to escape. Audiences never know the true depths of his power. While he doesn't throw fireballs or control minds, Myers has a number of superhuman abilities that add just the right amount of terror and tell the audience that neither fighting back nor attempting to flee would be enough.

"Halloween" is credited with spawning a number of elements still common in horror films today. Myers is an escaped patient from a mental hospital, and this plot element would later become a staple of the horror genre. He is given a backstory, which has since become common in psychological thrillers. He doesn't scream, and he doesn't taunt his victims. The cold, deliberate actions of Myers have become standard in thrillers.

The film, however, still shows influence from others in the genre. Carpenter's writing and direction show clear inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock's works a few decades earlier. Viewers can see a clear connection between the understated, thoughtfully framed scenes of "Psycho" and "Halloween." The slow buildup Hitchcock is known for is replicated with real craftsmanship by Carpenter, and both directors are able to build up visceral fear without resorting to gore and excessive violence.

In fact, the lack of violence in "Halloween" is noted as being one of its strong points. The most frightening elements of a film often lie in the buildup, not the conclusion. Characters die in the film, but using violence only occasionally keeps the audience from feeling numb. Excessive violence can turn what should be terrifying into something bland and even humorous. Halloween strikes a careful balance between the real and the supernatural that gives the film a realistic, and therefore terrifying, feeling.

"Halloween" is widely considering a masterpiece, and masterpieces are generally more effective that an examination of the parts reveals. Some of the success of the film is partly due to its integrated development. Carpenter cowrote the film before directing it, and this synthesized creation helped him bring his true vision to the screen. He even composed the now-classic theme for the movie, which gave him even more control over its effect. The plot of "Halloween" is not particularly complex, and its small budget limited what Carpenter could do. His complete control, however, gave him the license he needed to make a masterpiece widely hailed as the definitive example of the thriller genre, and filmmakers today sill turn to his classic in an effort to duplicate its mood, aesthetics, terror, and box-office success.

Tags: Halloween