5 reasons Halloween (1978) is a horror classic

It’s Halloween time again, so let’s take a look at the classic 1978 movie which shares the same name as the holiday. This movie, like the previous year’s Star Wars, was not only successful, but had a huge impact on popular culture. Even people who aren’t fans of the horror genre recognize the film’s title and have a general idea of what it’s about.

Again, like the aforementioned George Lucas film, Halloween‘s success soon brought a slew of imitators, as well as sequels. But what are the reasons this movie continues to endure in the nearly four decades since its release? What makes it continue to stand head and shoulders over the many films which tried to duplicate it? Here now are five reasons why John Carpenter’s film have become a terror classic.


1. The simplicity of the story

The plot of Halloween is that a young boy named Michael Myers murders his sister one Halloween night and gets institutionalized as a result. Exactly 15 years later, Michael escapes from the institute he’s been held in. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), correctly deduces that Michael is returning to his old haunts in Haddonfield, Illinois so as to continue his reign of terror and frantically goes after him. As Michael makes himself at home again, he targets a shy girl named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as well as her two BFF’s Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles).

As you can see, the plot isn’t overly complicated with red herrings galore (a la the Saw movies). What we have is a simple setup of a maniac focusing his horrific energy on people who are innocent victims of circumstance. In light of recent events, this aspect of the film must sadly be considered relevant. The Halloween sequels would later give an explanation for why Michael sets Laurie in his sights (to the chagrin of some fans), but that doesn’t diminish the impact of this aspect of the film.

Regardless, Carpenter, along with the film’s cast and crew of course, take this simple premise and put a lot of heart and skill into it.

2. The homages

What attracted Carpenter to making Halloween was his chance to make a movie like the horror flicks he loved when he was younger. He would be the first to say that one film Halloween owes a debt to is Psycho. Indeed, Pleasence’s character is named for the one played by John Gavin in that movie. Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), the boy Laurie is babysitting in the film, is named after the character played by Wendell Corey in another Hitchcock film, Rear Window. Carpenter would also call Halloween his “Argento film,” referring to shots in the film that were inspired by similar ones in Dario Argento movies such as Deep Red and Suspiria.

But the homages in the film aren’t limited to the horror and suspense genres. Annie’s father, sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), was named for the legendary science fiction author of the same name. Brackett also penned such classic movies as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. Her final film as a screenwriter was The Empire Strikes Back. She died after only penning the first draft of that script, but happily, Lucas gave her a co-screenwriting credit on the film with Lawrence Kasdan.

While this may have been unintentional, I’ve always thought Halloween possessed another homage that was a bit of foreshadowing. At one point, Lindsay (Kyle Richards), whom Laurie and Annie are babysitting, is watching the classic film The Thing From Another World. As most everyone knows by now, Carpenter would remake that very film as The Thing just four years after Halloween (a remake which many, including myself, view as superior to the original).

Of course, the list of homages in Halloween would be incomplete without mentioning the fact that Curtis herself is the daughter of Janet Leigh, whose many great films include her role as the shower victim in Psycho. And speaking of Curtis…

3. The victims/potential victims

As he was the biggest name in the cast, Donald Pleasence naturally had above-the-title billing for Halloween. While Curtis became a star thanks to this film, Pleasence’s contribution was invaluable. He was already an established character actor by 1978 for, among other things, terrorizing James Bond in You Only Live Twice and even appearing in Lucas’s first film THX-1138. But his role as the Van Helsing-esque Loomis rightly became his most famous and one which he would reprise in four of the Halloween sequels. The last of these, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, became his final movie, as he died shortly after completing it.

Many of Halloween‘s imitators never took the time to make the characters we’re supposed to root for very appealing. This was obviously due to the desires of those filmmakers to just get down to business regarding the bloodshed on screen. Usually in these films, it was easy to figure out who would die and who would live to see the ending credits.

Halloween itself became criticized for giving birth to the cliche of the virginal one being the final survivor, as Laurie is not as socially active as Annie and Lynda. But I’ve always felt that was an unfair criticism, because putting aside the fact that Laurie expresses her desire to be as social as her friends, all three of the girls have nice bonding moments in the movie. Hence, Annie and Lynda both become sympathetic characters because of the love they have for Laurie (I’ve heard some say that Soles played a similar role two years earlier in Carrie, but anyone who’s seen both films knows that a big difference is that her character in that film, Norma, is a mean bitch who helps push Carrie to the brink at the film’s climax, whereas Lynda is more of a sweetheart). In their first scene together, Laurie mopes that she has nothing to do the following day, when a school dance is taking place. Lynda, who’s a cheerleader, comments, “It’s your own fault,” but her tone says that Laurie herself could easily change that. Likewise, Annie later politely scolds Laurie for not planning to go to the dance and even attempts to give her an unwanted hand when Laurie gives her the name of a boy she’d like to go with.

As a result, both Annie and Lynda’s death scenes are actually quite sad, which definitely cannot be said for many other deaths in slasher films. They also make us hope Laurie doesn’t meet the same fate, making her shyness/virginity irrelevant.

4. The music

Like Psycho, Jaws, and other classic horror movies, Halloween has a classic musical score, which was composed by Carpenter himself. In addition to the title theme, Halloween also has a nice theme for Laurie, which is reminiscent of the “Tubular Bells” motif from The Exorcist. The track that plays when Laurie attempts to escape from Michael’s grasp is especially nerve-wracking.

5. The ending

At the climax of the film, Laurie believes she’s killed Michael and promptly tells Lindsay and Tommy to go to a neighbor’s house to call the police. After they leave, Michael slowly revives and attempts to kill Laurie again. But Loomis sees the children running frantically out of the house and runs inside to save Laurie by shooting Michael multiple times. Michael falls out of the house’s second story window onto the ground below. After Loomis confirms Laurie’s thoughts that Michael is the boogeyman, he goes out to see Michael’s body, only to find it gone. We hear Michael breathing while seeing the places he’s been previously before the ending credits roll.

Like The Silence of the Lambs thirteen years later, this film has an ending in which the monster of the film is still at large, leaving the viewer shaking and going WTF? However, Loomis repeatedly tells people throughout the film that Michael himself is “purely and simply evil.” So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that unloading a revolver into him won’t do the trick. Like the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the numerous movie psychos Michael inspired, maybe there’s just no way to kill a merciless force of nature like this.

Halloween would not only get sequels, but a bona fide remake in 2007, which got a sequel of its own two years later. There have even been recent reports of a new Halloween flick coming up with Curtis reprising her role (she played Laurie again in Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection).

The Michael Myers mask, not surprisingly, has become a popular one to wear when going trick-or-treating. Interestingly, one person we have to thank for that mask is William Shatner. Halloween‘s production designer Tommy Lee Wallace (who would later write and direct the Michael Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch) took a Captain Kirk mask, turned it inside out, widened the eyes, and painted the mask white. Happily for horror fans, the result was something nightmares are made of.

Curtis kept acting in the horror genre for a while, appearing in classics like The Fog (which was also directed by Carpenter and co-starred Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and even Janet Leigh) and Prom Night. By the end of the ’80s, however, she managed to leave an equally memorable mark in the comedy genre thanks to her work in films like Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda.

Again like Star Wars, the studios weren’t exactly expecting this film to make much of an impact when it was being made. But the end result ended up being a bigger success and game changer than anyone imagined.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is Ailurophobia, available now from Amazon.

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