Halloween is popularly considered the original modern horror movie and the one that created the slasher subgenre–including the notion of the final girl itself. This isn’t true because Black Christmas predated it by four years and its structure is remarkably similar (like Halloween, it also features one of the best-ever final girls). Halloween also owes a huge debt to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came out in 1974 alongside Black Christmas, and 1960’s Psycho.
Although it didn’t actually invent the horror movie as we know it, it did perfect the format. And since it was wildly successful (Halloween held the title of most successful independent movie for a long time), it’s definitely the one that kicked off the trend. Imitators quickly worked their way to theaters–most notably Friday the 13th in 1980, creating a wave of slasher films with masked men stalking teenagers throughout the 80s and beyond.
Interestingly, a lot of Halloween‘s legacy within the horror genre resulted from misunderstandings–but we’ll get to that later. And while the series as a whole is extremely problematic (I even called 2018’s direct sequel to this movie garbage), the original is a classic for a reason. So grab your pumpkin and let’s dive in.
We open with a famous long POV shot where a masked figure stalks and kills a girl after she has shockingly brief sex upstairs. When the figure gets back outside it is revealed to be a six-year-old boy whose parents just arrived home to find him with a knife on their lawn. They stare at each other for an uncomfortably long, silent moment before we cut to the opening credits–which feature a spooky jack o’lantern.
The boy was Michael Myers, and when we exit the opening credits it’s fifteen years later. Michael’s doctor, Sam Loomis, is about to arrive at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to take Michael to a court date with nurse Marion Chambers–who calls Loomis out for treating Michael like an object and not a person. But Loomis has been working with Michael since he was six and over the years he’s only become convinced that the kid is pure evil and cannot be redeemed. The court date is for Loomis to make a case that Michael needs to be locked away forever.
Arriving at Smith’s Grove, they see that there’s been a power outage and the patients are walking around everywhere. Loomis freaks the fuck out because he has a good idea where this is going. While he checks the security gate, Marion gets attacked in the car (you guessed it, it’s Michael!). She narrowly escapes, proving that in another movie she would have made a great final girl herself, and Michael drives off in the car. How he learned to drive is one of cinema’s great mysteries.
The next morning we meet our final girl, Laurie Strode, back in Haddonfield. She’s walking to school through Pasadena in the spring standing in for Illinois in the fall–although credit where it’s due, director John Carpenter managed to make it fairly passable by keeping the palm trees to a minimum. She runs into a kid named Tommy Doyle. Laurie is going to be babysitting Tommy that night and right away we learn that she’s sensible, responsible, and no-nonsense. We also get exposition because Laurie needs to drop a key off at the old Myers house for her realtor father, and Tommy is afraid of the house because of its history. Laurie ain’t afraid of spooks, however, so she leaves the key on the porch. Unfortunately, she catches the eye of Michael, who is lurking inside like a creep.
Side note: the sequel has a twist where Laurie is revealed to be Michael’s sister, so in that timeline, he stalks her and her friends here out of some weird family thing. That twist never made sense to me so one of the only good things 2018’s Halloween did was retcon that twist out of existence. In this movie, Michael stalks Laurie simply because she had the bad fortune to show up on his porch.
Michael spends the rest of the day stalking Laurie and her friends, Annie Brackett and Lynda Van der Klok, and watching Tommy get bullied by some kids who trip him and ruin his pumpkin (another side note: the internet tells me head bully Lonnie’s son shows up in the 2018 Halloween, so there you go).
Meanwhile, Loomis is irritated because no one believes him that Michael has the driving skills to get to Haddonfield because they assume that logic has a place in this movie. Loomis gets himself to Haddonfield and along the way discovers Michael’s hospital gown next to a mysteriously abandoned tow truck on the side of the road. He’s so excited to find this that he doesn’t notice the dead body of the mechanic in the grass, stripped naked to let us know Michael has snazzy new duds now. Loomis also visits the Haddonfield cemetery for no discernable reason but it pays off because Judith Myers’ tombstone is missing.
Laurie does yet another walk and talk when she leaves school with Annie and Lynda (what is this, an Aaron Sorkin movie?), establishing who they are and that in stark contrast to them, Laurie is sexually repressed and a little uptight. Annie and Lynda casually dismiss Laurie’s concerns that they are being followed, even though Michael is totally all over them. Anyway, Annie is also babysitting that night at the house across the street from Tommy Doyle’s and she’s bummed because her boyfriend, Paul, is grounded–so they can’t use the opportunity to get it on after sending the kid to sleep.
When Annie drives Laurie to their babysitting gigs (which are right across the street from each other). Loomis, meanwhile, meets with Annie’s father the sheriff, who is also suspicious of the idea that Michael would be in Haddonfield, but he agrees to go on an adventure with Loomis anyway. They discover a dead dog in the Myers home, prompting Loomis to comment that Michael must have gotten hungry (say what now?). With his new BFF turning out to be pretty whackadoo, Brackett splits and leaves Loomis alone to watch over the Myers house while he patrols the streets.
Michael stalks Annie while she babysits a useless little girl named Lindsey and kills Lindsey’s dog when it barks at him (I really hope he didn’t eat it, too). Eventually, Annie dumps Lindsey with Laurie so she can go pick up her boyfriend for sexy times. Unfortunately for Annie, Michael is hiding in the backseat of her car like the creep he is, and Annie is strangled for a bit until Michael uses his knife to kill her instead.
Tommy sees Michael carrying Annie’s body into the Wallace house but this is not the first time he’s rung the alarm bells over a Michael sighting only to have Laurie look out at an empty street, so it’s a bit hard for Laurie to take him seriously. Only Lindsey Wallace claims to believe Tommy that the boogeyman is out there.
Back at the Myers house, Loomis scares the crap out of that bully from earlier, Lonnie, when the kid approaches the Myers’ front door on a dare. Then Loomis gets bored and starts to wander.
Lynda and her boyfriend Bob show up at Lindsey’s house only to find it seemingly empty. They make out in the living room while Michael watches from the shadows, then Lynda calls Tommy’s house and finds out from Laurie that Annie went to pick up Paul and Lindsey is over with Laurie–meaning Lynda and Bob have the place to themselves for a brief moment. So they go upstairs to screw around in the Wallace’s bed.
Post-coital Lynda really wants a beer so she sends Bob to get her one. He does, but gets stabbed onto the kitchen wall by Michael before he can deliver it (if you try to think about how a kitchen knife is long enough to stab through Bob and go far enough into the wall to support his body weight, you’ll hurt your head). Michael goes to visit Lynda wearing a sheet like a ghost, so she thinks Bob is trying to get cute with her. When he won’t talk to her, she goes to call Laurie, so Michael strangles her with the phone cord and Laurie mistakes it for sex noises.
Loomis is still vaguely wandering the area around the Myers house and finally realizes Nurse Marion’s stolen car is parked across the street. But seriously, how did the car get here? We saw Michael pull up to Lindsey’s house in it earlier. Are we supposed to believe he moved it and walked back over? I mean, it’s possible, but Laurie was driven clear across town by Annie to get to the Doyle house earlier–and the Myers home was right near her own residence in the beginning of the movie. But I digress–Loomis knows for sure that Michael is around somewhere now and he really wanders off to find him.
Laurie puts Tommy and Lindsey to bed and starts getting irritated/worried that Annie hasn’t showed up yet. Get ready, because she’s about to kick it into high gear. She walks over to the Wallace house and when no one answers the front door, she walks around to the back and lets herself in through the kitchen. When no one answers her calls, Laurie walks upstairs and finds Annie’s dead body spread out across the Wallace’s bed with Judith Myers’ tombstone acting as a headboard. Reeling back in terror, Laurie also finds the bodies of Bob (swinging from the ceiling) and Lynda (stuffed in the closet and still topless).
Michael suddenly appears after Laurie retreats to the hallway, appearing in the shadows behind her in an extremely well-filmed reveal, and he slashes Laurie on the arm, causing her to fall down the stairs. She gets up like the champ she is, but Michael almost catches up to her when she discovers that the kitchen door was locked behind her after she entered earlier. She breaks the glass when Michael gets close and runs like hell to the neighboring houses for help–but no one answers her. It sounds like Jamie Lee Curtis dubbed in a lot of “scared” sounds later, so for the rest of the movie Laurie makes super exaggerated (and tonally off) groans and moans.
With no one coming to help her, Laurie drags her and her injured leg back to the Doyle house and crap, she forgot the keys! Luckily, Tommy is a lot more useful than Lindsey because Laurie manages to wake him up and he gets her in the front door just in time. Laurie sends him upstairs to get Lindsey and hide, giving her now classic (and oft-repeated) line “Do as I say!” Unfortunately, one of the windows in the living room is suddenly open and Laurie knows this is bad news, but when Michael pops out at her she stabs him right in the fucking neck with her knitting needle.
Michael looks dead, and in 1978 it probably looked that way to audiences as well. Nowadays we know to never assume that the bad guy is dead, and this movie is a big reason why. Laurie tosses Michael’s knife away for no apparent reason (apparently, the prop knife was covered in fake blood and gore so Curtis thought it would be reasonable for Laurie to be disgusted by it–especially since Michael looked dead. What she didn’t know is that the audience has no way of seeing what she saw on the knife). She goes upstairs and gets the kids to unlock the door for her. Tommy is going on about how you can’t kill the boogeyman and Laurie tries to reassure him that she killed the bad guy, but Michael is busy making a liar out of her by climbing the stairs behind her, and movie MVP Tommy sees him coming and warns everyone. This kid is probably never going to be right in the head again.
Laurie stashes the kids in the bathroom so they can lock the door behind them and uses herself as bait to lure Michael into the bedroom and away from them. She throws open the doors to the balcony hoping to mislead Michael, then hides in a suspiciously empty closet instead. But Michael ain’t fooled and he zeroes right in on the closet, menacing her as he begins to break in. But Laurie is resourceful as fuck, yo, because she grabs a wire hangar and unwinds it to pointy, poky perfection, hitting Michael square in the eye when he tries to play peekaboo through the closet door. When he drops the knife, Laurie grabs it and stabs him.
Laurie sends the kids to a neighbor’s house to get help and unfortunately, drops the knife again. In her defense, she thought Michael was dead, but it would make more sense for her to hold onto it for safety just in case (no explanations for this one from Curtis as far as I know). Loomis happens to be walking by at the moment the kids fly out the front door and run down the street screaming about the boogeyman, so he knows he’s found his man. Which is excellent timing, because Michael sits up behind Laurie and comes after her. In the ensuing struggle, Laurie pulls his mask off and we briefly see Michael’s normal face (aside from the eye that’s been stabbed out) before he gets it back on and resumes trying to strangle Laurie.
Loomis says oh hell no and shoots Michael repeatedly until he falls off the balcony and onto the lawn below. Laurie asks Loomis if it was the boogeyman and Loomis assures her it was. Sure enough, when Loomis looks back outside, Michael has disappeared. The haunting theme song swells as we look at some location shots and the carnage Michael left behind, then we fade to black.
As you saw in the recap, I have quibbles with some of this movie’s logic. Still, there’s no denying that it’s really good. It vies with Friday the 13th and Scream for my favorite horror movie, and while Scream usually gets my vote, it’s pretty darned close.
And while I’ve always found those dubbed-in scared sounds of Laurie’s irritating, there’s no denying that she’s a rock solid final girl. There’s a reason virtually every slasher movie that followed tried to imitate her. Aside from her resourcefulness, she’s also just an interesting character–and we’ll get to that in a minute.
The rest of the franchise would devolve into weird mythology about Michael, but even though he flat-out refuses to die here he still feels within the realm of possibility. That makes him the scariest version of this character out there.
Interestingly, this was never intended to be a franchise at all. Director John Carpenter and cowriter Debra Hill had no intention of revisiting the concept at all. Remember–in the late 70s the concept of sequels was still new (the original Superman movie was released the same year as Halloween). The only franchise that existed then was basically James Bond. If anything, Carpenter and Hill thought of Halloween as an anthology series–a bunch of one-off stories only connected by the title, like The Twilight Zone. But the studio forced them to do a sequel about Michael, which is how we got Halloween 2 and the crazy twist about Laurie and Michael being related. Michael was supposed to die at the end of that movie–which is why Carpenter and Hill had him burned up at the film’s end instead of giving the more ambiguous ending of the original. They were trying to say “enough is enough.”
But enough is never enough with horror movies, so the series kept getting crazier and worse. You can read more about its devolution in my post about Halloween 2018 being such a garbage movie. Suffice it to say that the shame is Halloween is a great movie on its own. You have to ignore everything that came after to let it truly shine, though.
There’s a reason every slasher movie that followed tried to have its own Laurie Strode character. While she may not have been cinema’s first final girl, she’s the one who created the archetype. Unfortunately, some of that archetype was based on misperception. Carpenter, Hill, and Curtis weren’t trying to insinuate that Laurie survives because she doesn’t have sex, drink, or do drugs–in fact, she does do drugs because she smokes pot with Annie as they drive over to their babysitting gigs. So even though Carpenter admits that the knife is a phallus for Michael (a man-child with some clearly conflicting attitudes toward sexuality), and even though Curtis conflates Laurie’s sexual repression with Michael’s, that was never meant to be put forward as the reason Laurie is able to survive when her friends don’t.
I like Curtis’ reasoning that Laurie is less self absorbed and more reflective than her friends. Even though she dismisses Tommy Doyle’s boogeyman fears, she hears him. She pays attention to his warnings. Maybe that’s because she’d already been a little thrown off center by the man watching her from a distance all day long, but I’d ascribe it to her character.
Halloween 2 presents a very similar Laurie to the one we get here, but when she returns for Halloween H2O, a brief cameo in Halloween Resurrection, and for 2018’s Halloween, the character has come a long way from the timid, rigid girl we first met here. In those movies she’s basically Ripley in Aliens–a badass action hero indicative of all the final girl tropes that were more firmly established in the post-Laurie world (even if Resurrection kills the character off). A lot of that comes down to Curtis, who has Laurie age into the same confident woman she did (Curtis was very timid about her career when she was cast in Halloween).
The idea that a villain could be one of the most interesting (and appealing) parts of a film for audiences had already been presented very convincingly in both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in 1978 they were outliers. For example, the bad guy in Black Christmas is so unknown that all you ever see of him is an eye peeking through a crack in a door. Michael Myers made it so the bad guy’s backstory is a huge part of every subsequent slasher movie. When Friday the 13th followed, it didn’t introduce Jason right off the bat but it did introduce his backstory. By the time audiences officially met Jason in Part 2, they were already very familiar with him. The legacy of the Friday movies is that they subverted the origin story to the point where they expect you to root for the bad guy as he mows down a bunch of people with cardboard-thin personalities.
Michael’s origin is murkier than all the horror villains who followed him (outside of the Rob Zombie reboots, that is). We don’t actually know why he kills, just that he does. Loomis calls him pure evil, and hey, as executed by Carpenter and Hill, that’s enough. It’s almost as if the twist that Laurie is Michael’s sister was created specifically to give Michael more to define him. In Halloween he’s just an evil guy killing people. No motivation needed. In every movie that follows, he’s killing as part of some vague familial psychodrama.
That change to Michael’s character is indicative of how the Halloween franchise moves very quickly from being the one everyone else is imitating to trying desperately to catch up to its own copycats. Unfortunately, the change is not for the better.
Only five people die in Halloween (seven if you count the two dogs). Halloween was intentionally light on both gore and the body count. Instead, it focuses more on the story and the characters–and that’s part of why it’s such a great movie. When people do get killed off, it means something. Well, I would still argue that Lynda and Bob only exist to add sex and nudity and dead bodies to the movie, which does make them problematic.
Once horror became a trend, the copycat movies upped the ante by having both more bodies and more elaborate kill scenes. And since elaborate isn’t Michael’s thing, the Halloween movies compensated by having Michael become more brutal.
And since evil never dies, we’ll be back soon. I’m not a fan of the rest of the series but I may revisit Michael Myers at some point.