As iconic horror films go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one more influential than John Carpenter’s Halloween. Everything from the simple title, to the casting and the format screams classic. The fact that a huge number of films have attempted to copy the story structure in the years following (including its own sequels) remind us just how important the film was for the horror genre.
To show its simplicity, here is the synopsis: On Halloween 1978, mental patient Michael Myers escapes from his incarceration and begins stalking high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). That’s it. It’s more of an experience than a narrative. We’re with the characters and it’s scary and thrilling and everything that a slasher film should be.
Conceived and created during the hotbed of quality horror in the 1970s, Halloween followed classics like The Exorcist and Suspiria, but to find it’s true influences we have to look back to a three-month period in the early 1960s and the releases of Psycho, and more importantly Peeping Tom. Presenting the whodunit-style of serial killer films, these two represent some of the earliest slasher-styled films on release. From these narratives, Carpenter gave his killer an unknown backstory, a sense of unstoppable dread and a mask and the result was a commercial smash that created the sub-genre and forced it into the public consciousness.
So important was Halloween that people often credit it with negative attributes that followed as the gore was amped up and the body counts increased. But the original is surprisingly tame in this regard and relies more on a creeping sense of tension with the occasional scare. At its core, the relationship between central character Laurie and the mysterious Michael Myers, both of whom have now become not only icons of horror, but their own archetypes within the genre, but one of the biggest factors to success is probably the casting of Donald Pleasence as Michael’s doctor. The level of gravitas he brought to the role and the film helped bring legitimacy to its release and could be one of the most important pieces of horror film casting of all time.
There’s a reason that John Carpenter rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s and why his name is now synonomous with horror, and while other films like The Thing and The Fog are important, it’s really Halloween that is his magnum opus and the film he’ll be remembered for. The standard by which all slashers should be compared and rarely if ever bettered it is one of the most important horror films of all time. Not bad for a film where the killer wears a sprayed-white William Shatner mask.