Once Halloween was Samhain, the one night of the year when the dead returned to cause trouble for the living.
Well, Michael Myers wasn't dead, but on "Halloween" he returned to cause trouble for the people of his hometown, with all its dark houses and teenage victims. And John Carpenter's masterpiece lives up to its reputation: creepy, eerie, harrowing, and full of solid acting from Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis.
On Halloween, 1963, young Michael Myers lurked outside the house while his sister had sex with her boyfriend. After he left, Michael put on a mask, picked up a knife, and stabbed his sister to death.
Fifteen years later, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is about to take Myers to a legal hearing, when Myers (Nick Castle) breaks open the psych hospital and escapes in Loomis' car. On Halloween, teenage Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) notices a silent, masked figure popping up and disappearing near her school, house, and neighborhood.
Despite this, she goes about her babysitting duties, even taking care of another girl's charge overnight. The only problem is, the girl is dead, and so is another pal and her boyfriend. Dr. Loomis is staking out Myers' old home, unaware that Myers is now prowling the house where Laurie is staying -- and there seems to be no way to avoid the knife-wielding "evil."
It sounds like a thousand knockoff movies made since then, but "Halloween" formed the original mold. And like any other groundbreaker, it is the most stripped-down, intense example of the genre -- little gore, little graphic violence, but the way it's handled is enough to make your hair stand on end, and make you go to bed with a gun under your pillow.
And Carpenter handles the spookiness beautifully -- initially, the story is pleasantly average -- teen gossip, small-town atmosphere, and chatter about boyfriends, dances and babysitting. It has the occasional spooky moment -- such as Myers popping out of a hedge to stare at Laurie -- but isn't really scary just yet. But as Myers starts bumping off teenagers, the plot darkens and twists.
Carpenter spins up a claustrophobic, trapped feeling, partly due to a shadowy old house full of windows and doors, any of which could be Myers' way in. You can't help but jump with every shadow. And Carpenter sprinkles the plot with unspeakably creepy moments -- Myers quietly slithering in a window above Laurie, or dressing as a ghost with only his heavy breathing to identify him.
Curtis was the original scream queen thanks to this movie, and she does an amazing job -- even when she's racing around pounding on doors and shrieking, she seems realistic. Pleasance is just as good as Loomis, who is determined and full of dread at what his patient is, but also has his moments of humour (like when he frightens some pranksters at the Myers house). And though we only see Myers' face a few times, his masked face, silent movements and heavy breathing are the stuff of nightmare.
"Halloween" was a more psychological, atmospheric kind of horror, and it did its job almost too well. The original slasher movie -- harrowing, eerie, and petrifying.