Halloween ★★★★

Like everyone else, I've rewatched the original 1978 "Halloween" in preparation for the new entry coming this weekend, which has (surprisingly, for such a late entry in a franchise,) been receiving good reviews. The first time I watched this several years ago, I wasn't particularly fond of it. This time around, I like it more, but still have serious problems with it.

"Halloween" is a massive milestone in the history of horror film, and is commonly cited as the immediate progenitor to the wave of slasher films of the 1980's, the spark that started the craze. The film also holds major historical significance for being John Carpenter's first horror film. My favorite of Carpenter's films, the ones I believe show off his horror vision best, are "The Fog" and "The Thing," which came two and four years after this film, respectively. It's clear that "Halloween" was a testing ground for many of Carpenter's ideas, ideas he would return to and expand on with better execution in the films mentioned above. As such, the film features his first attempt at the signature style which would later define Carpenter's career, and the horror genre as a whole: bold and atmospheric set-pieces, fantastic camerawork, brilliantly-timed abrupt shifts in tone and pace, a creepy synth score, and a memorably chilling antagonist. It's these features that make "Halloween" work as well as it does: this is a far scarier and more engaging movie than most of what the horror genre was producing in the late 70's.

The problem is that Carpenter's lack of experience (and the minuscule budget, compared to his later works) hold this movie back. Not only is his style better executed in some of his later films, but the low budget here really shows. The acting and dialogue is plain awful, though thankfully Curtis and Myers' actors were the best of the bunch. There are obvious continuity errors and mistakes throughout. Worst of all, though, is the film's treatment of women.

Laurie's two female friends are treated as veritable sex objects in the second half of the film, stripping, putting themselves in compromising positions, and ultimately being killed while partially or totally undressed. Laurie, our final girl, survives largely because she is the most prude and bookish of the trio. Even the ultimate defeat of Michael at the end of the film is deprived of her, though she does get some good shots in. I lump this in with other problems of low-budget, because I think it's interesting to note that this exploitation of women isn't present in Carpenter's other horror films. His two previous directorial efforts were both box office flops, so I imagine that somewhere in the process he was asked or pressured to include some boobs and panty-shots in order to draw audiences.

"Halloween" has been at the center of the debate surrounding women's treatment in horror for decades. "Halloween" received criticism both for itself and for the often wildly misogynistic slasher genre it spawned, but was also one of the centerpieces of Carol Clover's famous counterargument: final girls like Laurie are who audiences are supposed to empathize with and view the film through, not the killers. The argument Clover makes is at times quite strong, and should modify the way we view the film's dealing with gender, but it's nonetheless hard to dispute the audacious objectification of the most feminine characters here, or that they clearly are portrayed through the male gaze.

"Halloween" is an important film to watch for horror fans, not because it is one of the best ever, but because of its historical significance. It's best enjoyed when you are fully aware of its many flaws, but nonetheless choose to focus on what it did differently: the tropes it helped start, the first glimpses at Carpenter's unique vision, and all of the things it did first (from the general plot line to specifics like closet scenes; shooting from the POV of the killer; the long, paranoid tracking shots; and more). If you've watched more than 10 horror movies in your life, you've seen this movie's influence. It's a major fixture of horror canon, and worth watching for that reason alone.