John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ on AMC+ and Shudder

Halloween (1978) didn’t give birth the slasher horror. But it sure perfected the genre.

The breakout film by director John Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay with producer Debra Hill, transforms an exploitation premise cooked up by the producer (masked killer on Halloween night) into an astonishingly accomplished horror film. Jamie Lee Curtis stars as the high school heroine Laurie Strode, the school virgin who is babysitting on Halloween, the night the “he” came home.

He, as explained by the driven Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), is Micheal Myers, an insane killer committed since childhood who escapes and, with skills and talents beyond all understanding, makes his way back to Haddonfield, the quiet, Midwest town that he terrorized as a child. He’s apparently got unfinished business and he goes about finishing with unnerving drive and focus.

Where other horror directors try to scare us with what lays just outside the frame, waiting to break in, Carpenter’s horror emerges from within. The Golem-like Michael (Nick Castle behind the mask) appears from the shadows like a ghost, the only defiance of natural law in a world that otherwise follows the rules, and Carpenter offers no explanation other than he’s the bogeyman. Castle’s performance is still, deliberate, almost robotic, yet he cocks his head like a child or a dog when puzzled. It makes him utterly unreadable and terrifyingly focused.

But Carpenter also masterfully creates a tension between the normalcy of his suburban setting and the threat that will plunge it into horror. The scenes of Laurie and her friends (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles) walking home from school talking about boys and sex, lobbing insults back and forth, or driving around smoking a joint, feels completely natural (chalk up the playful authenticity to the girl talk to cowriter Hill) and Carpenter draws convincing, easy-going performances from the novice actors. Then his camera shifts perspective, as if surveilling the characters, and the defining music, a minimalist, percussive synth score in the “Tubular Bells” mode composed and performed by Carpenter himself, transforms the mood to one of foreboding.

It was a massive hit movie that (for better and for worse) pushed the slasher movie into the American mainstream and turned Jamie Lee Curtis into America’s defining “final girl” for a generation of horror fans. It is also a beautifully-made made picture by a director who brings a visual intelligence to a genre that was so often reduced to hack directors and gimmicks in place of storytelling. Carpenter was a master of the Panavision frame and he brings an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere to the film, hiding his bogeyman in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight, still and patiently waiting for his moment. Where to many slasher films resort to shocks and jump scares, Carpenter creates tension not with what we can’t see, but what we can’t control.

Halloween launched a seemingly unending series of sequels (which Carpenter soon left) and reboots, including Halloween H20 with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie, Rob Zombie’s reimaging of the series, and David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), also with Jamie Lee Curtis and conceived as a direct sequel to Carpenter’s original, complete with original music by Carpenter himself (who also served as an executive producer).

Apparently you really can’t kill the boogeyman.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Halloween [Blu-ray]
Halloween: Collector’s Edition [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Halloween [DVD]
Halloween 3-Movie Collection (Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween II: Season of the Witch) [DVD]

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On Blu-ray and DVD. The 35th Anniversary Blu-ray features a beautiful high-definition transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, and a commentary track with Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis, reuniting for the first time in years (“Jamie and I haven’t seen each other in a long time,” remarks Carpenter during the credits) to compare memories and swap stories. The Blu-ray and DVD also features the new hour-long documentary “The Night She Came Home” with Jamie Lee Curtis at a rare convention appearance and the previously available featurette “On Location: 25 Years Later” from the “25th Anniversary Edition,” with P.J. Soles and Debra Hill back at the scene of the crime to revisit the original Michael Myers house, plus ten minutes of footage from the TV version.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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