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John Carpenter’s Halloween: I still don’t get it

Halloween is the Carpenter movie I never got. I always suspected I was missing something. Close friends set their horror watches by it. But it always bored me.

Unlike the same year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this was not a film that spooked me. I tried it on a number of occasions in my late teens, but each attempt brought me out in the same impatient fidgeting.

This Halloween my wife suggested we watch it. Knowing that it would have to be tackled (for what has turned out to be an extremely slow effort to review every John Carpenter movie) I went ahead and tried it one more time. The upshot:

I still don’t get it.

There were things to enjoy. I’m fond of Donald Pleasance in a trench coat. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment when he arrives at the asylum to find lunatics stumbling aimlessly about in the rain. He has some good lines too. I also enjoyed Michael shrouded in a bedsheet, wearing his victim’s glasses.

This is also a beautifully shot film: the criss-crossing tree-lined streets make for an unlikely and effective location. The cars are very pretty too. Maybe too pretty. As I watched I became distracted by how stunning 70s American automobile design was, and looked them up – discovering the Internet Movie Car Database. Seriously, the Cadillac Coup de Ville; the Chevrolet Monte Carlo; even the Ford LTD Wagon has its own elegant beauty. Boy, they knew how to make them back then.

Oh right,the film…

It’s not bad. And, with the weight of so many shoddy imitations on its shoulders, it can never be understood and appreciated as it was by a 1978 audience. Still, watching the thing now a number of things just plum irritate me.

I like the score, but too often it plinks and plonks where silence would work best. I don’t believe in the murder scenes either. These were never going to be great actors, but dammit they needed to be better screamers. Too often a frenzied stabbing is rendered almost comic by a victim’s half-baked gurgling. In that respect, it loses me from the first murder.

Still, what do I know?

It’s spawned a number of sequels of (so I’m told) varying quality; it boasts a devoted fanbase and a horror icon; and it keeps managing to draw Jamie Lee back into its shadows. I retain the feeling of having missed a moment, that we are ships that passed in the night. Perhaps I should have seen it earlier. Would it have meant more to me if I had seen it first at a particular age? Who knows?

40 years later, about the only thing I can say without compromise is that this project gave our John the success he needed to go make The Fog and The Thing  – and my love for those is as undying as Michael himself. That, in the end, is enough.