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Cult Column: Halloween, Simplicity at its Finest

Centuries ago, Albrecht Dürer remarked “Simplicity is the greatest adornment of art”. Is such a quote applicable to a film where Michael Myers traverses a leafy suburb murdering sexually active teenagers? Well, yes. It is. And forty years after the original Halloween’s release, it’s not hard to understand why. 

As literally everyone knows, John Carpenter’s Halloween premiered at a time when movies simply didn’t have the special effects they have today. It came during a decade when many celebrated chillers, like 1979’s The Amityville Horror, relied on a deep sense of unease rather than CGI monsters, digitised jump-scares, and burning buildings. Films like 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock disturbed audiences by letting the camera linger on a mountain while the faint trickle of a stream sounded somewhere below. It was all about atmosphere, at least for a decent number of horror films back then.

Like Amityville, the original 1978 Halloween was an independent production owing some of its visibility to its A-list stars, with veteran actor Donald Pleasance portraying Michael Myers’ psychiatrist who races to suburbia to stop his killing spree. However, other than Pleasance, the film mainly featured bit-part actors and then-newcomers like Jamie Lee Curtis, and there were no grand sound stages or panoramic set pieces. It was simply a suburb, a psychopath and his victims. Summertime California stood in for Autumnal Illinois by the now-legendary technique of painting leaves brown and littering them around a neighbourhood. What’s more, the director himself contributed to the soundtrack, eschewing pounding violins for a minimalist piano score so creepy it remains painful. Indeed, “minimalist” is the word that best describes the original Halloween. Well, in addition to “haunting”, “inspirational” and “unforgettable”. Like the cast and crew of The Blair Witch Project two decades later, John Carpenter and his team did all they could with a meagre budget and made something terrifying out of their scarce resources.

Here’s one of many examples; towards the end of Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis enters her murdered friend’s house unaware of the killer lurking within. Curtis leaves the kitchen and the camera rests on another door behind her. If this was a mediocre film, Michael Myers would show up in silhouette and a pounding electro-score would start. Instead, the audience is left with dread, picturing Myers following Curtis even though there’s no proof he’s in the house at all. His terrifying pursuit is conjured up by the audience’s imagination, imagination being key to Halloween’s impact and legacy. We can’t quite make out Myers’ mask until one of his last kills. We can’t explain how he vanishes in the blink of an eye. As in the most artful horror films, our imagination conjures up the most terrifying things instead of being shown them.

Unfortunately, the recently-released Halloween Ends has sparked many viewers’ imaginations in an entirely different manner. Puzzled by what The Guardian’s Wendy Ide deemed “a puny series finale”, some audiences are pondering how the Halloween franchise has diminished into what it is today. On the other hand, 651 Film’s Cory Woodruff wrote that Halloween Ends is “energetic, nasty, and 80s Lost Boys/90’s Scream-ass moody and fun”. As Woodruff’s review demonstrates, not everyone dislikes where the latest Halloween ended. But for some, the frenetic nature of modern horror has left them wondering how the original Halloween has morphed from beautiful simplicity into a blockbuster franchise crushing itself under its own narrative and technical complexity.

So, if you’re in the camp that prefers the original, try asking yourself why the 1978 Halloween works so well. And then ask yourself a more difficult question; how could an independent film with a $325,000 budget top a Hollywood blockbuster with $33 million behind it? That might make you sleep with the light on this Halloween.

Image Jamie Lee Curtis Speaking at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con International by Gage Skidmore is lisenced under CC-BY-SA-2.0