The Rear-View Mirror: Halloween (1978)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Psycho never scared me. I think the main reason for this is that I came to it too late: by the time I saw Norman Bates dressed as his mother, stab-stab-stabbing his way through various cast members, I’d seen all the quotes, echoes, parodies. (You can’t be a teenager watching several seasons worth of The Simpsons without seeing an average of 17.3 parodies of Psycho. It’s a scientific fact.) To some extent, I ended up watching the film and feeling that, meh, it’s all been done before – which is unfair and inaccurate, because so often and in so many ways, Psycho did it first. I still enjoy the film for the sheer craftsmanship that Hitchcock and his collaborators put into the film, and for the impish glee with which they establish the female lead – only to kill her off. But no, Psycho never scared me.

Halloween, though? Halloween scared the living daylights out of me.

Halloween

I obviously didn’t watch the film when it originally came out; while my parents were quite liberal with respect to what I was and wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid, I don’t think that three-year-old me would have been the right audience for John Carpenter’s slasher original. I finally came around to it when I was in my mid-teens. I’d recorded the film off TV and sat down on a comfy chair to watch it on a sunny, warm afternoon, while outside the birds were singing and bumblebees were happily buzzing around.

91 minutes later I extricated myself from the chair where I’d sat, bunched up in a tense ball of nerves. Halloween is pretty much an archetypal slasher movie and as such it isn’t exactly unpredictable. It relies less on jump scares than on the audience knowing what is about to happen and who is about to die horribly at the hands of masked murderer Michael Myers, and on the audience sitting there powerless, unable to do anything other than ineffectually shout out, “Oh god, he’s behind you!”

Halloween may not surprise, but it’s a lean, atmospheric and brutally effective film, using its cinematography, that iconic synth score and some great individual performances to make teenage me so tense that the whole next day my whole body ached as if I’d worked out for hours. While the sequels, like so many ’70s and ’80s sequels, became more and more cheesy and accordingly lost their ability to scare, the original is practically immune to parody in a way that Psycho wasn’t. I haven’t watched the film since that sunny afternoon in the early ’90s, but there’s a part of me that before going to bed still checks to make sure that Michael Myers isn’t waiting to do his stabby thing once I’m asleep.

P.S.: While Halloween may be difficult if not impossible to parody effectively, it did make for the best joke in 2017’s Baby Driver.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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