If there’s one thing we can all agree with, it’s that October means breaking out your copy of John Carpenter’s Halloween and reveling in a true masterwork of cinema. Forty years removed from its 1978 release, the film still feels fresh and continues to scare the hell out of first-time viewers every October. It’s one of the most successful independent productions of all time and the movie that spawned a host of imitators as the first true slasher movie.
If there’s another thing that we can agree on, it’s that whenever Carpenter’s is hailed as the birth of the slasher movie, a host of people will come along to “well actually” themselves into the conversation. “Well actually, the first real slasher movie is Black Christmas and that Halloween may not even exist if not for Bob Clark’s film.”
It’s not only a tired argument but it’s also an incorrect one. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love Black Christmas. I’ll also concede that Halloween producer Moustapha Akkad conceived of the “Babysitter fights off the Boogeyman” idea as a response to the success of the film. However, there’s another film Carpenter and his writing partner Debra Hill owe thanks to anyone for Halloween‘s structural success. You might have heard of it. It’s a tiny movie called Jaws, by some guy named Steven Spielberg.
Sharing The Beats
The films share many commonalities in their setup. Both films rely more on suspense and allow the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks rather than rely on gory visuals. Jaws & Halloween both contain monsters that always lurk just off-screen, to the point where the viewer is aware of them even when they can’t see them. Both films contain an iconic, instantly recognizable score that amplifies the audience’s discomfort and fear. Much of what makes Halloween work in its structure mirrors the story beats and pacing of Spielberg’s first blockbuster.
Both Jaws and Halloween open with the first person point of view shot. At the outset of steel parts film see the depths of the ocean through the eyes of the sharp as it scouts a boat the ocean floor and search for its prey. Carpenter chooses to open his classic film with a long tracking shot. We follow the action through the eyes of the killer. First as he peers in on an unsuspecting teenage girl and her boyfriend. Next as he makes his way through the home grabbing the lawn kitchen knife and clown mask that hides his face. We follow him as he burst through the girls bedroom and then watch what he sees his arm plunging into the girl over and over.
Location, Location, Location
More than just mimic The opening of Jaws with the shocking kill of its own, Halloween informs audience nowhere is safe. Danger lurks around every corner. Spielberg sets his sights on the tranquil beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place where family and frolicking young students can go to kick back relax and enjoy themselves. The biggest worry was getting a nasty sunburn, or too much sand in the crotch. The presence of the great white changes all of that. The ocean transforms into a scary place and dangerous place. You’re just as likely to become the shark’s next meal as you are to catch a breaking wave.
Carpenter sets his story in the fictional suburban town of Haddonfield but you may as well have called it Anytown, USA. Imagine an environment where neighbors don’t lock their doors when they leave for work in the morning. It’s a town where everyone is on a friendly first name basis with the sheriff. The worst thing you can imagine it’s a bunch of kids breaking into the local hardware store to steal supplies for Halloween pranks. The return of Michael Myers changes all of that. Now able to lurk behind every bush. It can be appearing in at I level from any window and you wouldn’t even know to look. I can come in via invitation of the unlocked front door. The home is no longer a safe haven. The home has now turned into a slaughterhouse.
Like Spielberg, Carpenter has his Ahab character. In Jaws Chief Brody is alone and in his steadfast knowledge of how to keep Amity safe. From the moment he comes upon the remains of the student, he tries to close the beaches. His warnings going ignored by Mayor Vaughn and a community more concerned with the economic cost of doing the right thing. Even after there are multiple attacks and multiple deaths the mayor refuses to listen to Brody. Vaugnn cares only for the optics of a shark attack rather than the reality of what’s going on around. It’s not until a kayaker is eaten in front of horrified onlookers that the correct course of action is undertaken.
Loomis’ journey mirrors that of Chief Brody in many ways. Despite advocating for years to keep Myers locked up and kept in the same institution away from society the bureaucrats decide to move Myers. When The Shape escapes, Loomis tells his superiors exactly where Michael will go. They scoff at Loomis, and try to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Loomis remains dogged in his pursuit of Myers. Upon his return to Haddonfield, he finds one ally in Sheriff Bracken. Still even here the response is too tepid. the Sheriff winds up paying with his daughter’s life.
Whiles it’s a commonplace trope in modern horror, the jump square wasn’t so ubiquitous in the 70s. Speilberg delivers a terrific jolt to the audience when Hopper comes across the severed head of a a fishermen as it floats through the boats port hole. Carpenter must have taken some notes here. The moment Laurie stumbles upon the splayed our corpse of her friend Annie is horrible enough on its own. Carpenter caps the moment off with the one-two terrorizing punch of Bob’s corpse dropping from the closet and Linda’s dead gaze staring back at her.
Halloween mirrors the structure of Jaws with its third act as well. After keeping their monsters mostly in the shadows or under the ocean waves, both films contain a frenzied final stanza. Like Bruce the Shark, The Shape stops lurking out of sight. He’s relentless in his pursuit of Laurie Strode, much like the great white tries to eat the crew of the Orca whole. Both monsters keep up their attack, despite numerous wounds. The Shark is pumped full of harpoons and barrels. Strode stabs The Shape in the Neck, and nearly takes his eye out with the business end of a coat hanger. These wounds barely slow him down for a moment. It’s as if both expert filmmakers understood that after making the audience sit on pins and needles for over an hour, they needed a collective release in order to leave the cinema mentally intact. That group exhalation is just one of many reasons both films remain so cherished to this day.