Halloween: Anatomy of the opening scene

‘Halloween night, a small American town, 15 years ago…’

This is how the trailer for John Carpenter’s 1978 classic slasher film first announced the upcoming arrival of something that would go on to influence and shape the horror genre. It’s a simple voiceover about what should be a comparatively ordinary night in an ordinary place, yet there is something not quite right about it as it alludes to an unknown mystery and horror. It’s much like the start of the opening tracking shot of the film itself that first took us into Haddonfield and introduced us to the notorious serial killer Michael Myers.

After the eerie score, creeping Jack-o’-Lantern of the opening credits and a poem by some young trick or treaters, a house comes in to view. The shaky camera, alongside Carpenter’s own self-penned music is what creates a sense of initial discomfort. There’s something unsettling, but what? We get the sense that we’re seeing something not just from an unknown assailant’s point of view, but as them. ‘Them’ we will later discover is six-year-old Michael Myers and he is shortly about to murder his sister, creating a legend in Haddonfield that hangs over the town that comes back to deadly effect in 1978.

The camera goes towards the front door where we see two young figures, before it retracts and moves around to the side. The two individuals are in clearer focus now and the couple, kissing on the sofa, engage in the first line of dialogue. ‘We are alone, aren’t we?’ the boy (David Kyle) asks before the girl responds that ‘Michael’s around someplace’. The girl it later transpires is Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson), Michael’s sister and the individual whom has been left to babysit him. She clearly has not done a very good job, for not only is she relatively unaware of his whereabouts, she has allowed him to wander around outside on a school night at a time when a six-year old should surely be in bed. More on that later, but there is something very telling about Judith’s opening line. As Murray Leeder states in his brilliant ‘Devil’s Advocates’ book on the film, Michael being ‘around someplace’ is the tone that remains for the entirety of the film. Michael’s presence is felt by all the characters in Halloween, even though none of them know where he really is or what precisely he is capable of.

As the couple head upstairs, the camera moves to the front and when a bedroom light goes out, the music interludes briefly, as if something in Michael’s mind has been triggered. His opportunity to strike is now opportune. The camera heads around the back of the house and the pace picks up. Michael is in a hurry. As it moves past an open window, we realise this is not a burglar desperate to get in but someone who knows their way around. The camera enters the house, the kitchen light goes on and we see a pair of hands open the drawer and retrieve a knife.

There are many comparisons to Halloween and Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, but it’s another Janet Leigh starring film to which this owes a debt by way of A Touch of Evil. Orson Welles’ classic opens with a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car at the start of that film’s famous opening tracking shot, immediately creating tension, for we know it is likely to go off. When Michael retrieves the kitchen knife, we know that a murder or at least an attempted one, is likely to happen.

This is also the first moment at which it’s actually confirmed that what we’re seeing is an individual’s point of view, even if we the audience felt that all along due to the shot’s composition.

What happens next, has been the source of much debate.

Michael makes his way towards the foot of the stairs, only to retreat into the shadows when Judith’s boyfriend makes his way down, whilst getting dressed, post coitus with Judith. This act precedes Judith’s death and sets up the famous rule of surviving a horror film – don’t have sex. Yet while Halloween is credited with creating the rules that Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream memorably alerted us to, it also breaks them. Judith’s boyfriend survives despite having sex whilst later on in the film, Annie (Nancy Kyes) is killed by Michael despite not having sex (on that note as many have pointed out, the rule about not doing drugs is also broken in Halloween for Laurie is seen smoking a joint early on).

Just one minute and twelve seconds elapse between the bedroom light going out and Judith’s boyfriend returning, and this has caused some debate and humorous quips over the year. Kim Newman in an Empire special once stated that this has either been ‘one of the most unsatisfying shags in movie history or that Carpenter has condensed time’.

On the first point, while we might laugh, the very brief sex is not overtly ridiculous. We must remember that these are hormonal teenagers – Judith is just shy of her sixteenth birthday. And don’t forget that Judith was supposed to be watching Michael and would have been expecting her parents to return home any moment (had they come just slightly earlier she may have been caught but at least she would have survived, or at least had a stay of execution). Time was of the essence and there was hardly an opportunity for foreplay or a post-coital cigarette.

Yet the argument that time has been condensed is still a plausible one. There has been no edit which suggests a single stream of time, but we’re in Michael’s head and he may have been waiting downstairs for longer than we have experienced. There is evidence within the shot that supports this. After Michael picks up the knife from the drawer, the clock above the oven shows the time to be 9:20, while the clock in the front room reads 9:40. As Michael makes his way up the stairs, we hear, presumably, that same clock chime for 10:00 p.m. It is possible that these are merely continuity errors, and they’re certainly listed as such in the IMDB. Halloween is actually littered with small errors and that is part of its appeal. The low budget nature of the production means there wasn’t the time or the manpower to worry about such trivial elements and the central story – that of a crazed killer returning to his hometown on the scariest night of the year – is so effective and simple that the film can overcome some minor story beats that make little sense. Equally, the films long lasting appeal means that it has been scrutinised to the nth degree, meaning such flaws are well documented.

After sex, condensed or otherwise, Judith’s boyfriend makes his way down and Michael retracts into the shadows where he lurks for much of the film. He is aware not to be seen showing no interest in the boyfriend as a victim before, when the coast is clear, making his way up the stairs trapping his sister. As Sindy (Neve Campbell) quips in Scream, there’s no point in watching horror films because ‘they’re all the same, some big breasted girl who can’t act running upstairs when she should be running out of the front door’ yet Halloween is one step ahead by placing its unknowing victim upstairs to begin with… We then have the only edit in the opening shot as Michael stoops to put on the clown mask that completes his costume. Why does he do this? Michael later becomes obsessed with a mask as an adult, even pausing to put the now iconic white ‘Captain Kirk’ mask back on in the film’s climactic showdown – it’s even more important to him than killing Laurie or evading the impending threat imposed by the encroaching Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance). The mask completes him as a killer, disguising his real self and completing his transfer from human to monster.

There is no need for disguise and even Judith recognises him as he approaches her screaming ‘MICHAEL!’ as he enters her room while she is almost completely naked. This is not a scared cry or one of shock, for Judith does not know the threat he imposes and presumably hasn’t seen the knife in his hand. Michael then proceeds to stab her repeatedly in the film’s first reference to Psycho – much like when Marion Crane dies in the shower, this is a shocking moment but equally we see the knife and the naked victim but never see the knife penetrating any flesh. Whereas in Psycho this was done with fast editing, in Halloween there are no edits yet the stabbing occurs out of frame. We hear the impact but the only time we see the knife during the attack is when Michael briefly looks at it making its stabbing motion which is somewhat odd. Why would he be looking at the knife rather than where he was placing it? It’s a part of the childlike wonder that he demonstrates later when tilting his head whilst looking at Bobby’s (John Michael Graham) corpse, shortly after he has murdered him.

Michael then makes his way back down the stairs to where his journey began. We hear some brief gasps after the murder which serve as a precursor grown up Michael whose heavy breathing is all we hear from him, usually after killing someone, suggesting murder is what drives him and gives him some sort of satisfaction.

He then heads out of the front door where his parents arrive home. He could quite easily have left the knife and gone elsewhere in the house, potentially framing Judith’s boyfriend in her murder. Did he want to be caught or was it that as a six-year-old he was not as cunning as the older Michael who patiently waits until more opportune moments to kill so he can fulfil the desire to do so time and again? A psychoanalytical reading of the film relates to the id (the primary human desires), the ego (that which allows the desires to be fulfilled) and the later formation of the superego (that which allows the desires of the id to be fulfilled time and again) and as a youngster the superego is yet to be formed, hence why Michael allows him to be caught. Or did he really understand the consequences of what he was doing? That childlike curiosity may have been what prompted him to kill.

Yet as he ends up where he, and the film, began and we hear the name ‘Michael’ for the third time, spoken by his father. It’s a curious exasperation perhaps made more in shock that his young son is out of bed, fully dressed and outdoors at a very late hour. As the mask is removed, we finally see Michael’s face and it’s a terrific, shocking revelation. It’s hard for any first timer to watch Halloween these days without knowing the identity of the killer, much like it’s hard to watch Psycho without knowing that Marion Crane dies in the shower, yet for audiences in 1978 it must have really taken their breath away. As if it wasn’t disturbing enough that we were in the head of a killer, the fact that the killer is a six-year-old boy is even more shocking.

Our first, and only real, look at Michael Myers face

Michael’s dad stares at the mask, while his mum merely looks on in disapproval, placing her hands in her pockets as if expecting some sort of explanation. Neither of them pay much attention to the blood-stained knife or show any concern for their daughter, but they don’t know she is dead nor that Michael has become a killer.

In many ways the audience transcends from the view and mind of the killer into that of his parents, piecing together what has happened, albeit one step ahead of them, knowing that a grisly discovery awaits for them upstairs.

In one camera move we have gone on a journey, not with Michael but as him. We end where he started at the front of the house but he has become a killer. We then take up the position of his parents, stepping back to see what happens next…

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