The shape will pursue you.
There is a reason why Horror icon Michael Myers was credited as “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s first horror movie Halloween: it’s because he didn’t need an identity to make him terrifying. In fact, giving him one might have weakened him as an antagonist. Too often horror movie villains are fleshed out so much to the point where they are empathized with more than they are apathized. We are expected, after all, to be terrified by these horrifying figures: not understand them. But with Halloween, John Carpenter achieves an uncanny reaction through Michael Myers. He doesn’t even have to be doing much, yet the sheer sighting of him never fails to send shivers down our spine.
My first experience with Halloween wasn’t even with the movie. Sitting alone in my bedroom in my junior year of high school, I was eager to learn more about the screenwriting process and started tracking down movie scripts to read from. One of the earliest screenplays I read was John Carpenter’s Halloween, and from just the first few pages it completely haunted me.
The opening scene illustrates a six-year-old child stalking his older sister and her boyfriend around the house on an eerie Halloween evening. As the child makes his way into the kitchen, pulls out a knife, and sneaks his way up the stairs, he makes his way into his sister’s room and proceeds to stab her repeatedly, over and over again until she’s dead. When he exits the house, the most disturbing thing is not the bloody knife in his hand, but rather his young, innocent-looking stare: unfazed by the horrible act of violence he just committed against his own sister.
That boy is Michael Myers, and 15 years later, he escapes his insane asylum and returns to his hometown to wreak havoc on the same night he did several years ago.
When I first read the original screenplay for Halloween, I was entranced by the details Carpenter paid attention to in his script: the normalcy of the character’s everyday lives, the disturbingly methodical movements of this pathological child, the way he stalked his victims as an adult like a predator stalked his prey through the woods. But when I watched the movie, I found myself even more encapsulated by Carpenter’s spellbinding technique. He doesn’t just illustrate a feeling of paranoia, isolation, or unease: he places you right in the middle of it. It echoes of Hitchcock’s technique from 1960’s Psycho. In the iconic shower scene, you weren’t just seeing Marion getting stabbed in the bathtub: somehow, you could feel the blade digging into your own skin as you saw Marion’s blood drawn over, and over, and over again.
A large part of that immersion is how Carpenter chooses to frame his shots, and how cinematographer Dean Cundey tracks the action throughout the movie. In the movie’s early moments, nothing of major significance happens in the picture: some creep just throws on a janitor’s suit, puts on a Halloween mask, and stalks some people around town. But it’s not the actions that are so encapsulating, but rather how Carpenter chooses to capture that. A scene could be playing out naturally like any other moment would. For instance, a high school student and her girlfriends could be walking down the street, gossiping about rumors and romance. Not exactly anything out of the ordinary. But then when out of the corner of somebody’s eye, they spot a tall, stoic figure just slightly placed out on the edge of the frame, then a blink later… he’s gone.
This is why it was appropriate to label Michael Myers as “The Shape” in the end credits. It’s because he isn’t a character, but a point of fixation: something to divert our attention towards. When the Shape is noticed for a brief second, our focus shifts directly towards him. When he’s absent from the frame in the next take, we let our guard down. That’s why when Michael brutally murders someone in a violent, gruesome fashion later on, it shocks us so much: because we aren’t conditioned to the violence up until that point.
I would be remiss if I ended this review without mentioning this film’s eerie music, which builds up with such unease that it feels like someone is peering through your window watching you. Carpenter composed the music in three days, recorded it off of a few keys on his piano, and from it comprised one straightforward melody. But its impact on the film is electrifying. The keys shifting back and forth between notes feels like feet moving at a quick pace, while the crescendoing buildup feel like a pursuer gaining on his victim. Carpenter once said in an interview that he could play just about any note on a keyboard, but he couldn’t read or write a note. How was it, then, that he was able to write music as impeccable as this? It’s because he wasn’t writing music. He was writing a manhunt.
The worst thing that can be said about the original Halloween is the endless string of copycats that it inspired in the slasher genre. Several films have followed the same formula of the lone killer stalking the rebellious teenagers. Nightmare on Elm Street. Friday the 13th. Even the later Halloween sequels lost their edge. And yet, the original remains invigorating. Why? Because it understands the environment that it’s inhibiting. John Carpenter’s Halloween is an elaborate, masterful, and bloody game of cat-and-mouse: and we are the mouse.