Most of us have probably seen 1978’s Halloween a million times. When we think of the film’s beginning, we think either of the opening credits, with the long track into the pumpkin’s eye, or the famous long-take opening scene. However, the murder of Judith Myers is just back-story for the film as a whole. The story really begins with Michael Myers, now twenty-one, escaping from Smith’s Grove Hospital. This is the scene I want to examine, taking it step by step, shot by shot, and looking at how Carpenter constructs this famous, if often overlooked, scene.
First to notice is the weather. This isn’t necessary for the scene from a storytelling standpoint, but it adds to the atmosphere, if in a slightly clichéd fashion. It’s an additional air of menace. It’s not up to King Lear levels of pathetic fallacy, but it’s still there, ever present throughout the scene. It also adds some visual interest, in much the same way that Ridley Scott would do four years later, with the shimmering water on the walls of the Tyrell building in Blade Runner. Of final note for the weather, compare the slashing of the windscreen wipers in the rain as a visual foreshadowing for Michael’s slashing knife, with a similar shot in Psycho of Marion Crane driving through the rain, with her windscreen wipers foreshadowing Norman Bates’ knife slashing through the shower. Remember that Psycho is a movie which obviously had a profound influence on Halloween and the budding slasher subgenre.
In the car, we are introduced to Loomis, Michael’s doctor. Pleasance plays him as a brooding and serious, if superstitious, man, bordering on obsession. Alongside we have Marion, who is not only dismissive of the patients she looks after but woefully underprepared, having done “only minimum security” before. This conversation between them not only brings us up to speed as to Michael’s condition, “he hasn’t spoken a word for fifteen years,” but also sets up a motif that will play throughout the movie. Those that don’t take Loomis and Myers seriously, end up attacked and often dead. Loomis says for Marion to “try to understand what we’re dealing with here. Do not underestimate it.”
The line “Do not underestimate it” is one of the most important lines in the scene, and perhaps the entire film, and the following remarks of “Don’t you think we could refer to ‘it’ as ‘him’?” “If you say so,” is crucial to our understanding of Myers. He is not so much a man as a manifestation of evil inhabiting the body. Before we even see the old Myers, he has been taken to a realm beyond the human, back into the land of something much older and more terrifying. Loomis wants Myers trapped forever, but the law, thinking that he is still ‘him’, wants him moved. In later scenes, Loomis shouts that he warned everyone about Myers but nobody listened. Only Loomis, who truly understands what Myers is, knows to keep him locked up. The dialogue between Loomis and Marion is expertly written to give exposition, build character, and raise tension, all in small, economical snippets, and all at the same time. This exchange should be studied further by any screenwriting student to see just how brilliant it is.
Then the headlights illuminate the patients in the white robes walking around in the rain, an eerie sight in itself. The music kicks in, the famous piano and synth combo, which warns of impending danger. We’ve had the build-up, our fears raised, and now the film begins to play on them. When Loomis gets out of the car to open the main gate, a figure clambers onto the roof. Myers strikes when Loomis is out of the way. This begins the cat-and-mouse that the two will play throughout the film. That the rear lights paint Myers in a blood-red glow as he climbs onto the car is symbolic of his intent. He means murder.
What is interesting about this scene is that we begin to see Myers’ method of killing. He isn’t just a hulking mass, but he is quiet, methodical, and will only use brute force if he needs to. When Marion first rolls the window down to see who is on the roof, he brings his hand down to attack her. Only after she drives the car into the ditch, closes the window, and scurries to the other side, does he take to smashing the window. He is like a cobra, striking when he needs to but holding back otherwise.
When Myers does smash the window, it’s interesting to see how Carpenter constructs the scare. He uses Hitchcock’s theory of suspense (affectionately known as his ‘bomb theory’), in that he alerts us to the looming threat of Myers smashing the window before Marion is alerted to him. His hand appears in shot, giving the audience a moment of ‘he’s behind you!’ before it disappears for a few seconds. The tension is raised as we wonder exactly when the attack will be, and then a second or two later, the payoff. This simple, few-seconds scare, is a full construction, methodically thought out in all its beats, has rises and falls in its narrative, and is light-years apart from the false scares of many horror movies.
In horror movies today, one might expect Michael to kill the nurse before escaping. However, this original Michael doesn’t need to kill Marion, because his goal is the car. He attacked Marion when she was inside the vehicle, but now that she’s fled, he doesn’t need to pursue her. She isn’t a threat. This is something that the new movie, Halloween 2018, also subtly picks up on, in that Myers doesn’t just kill indiscriminately; he specifically targets. Evil has its own agenda, and it is perhaps something which makes Michael scarier. If he was just a killing machine, you could deal with it. But there is thought behind his eyes, calculated thought, and death is just one part of it.
In the final moments of the scene, we have Loomis’ line, “the evil has gone”. Described as ‘evil’ for the first time, we have Loomis’ superstitions on full display, and our understanding of the scene catches up. That was Myers, as we feared, and not just a random patient, and the sinking feeling in our stomachs ramps up as it drops another notch. All the precautions Loomis asked for, all the connotations of a silent, deadly mass of inhumanity, that we were given in the car, has all come to fruition. So awful is this realisation that Loomis doesn’t stay around for much more than “are you alright?” to Marion, before rushing off. Once he knows she’s not in danger, she is disregarded. The evil must be stopped at all costs.
This is a perfect example of a well-constructed scene, with its personal rises and falls, and specific story construction. Attention is paid in all areas to ensuring that the filmmaking and storytelling come together in a beautiful composition with every subtlety pulling its weight. Carpenter has created a wonderful scene that sets loose upon the film a carnage that will terrify us long after the credits have stopped rolling.
-Article by Kieran Judge -Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental
Blade Runner. 1982. [Film] Directed by Ridley Scott. United States of America: The Ladd Company.
Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.
Halloween. 2018. [Film] Directed by David Gordon Green. USA: Blumhouse.
Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.
Shakespeare, W., 2000. King Lear. Second ed. UK: Heinemann.