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The First Time I Saw ‘Halloween’

Chico, CA, Oct 21, 1978, sometime around 11pm

10 year old me wrestles with a coat hanger antenna, trying desperately to tune in Creature Features, a weekly Friday/Saturday ritual, on my tiny portable black and white TV. Hosted by my hero Bob Wilkins, these late-night double features are my reward, my salvation even, from the tedious grind of yet another week at Rosedale Elementary.

Rosedale. Ugh. School. The place I bring my Starlog and Famous Monsters magazines for show and tell, and to share during recess and lunch, but no one cares. They don’t care about Star Wars, or Planet of the Apes, or KISS. They barely even know who Dracula or Frankenstein are, Universal, much less Hammer. Scooby-Doo is the scariest thing my small town classmates have seen.

Not that I don’t love Scooby-Doo.

Me though? As far as horror movies I’ve seen zillions already. Jaws, The Sentinel, The Devil’s Rain, The Omen, The Night Stalker, and the scariest movie ever, The Exorcist, which is my favorite movie of all time. I even saw Mark of the Devil when we still lived in Baltimore, and got sent home with a note for taking my lunch to school in the barf bag we got at the door.

I keep futzing with the homemade rabbit ears, and soon have an incredibly clear picture. Tonight the signal from KTVU channel 2 in Oakland, cruises strongly on the overcast weather all the way to where I am in Chico, 160 miles away. It’s only a small victory though. The movie playing is The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring the woman from Bewitched (Elizabeth Montgomery). It’s not something I need to set up and watch in mom’s room. I’ve seen it before on the Movie of the Week, and it’s actually not very scary.

My favorite thing about Creature Features is when Bob Wilkins has on special guests, like Christopher Lee, or George Lucas, or shows previews for new movies coming out. Tonight he says he has something special during intermission. Lizzie Borden is more like a gruesome episode of Perry Mason than it is a horror film, and I keep myself up through the magic of strong iced tea and a bottomless bag of popcorn. Finally the time comes, this is what I’ve kept my eyes pried open for. A special clip from a movie coming out on Friday called Halloween, begins to play…

A young woman walks through a dark house, finding a bunch of dead people.

Then, a guy in a mask comes out of the shadows and tries to kill her with a butcher knife.

She falls over a railing and barely makes it out of the house alive, and limps into the street.

Now the killer emerges, close behind.

Banging on a door, screaming for a kid named “Tommy” to open up.

The killer is still getting closer and closer.

The kid finally gets to the door and the woman makes it inside right as the killer is on the front steps.

…and the clip ends.

I make one fluid movement of gathering up my popcorn, my blanket, and the small TV, and walking straight into my mom’s bedroom to watch the rest of Lizzie Borden now that I am wide awake, adrenalized by having the shit scared out of me in the span of two and a half minutes. I’ll be sleeping in here tonight now, thanks.

For the next week, going to the bathroom was an exercise in mortal terror. I was sure I could see “his” shadow underneath the crack in the door every damned time I had to “sit down”.

Chico, CA, Oct. 27, 1978, around 4:30pm.

I meet my mom when she gets off work, get my allowance, and we go by the new rock shop so I can spend some of it on an Ace Frehley pin I’ve been praying would still be there when I had the money. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park is on tomorrow night, and I want to wear it while I watch it. As we are talking to the clerk it turns out he is a horror movie fan too, and asks if we are going to see Halloween, which is opening tonight at the Senator Theater, downtown. When I go to forlornly reply “No, I don’t think so.” my mom unexpectedly pipes in “Oh of course we are!”.

Holy shit, what a Friday! A new Ace Frehley pin and I’m getting to see Halloween on opening night!

Later, we make the walk a few blocks in the blustery and perfectly spooky October weather, from our small basement apartment to the theater. We bring our own popcorn in a big brown paper bag, doubled because of all the butter n the bottom, my mom’s purse full of cheapie Craigmont sodas, and candy bought at the dime store along the way.

Front row, center, wow I’m really here. There are only a few people in the theater, maybe 20 in an auditorium that sits hundreds. The lights go down, the curtains part. Trailers for The Boys from Brazil, Magic, and The Buddy Holly Story play. I want to see them all (and will, many times). Finally, the lights go all the way down, the sound comes up to full feature film volume.

Over the next hour and a half, EVERYTHING changes.

A black screen and the first bars of that now classic synth driven theme, in off-kilter 5/4 tempo. It is as relentless and wonderfully simple as the film itself. Then the credits start, that now-signature font, orange names fading in and out, beside a perpetually flickering jack o’ lantern. Immediately this terrifying jingle joins the ranks of the theme from Jaws, and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” aka the theme from The Exorcist. I’ll be humming it as I drift off to nightmares for weeks.

The POV opening, as we stare out from behind a clown mask, the eyes of Myers himself, as he glides through the house, complicit as he knife’s his sister Judith to death. This scene, incidentally, is a historical moment  in cinema overall as being a very early instance of shooting with a Steadicam.

My impressionable 10 year old mind gets melted over the next 91 minutes.

The anxiousness I felt every time Loomis was on screen. Seeing streets not unlike those in my own small town being captured such perfectly creepy fashion, with the voyeuristic eye of a somnambulist psychopath.Even happier moments spent peeking inside the “big kids” world through pragmatic Laurie, sarcastic Annie, and horny Lynda.  Giving myself over to the utter horror I felt as The Shape ripped and slashed his way, as powerful as a tornado, as fast as a shark, through these characters I had come to truly like, and relate to, over the last hour.

Those final final 30 minutes were a profound revelation in horror and suspense films. Even The Exorcist did not proceed with the vicious velocity that director Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey orchestrated during Halloween‘s climax. Using only some corners, a hallway, a staircase, and a few shadows they transform mundane suburban homes into mind-paralyzing labyrinths of utter terror. All done in a brilliantly rhythmic way, with that now-ingrained soundtrack hook grinding away, insistent, reminding you over and over that there is no escape.

By the film’s end when the smoke from Loomis’ gun finally clears, leaving us with the question of whether The Shape is still out there, I am ragged and in shock,not unlike Laurie Strode. Still alive, and somehow exhilarated, having survived a night at the movies I will never forget, one that would have left the kids at my school quivering in a pool of tears and piss. Hell, even some of my teachers.

Halloween was playing with Black Christmas as a co-feature. I had never seen it before, and while I was indeed more than game, my poor mom was so frazzled, battered senseless really, that we chose to stumble home, satisfyingly freaked out, and anticipating another eventual film from this crazy writer/director named John Carpenter.

I need to talk to mom about taking me next to see the sequel to Night of the Living Dead. I read it’s coming out soon, and is called Dawn of the Dead. I’ll be amazed if it’s as good as Halloween, though.

Present day.

Up until Halloween, antagonists in horror films had not been quite so vicious, at least in a hit film that very quickly worked its way into the public consciousness. Yes, there was Norman Bates in Psycho, but we knew him, and could even empathize with why he became the monster he was. And there is also the paradigm smashing release of The Exorcist, which put a stake through the heart of the far more quaint Gothic horrors being released by Hammer, as the studio sucked the last drops of blood from the dying Dracula franchise. Maybe Leatherface qualifies, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a whispered legend by the few who saw it at drive-ins and small theaters a few years prior. And much like his counterpart Norman Bates, there is still room for sympathy. You might have to dig into the guts of it a little, but it can be pulled out.

Michael Myers however, is another kind of beast entirely. A privileged suburban kid from a good home who turns out to be an emotionless vacuum, a black hole, negative space manifested into physical form. He, it, is nothing more than a mirror upon which his victims are projected. This is why, for me, the sequels, while enjoyable, ultimately do not work. The entire Laurie Strode being his sister wrinkle was done for the original television broadcast to pad out the run-time so commercials would fit. It is fun, but moot. Yes, I enjoy the digression with the Druids (surely culled from the intro to the novelization of the first film) later in the series, but again, it was superfluous and a distraction from the simple perfection that is the raging storm of mindless violence that is The Shape.

The irony is that Halloween was, for the most part, bloodless as far as what we see on screen, yet it shocked audiences like very few films before it. Nor had any other horror film spawned so many imitators and knock-offs, some of which went on to become incredibly successful in their own right. Audiences now wanted to see what they thought they saw while watching Halloween. Extreme physical violence and gore, up  close and personal. The bloody floodgates opened, spilling wide a tide of titles like Friday the 13th (parts 1 and 2 and 3, and on and on and on), Maniac, The Prowler, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, The Funhouse, Prom Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Terror Train, Sleepaway Camp, and Final Exam now splattered themselves across downmarket theater screens, and stacked themselves like invitingly dead bodies on the burgeoning video shop shelves.

Incidentally, four years later, Halloween was the first home video I bought. Betamax, fifty-seven bucks, watched it probably two-thousand times. That damned Media Home Entertainment tape was as durable as Laurie Strode. Respect.

While I of course remained a disciple of stuff like Universal and Hammer, Halloween matured me from a horror “kid” into horror “freak”. I was growing up, becoming more fierce, and so was the genre.

It also speaks to Halloween‘s influence that it sparked in me an interest in things like cinematography and lighting, synth music like Tangerine Dream or composers like Philip Glass (who I think every fan of Carpenter’s minimalist soundtracks would find something to love about), auteur directors, and independent films, horror or not.

Now, the butcher knife swings full circle with the release of the new film, which only acknowledges the original from 1978. It’s surprisingly respectful, if not a little slavish, to it’s predecessor, but ultimately I think does a good job of being a kind of Pied Piper to the 1978 film. David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s continuation works as a companion piece rather than a spoiler filled sequel. Halloween 2018 will make Halloween 1978 more attractive to younger viewers who may have not seen the Carpenter classic.

Hopefully, those new acolytes have as good a time as I did, the first time I saw Halloween.

About Sean Smithson

Sean Smithson is a lifelong "horror kid".,Born in Baltimore, MD, and raised during the early 70's, Sean was raised the feral child/mascot of Johns Hopkins film students. Becoming a touring/recording musician in his teens, as one of the progenitors of bay area thrash metal and crossover, his bands have included Sacrilege BC, Grinch, and The Politician. He now concentrates primarily on film, as an essayist, programmer, and commentator. He is currently working on his first book, FAST AND HIGH: A Look Back At Ridgemont High for Bear Manor Media.

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