As the pumpkin-orange jack-o'-lantern titles fade up and John Carpenter's chilling music tingles, the stage is quickly set for Halloween, a horror flick that redefined the genre and pretty much set in stone the template for decades more slasher movies to come. The film's director Carpenter (who also co-wrote the script with Debra Hill) grew up on a steady diet of Westerns and B-grade horror, and while he was able to explore the former with bracing siege film Assault on Precinct 13, it was 1978's Halloween that gave him his first chance to indulge in all things horrific.
There has, of course, always been something of the macabre about Halloween celebrations and here this is amped to nerve-shredding levels with the tale of Michael Myers, a young boy who murders his sister on Halloween night before returning more than a decade later to wreak havoc in suburbia. By casting veteran character actor Donald Pleasance as Myers's psychiatrist Sam Loomis, Carpenter's film immediately gained credibility. Though Loomis's continued battles with serial Myers would stretch across several sequels, in the first and best outing it was Jamie Lee Curtis - making her movie debut as Laurie Strode - who was the real star of the show.
Curtis, dubbed the "scream queen" early on in her career, has horror cinema running in her veins. Her mother Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Psycho, and the fact that John Gavin's character happens to be called Sam Loomis is also an indication of the strong connection between Alfred Hitchcock's classic and Carpenter's Halloween.
Where Psycho put its killer Norman Bates front-and-centre, Halloween conceals its knife-wielding maniac Michael Myers for much of the duration. He lurks at the edge of Carpenter's frame before disappearing back into the shadows. The gliding steadicam work and POV shots to see the action through Myers's eyes only helps up to amp up the anxiety, and when we finally do get a good glimpse it's a towering, terrifying man in a distorted William Shatner rubber mask.
Carpenter and co-writer Hill deliberately keep his backstory sketchy, building up the mystery and aura to make him even more of a sinister threat. Rob Zombie's 2007 remake missed the point in many ways, but its most obvious misfire was trying to get inside the mind of a young Myers and establish some kind of "why" for his actions. Myers doesn't need to, and probably shouldn't, be humanised. He is pure evil, an unstoppable force of nature, and a "boogeyman" to rival the best of them.
Halloween confidently lays out the rules and conventions of the horror movie, too. These tropes even provided enough material to support an entire franchise in Scream, but even with decades of use (and abuse) from genre filmmakers it's still gloriously effective in Carpenter's film. The "false scares", the final girl, the certain death that awaits promiscuous teens - all are present and correct here. There are moments of sheer, unrelenting terror too - notably Myers brutally murdering Lynda and Bob before sending Laurie cowering into a closet. No matter how many times you see it, it still gives you the heebie-jeebies.
Horror has struggled somewhat in recent years to stay fresh and original. Following the success of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity - both earning million on miniscule budgets - the 'found footage' concept has been run into the ground as studios favour making a quick buck over quality.
You only need to cast your mind back to the '70s and '80s, the decades that spawned Carpenter's Halloween, The Exorcist and The Shining, to see that the genre is capable of brilliance. Why aren't there films of this ilk now?
Halloween also fell in the middle of a purple patch for its director, who helmed Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing and Starman in the space of 10 incredible years. That hot streak may have cooled, but it's still a great shame that the film industry isn't banging down his door to make more features. The modern horror movie could use his help.
Halloween: 35th Anniversary Blu-ray steel book is available now.