Happy Halloween! – An Analysis of the Opening to John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978)

31 Oct

Happy Halloween folks! As today is a very special day for horror fans and all those who love a creepy thing or two I thought I’d post this essay I wrote for my first year at University on John Carpenter’s horror classic Halloween. An analysis of the films opening, it is by no means perfect (and I stress that) but I thought I’d put it up for a little fun…

The opening sequence in Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) follows an unseen character as it spies upon a lone house at night and is comprised of the following shots;

  1. Frontal shot of suburban house, night time. The house is in darkness and surrounded by trees
  2. Slow tracking shot towards house, stops at illuminated porch. Figures inside the house are visible.
  3. Tracking shot from front of the house to the side which is enclosed in darkness. Shot stops at window where figures are revealed more by indoor lighting.
  4. Camera stops and focuses on interaction between figures inside. They disappear upstairs.
  5. Pan shot from left to right of the side of the house, followed by tracking shot back to the front of the house.
  6. Tilt shot looking up to a lit front window on the second storey. Lights go out and the house is again surrounded by complete darkness.
  7. Tracking shot from front of house, down the side and through to the back of the house. Shot continues by going in through open back door and into dark kitchen.
  8. Lights appear as a pan and tilt shot shows a drawer being opened by a hand. Point of view shot is established. Hand pulls out knife from drawer.
  9. Tracking shot continues through downstairs of house, going from room to room. Pan and tilt shots utilised to portray point of view. No lights are on downstairs except for in the hall.
  10. Camera stops at hall and tilt shot shows male walking down the stairs getting dressed. Pan shot shows him leave through front door.
  11. Tracking shot goes from lit hall ascending the staircase towards the landing which is dark.

The film starts by using establishing shots depicting the location and time of event. The story takes place in Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night 1963. The sequence starts with a wipe cut going from completely black to the view of a large suburban house. The house is a generic American home, all white with a large veranda on the other side of the road. The colour stands out against the surrounding darkness of the night and the unlit street in which it resides. Slightly reminiscent of the Bates family home in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), the house looks very isolated and vulnerable cushioned in black. There is not even the safety of streetlights in this neighbourhood. Framed by a tree on either side like an archway or gate, the house looks easily penetrable. Through horror genre conventions we are led to believe that something ‘bad’ will soon happen as it becomes apparent to the viewer that the house is being watched by an unseen character. Utilising the shadows as concealment, the audience is immediately thrust into a subjective camera shot, in this case point of view (POV). As spectators, we join with this unseen characters perspective, as if we were behind them, and begin to associate with them.

A slow tracking shot establishes the unseen character walking across the road towards the house. As the character walks the camera direction employs a slight bobbing, emulating bodily movement and more realistically depicting the POV shot. When the camera moves closer, we begin to see the house in more detail. It is in fact cream, dirtier and less pure than the colour white, and covered in patches of peeling and worn away paint as if there was a problem with it. There are lights on inside and a lit jack-o-lantern on the veranda; clearly someone is home. As we approach the front door the outline of a couple kissing can be seen through translucent net curtains. This is obviously an act we are not meant to see, behind closed doors and in the safety of concealment. Here the audience is no longer made to feel like they are watching through someone else’s eyes but through their own; the unseen protagonist and the audience’s associated becoming unified through voyeurism.

From the front of the house we follow the couple through a tracking shot as they make their way into the adjacent living room. The hidden character walks down the side of the house concealed by bushes, a genre convention popularised in Universal Studio’s horror films of the 1920s and 30s. Once we turn the corner of the house we are plunged back into darkness and stop at the living room window looking through. Similar to the net curtains, a wire mesh fly screen covers the window acting as a slight barrier and reinforcing the idea of voyeurism. Inside, the couple are revealed to be teenagers, male and female, and are dimly lit by the television in the room. The decor of the house suggests that the owners are fairly well off, possibly middle class and certainly living life comfortably. The couple’s relaxed, playful embrace on the sofa implies that they are alone in the house increasing the suspense and tension created by the stalker observing. The expectation that something will happen to these characters is also greater, being alone amplifying their own and the house’s vulnerability. After a few seconds, the male leans in to the girls face and she smiles. They both get up and head for the stairs, visible through the doorway at the back on the longue. Something suggestive has been said and the couple clearly feel safe in the assumption that they are alone at home.

A pan shot shows the stalker look down both the right and left side of the house; as if to check that anyone was around. This makes the protagonist’s presence more sinister as by implying that they’re making sure no one is around for a reason, the expectation that something will most definitely happen to the couple is greater. Another tracking shot shows the character walk back to the front of the house and look up through a tilt shot towards a lit second storey window. Indicating a bedroom through the couple’s suggestive behaviour downstairs, the light goes out and the house is cloaked in darkness. Just like the ‘archway’ of trees in front of the house, the residence is easily penetrable as the safety of lighting has disappeared. The house and the stalker now blend in with the shadow and dark of night becoming one, there are no longer any physical boundaries. To confirm any suspicions, a tracking shot then precedes to show the unseen character walk back from the front of the house, down its side which we have already seen and then go to the back of the house where an open door provides entrance.

The character then enters the house, a pan shot revealing this room to be the kitchen with appliances and a small table illuminated by the moonlight through the window. The overhead lights suddenly come on and for the first time in the sequence we are able to see our surroundings clearly. Just like the outside of the house itself, the kitchen is cream coloured and appears slightly dirty. The appliances, which are also cream, make the room look clinical adding to tone of uneasiness felt now that the house has finally been breached. A tilt and slow tracking shot to the right focus on a drawer and the arm that we have previously seen before opens it to reveal sharp utensils. Now that the room is clearly lit we can see that the person is wearing green and yellow. As the hand reaches into the drawer it pulls out a large, phallic kitchen knife. The previous four minutes of stalking would suggest and imply that this knife is going to be used for something bad; someone is going to end up hurt at some point. The green and yellow colouring of the clothing also implies that this protagonist may possibly be envious or jealous of the couple inside the house. The phallic connotations associated with the kitchen knife, on top of said watching of house and clothing colour, leads the audience to believe that this possible jealousy could be linked to the young couples sexual behaviour. However the colour yellow is generally thought of as positive and warm. Is this character out for revenge or possibly protecting someone he cares about? Are there confused or mixed feelings surrounding sexuality within the hidden stalker?

Once the knife has been acquired, a tracking shot shows the character moving from room to room downstairs. Each is cloaked in the unsafe feeling that darkness brings, the rooms being illuminated only by moonlight from outside and gently from the kitchen. Low tilt and pan shots continue utilising the POV angle as the protagonist looks around each room, checking as they did outside that no one else is around. Upon entering the longue, we look across and linger for a few seconds on the empty coach which once held the amorous couple. The brief pause works as if to remember and reaffirm the ‘reason’ for which the house has been broken in to; it is the young couple who are the focus of this unseen person and now the audience begins to feel real dread and apprehension for the unknowing teenagers.

The camera’s tracking movement stops at the longue doorway which leads to the brightly lit hall we have seen before. An upwards tilt shot following the stairs shows that the teenage male is descending, hastily putting back on his clothes. As he runs down the stairs, he looks back towards the landing where we are led to believe the teenage girl has been left; upstairs and alone. The camera employment, still effectively mimicking human behaviour, moves back behind the door frame to hide away from the teenage male as concealment through shadows is no longer possible. Here we spy the boy give a somewhat regretful look towards the upstairs of the house, quickly open the front door and leave the house. Has the unseen character been protecting the young girl all along from her possible own naivety? We are still as spectators not even sure if the stalker even knows this couple at all.

Once the front door has shut, the camera emerges through the door way and a tilt shot towards the top of the stairs is followed by a tracking shot ascending. Here the unseen character goes from the brightly lit hall downstairs into the contrasting total darkness of upstairs. There are no lights on; there is no safety in illumination for either our protagonist or the young girl who we presume to be upstairs. We, unified by the continued POV shot, like the hidden character as now entering an unknown territory. In what state will the girl be in upstairs and does the young man’s sombre expression suggest that he himself has done regretful to her and not the character who picked up the knife? Likewise, why is our envious protagonist armed with a potential weapon, to enact a brutal morality lesson upon the young woman or to protect himself from her or the young man who left?  As the character walks into the total darkness of upstairs, the audience is left wondering what the answers to all the questions set up will be and the fate and actions of the two people left within the house…

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