The Film: 'Halloween' (1978)
The Scene: Just after arguably the eeriest opening credits in horrordom, we are dropped into a POV shot of a suburban household. The camera tracks around the house, peering into the windows to find a young girl making out with her amorous boyfriend on the couch. As they move the party upstairs to her room, the camera enters the house and moves through the kitchen. An enormous butcher knife is obtained from a drawer. The boyfriend exits and the camera slowly ascends the stairs. A clown mask is observed on the floor and a hand reaches out to snatch it. The camera perspective is then narrowed into two small eye holes as the presence moves into the girl's bedroom. Just as she turns to the camera and yells, "Michael," the hand raises and drops rapidly; repeatedly stabbing the girl until she lies dead on the floor. The camera then follows the killer out to the lawn where a car arrives, two adults climb out, and remove the mask from the lens. It's then that the perspective shifts to a standard close shot revealing that the vicious killer of that girl is her six-year-old brother.
[Since the clip is not available in full online, here is Carpenter discussing the film.]
Why It's Iconic: The brilliance of the opening of 'Halloween' goes far beyond the fact that it eloquently and uniquely introduces us to the boogeyman. I do enjoy that element of it and think few horror films since have been able to match the intimacy and impact of that opening tracking shot. It also lends a good deal of credence to Dr. Loomis' words later when he warns all within earshot of the evil within Michael Myers. Watching him commit this heinous act as a child without remorse, hesitation, or even a sound uttered is chilling.
I love how disorienting the opening scene is. Although we don't immediately know the identity of owner of the eyes through which we are watching these young lovers, there is something about the voyeuristic, first-person perspective that foreshadows doom. As young Michael moves through the house, the angle of the camera makes it hard to judge the size of the person hidden behind the camera. We have clues, the tiny hands and frilly sleeves, that the figure may be a child. But I have to believe that audiences in 1978, without the benefit of foreknowledge, would have been fooled by Carpenter's playful framing. It would certainly explain the "big reveal" feel of the moment when the mask is ripped off and the camera holds on the stoic, disturbed tyke. I would give anything to be able to travel back to1978 and watch this moment in a theater full of 'Halloween' virgins to observe their reactions to the unveiling of the pint-sized psychopath.
The POV opening kill is absolutely relentless. The camera never breaks away for a second, never allows you to gain your bearings. In a strange way, it plays with the idea of the fourth wall and the safety it provides in a horror film. If the opening had been a standard medium shot of Michael walking through the house, the disconnect between you and the fully-formed figure in the room creates a distance that helps firmly establish the lines between where the film ends and reality begins. But when you are forced to see the events unfold through the killer's eyes, wear the same mask as he does, there is no division between you and the madman. If your eyes are on the screen, then you are experiencing the terror first-hand; unfiltered and unrelenting.
Imitators/Flatterers: This is one of the most mimicked shots of any horror film ever made. Probably the most notable imitator would have to be 'Friday the 13th' and that opening first-person double murder. This scene became so prevalent as to be spoofed in the 1981 horror lampoon 'Student Bodies.' But what is so interesting about this is that Carpenter basically stole this shot from Orson Welles' 'Touch of Evil.' Thankfully, the steadicam system had recently been invented so he was able to replicate Welles' seminal shot on a meager budget, but it is no less ironic that so many other horror films effectively ripped off a rip off. Carpenter also admitted, in his 'Halloween' commentary, to borrowing a great deal from German Expressionism with wide, unbroken shots used to create an overwhelming sense of dread. And of course, Carpenter was a major fan of Bob Clark's 'Black Christmas' which also features a fantastic POV opening. In fact, the plot of 'Halloween' is said to be taken from an idea of Clark's for a 'Black Christmas' sequel that Carpenter "creatively requisitioned."