Carpenter’s Halloween theme still unnerves

I’ve always found John Carpenter’s synth score for Halloween to be the scariest, the most unnerving, the most chilling. Yes, even moreso than John Williams’ Jaws score (partly because I tend more often to think of Williams’ score during the shark-hunting-adventure part of the film than the someone’s-about-to-get-eaten part). And I’m sure some of you will point to Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, or Krzysztof Komeda’s music for Rosemary’s Baby, or maybe Goblin’s Suspiria notes. But Carpenter’s Halloween theme has them all beat. I’m not just talking about the music in the context of the film, how it supports and amplifies the mood being created, simple, repetitious, unending, mirroring the masked killer himself. I’m talking about the fact that the music itself creeps me out, whether it’s the actual soundtrack I’m listening to or it’s a ringtone or even somebody humming it. I was reminded of this when I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s “30 Minutes on: Halloween,” in which he writes about a film for precisely 30 minutes and then hits publish:

“The movie takes its cues from Michael’s walk. It is directed by Carpenter in thoughtfully composed CinemaScope frames, in takes that are often quite long by modern horror cinema standards, with a simple, synthesized score that’s deliberately, monotonously repetitious and enormously effective for that very reason, and accompanied by sound design that stresses at most one or two important things at a time, such as the exaggerated sounds of footfalls on grass or on wooden floors, or birds or insects, or the wind making the fall leaves skitter across the suburban Illinois lawns and streets.

“Although the film is subtler and more sparing about depicting brutal violence than you probably remember—like Hitchcock and Spielberg, Carpenter has a knack for making you think you saw more than you did—it’s quite literal-minded, or maybe you could say “direct,” in how it shows you what’s happening, and in the way it delineates the spaces in which the action is taking place. There are lots of moments where you feel absolutely certain that you know what’s going to happen next (like when P.J. Soles sees the killer in a bed sheet and glasses and thinks it’s her lover, and you immediately know in your gut that it isn’t) and the suspense comes from seeing the characters fail to understand what’s absolutely positively without-a-doubt going to happen next no matter what they say or do (that she keeps thinking the person in the sheet is her boyfriend, long past the point when she should figure it out, makes the entire scene feel more unnerving, because it pushes it past the realm of what Roger Ebert called the Idiot Plot syndrome and into the real of nightmare logic). Carpenter’s relaxed, open, sometimes plodding manner would seem a counter-intuitive way to direct a movie that’s all about teenagers being stalked by, and in some cases running away screaming from, a killer who just got out of the mental institution where he’d been held for twenty years after murdering his family one Halloween night. But it turns out to be the movie’s aesthetic masterstroke, because it transforms “Halloween” from just some horror movie into Every Horror Movie, indeed Every Scary Story Ever Told. The subtext of every set piece of suspense or violence is the same: “Death is coming and you can’t stop it.” Michael is the Grim Reaper in a store-bought William Shatner mask, and his butcher knife is his scythe. In an early sequence of kids walking home from school, you feel the presence of death behind every hedgerow. Anyone could be taken at any moment, and they have no say in it, no say at all.”