This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
There have been some “kill your darlings” years so far in this Century of Terror project, but nothing like this. You’re saying I have to pick a “best movie” between HALLOWEEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD? What kind of sick joke is this? Why did I decide to embark on this project in the first place?
Suffice to say, this is a year where the top two entries are universally acknowledged as a pair of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time—and Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t far behind, either. They form a powerful trio at the head of this top-heavy year for the genre, wherein the overall quality of most releases may have slipped a bit, but it’s easy to overlook when you get multiple genre-defining classics.
First, to make our apologies to the spirit of George Romero: No hard feelings, buddy. In practically any other year, the director’s razor sharp social satire on race, consumerism and gender equality would have catapulted Dawn of the Dead to an easy win, but this year he’s facing off against John Carpenter’s perfectly crafted distillation of the slasher genre in the form of Halloween, and that’s a very tough assignment. Still, there’s no denying the profound impact of Dawn of the Dead, which directly influenced a wave of imitators that were much more slavish in copying its aesthetic than filmmakers were after the 1968 original introduced the idea of “Romero-style” zombies. You might say that if Night introduced Romero’s satirical worldview with the modern undead zombie as its herald, then Dawn codified the concept and then released it into the public domain, to begin a cycle of endless mutation and evolution. Within a few years time, this particular style of zombie would be everywhere, providing fodder for an entire generation of low-budget, would-be auteurs looking to follow in Romero’s footsteps. But despite many attempts to replicate its particular tone of gallows humor, joyful bloodletting and eventual, depressive collapse of the will, few have ever recaptured Dawn of the Dead’s spark of the divine. It remains one of the most generally imitated films in horror history—not just in the 1980s, but through the direct-to-VOD era and beyond.
Kaufman’s spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, on the other hand, loses some of the Cold War paranoia of its predecessor, replacing it with a more purely horrific consideration of the physical implications of the “pod people.” Its FX haven’t exactly aged well, but as in the case of that infamous, human-faced dog, it’s a case where the clumsiness of dated effects have somehow made them MORE profoundly disturbing rather than less—a happy accident that makes watching the film today especially gut-churning. As does that devastatingly bleak ending, of course.
The rest of the year is something of a mixed bag, split between lesser sequels like Jaws 2 and strange, mystical supernatural horror, as in The Shout and The Fury. We will say this for the latter, though: It ends with one of the most ridiculously graphic explosions of a human body ever captured on camera. If nothing else, watch the last two minutes of The Fury for a gory KABLAM the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
1978 Honorable Mentions: Dawn of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Shout, Magic, Long Weekend, The Fury, Jaws 2, I Spit on Your Grave
The Film: Halloween
Director: John Carpenter
Few films are so utterly synonymous with a genre as Halloween and the concept of the slasher movie. Although by no means the first “true” slasher—we still contend that Black Christmas wears that title, although there are many proto-slashers and giallo in the years prior that almost qualify, such as Alice, Sweet Alice—this was where slashers broke big in the U.S. Halloween kicks off an impressive wave of imitation that turns first into a trickle, and then into an outright flood following 1980’s Friday the 13th. But of the two, Halloween is the real masterwork, and it has aged sublimely in the four decades since, being just as perfectly chilling today as ever.
The key, of course, is Michael Myers. He is the ur-slasher villain; the template for Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and every mask-wearing psycho who ever stalked a nubile young girl in the 41 years that have followed. He is a mysterious, brutal cipher—dismissed as a cataonic loon by the medical world, but secretly hiding what seems to be extreme intelligence, ingenuity and what Dr. Loomis eventually refers to as “inhuman patience.” Indeed, it’s hard to tell whether Myers truly is human. His lack of vocalization, superhuman resistance to injury and the pools of darkness in each eyehole of his mask hint at an aura of demonic indestructibility, like whatever is powering Myers’ actions is decidedly not of this Earth. He gives no rationale for his evil actions; no grandstanding or pompous ego-stroking. He just murders with silent satisfaction, defying any attempt to understand him. His reasons are his own, and he’s not sharing them with anyone.
Much of this characterization, though, comes not directly as a course of Michael’s actions, but secondhand, via the expert perspective of Dr. Loomis. He’s an incredibly important character to the slasher canon; the archetype for what is later described in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as “an Ahab.” If Michael is an embodiment of pure evil, then Loomis represents the polar opposite—the only one who knows the depths of Myers’ wickedness, and thus the one man who will do anything to stop him. His histrionic freak-outs and hyperbolic descriptions of Myers throughout the course of the series—he calls him “death on two legs” at one point—inflate the stature of the villain immensely, propelling him into the realm of legend. Without Dr. Loomis, Michael is just an escaped mental patient with a mask. But with a character of this caliber to hunt him, Myers appears to the audience as an unstoppable force of evil.
As the story’s ingenue, Jamie Lee Curtis is also of course an incredible model for what would go on to be called the “final girl.” She possesses the perfect combination of gawky awkwardness and sexual repression that came to typify the archetype, which was largely built in her image. Like other final girls after her, one could say that the story of Halloween is ultimately about Laurie’s rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Forced into a fight-or-die scenario, she reaches down deep within herself to grasp a newfound assertiveness and determination to survive, empowering herself in the process. That’s all the story ever needed to be effective—the “Michael is actually Laurie’s brother” nonsense tacked on in Halloween 2 ultimately did little to raise the stakes, to the point that the most recent 2018 return to Halloween decided to do away with that bit of canon entirely.
And finally, we must give personal credit to John Carpenter for the potent, terrifying vision that brought us Halloween. From the instantly iconic, primordially powerful opening theme, to the various techniques he helped make into genre staples, like the prolonged “killer’s POV/voyeur/stalking” shots, Carpenter achieves maximum fear with what are ultimately minimal moving pieces. Hell, there’s barely even any blood in Halloween—certainly less than in many giallo of the day—but it doesn’t matter, because Carpenter instead establishes a much more profound sense of dread by creating a character whose name became synonymous with fright. Even four decades later, you’ll be forgiven if you go to bed after watching Halloween, wondering if the boogeyman might be coming for you.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.