This story was originally published in October 2016,
Back in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween was an urban legend, a movie so scary that audiences were screaming their heads off in theaters across America. But the critics loved the film, a distinguishing hallmark from its hack-and-slash contemporaries and one that would make its co-writer and director something of an auteur.
It was also an unprecedented commercial smash. Grossing over $40 million on a shoestring budget of $320,000, Halloween changed the game for independent filmmaking, proving a brand-new, small-scale distributor like Compass International Pictures could reign supreme over the box office and subvert the studio system.
Naturally, Hollywood took notice and capitalized on the film’s success, launching a mad dash of slasher movies that didn’t have anywhere near the imagination or skill that Carpenter brought to the table. That goes for the Halloween name, too, which has since been trick or treated to death with sequels, remakes, and reboots.
Even still, Halloween remains a landmark for the horror genre. “Not since Psycho had there been a horror movie that powerful,” Rob Zombie, who offered his own spin on the franchise (twice, in fact), told MovieMaker. “John Carpenter basically reinvented the wheel.” Of course, any reinvention requires ingenuity, patience, and craft.
For Carpenter, the New York-born filmmaker learned his craft at the University of Southern California’s film school (where he was just ahead of George Lucas), whose alumni also included screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), and director Randal Kleiser (Grease), among many others.
At USC, students were required to make a lot of movies, which sharply honed their technique, and Carpenter’s influences were classic directors like Howard Hawks, who came from an era where directors were craftsmen, not artistes, and who knew how to deliver unpretentious entertainment on schedule and on budget.
By 1970, Carpenter stepped into the industry after co-writing, editing, and scoring John Longenecker’s The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, which nabbed an Oscar in 1971 for Best Live Action Short Film. This would lead to his 1974 debut, Dark Star, a counterculture spoof on 2001: A Space Odyssey that he co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon.
Although Dark Star quickly came and went, the film developed a cult following, enough that Carpenter was able to follow it up with his 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13. Again, the film didn’t catch on amid its initial release, but it did draw a select circle of fans and brought Carpenter further into the spotlight — or more specifically, Halloween.
Irwin Yablans, who founded Compass and served as its president, caught Assault on Precinct 13 and felt Carpenter was the perfect choice to helm the company’s debut film. His idea revolved around babysitters being stalked at night, and when Carpenter and his late co-writer and producer Debra Hill began writing, Yablans suggested it take place on October 31st.
For the setting of Halloween, Hill drew on her hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey, which was transformed into the fictional small town of Haddonfield, IL, and like many great horror stories, it takes place in a Bradbury-esque environment that could more or less be your neighborhood.
“I wanted a Midwest, sleepy town,” Hill explained. “The idea of pulling off the veneer and seeing what lies beneath intrigued me. What’s so interesting to me about horror movies is they take place in small towns where they don’t have a huge police force. [Laughs.] You put the story in a sleepy town, really beautiful homes, nice full trees, it seems safe.
“You think nothing could go wrong there and nothing could be further from the truth. Every town has a secret, every town has that lore of something that went horribly wrong with it. What inspired me was Rear Window where you pull off the veneer and have a peek inside each of the apartments. The idea of pulling off the veneer and what lies beneath has always intrigued me.”
Carpenter was paid $10,000 and 10% of the profits to direct and co-write Halloween, and as long as he stuck to its 20-day schedule and budget, Yablans agreed to give him final cut. Similar to classic directors of Hollywood’s past, Carpenter even wanted his name above the title, which would make his name synonymous with the cinematic terror.
“John was a little ahead of his time,” says Tommy Lee Wallace, who edited Halloween and worked with Carpenter on a number of his films. “Branding is all the rage now, and I just think John was working very hard to set himself apart and create a brand for himself.”
In creating Laurie Strode, Carpenter and Hill once again drew from Howard Hawks, whose films had strong roles for women. “You can’t separate the political milieu from the movies,” Wallace adds. “This was a time that women were asserting their rights like never before, and Debra was a very assertive woman. No way she was going to have a weeping violet type as her heroine.”
At Hill’s request, a young Jamie Lee Curtis was cast as Laurie in what would become her feature film debut. “Jamie is very much like Laurie,” Hill explained. “She’s very introspective, very complicated. There are many interesting facets to Jamie, and there’s a very beautiful innocence that the business still hasn’t ruined.”
With Laurie being the good girl of the group, Carpenter and Hill unconsciously created the classic horror rule that if you have sex, you die. It’s unclear which critic first pointed this out, though it might have been Pauline Kael, who wrote that the killer “has no trouble picking off the teenager who fools around; only Laurie has the virginal strength to fight back.”
“It was never a conscious decision,” Hill said. “The people who mentioned that in reviews applied their own morality to it. I thought they were being ridiculously introspective about a film that was meant to have no social statements.”
Carpenter agrees, saying, “It wasn’t my intention to make a moral point. I just hadn’t thought of it. The other girls were busy with their boyfriends, they were busy with other things. Laurie had the perception because she’s not involved in anything. She’s lonely, she’s looking out the window.”
“We wanted to make Laurie a strong character who was very willful and feared nothing,” Hill says. “Someone who was quiet yet defiant and faced the enemy. Laurie had an inner strength you didn’t see on the outside.”
For the role of Dr. Sam Loomis, Carpenter wanted a British actor and reached out to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. When both veterans turned him down, Yablans suggested they try to secure Donald Pleasance, who would go on to forge an alliance with Carpenter and also the franchise, playing the role four more times.
“We liked him so much, we made him the President in Escape from New York,” Hill joked, adding: “I think because of his wonderful use of the English language he gave extra importance to John’s writing about the personification of evil.”
Indeed, Pleasance delivers one of the most haunting moments in the film, specifically when he explains to Charles Cyphers’ bemused Sheriff Brackett why Michael Myers must be apprehended before it’s too late:
“I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.”
Creating that evil was a separate task altogether, and it was Wallace who brought that “blank, pale, emotionless face” into the horror lexicon. As the story goes, he initially picked up two masks, one being a Captain Kirk mask that he had spray-painted white and fiddled around with the eyes and hair. The other? A traditional, boring clown mask.
“There was no question that once the Captain Kirk mask came out, it was really unsettling,” Wallace says. “We knew we had what we needed. I think all you had to do was look at that mask and say, ‘Something is desperately wrong here and I’m scared.’”
Much of that fear also could be credited to the immediacy of Halloween. The film begins with a bravura moment of cinema, where a long camera take tracks a young Michael Myers into his house, where he commits his first murder. The entire sequence was made possible by the use of a Steadicam, which at the time was becoming an important tool in cinematography.
“This was a new technology that we, by the seat of our pants, learned to use,” says cinematographer Dean Cundey. “There was nowhere to learn yet. John wanted to do something for the opening shot that took advantage of it and that would be completely new and innovative that you couldn’t do with conventional camera shots.”
“I’ve always admired long tracking shots in the opening of movies,” Carpenter says. “Touch of Evil immediately comes to mind, and there’s one in the original Scarface. An acquaintance of mine had made a short film that was all one take, and it was really an engrossing way of moving the camera through an environment.”
Once again, it was Hill’s idea to bring on Cundey, who would continue to work with Carpenter on The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China and later lens seminal blockbusters like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13. Although Carpenter wasn’t established yet, Cundey felt he was making a big leap in his career.
“Working with John was a revelation because suddenly here was a guy who was interested in using the camera in a creative way, drawing the audience in,” Cundey says. “I thought, Boy, this is just my cup of tea, where the camera is contributing and you’re telling the story with visuals.”
Another clever trick was how Cundey and Carpenter would start with wide shots and gradually move in tighter, closing in on the audience until they felt like they too were trapped in the closet with Laurie. It’s a calculated motif that further proves Carpenter had a strong command over his craft, though he argues that Halloween was more of a stylistic exercise for him.
“That’s all we had,” he says with a laugh. “We only had the style because we had a very slim plot: An escaped lunatic comes back to this town and starts killing these babysitters. A lot of horror can live or die on visual flourish. Horror requires mood and tempo, it’s a little trickier, and usually you’re suspending some sort of ridiculous premise that you have to make people believe in.”
A big part of that magic trick required a stellar score, and similar to Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist before it, Halloween would have one — though, it would come much later. “It’s a separate task,” Carpenter says, arguing that he doesn’t think about music while shooting. Hill, however, believed that Carpenter scored the film in his mind during shooting.
Perhaps subconsciously, but in actuality, the film was completed long before the score was even composed. It wasn’t until Carpenter screened an early cut of the film for an executive at 20th Century Fox that he realized he needed to “save it with the music.” And so, he did just that by holing up at Sound Arts Studios in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks.
“I had the theme already written for years,” Carpenter says. “It was just something I’d tinkered out on the piano. I played 5/4 time on an octave on a piano, that’s all it was. I hadn’t necessarily applied it to Halloween, it was just sitting there and I thought, Oh, I’ll use this. That works okay. I’m not an accomplished composer of symphonies, I just do basic, straight-ahead, riff-driven music.”
Halloween opened on October 25, 1978, in Kansas City, Missouri. Like so many low-budget films of the ’70s, the film didn’t have a wide release as independent distributors would traditionally “bicycle” prints around the country regionally. Although the film would open early in Southern California and New York, Yablans recalls that Halloween slowly grew out of the Midwest.
It took so long for the film to break that Carpenter didn’t even know Halloween was a hit until Avco Embassy offered him a multi-picture deal as he was filming Elvis — his first of many collaborations with Kurt Russell. This opened the door for him to make both The Fog and Escape from New York, two titles that would join forthcoming Avco cult classics like Phantasm and The Howling.
“Low-budget horror films were dormant, slightly sleeping at the time,” Carpenter says. “Halloween revived this ‘Let’s go to the movies and have fun’ idea. Lots of screaming, lots of grabbing your dates, lots of laughter afterwards. Word of mouth just kinda grew as people saw it. It was a very, very limited release, so in that sense it was amazing.”
In addition to being a major crowd-pleaser, Halloween received strong reviews from the major critics as well. Newsweek called it “a superb exercise in the act of suspense” and “the most frightening flick in years,” while the late Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert named it “an absolutely merciless thriller.”
Halloween would go on to make $40 million in its first run, which would be somewhere in the vicinity of $200 million today, clearly a major return on its $320,000 investment. Pale imitators like 1980’s Friday the 13th followed the film’s step-by-step road map, especially its pseudo ‘no sex rule,’ and managed to rake in almost as much at the box office ($39.7 million).
Once Hollywood heard the cash registers ringing, even more inferior slasher movies followed for several years, and they killed teenagers in various different ways and spilled gallons of gore because they couldn’t compete with what made Halloween truly special: Carpenter’s skill and vision as a filmmaker.
As recently as this summer, Carpenter remarked on the knockoffs, telling Bret Easton Ellis: “Friday the 13th, I feel, affects me as very cynical. It’s very cynical movie-making. It just doesn’t rise above its cheapness. I think the reason that all these slasher movies came in the ’80s was a lot of folks said, ‘Look at that Halloween movie. It was made for peanuts and look at the money it’s made. We can make money like that.’ So they just started cranking them out. Most of them were awful.”
Suffice to say, Halloween will be the only slasher film to reside in the Library of Congress. It was inducted in 2006 and picked from over a thousand titles. At the time, Steve Leggett, the staff coordinator for the Registry, explained: “Halloween launched Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre. Some people may say that’s good or bad, but it’s really a good film.”
Ten years later, after being preserved for future generations, that statement still holds true.
“The audience recognized the value of Halloween,” Cundey says. “The fact that they empathized with the characters, and even subconsciously appreciated the visual storytelling, it was very rewarding to see that happen as opposed to a lot of the films I’ve worked on, which were sort of projector fodder for the drive-ins that would disappear after two or three weeks.”
“Halloween was a blast,” adds Carpenter. “It was just a bunch of kids making a movie.”
“We were young, hungry, and not yet jaded or cynical about the industry,” Hill concluded. “We were kids playing in the most exciting sandbox on the planet.”