“Halloween launched John Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre. Some people may say that’s good or bad, but it’s a really good film.”
That’s how the National Film Registry staff coordinator, Steve Leggett, justified the 2006 decision to select Halloween for preservation in the Library of Congress. Leggett’s explanation might seem almost backhanded, but it acknowledges the central truth of Halloween: regardless of what came after it’s still a brilliant movie.
And it all started when independent film producer Irwin Yablans had an idea for a horror movie called The Babysitter Murders, which could be cheaply made over a couple of weeks by limiting the locations and setting most of it at night. This was the premise he handed over to John Carpenter, an unemployed 29-year-old filmmaker whose first two films had flopped and whose various writer-for-hire projects had either gone nowhere or ended up straying pretty damn far from his initial vision. He didn’t want to make a horror movie. He wanted to make westerns, but he needed the work. So, he took the gig on the condition that he be given final cut and get his name above the title, which Yablans later changed to Halloween. Both of those bold demands were indulged because Carpenter had pledged he could make the movie for just $300K.
What proceeded from that point forward was a 21-day-shoot put together by a bunch of kids just trying to rally around each other to make the best movie possible. When success and inevitable imitation came, the power of Halloween was diluted. People who were neither as talented nor as disciplined as John Carpenter and his crew trotted out the same old Halloween slasher tropes over and over again until they were all gathered together and mocked in Scream. However, for all of your Friday the 13ths and My Bloody Valentines only Halloween has ended up in the Library of Congress. As the man said, “It’s a really good film,” and here are 9 things you may not know about it:
1. It was co-written and produced by a woman at a time when that was very, very rare
Before Halloween, Debra Hill had only ever worked on three films – Goodbye, Norma Jean, Satan’s Cheerleaders and Assault on Precinct 13. Each time, she was only the script supervisor. Halloween marked her screenwriting and producing debut as well as acting since, technically, she plays Michael in two scenes (which isn’t that odd since 6 different people ultimately played Michael). It’s sadly still strange today to see women make that kind of leap and occupy such high-profile behind the scenes roles in Hollywood, but it was especially rare back in ‘78. The fact that Hill got her big break because she was dating John Carpenter at the time and he insisted on having her as his producer made it even harder on her since it raised some eyebrows and fostered assumptions of nepotism.
However, Hill was ready for the challenge, and took to writing and producing with astonishing ease. She wrote the majority of the script (which is why the girls’ dialogue sounds so natural) and then handed it over to Carpenter to write Dr. Loomis’ lines. After that, she recommended they hire Dean Cundey to be the cinematographer. She demanded they cast Jamie Lee Curtis (more on that later). She handled the business side and second unit coordination while Carpenter worried about the filming with the first unit.
When the film became a success she and Carpenter enjoyed the moment together and regularly told the press, “We’re a team.” Hill and Carpenter late co-wrote and/or produced The Fog, Escape from New York, Halloween II and Escape from L.A. together, and she also produced The Dead Zone, Clue and Adventures in Babysitting.
As Hill, who sadly died from cancer in 2005, said, “Women in powerful positions were perceived in a sexist way. They did love stories. For a woman to come and do a film like Halloween really paved the way for other women to be viewed as filmmakers and good storytellers first, as opposed to just being women producers.”
Halloween still photographer Kim Gottlieb still refers to Hill as her hero, and Jamie Lee Curtis has repeatedly expressed extreme gratitude for the role Hill played in her career. Because, after all…
2. John Carpenter didn’t want to cast Jamie Lee Curtis
Carpenter explained, “Jamie Lee wasn’t the first choice for Laurie. I had no idea who she was. She was 19 and in a TV show at the time, but I didn’t watch TV.“
He was overruled by Hill, “From a creative standpoint I thought Jamie was a perfect young actress who had a huge career ahead of her, and I thought she was the best one for the part. From a financial, business point of view I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t hurt that she’s Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis’s daughter.’ I realized even back then, even as independent and naive as we were, I did realize there was a business aspect to selling the movie and that could get us some publicity.”
Irwin Yablans agreed. In fact, he loved the idea so much he instructed Carpenter to make sure to create a scene which would pose Jamie Lee like her mom in the infamous shower scene so they could run a side-by-side photo comparison while promoting the movie:
3. Michael’s name was taken from a film distributor who championed Assault on Precinct 13
Carpenter and Hill’s script is filled with easter eggs & homages. For example, the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois is named after Hill’s New Jersey hometown and features multiple street signs copied from Carpenter’s hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Laurie Strode is named after one of Carpenter’s ex-girlfriends. Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Leigh Brackett respectively take their names from a character in Psycho and one of Rio Bravo’s screenwriters.
The biggest, though, is the Michael Myers name itself, which was selected in tribute to the englishman who helped get Assault on Precinct 13 into various film festivals throughout Europe. Assault was Carpenter’s second film, first with Debra Hill, and it had been picked up by Yablan’s Turtle Releasing for distribution. However, it bombed in the States, and didn’t do much better in Europe, where it at least received a warmer critical reaction. Myers acting as a champion of the film helped it reach a wider audience and led to Carpenter and Hill meeting Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad at the London Film Festival, both of whom eventually proved crucial to the creation of Halloween. So, naming the film’s killer after Myers was meant to be a thank you. They had no idea, of course, the character would go on to become one of the biggest horror icons in film history. Understandably, the real Myers was flattered, but confused.
4. The mask choice came down to Nixon, Spock, Kirk and an Emmett Kelly sad clown
The script describes Michael’s or, technically, “The Shape”’s mask as “rubber” and depicting “the neutral features of a man,” which led production designer Tommy Lee Wallace to look at Richard Nixon, Spock and Kirk masks as well as an Emmett Kelly sad clown mask (pictured above). As Wallace told Fangoria, they initially leaned toward the Emmett Kelly mask, “First came a clown mask, which we all thought was eerie and scary. A clown mask really shakes you up a bit, so we knew we were on solid footing.” However, Kirk “won be default because he was the plainest face.” Take that, William Shatner’s ego.
The mask cost them just $1.98, and Wallace widened the eyes, changed the hair, yanked off the sideburns and spray painted the whole thing fishbelly white. The resulting mask, which the sequels notoriously struggled to replicate, exceeded expectations and convinced everyone that at the very least their movie was going to scare people. Because, really, just look at that thing:
5. Donald Pleasence was their third choice, and even then he only did it because his daughter told him to
Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis is the Ahab to Michael’s white whale. Seeing the slightly mad doctor hunting down his former patient while melodramatically ranting about evil and devils and more often than not acting as an exposition machine is part of what makes Halloween and its various sequels so much fun.
However, it almost went a completely a different direction. While Carpenter, Hill and Yablans agreed they needed to cast a name actor to play Loomis, they differed on who to approach. Carpenter and Hill offered the part to Hammer Horror legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both passed, with Lee later telling Hill, “I made the biggest mistake of my life. I should have been in your movie.”
Yablans was actually relieved. He never wanted Lee or Cushing, fearing their close association with a certain kind of horror movie would negatively flavor public opinion of Halloween. Instead, he recommended Pleasence based off the then 59-year-old actor’s performance in the western Will Penny. He was a name, having earlier starred in You Only Live Twice and The Great Escape, and he just might bring a bit of class to the production.
So, the offer went out, and Pleasence didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no either. He needed some time to think about. The decision was ultimately made for him by his daughter. Once on set, Pleasence candidly admitted to a stunned John Carpenter, “My daughter is in a rock n’ roll band in London, and she liked the music from your film Assault on Precinct 13. But otherwise I have no clue why I’m here or who my character is.”
That’s not to suggest Pleasence was difficult. Quite the opposite. Everyone loved him, so much so that Carpenter and Hill later cast him as the President of the United States in Escape from New York. However, Pleasence felt ambivalent about Halloween and the part of Dr. Loomis, telling a newscast at the time, “I have to come around to seeing it [Carpenter’s] way because, after all, it’s his movie. The dialogue is a little melodramatic, but of course it’s not intended to be real in, that awful word, ‘realistic’ sense.”
It’s easier to come around on the dialogue when they’re paying you $25K for just 5 days of work. By comparison, [bonus fact] Nick Castle, who played “The Shape” and later co-wrote Escape from New York with Carpenter, was only paid twenty-five dollars a day on Halloween. Perhaps not surprisingly then, they didn’t actually have the money in the budget to pay Pleasence. That’s why the originally approved budget of $300,000 had to grow to $325,000, with Yablans and Akkad’s approval, of course.
6. Additional duties include costume design and leaf gathering
Halloween was so low budget many in the cast and crew took on multiple responsibilities. For example, Tommy Lee Wallace wasn’t just the production designer; he was also the editor. Nancy Kies didn’t just play Annie; she also helped out with costumes. John Carpenter wasn’t just the director and writer; he was also the composer. And, as P.J. Soles told Inside Story, at one point or another everyone had to help gather the fake leafs the art department had created to stimulate autumn in Illinois even though it was spring and they were in California:
“At the end of the shooting of a scene, the wind might pick up or whatever. Debra would yell, ‘Come on, everybody, get the leaves!’ and we would gather every last leaf and put it back in the bag because it’s hard to find maple leaves in California. It was always really funny. It was like, ‘I’m not a gardener, I’m an actress.’”
7. The opening, 4-minute long steadicam shot was captured on the final day of the shoot and required the entire crew and actors to paint and fix up the house overnight.
Ever since Scorsese used it in Goodfellas, the steadicam has been the move of choice among young filmmakers looking to wow audiences with long, uninterrupted takes which lack both the shakiness of handheld and the overly choreographed polish of the dolly. In recent years, it’s been used to brilliant effct in Creed, La La Land, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde, Fargo, Daredevil and, of course, Birdman
In 1978, though, the steadicam and its’ cheaper Panavision rip-off the Panaglide were still new. Older films like Touch of Evil and the original Scarface had pulled off uninterrupted tracking shots, but they’d done so without the use of a steadicam. Rocky and Bound for Glory were two of the only films to have dabbled with the new technology, and John Carpenter wanted in on that.
So, he procured a Panaglide for the shoot and worked with cinematographer Dean Cundey and camera operator Ray Stella to plan out an ambitious opening scene which would begin across the street, look into the house from the side, go in through kitchen, up the steps, into a bedroom and back down the steps and out the front door. Beyond its technical bonafides, it’s an absolutely crucial scene. It’s the birth of the killer’s p.o.v. trope! However, they only left themselves one day to pull it off, and, as if the pressure wasn’t already high enough, that day had to wait until the end of the shoot.
Bonus fact: Those are Debra Hill’s hands grabbing the mask and stabbing Michael’s sister. They couldn’t afford to have a child actor do those parts, and her hands happened to be the smallest ones of anyone on the crew.
What we don’t see there are all of the crew members who were racing both slightly ahead of and just behind the camera to rapidly change out and then change back lighting setups. More obviously, we don’t see the hours the crew and cast, Jamie Lee Curtis included, put into whitewashing the house the night before to make it look less run-down 1978, more shiny and new 1963. Given the time crunch, they could only fix what they absolutely had to. So, Stella’s camera had little room for error. As Tommy Lee Wallace admitted, “Believe me, if you panned the camera a little to the right or the left just an old skanky house. It was only nice through the lens. Just that much wallpaper, just that much chandelier, just that much kitchen table with a nice setting on it – everywhere else it was just a trashed out old house.”
The truth of many steadicam shots, though, is that while they create the illusion of continuous movement there are often invisible cuts baked in. In this example, the invisible cut (or at least one of them) comes when Michael reaches down for the Halloween mask and puts it on.
Based off of this sequence and so many others in Halloween, Cundey and Stella went on to a long, successful partnership working on classics like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13, but that was only after they’d stuck with Carpenter through The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.
8. It was never consciouslly meant to say anything about the sexual revolution or sexual repression. It’s just a scary movie about the bogeyman.
Halloween set the “have sex, you die” template which characterizes much of the oddly moralistic horror output which dominated the 80s and even the 90s. Siskel and Ebert, both of whom liked Halloween, later became convinced the slasher craze reflected the unconscious and sometimes very conscious misogyny of the men making the movies while also representing a rejection of both the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements of the prior decades. Others, like Carol J. Clover of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film fame, somewhat disagreed and saw the value and uniqueness of a series of movies which, almost without fail, always came down to strong women defeating murderous men. That Halloween started this final girl trope and turned the story over to the heroines should count for something, right?
But what about authorial intent? What about the fact that Halloween was the first to do this, save maybe Black Christmas? Blame what came later, sure, but does it matter at all that back in 1978 John Carpenter and Debra Hill set out to do nothing more with Halloween than simply make a scary movie about the bogeyman?
In the aftermath of the film’s success and in the years that came after, Carpenter and Hill consistently fought back against those who would ascribe grand social commentary to their little B-Movie. In their eyes, film critics like Robin Wood (in his review entitled “Revenge of the Repressed”) and Pauline Kael (in her Halloween review) were simply over thinking it. As Carpenter told Reel Terror, “I read ‘Revenge of the Repressed’ at the time and I said, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It wasn’t my intention to make a moral point.” If they want to read that much into it, he figured, why not at least give them credit for reversing the phallic symbolism by having Laurie stab Michael repeatedly at the end. “It’s a backward twist. She’s the one who sticks it in.”
Similarly, Hill concluded, “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. There wasn’t any cerebral thinking about making this movie.”
Instead, as per an old Fangoria interview here’s what Hill was really thinking about when she wrote the script: “The idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived. And when John came up with this fable of a town with a dark secret of someone who once lived there, and now that evil has come back, that’s what made Halloween work. We didn’t want it to be gory. We wanted it to be like a jack-in-the box.”
Furthermore, having grown up in an actual small town herself Hill relished the chance to do for small town suburbia what Rear Window did for urban apartments, “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 seeing what lies beneath has always intrigued me.”
Any sexual commentary was, at best, unconsciously influenced by Hill’s Catholic upbringing.
9. You can still visit the Myers house. Both of them. In different states.
The Michael Myers house in Halloween was actually an abandoned, run-down, church-owned home located at 707 Meridian Ave. S. Pasadena, Ca. 91030. It’s since been moved and declared a historical landmark. As explained in Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, “The house was due to be demolished in the 1980s, but it was purchased for $1 and physically moved. It now stands at the end of the same street opposite the location used for the hardware store where Michael Myers stole the knives and mask he would use on his bloody rampage.” The house remains a popular tourist attraction and something of a rite of passage for sight-seeing horror fanatics.
But if you can’t make to Pasadena will you settle for an almost exact replica in North Carolina?
In 2008, while on vacation in South Pasadena Emily and Kenny Caperton visited the Myers home. They did so as horror fans, but at that same time they were in the middle of house-hunting. Visiting Pasadena was supposed to be a break from that, but Kenny came away with the grand idea to simply build their own home back in North Carolina and make it an exact replica of the Myers house. As he told io9, ‘We loved the look of the house, not only that it was the Michael Myers house, but it was also the size we were looking for, and we loved the architectural details.”
Making this a reality proved harder than expected since the city of Pasadena no longer had the blueprints for the Myers home on file. So, the couple created their own blueprints from scratch, and bought a five-acre lot of farmland. They completed construction and moved in 8 years ago. The exterior is an exact replica, but the interior has been altered since, for one thing, the original house has no bathrooms. Visitors are welcome to view the Caperton residence year round just as long as they make an appointment first.
- BOX OFFICE: $47 million domestic, $23 million international, $70 million worldwide
- BUDGET: $325,000
- CONTEXT: Halloween arrived in several regional theaters near the end of October 1978 with little to no hype and proceeded to post meager returns. After that, it gradually expanded across the country and picked up word-of-mouth, lifted considerably by euphoric reviews from several influential critics (most notably Village Voice’s Tom Allen and Roger Ebert). In the pre-blockbuster era, that’s how Hollywood did business. You put your movie out and hoped to catch lightning in a bottle, and that’s exactly what Halloween did. Granted, it took several months for it to happen, but once it did Halloween became the most profitable independent film of all time, a title it held for over a decade.
- INFLATION: With the benefit of 2017 ticket prices, Halloween would have grossed $179 million domestic, which is Get Out ($175m) territory for today’s horror movies. In fact, after adjusting for inflation the only two slasher movies to have made more than Halloween are Scream ($201m) and Scream 2 ($195m).
Next time, I’ll get into [spoiler] why, oh why they decided to make her his sister in Halloween 2.
Sources: HalloweenMovies.com, Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, Halloween: The Inside Story, David Konow’s Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films
Corrections? Questions? Let me know in the comments.