Halloween: The Ingredients of a Horror Classic

To celebrate Halloween, we look back at how John Carpenter created a low-budget horror classic...

It’s the spring of 1978, and John Carpenter is in the midst of a risky decision. He’s reached the 20th and final day of shooting on Halloween, and has a final few hours to compose what will become the movie’s opening sequence: a point-of-view shot where we’re introduced to the young Michael Myers, aged six. But rather than make things easy on himself by shooting the scene as simply as possible, he’s decided to film it as one, unbroken sequence, with as few edits as he can get away with – an atmosphere-building bit of camera trickery inspired by Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil.

The shot requires camera operator Ray Stella to creep around the old house (hurriedly redecorated by cast and crew alike earlier that day) with a 70lb Panaglide camera – through the kitchen and up and down the stairs – for take after take. As he does so, other crewmembers are scrambling around behind the scenes, moving lights and equipment out of the shot.

For a production with a tight, $325,000 budget and a strict schedule, it’s a time-consuming and daring way of ending the shoot. But it’s also an example of Carpenter’s uncompromising attitude to his modest little suburban horror film; some directors would have seen the project as disposable fodder for the drive-in crowd, a two-week wonder that would make a few dollars and then disappear.

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If Carpenter felt this way about Halloween at all, there’s no evidence of it in the way he and the rest of his filmmakers approached its production. Although its story was simple in the extreme, it was arguably the ingenuity and thought that went into its writing and filming that made Halloween such a success. And although Halloween would subsequently become a colossal hit, spawning a stream of remakes, sequels and copycat slashers, its popularity was by no means preordained.

The night he came home

After leaving film school in the early 1970s, and having already created one future cult favorite with Dark Star, John Carpenter originally saw himself as a Hollywood studio director in the mode of his idol, Howard Hawks. His next film, 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13, was an urban western inspired by Hawks’ Rio Bravo, with Carpenter’s quick-and-dirty style of filming giving the film a gritty, tough edge. In fact, some aspects of the movie had undertones of horror akin to George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead – a taste, perhaps, of things to come.

It was the dark tension in Assault On Precinct 13 that prompted producer Irwin Yablans to get in touch with Carpenter with a pet project he had in his head – something called The Babysitter Murders. Carpenter had no particular interest in making a horror film, but the unpopularity of westerns, and his desire to get another directing credit under his belt, prompted him to say yes.

First, Carpenter had a few stipulations. One, he wanted total control over the final cut. Two, he wanted his girlfriend and script editor Debra Hill on board as co-writer and producer. And three, he wanted his name above the credits – in the style of his favourite old Hollywood auteurs, not least Howard Hawks. In return, Carpenter pledged to get the film in the can within 20 days and on a budget of $300,000 – a miniscule amount by mainstream standards, but still three times more than Assault had cost to make.

With the deal done, financing was then secured courtesy of financier Mustapha Akkad – who was convinced first by Carpenter’s compelling pitch, and then because of the film’s concept; “The word Babysitter clicked with me,” he later said, “because every kid in America knows what a babysitter is.”

read more: John Carpenter Interview – Halloween and Beyond

While Carpenter and Hill began coming up with ideas for what would become the script – initially just what-if scenarios and imaginative deaths – Yablans called up with another idea: what if the story was set on Halloween night? For the two co-writers, it was the final piece of the puzzle, providing them not only with a theme for the story, but also its supernatural element.

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Inspired by Debra Hill’s upbringing in Haddonfield, New Jersey, Halloween was set in a quiet, typical American suburb – this time called Haddonfield, Illinois – where the neatly manicured lawns and white-washed houses become the setting for a new kind of horror. Fifteen years after he brutally murdered his teenage sister, Michael Myers escapes from an institution and begins stalking a new generation of high school students. A psychiatrist named Dr. Sam Loomis is on Myers’ trail, convinced that his patient isn’t just another sociopath, but an embodiment of pure evil…

Everyone’s entitled to a good scare

When it came to casting Halloween, Carpenter’s lack of budget severely limited the kind of talent he could afford. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were both offered the role of Sam Loomis, but both refused the paltry $25,000 salary. Donald Pleasence, on the other hand, was more willing to take the role on – even though he was less than enamoured by Hill and Carpenter’s script.

“I don’t understand this script. I don’t like this script. I don’t know who my character is,” Pleasence told Carpenter during a lunchtime meeting. “The only reason I’m doing this is because my daughter thought your first movie was cool…”

Fortunately, the rest of the cast came together more easily. Charles Cypher, who’d previously appeared in Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, was brought in to play Sheriff Leigh Brackett, while Nancy Kyes (another Assault actor) was signed up as his teenage daughter, Annie. PJ Soles, previously of Carrie fame, was hired to play tear-away high schooler Lynda.

The key addition, though, was the then-unknown Jamie Lee Curtis as protagonist Laurie Strode. The daughter of Psycho‘s Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, she gave Halloween not only a link back to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror thriller – a handy marketing tool, no doubt – but also a solid, likeable female lead.

The rest of Halloween‘s cast and crew was assembled from a selection of Carpenter’s friends and colleagues. Nick Castle, who played the adult Myers – or The Shape, as the script called him – was a friend of Carpenter’s from film school. Carpenter’s childhood friend Tommy Lee Wallace – who also happened to be married to Nancy Kyes at the time – was brought in as both production designer and editor.

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In fact, when it came to filming, almost everyone involved in Halloween‘s production was involved in multiple aspects of its making. Debra Hill, as well as writing 50 per cent of the script, also acted as second-unit director, made sandwiches, and on several occasions, stepped in as Myers himself. That youthful hand clutching the kitchen knife in the opening POV shot? That’s Hill’s.

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For the three-week shoot, locations around Southern Pasadena  were used to stand in for Haddonfield Illinois, and because it was spring, dried leaves had to be brought in to give the film an autumnal look (though look closely, and you’ll see spring flowers in bloom in several shots). But despite the pace of the production, and the constant limitations on the budget, Carpenter oversaw everything with a keen, creative eye.

The masterstroke, perhaps, was the appointment of cinematographer Dean Cundey. His use of subtle blue lighting and Panaglide filming gave the film a classy, prowling air which entirely made up for the production’s lack of resources. The sound and film processing were also completed over at MGM, which gave Halloween a technical sheen you’d expect to see from a reputable studio film – not a cheap slasher from a young team still in their 20s.

Death has come your little town, sheriff

Despite the crew’s relative inexperience, Halloween‘s production wrapped on time and within budget. But even with the film in the can and Carpenter miraculously knocking out an unforgettable score in just three days, Halloween still had a few obstacles ahead – not least from critics and initially uninterested audiences.

When Carpenter took Halloween back to his film school – the University of Southern California – the reception from at least one student was downright hostile.

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“They ran the movie for an audience of students, and then afterwards we sat on the stage and answered questions regarding it,” Dean Cundey recalled in the documentary, Halloween: The Inside Story. “And there was one guy who raised his hand and said, ‘Here you are, a film student. So why in the world would you make that kind of movie? I mean, this is just a low-class, trashy horror film.’ And with that, he got up and left.”

read more – Halloween: A Legacy Unmasked

Critics weren’t particularly friendly towards Halloween, either. One review memorably described it as “More trick than treat.” Another argued, stingingly, that Carpenter’s direction had “no rhythm.”

As the limited prints of Halloween made their tour of US cities, the ticket sales were disappointing, too – so much so that Carpenter once said to Hill, “Well, this film didn’t make it.”

But then Roger Ebert went to see it. Coming back with a glowing, four-star review (it was “a visceral experience”, he wrote), his praise was joined by Tom Allen’s in The Village Voice. Gradually, the positive word of mouth began to build; Irwin Yablans recalled that, towards the end of 1978, the ticket sales were beginning to grow exponentially. By the time Halloweens theatrical run had ended, it had grossed a staggering $47 million, making it the most successful independent movie of all time – a record it would hold until the early 1990s.

What was remarkable about Halloween‘s success, however, was not just how much money it made on that initial run, but how influential and persistent it was -and remains – in modern culture. Academics and critics dissected and argued about its themes and politics, and still do to this day. Similar, lesser slasher films began to emerge almost immediately (Jamie Lee Curtis even starred in one: 1980’s Terror Train). The camera moves, jump-scares and conventions Halloween established began to be replicated and lampooned. Halloween has itself reappeared constantly, both on television (in initially edited form, with new footage replacing some scenes of violence) and on videotape and, most recently, on disc and streaming. Like Michael Myers himself, Halloween is a film that simply comes back, time and again.

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See anything you like?

Even now, Halloween remains an effective, nail-biting shocker. Although its plot is pure exploitation – a psycho killer slashes through a group of teens with no clear motivation – it’s the quality of the filmmaking that sets Halloween apart from the movies that followed. Cundey’s cinematography is watchful and always moving, giving the impression of a story tearing along even when there’s not a great deal happening.

Most of all, it’s Halloween‘s simplicity that makes it so effective. The lack of backstory encourages us to add one for ourselves. Is Myers’ bizarre killing of a dog, and the theft of his dead sister’s gravestone, all part of some sort of satanic ritual? Even the absence of gore adds to the suspense rather than diminishes it. The scariest parts of Halloween aren’t necessarily the murders – at least one of them is deliberately laced with dark humor – but the bits that come before and afterwards.

Myers is a truly spectral presence, and he spends much of the movie simply standing and staring. Nowhere is this more effective than the famous kitchen sequence, where he stands before a skewered victim, turning his head, almost quizzically. Less imaginative directors would probably have cut this sequence short in their haste to get to another killing, but Carpenter keeps the camera rolling.

read more: Halloween (2018) Review

It’s here, perhaps, that we find a clue to what makes Halloween so magnetic. Sure, the horror bits don’t look as horrific as they did in the ’70s, and the continuity errors are all there if you choose to look for them. But in scenes like these, where Myers simply observes his victims, either before or after he’s killed them, we get a real sense that he’s a force for evil made flesh. He’s not merely a killer in a mask (a William Shatner mask, as geek lore tells us), but nothing less than a suburban Grim Reaper – an incarnation of death for a new generation.

And then there’s that astonishing opening sequence, which Carpenter and his crew worked on so diligently. Its use of the young Myers’ point of view, as he sneaks around the outside of his family home, observes his sister making out with her boyfriend inside, and then wanders in for the kill, is more than a flashy gimmick. It implicates us in an act of voyeurism (one worthy of the proto-slasher classic Peeping Tom), before forcing us to watch a brutal stabbing that we’re powerless to prevent.

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It’s clever, button-pushing stuff, and sets the tone for the stripped-back, nasty story to come.

As Carpenter said years later, “It was rough, but it was a new frontier. It was beautiful.”