The Genesis of HALLOWEEN: How John Carpenter's Vision Became a Horror Classic
“I saw the boogeyman, I saw him outside”
John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween is a touchstone in the modern horror genre. It stood as the most profitable independent film of its time and is a master class in suspense, tension and economic film making. The film itself sprang from a confluence of events and experience that coalesced into something much larger than the sum of its parts –– elevating a modestly budgeted project, into a genre defining movie and launching a franchise that endures and thrives to this day.
Director John Carpenters influences hark back as far as 1953 –– at 5 years old whilst watching It Came From Outer Space (3D) the young Carpenter was terrified, but eventually realised that it was possible to create this imagery and was even possible to make this sort of film. It was this that inspired him to make movies simply because he thought it was cool.
Enrolling at USC School for Cinematic Arts and interested in old Hollywood, Carpenter wanted to be a director in the same vein of Howard Hawks, a renowned director from a golden age of cinema. Resourceful and driven, he raised $30,000 to expand his student film, Dark Star which while not making much money, it still attracted the attention of his future investor Irwin Yablans, who later helped Carpenter make Assault on Precinct 13- itself a re-imagining of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.
Impressed with Carpenter’s ability to work to a restricted budget and on schedule, and looking for their next project together, Yablans suggested, initially to Carpenter’s dismay, a horror film. In his experience they were easy to make and easy to sell. Yablans’ notion was for a low budget horror movie about babysitters being stalked by an assailant –– he felt this would be relatable to a lot of girls in America, and would be an easy sell –– the story originally, and provisionally titled The Babysitter Murders. Carpenter was initially reluctant and saw little value in the genre but agreed for the work. He suggested the film could be done for the relatively small amount of $300,000 but he had two requests, firstly that he would get final cut, and secondly he would have his name appear above the title –– something he related to directors he admired such as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. Both requests were unheard of for someone so relatively inexperienced, but as Carpenter had assured Yablans he could meet his financial responsibilities and keep to schedule, he agreed to Carpenter’s terms.
To secure funding, Yablans set up a meeting with producer Mustapha Akkad, who was impressed with Carpenter’s vision of the piece and despite the young filmmaker’s relative lack of experience and the suspiciously low figure, they wanted to make the film agreed to fund the project. Soon after Carpenter requested that his then-girlfriend Debra Hill was brought on board to co-produce. Hill had previously worked as script supervisor on Assault on Precinct 13 and Carpenter had complete faith in her ability to execute her new role. Not long after that, Yablans suggested the film be set on Halloween and the title of the piece changed to match its setting, changing the framing of the film entirely.
“…It’s Halloween, I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare, huh?”
Carpenter and Hill began to write their script, focusing on real American girls going about their lives concerned with problems that real people might concern themselves with: dating, chores, school, and babysitting. Carpenter and Hill brainstormed the scariest scenarios they could imagine and wove them into the story. Hill’s influence in the writing of Halloween assured a level of realism to its female ensemble that immediately elevated it beyond the usual exploitation fare. These were “real lives” with extraordinarily mundane concerns –– forgetting schoolbooks, making cheerleading practice, and the mortifying realisation that your best friend has set you up on a date with your crush. Their ordinary teenage lives were about to be shattered by an unimaginably evil force. That evil took the form of one of horror cinema’s most enduring and popular boogeymen: Michael Myers.
The next notable addition to the crew was Carpenter’s childhood friend Tommy Wallace. He was brought on board as both editor and the film’s production designer. His first job was to design and create the look for the film’s antagonist and Carpenter’s notion was that the monster would be as blank a representation of a human being as possible. Ultimately, the final mask was a transformed William Shatner mask that was spray painted white and altered enough to be as non descript as possible. The result and desired effect left a blank tableau, expressionless and unfeeling with dark recesses where eyes should be. Wallace then turned his attention to set design, essentially turning southern Los Angeles streets into the fictional town of Haddonfield, using any trick at his disposal –– even painting leaves and scattering them around to simulate the autumn setting.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey was hired having working with Debra Hill on Bare Knuckles and Satan’s Cheerleaders (both 1977). These B-movies are where he honed his craft, and by the spring of 1978 and with the crew in place, Carpenter then began casting his film on a tight budget. Impressed with her performance in Brian DePalma’s Carrie, Carpenter cast PJ Soles as “Lynda”, making her the most well known of the three female leads. Producer Tommy Lee Wallace’s then girlfriend Nancy Keys was cast as “Annie Brackett”, daughter of the film’s lawman Sherriff Brackett. She had worked on Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and was an easy fit to the readying production. Looking for some horror pedigree to add to their ensemble, Debra Hill suggested Jamie Lee Curtis for the central role of Laurie Strode. Whilst the young actress was relatively unknown, with only a few TV acting credits to her name, her connection to the genre was undeniably strong. Her mother, Janet Leigh had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as the ill-fated Marion Crane, who fell prey to the murderous proclivities of serial killer Norman Bates. The association was undeniable, but it was ultimately Curtis’ audition and her relatable vulnerability that cemented her casting.
Next, Carpenter needed to cast the role of Dr. Sam Loomis, essentially the film’s expositional guide, and the psychiatrist who spent years treating Michael Myers. Carpenter and Hill initially offered the role to horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who both refused. Yablans was, as it turns out, somewhat relieved as he didn’t want the baggage of their former roles to affect how Halloween was perceived. Yablans instead suggested and offered the role to veteran British actor Donald Pleasance, already a household name with roles in You Only Live Twice and The Great Escape. Pleasance accepted and was treated as the elder statesmen on set, and commanded almost half of the casting budget.
“Death has come to your little town, Sheriff”
After the supporting roles were filled, Carpenter finally cast his lead villain: Michael Myers. Carpenter and Hill’s script refers to Myers as the Shape –– alluding to Carpenter’s notion that the killer is not a human man but an entity of pure evil. He is simply reminiscent of something recognisable, the shape of a man. The film begins with a young Michael Myers, fresh from trick or treating, and returning home to inexplicably murder his older sister. The opening scene is particularly successful at both creating a sense of menace, and shifting expectation by use of first person POV, that keeps the assailant’s identity a secret until the killer is literally unmasked by his own parents, revealing the face of not a savage killer, but that of a young boy.
For the role, Carpenter turned to an old film school buddy, stuntman Nick Castle, who would portray the physical representation of evil for the majority of the film, with several actors stepping in for several shots. This included his unmasking at the film’s height where Tony Moran played Michael for several seconds prior to the films climax. In total, five actors got to wear the iconic mask: Nick Castle, Tony Moran (unmasked), stuntman Jim Winburn for several key stunts, Tommy Lee Wallace, and to save time, even Debra Hill wore the costume for a wide shot.
As the shoot was about to begin, the reality of a tight 21-day schedule became a defining factor in the way Halloween was shot. Utilising the panaglide camera rig, Panovision’s version of the steady-cam, Carpenter and Cundey were able to create impressive tracking shots that give the film its signature look and allowed the film an artistic elegance that it may otherwise would not have had. The camera not only allowed a pace to the shoot in terms of ease of use and set-up, but also the ability to practically assume the POV of its antagonist.
Coupled with Dean Cundey’s lighting effects, this gave the film a very distinct look. Cundey’s painterly use of shadow is as much a character of Halloween as Myers himself. At several points The Shape emerges from the inky blackness of the shadows to attack Laurie, as if materialising from nowhere, achieved with deft practical technique by Cundey himself on-set.
John Carpenter’s ability to drive the project forward on time and on budget allowed him to ensure that the film was shot with high quality cameras and lenses, and that it would be finished in a high quality post-production facility. The film was processed at MGM labs and the Goldwyn sound studio which lent the finished film the look of a multi-million dollar production, instead of what it was –– a film that had cost its makers just shy of $350,000. Everyone pitched in. Everyone lent a hand –– set dressing, make-up, and lighting, right down to re-gathering the painted leaves that had scattered during filming.
“…I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.”
Carpenter screened his movie to a studio executive with an eye on his next project, but was met with doubt as to how scary the film actually was. Unfazed but determined, he returned to the edit suite to add a score that literally transformed the movie. Carpenter composed and performed the music himself, creating the Halloween theme using a simplistic recurring theme that his father had taught him years previous. The score brilliantly assisted the films narrative drive, at times subtle and foreboding, startling and fraught, with impending danger but always on point. The studio exec that had previously dismissed it as “not scary” quickly changed their mind. Carpenter’s simple and effective theme is the film series’ signature calling card- as iconic itself as any music score in film history.
Released in October 1978, Halloween was initially panned on its limited release and was dismissed as merely sub-par genre fare. It wasn’t until the film reached New York that two critics in particular gave it a new lease of life. Tom Allen of the Village Voice hailed it as a sleeper hit and an accomplished thriller. Soon after, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and among other praise, compared the film to Psycho. Within the week, it seemed the tide had begun to turn and the positive reviews started to transform into actual box-office takings. The film had gained incredible word of mouth and Halloween became THE must-see horror film earning over $50,000,000. It had not only begun to conquer the box office but critically, it had changed the landscape of horror cinema forever.
“…An absolutely merciless thriller…” Roger Ebert, Film Critic
Halloween succeeds where many of its imitators have failed. Its surety of pace and staging are its backbone, the performances flesh out both the familiar and the supernatural, but its precision script and deft direction have helped it stand the test of time. As is always the case in Hollywood –– imitation may not be the greatest form of flattery, but it is certainly a great way of making more money. Halloween spawned a slew of direct clones (Prom night (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), The Prowler(1981) et al) but also a bunch of sequels, spin offs and a reboot. The cast and crew went on to predominantly find various measures of success, not least of all Jamie Lee Curtis, who went from “Scream Queen” to bona fide movie star. Carpenter became a noted master of the genre directing not only Halloween, but also some of the most iconic and lasting entries into the blood-soaked horror hall of fame: The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982).
40 years later, The Shape has endured more plot twists and re-boots than any of his horror peers, but has never been stronger. While Michael Myers has survived both on screen assaults and writer’s room blunders, he remains one of cinema’s most famous boogeymen. Halloween 2018 has opened to record box office numbers, showing the iconic power of Carpenter’s original premise, and the lure of a simple tale of good vs. evil told well.