45 years on from the night he came home, we revisit John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween…
There is nary a person who is unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s seminal horror classic Halloween. From its infamous masked villain, iconic synth-wave score to the popularization of genre tropes, the movie has influenced many filmmakers over the years and has now been embraced as a landmark in horror cinema. As the film hits 45 years we look at the many things that factored in to making this terrifying masterpiece a reality and a memorable experience many years later.
Halloween had its roots in a previous John Carpenter movie
Before the universal success of Halloween, John Carpenter was a simple yet talented, twentysomething filmmaker with only two films to his name. His second effort, which was titled Assault on Precinct 13, caught the attention of one Irwin Yablans – an independent film producer – who picked it up for distribution through his production company Turtle Releasing. The movie, however, wasn’t a major financial success, so Yablans decided to try his luck abroad and entered Assault on Precinct 13 to the Milan Film Festival.
During that event Yablans met Michael Myers, an esteemed British producer who ran his own film distribution company – Miracle Films. Myers was so impressed by what he saw that he purchased the distribution rights to the flick and entered the film into the London Film Festival in 1977. At that festival Carpenter and his then girlfriend Debra Hill, bumped into Yablans and his partner Moustapha Akkad who were pursuing avenues to enter the mainstream American movie industry; and the rest as they say, is history.
The screenplay took a mere 10 days to write
When Yablans met Carpenter, he saw the inherent talent in the young creative and wanted to involve him in his next project. So, Yablans pitched an idea, an idea that was stewing in his mind for some time which involved babysitters being stalked by a murderous psychopath. Carpenter agreed to join the gig, provided he’d be given full creative control, to which Yablans and Akkad were amenable to. And so, Carpenter and Hill started cracking the story, and 10 days later they had a decent screenplay in their hands. While Carpenter and his partner were given the creative freedom to do what they wanted, Yablans did drop in a few suggestions here and there: “Yablans wanted the script written like a radio show, with ‘boos’ every 10 minutes.”
Much of the inspiration behind the plot came from the Celtic traditions of Halloween such as the festival of Samhain. Although, the concept of Samhain is not mentioned by name Hill detailed that they, “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.” Carpenter also drew on the numerous “haunted house” folklore that exists in small American communities: “Most small towns have a kind of haunted house story of one kind or another. There’s always a house down the lane that somebody was killed in, or that somebody went crazy in,” he stated in an interview.
Character names and narrative threads were based on real-life experiences
As mentioned above, Michael Myers was the name of the British producer who played an integral role during Carpenter’s early career days. So, Carpenter’s way of saying ‘thank you’ was to name horror cinema’s most iconic boogieman after Myers. Being a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic efforts Carpenter named two of his characters in the story after them – they are namely Dr. Sam Loomis named after the similarly named Sam Loomis from Psycho and Tommy Doyle named after Lt. Det. Thomas J. Doyle from Rear Window. Laurie Strode, the heroic final girl of Halloween, was apparently the name of one of Carpenter’s old girlfriends.
The fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois was derived from Haddonfield, New Jersey, where Hill was raised, and several street names were taken from Carpenter’s hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Most of the female characters’ dialogue were crafted by Hill, who’d worked as a babysitter during her teenage years. In devising the backstory for the film’s villain, Carpenter’s inspiration for the “evil” that Michael embodied came from an unforgettable visit he had taken during college to a psychiatric institution in Kentucky where he met a young boy who possessed a blank, “schizophrenic stare.”
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee turned down offers to play Dr. Loomis
The low budget nature of Halloween limited the number of big names that Carpenter & co. could attract, and most of the actors received very little compensation for their roles. The role of Dr. Loomis was originally intended for Peter Cushing, who at that time had appeared in the sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars, however Cushing’s agent rejected Carpenter’s offer due to the low salary. Even Christopher Lee was approached for the role but he too turned it down, although the actor later told Carpenter and Hill that declining the role was the biggest mistake he made during his career. Yablans then suggested Donald Pleasence, who agreed to star because his daughter Lucy, a guitarist, had enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13 for Carpenter’s score.
Jamie Lee Curtis was a relative unknown when she was cast
Back in the 70s Jamie Lee Curtis was an up-and-coming actress with a background that was predominantly set in television. So, naturally she wasn’t even considered at first. Carpenter’s original choice was Anne Lockhart, the daughter of June Lockhart of Lassie fame. However, the actress had several prior commitments and therefore had to turn down the offer. It was then that Curtis got considered as Hill thought that casting the daughter of Psycho actress Janet Leigh would be great publicity for their film.
Curtis had second thoughts about joining the project since she couldn’t quite relate to Laurie Strode’s character since she wasn’t a quiet, introverted person in real life like Strode was. But suffice to say, Curtis took on the challenge, in what would be her feature film debut, and went on to popularize the ‘final girl’ trope now used commonly in horror flicks.
Star Trek played an integral role in the design of a certain prop
Due to the film’s budgetary constraints Tommy Lee Wallace who was hired by Carpenter to be the movie’s production designer also filled in as art director, location scout and co-editor. And it was he that was responsible for creating the now iconic mask worn by Michael Myers. Wallace fashioned the item from a Captain Kirk mask based on William Shatner’s likeness, which he purchased for $1.98 from a costume shop down Hollywood Boulevard.
Carpenter recalled the first time he saw Wallace’s eerie design during one of his interviews, stating “In the script it said Michael Myers’s mask had ‘the pale features of a human face’ and it truly was spooky looking. I can only imagine the result if they hadn’t painted the mask white. Children would be checking their closet for William Shatner after Tommy got through with it.” Hill added that the “idea was to make him almost humorless, faceless—this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not.”
Carpenter opted for a less traditional approach for the film’s score
Apart from his unparalleled skills as a genre filmmaker John Carpenter is also well known for his talents as a musician, and some of his musical contributions have pretty much gone onto define the 80s movie soundscape. But it all started with the unforgettable score he crafted for Halloween.
Opting to go for a less traditional sounding symphonic score, Carpenter went full-on synthesizer and created the iconic theme and soundtrack in a matter of days. The film’s score primarily consists of a piano melody played in a 10/8 or “complex 5/4” time signature, both composed and performed by the uber-talented creative. The most amazing thing, however, is that Carpenter achieved this feat without possessing the ability to either read or write musical notes.
Halloween wasn’t a hit with critics at first
Quite surprisingly, Halloween wasn’t that well received by movie critics when it debuted on October 24, 1978. The response by them was polarized to say the least, with some writing it off as a “Hitchcock or De Palma knockoff” and others like the legendary Roger Ebert referring to it as a “visceral experience – we aren’t seeing the movie, we are having it happen to us. It’s frightening. Maybe you don’t like movie’s that are really scary – then don’t see this one.”
Although clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Halloween is its own beast, and the effort was reappraised by contemporary critics years later and hailed as one of the most influential horror films of all time, which was instrumental in launching the ‘slasher’ subgenre of horror later on.
An unexpected box-office hit and a lasting legacy
Halloween was filmed in a matter of 21 days in the summer of 1978 on a paltry production budget of $300,000. But by the conclusion of its theatrical run the movie had accrued over $70 million in box-office receipts worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time and in instant pop culture phenomenon. Its influence on the horror genre can still be seen, reflected in modern horror efforts, as are the tropes that the movie helped popularize.
The flick spawned twelve subsequent entries, which makes the entire franchise something of a convoluted mess with its multiple timelines and different continuities. But one thing is certain – none of them comes even remotely close to the sheer visceral horror and unbridled terror that the original was able to capture and that’s certainly saying something and then some.
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Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.