Upon the 35th Anniversary of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

A full minute before the curtain lifts, John Carpenter’s already got you with that music … that 5/4 building octave wreaking havoc over credits. Halloween‘s opening salvo unfolds exactly like Spielberg’s Jaws – looping music over credits, cut to teenagers, slight flirtation, an invitation, followed by the insinuation of some unknown evil, creeping, slowly, eerily, unseen … driven on by pairing beats, the camera zooming in upon some naked woman’s body … building, building, ever-closer, straight on up until the bloodbath hits.

There are a host of other similarities, sure, but the majority of them tend to lean toward the age-old art of storytelling – a small town, familiar characters, some lonesome hero railing mad against bureaucracy. We’ve seen this entertainment through and through. But we’ve rarely seen it done with such panache as Halloween, a point which goes to show that less is more in terms of Horror. Less killing, fewer blood packs, stronger story.

Consider what John Carpenter was working with – a $300,000 budget that only allowed for three weeks worth of shooting, one willing B-list movie star, and the casting of some virtual unknown to play the female lead. The arch-villain would be portrayed by an old college buddy at a cost of $25 per day.

That’s a grad school film project, not a major motion picture.

And yet, the lack of any backing led to some first-rate ingenuity; most notably, the purchase of a $2 William Shatner mask which was subsequently painted, the hair teased and eye holes widened. Throughout production, deep green leaves were painted auburn, carted round in Hefty bags, from which they were dumped out, then re-collected at the end of outdoor shooting days. Pasadena substituted as a surrogate for Illinois (Haddonfield, the movie’s fictional home setting, was the name of a New Jersey town where Halloween co-writer Debra Hill was born).

Unpaid locals were recruited to play extras. There were palm trees in the background.

And yet, somehow, it worked. And I mean, really really worked. Somehow despite the lame-ass jokes and all that hippy-dippy schlock, despite the disco-era wardrobe and all the general lack of lighting, despite the anal-brooding doctor prattling on about pure evil … despite it all John Carpenter’s decrepit little engine somehow really seemed to work. It worked so well that Halloween raked in a sum of $70-million during its initial wide release, almost all of it from word-of-mouth, almost none of it during the first few weeks.

While the majority of reviews were positive, The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael infamously accused John Carpenter of reviving the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic).Roger Ebert, on the other hand, praised the young director, pointing out that “It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but [very difficult] to do it well.” Ebert went on to insist credit be given to filmmakers “who make the effort to really frighten us, to make a good thriller when quite possibly a bad one might have made as much money.” It was worthwhile ethos, to be sure. Even more so when one considers the original goal was to develop a short screenplay more akin to When a Stranger Calls (An early incarnation of Carpenter’s treatment was actually entitled The Babysitter Murders).

John Carpenter, who was one year shy of 30 when production on Halloween began, signed a back-end deal ensuring him 10% of the film’s total profits. He had no way of knowing that his earnest little indie would go on to be a blockbuster, that it would spawn a major franchise boasting seven sequels and two remakes, that it would continue earning royalties well up and through the present day, that it would completely own the buy rates throughout every October.

John Carpenter only knew he had a concept worth developing. So ardent was the filmmaker that he even offered to compose the movie’s score (using the theme from Suspiria as an early, haunting baseline).

In terms of casting, Carpenter and crew made a series of sound fiscal decisions, hiring P.J. Soles (who was formerly known for a supporting role in Carrie), Jamie-Lee Curtis (who was formerly known for being the daughter of Janet Leigh), and Nancy Kyes (who was formerly known for shacking up with John Carpenter’s designer). While Curtis was the only one to break out in any meaningful way, all three principals held a stake in making Halloween feel whole. And yet, they weren’t nearly as important to the plot as Donald Pleasence, a well-respected British actor whose character lent credibility to the ultra-dubious mythology. Without Pleasence – AKA Dr. Loomis – Michael Myers would have been an average slasher. For it is Loomis – or perhaps his ongoing insistence – that creates the Michael Myers mystique (e.g., “I met him 15 years ago. I was told that there was nothing left – no reason, no conscience, no understanding of even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year old child with a blind, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes … the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.”).

Loomis does for Michael Myers what the character could not do for himself. He functions as a mouthpiece, a pitchman, if not a perfect counterbalance to the dread that Michael Myers represents. Right versus wrong. Good versus evil. These are eternal themes, as are the majority of devices used throughout Halloween. Part of the reason Carpenter’s movie still holds up – part of the reason it has managed to endure – is because the plot remains relatable, the production value so honest. There are no outdated cell phones, no concessions made for product placement, no antiquated modes or laughable effects. At its core, Carpenter’s film represents the story of a haunted house, its psycho killer, and a group of high school girls on Halloween. As such, it’s a tradition that makes sense at the same time of year, every year … the very same time of year it was originally released, no less, which – again – makes it an awful lot like a certain Spielberg film that owned the box office for an entire summer back in 1975.

To every thing there is a season, and Halloween belongs to Michael Myers.

(John Carpenter’s Halloween was originally released on October 25, 1978. There is a commemorative 35th anniversary Blu-ray DVD with several hours worth of bonus features now available in stores.)