Perusing the shadows with John Carpenter’s genre-defining masterwork
John Carpenter’s Halloween was guilty of a great many crimes. So successful was the filmmaker’s low-budget revelation that it spawned an entire decade of sleazy, half-baked imitators, movies so devoid of technical competence that the newly established slasher would quickly descend into self-parody. The burgeoning home video market proved something of a double-edged sword. It provided a platform for talented independent filmmakers, but also allowed for an abundance of second-rate fare that wouldn’t have qualified for release just a decade prior. For horror traditionalists, the notoriously uninventive slasher, quickly genericised by Sean Cunningham’s commercially astute Halloween rip-off Friday the 13th, was representative of a severe decline in filmmaking standards, an indictment of a generation who had developed an unhealthy fascination with death in the midst of America’s serial killer boom. For those of us with a taste for the unthinkably inept, some of those movies have found a special place in our hearts, meaning we can enjoy the likes of Jason Voorhees as self-aware garbage without having to resort to discussions about graphic violence and misogynistic representations.
The character who directly inspired Jason was an entirely different entity. The most potent of a plethora of masked killers forged in the wake of Tobe Hooper’s seminal Leatherface, Michael Myers represented a generational shift in horror, was a reflection of mankind’s inner demons and personal turmoil, the kind revealed in the wake of the Vietnam War. Thanks to the growing ubiquity of television and the modern media, such atrocities had become more accessible, as had a spate of real-life serial killers who steered filmmakers away from the fantastical monsters of yore towards the newly troubling realms of modern suburban America. Michael Powell’s intrusively voyeuristic Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s cutting edge thriller Psycho introduced us to more tangible characters in the horror mode, the latter, thanks to some deft editing from George Tomasini, creating the illusion of full-on knife penetration during the film’s infamous shower scene. Both ran into problems with the censors, Powell’s film banished outright, but an unseemly corner had been turned. Soon enough, Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and Dracula’s castle were very much a thing of the past. Now the bogeyman lingered in your own back yard, the monsters hiding in your cupboard suddenly very real.
The fact that Halloween‘s opening murder, shot with terrifying POV aplomb with an even more astonishing (and somewhat fortuitous) POV mask motif, is committed by a juvenile Michael, only adds to that sense of relatable unease. There is no motive, no justification or reasoning, just an innate compulsion to kill – an astonishing sentiment for audiences back in 1978. A six-year-old Myers doesn’t reserve his act of brutality for a stranger, either. He slaughters his very own sister, slashing her to ribbons in an unprovoked attack that still proves unsettling. Few horror movie deaths prove as startling as the one committed by a preteen Myers. Not because of its savagery or gratuitous nature, but because of its premeditated, matter of fact execution, and the lack of empathy revealed in its wake. When Michael emerges from the Myers house wielding a 17-inch butcher’s knife, a vacant expression of shock/exultation overcoming his face, we know everything we need to know about the character. Michael is, and always will be, pure and simply evil.
Despite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s obvious influence, it was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas that proved a more direct inspiration for Carpenter’s more widely recognised Halloween after he approached the filmmaker about the possibility of making a sequel, though contrary to urban myth, Clark wasn’t the person responsible for the Halloween title. Black Christmas, which established many of the tropes that would refine the slasher sub-genre, became the subject of much controversy following an untimely, real-life incident involving serial killer Ted Bundy, who would mirror the movie’s plot by bludgeoning two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death before attempting to murder two others, something which no doubt piqued Carpenter’s interest further. Clark, who wanted to expand his filmmaking horizons, wasn’t interested in making another horror movie, telling Carpenter, “If I was going to do one, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it ‘Halloween.'”
I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.Dr. Samuel Loomis
This was sound advice for a filmmaker who was still to make his mark on the mainstream, but in reality Carpenter had already been approached by indie producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad, who offered him $10,000 to write, direct, and score the film on the proviso that he would have complete creative control. Yablans pitched a movie about a psychotic killer who stalked babysitters, and though more urban myth led many to believe that the film was originally titled The Babysitter Murders, Yablans has since set the record straight, stating that Halloween was titled Halloween from the very beginning, the intention being that events would transpire solely on a night that was simply made for horror. “The truth is John didn’t copy Black Christmas,” Clark would conclude. “He wrote a script, directed the script, did the casting. Halloween is his movie and besides, the script came to him already titled anyway. He liked Black Christmas and may have been influenced by it, but in no way did John Carpenter copy the idea. Fifteen other people at that time had thought to do a movie called Halloween but the script came to John with that title on it.” It’s amazing that no one pulled the trigger earlier.
Commercially, Halloween exceeded all expectation. Premiering on October 25, 1978, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, word of the film’s startling content spread like wildfire. This quickly led to regional distribution in the Philadelphia and New York City metropolitan areas and beyond, the movie grossing $1,270,000 from 198 theatres across the U.S. during its opening week. In total, Halloween grossed an eyewatering $70,000,000 internationally, making it one of the most successful indie films of all time. In the tradition of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, the movie would make Carpenter a household name, spawning a multibillion dollar franchise with a seemingly endless lifespan. Halloween sparked a holiday trend that saw producers exploring every last commercial avenue, from Christmas Evil to New Years Evil to April Fool’s Day, with the hope of replicating the film’s success, but Halloween was the real breadwinner for obvious reasons, a fact that Clark singularly understood and Carpenter was more than happy to capitalise on. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, Halloween is more than just a horror movie. It’s a cinematic monster of historic proportions that set the bar for suburban horror during the late 20th century.
Despite its titular eureka, much of Halloween‘s success can be attributed to Carpenter’s prodigious skill as a filmmaker. Unlike the countless knock-offs it ultimately inspired, Halloween is one of those rare movies that uses violence in the most productive sense, partly due to the budget-concealing shadows of spendthrift filmmaking, but mostly due to Carpenter’s understanding of the Myers character, something that other directors have struggled to emulate. This is art first and foremost, the film’s graphic nature never superfluous. In fact, by today’s standards it isn’t that violent at all, but it doesn’t need to be. With Halloween, every grainy, tension-ridden moment counts. It grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
To pull this off takes not only great artistry, but impeccable judgement and an understanding of what makes an audience tick. Some, like Carpenter, are bright and resourceful enough to expand on those elements, are able to create the kind of seminal experience that becomes woven into the very fabric of our culture. Exactly how many times have you been scared of Myers clone, Jason Voorhees? We have marvelled at him, laughed at him, the character becoming a cultural icon in his own right, but scared? I don’t think so. With every Friday the 13th outing, creatives dreamt up new ways to make the violence more extreme, and each time it became just a little sillier. The more they threw at us, the less impactful it was from a horror perspective, Paramount and the Motion Picture Association of America leading the franchise along an increasingly self-aware path.
Ironically, the same can be said of those later Halloween instalments. Against Carpenter’s best intentions, the series would up the violence for 1981’s Halloween II in order to meet audience expectation as the sub-genre was plunged ever deeper into the lime pits of gore-ridden thrills, a move from which the Myers character would never fully recover. The fact that Halloween II picked up exactly where events in Halloween left off didn’t help, turning a sparsely effective narrative into a meandering slog littered with the horrors of sequelitis. The movie would also retain some of Halloween‘s more admirable elements, thanks in no small part to the input of Carpenter and the return of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who despite the violence understood that Michael’s real draw was his sense of mystique and air of elusiveness. Jason Voorhees may have thrived on silliness, but for a character like Myers, too much exposure would prove detrimental. Some monsters work best in the shadows.
In order to stay commercially relevant, the Halloween series would continue along a path of self-destruction, leading to a series of Friday the 13th clones which cheapened the legendary ‘shape’. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers would set the severed head rolling, 1989’s Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers providing audiences with more of the same at the insistence of producers, a fact that went against director Dominique Othenin-Girard’s desire to return to the basics of Carpenter and long-time collaborator Debra Hill’s Hitchcockian template. In a post-Scream environment of slick production and celebrity culture, the series would further jeopardise its sense of identity with Halloween: H20, a film that returning star Jamie Lee Curtis would cynically refer to as “a money gig”, but the original instalment will always be remembered as a seminal classic; one of the few horror movies that can truly be labelled a masterpiece thanks to its innovative use of space and shadows and the kind of mocking wit is was very much redolent of peak Hitchcock.
Halloween is a flawless exercise in horror filmmaking, incredible when you consider that Carpenter was barely thirty when he shot the movie in twenty days on a budget of approximately $320,000 dollars, $20,000 of which going to hard-up thespian Donald Pleasence, who only agreed to lend his considerable talents for 5 days due to alimony payments, only to return for four financially fruitful sequels prior to his death in 1995 (talk about silver linings!). Less cynically, Pleasence was convinced into accepting a role that had already been turned down by horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, because his guitarist daughter, Lucy, was a fan of Carpenter’s Lalo Schifrin inspired Assault on Precinct 13 score. Working with a relative rookie, Pleasence probably feared the worst, but as proven by that particular movie, Carpenter is nothing if not resourceful, and after composing one of horror’s most memorable and effective scores inside of 3 days, a hypnotic amalgamation of Goblin’s Suspiria and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from The Exorcist, he would turn to production designer, art director, location scout, co-editor and future Halloween: Season of the Witch director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would settle on the unlikely horror artefact of a customised William Shatner mask after the crew were left unimpressed by a plethora of more obvious guises. “[Wallace] widened the eye holes and spray-painted the flesh a bluish white,” Carpenter would recall. “In the script it said Michael Myers’ 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.” Long-time Carpenter collaborator, the late Debra Hill, would add that the idea was to make Myers, “almost humourless, faceless—this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not.” The inimitable ‘Shape’ was finally beginning to take shape.
The role of masked Michael went to Nick Castle, another in a long line of Carpenter acquaintances hired on the cheap (Castle earned $25 a day for his iconic turn as Myers, a slither of what he would make for returning to the role for Blumhouse’s rebooted franchise). Former Carpenter university chum Castle would become a director in his own right following Halloween, helming hit and miss projects The Last Starfighter (1984), The Boy Who Could Fly (1986), Dennis the Menace (1993), and Major Payne (1995), but his role in the original Halloween was much less cerebral, the actor instructed to “not act” but simply walk from one marker to another after quizzing Carpenter about the character’s motivation. It works a treat too, just one more example of on the fly filmmaking that transformed a humble outing into a veritable masterwork. Sometimes the less you know about a pursuing monster the better.
Carpenter and co were forced to cut corners everywhere, the kind that forged one of horror’s most emblematic figures, but it wasn’t all plain-sailing. So strapped for cash was Carpenter that the crew were reduced to painting bags of spring leaves brown in order to make the movie seasonally accurate, cast members providing their own wardrobe and even chipping in with the transportation of equipment. Hardly the glamorous experience our young cast were expecting, particularly Janet Leigh offspring Jamie Lee Curtis, but Carpenter had worked wonders on a small budget previously with the incredibly slender and effective Assault On Precinct 13, a humble urban western in the Night of the Living Dead mode, and when it comes to Halloween, simplicity is once again key. Asides from having to depend on the more basic and therefore creative elements, this is a bare bones tale that doesn’t seem beyond the realms of plausibility, a fact that makes the experience all the more terrifying. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of the supernatural about Myers, but it’s largely implied. What we get is a man of Haddonfield origin let loose on the kind of suburban neighbourhood that should be immune to such horrors. Nobody expects the likes of Myers to show up on their doorstep for a murderous rampage, the community’s innocence only adding to the killer’s sense of elusiveness.
Thanks to Carpenter’s panic-infused synths and concurrent pacing, Halloween maintains a mounting sense of dread that is as potent in the drab of daytime as it is in the dead of night. It’s because of this that Myers becomes an almost invisible entity, haunting every frame with his animal breath and inhuman patience, a scourge that somehow roams freely without detection, simultaneously everywhere at once and nowhere to be seen. Like the youngster who murdered his sister all those years ago, there is a naïve inquisitiveness to Michael’s pursuit, an eerie fascination with the acts that he feels so strangely compelled to commit. This was a conscious effort on the part of Carpenter, who instructed Myers portrayer Nick Castle to tilt his head and examine one victim’s corpse as if it “were a butterfly collection.”
There is a scene in Halloween that sums up the character exquisitely. After offing John Michael Graham’s Bob in a moment of devastating brutality, Michael returns in his place to a post-sex Lynda. In an inspired moment of gallows humour that provides a sense of levity while cranking up the tension, Michael loiters in the doorway under a bedsheet, Bob’s glasses resting ironically on his face. In doing so he is portraying a ghost, a fitting prank for the time of year, but his real aim is concealment as he prepares for the kill. This is Michael echoing humour but not understanding it. It is an impression of something human, a symbol of an almost ethereal monster lacking any kind of moral substance. It is utterly disquieting.
As his mask dissolves in and out of darkness, Myers orchestrates proceedings with an almost infantile sense of torment. He revels in his ability to manipulate proceedings, exploding into sudden acts of brutality and analysing his work like an artist mulling over the finer details. It is Michael’s quiet omnipotence that keeps us glued to the edge of our seats. With him, you feel it is not a matter of If, but When, and as his victims are drawn ever closer to their indomitable fates, we feel our own control slipping out of reach. We find ourselves wandering hopelessly as they do.
Tommy, unlock the door! Come here, now you listen to me. I want you to go down the stairs, and out the front door. I want you to go down the street to the Mackenzie’s house. I want you to tell them to call the police and tell them to send them over here. Now, do you understand me? Go do as I say!Laurie Strode
Essential to Halloween‘s knife-edge tension is our participation as an audience. Thanks to Carpenter’s teasing direction, we see what probably isn’t there. We hear what nobody else hears and we know what’s coming, just maybe. Take the scene where an oblivious Lynda reaches for the phone as our sheeted killer finally makes his move, or the close-up of a sobbing Laurie Strode as a relentless Michael sits up in the background, triggering the first urgent notes of Carpenter’s blood-curdling score. We may be very much in the know, but Michael remains something of an enigma, possessing an aura of mystique that was rarely emulated as the sequels rolled on. We witness the act that had him committed, we soak up the vague damnations of the beleaguered Dr. Loomis, but all else is contained behind that mask, existing only in our imagination.
Making her silver screen debut, Curtis is a revelation as the timid bookworm who ultimately outwits Castle’s relentless purveyor of death, following in her mother’s footsteps by becoming one of horror’s most iconic leads (Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane would famously succumb to the swift hands of Norman Bates in Psycho’s iconic shower scene). Though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Marilyn Burns is recognised as the progenitor on US shores, it was Curtis who established the death-by-sex trope, which determined that a slasher’s final girl would remain pure by steering clear of the usual hormone-fuelled high jinks, rules that were laid out in no uncertain terms in Wes Craven’s meta-infused ode to franchise killers Scream as Halloween plays ominously in the background, Carpenter’s eerily unfolding score doing the job diegetically. By 1980, the actress had become so synonymous with the genre that she would acquire the moniker ‘Scream Queen’, a term that would become an established part of the horror lexicon. Myers may be one of the genre’s most emblematic figures, but Curtis breathes the same air.
Contrary to Black Christmas, Halloween was also a critical smash, earning almost universal plaudits. Roger Ebert, a known detractor of violent horror, had nothing but praise for Carpenter’s breakthrough movie, writing, “Credit must be paid 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. Hitchcock is acknowledged as a master of suspense; it’s hypocrisy to disapprove of other directors in the same genre who want to scare us too. It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but it’s hard to do it well. Carpenter is uncannily skilled, for example, at the use of foregrounds in his compositions, and everyone who likes thrillers knows that foregrounds are crucial.”
All things considered, Halloween is the perfect horror movie. Not just in terms of content, but the manner in which things panned out both creatively and commercially, everything coming together to forge pure, indelible magic. It’s a heady potion that can never be replicated, particularly by the modern studio movie, which can never recapture the rough and readiness of a lo-fi indie sensation that took audiences out of the popcorn constraints of mere fantasy. It also forged one of the most irrepressible franchise monsters to ever grace the silver screen, an indomitable fascination who continues to wow the box office, but Carpenter’s breakout movie was anything but premeditated franchise spinner, exploding out of the low-budget shadows like an unquenchable killer beset on a singular killing spree. This was a filmmaker skilled in the art of terror, clawing his way out of the commercial doldrums with a film that resonated with a generation who were equal parts thrilled and horrified.
Halloween also possesses that crucial familiar sense. Unlike much of what it would inspire, we care about the residents of Haddonfield. Carpenter sketches a familiar town with familiar characters, an essence blighted by a singular, unsettling entity. As we peek from our own windows while the film plays out, we imagine these events as a very plausible reality. We see Myers standing unchallenged beneath a streetlamp. We hear him breathing on the periphery of our own suburbia. This is no Frankenstein’s monster or shape-shifting Nosferatu, and though you can thrill and laugh and resign it all to fantasy, something tells you this is far more authentic than you will ever be comfortable with.