Halloween: What Makes it a Masterpiece

It’s that time of year again. The last weekend of Halloween, where the falls are ten different shades of orange, it’s finally sweater weather, and it’s time to pull out the big guns for horror movies. Every Halloween, I always run a back to back screening of Trick ‘r’ Treat followed by the one and only Halloween. Sure, it would seem like sacrilege to not watch Halloween just on its namesake alone. However, every time I view this film, I still get the goosebumps I always do. Just in one watch, you can trace all the horror movies that came after like it’s a family lineage. Let’s look into Halloween: what makes it a masterpiece?

This film kickstarted the slasher genre, started the sequel mania of the 80s and still holds relevance today with two more sequels out and one on the way, all three with the ambitious task of washing away whatever happened to the Halloween timelines of years’ past. Let’s talk about Michael Myers and the epic crater John Carpenter left on the face of moviemaking forever this Halloweekend.

The Beginning

Oh boy, look at that hair. The man clad in the brilliant bellbottoms is John Carpenter himself. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past fifty years, you should know his name and his unapologetic nature when it comes to filmmaking. He actually has an Oscar that he received for a short film he did when he was a student at USC. He had a couple full-length features under his belt before tackling Halloween, including the cult film Assault on Precinct 13, in which garnered him a lot of praise for making such a surreal movie on such a low budget. It was at the Milan Film Festival screening of that film that Carpenter was approached by Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad to take on a film concept of a psycho killer stalking and killing babysitters. Carpenter took on the originally titled The Babysitter Murders and got to work.

Akkad made the suggestion to set the night of horrors around Halloween night, which is seemingly the most obvious night for horrors. However, there was no horror film before this that had taken on that setting, so it was both a genius idea and a risky one. Carpenter wasn’t a stranger to holiday themed films, however. He was actually in contact with Bob Clark for a potential sequel for Black Christmas, and when the Halloween gig came up, he asked him permission to use an anonymous-killer tactic like the former film. Clark said yes and the outline for Michael Myers was set.

The Writing

John Carpenter and Debrah Hill | John carpenter, John carpenter halloween,  Michael myers halloween

John Carpenter wrote Halloween’s screenplay in ten days. Ten. Days. He wrote it with the collaboration of his girlfriend at the time Debra Hill. She used her experience as a babysitter and her perspective to write the female dialogue, specifically Laurie Strode’s. Haddonfield, New Jersey turned into Haddonfield, Illinois and Carpenter adopted the small town field by naming the streets after streets in his own home town.

Those aren’t the only homages however, as two characters–Tommy Doyle and Dr. Loomis–are in reference to characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Psycho. There is another huge connection to Hitchcock, but we’ll get to that later.

The story surrounding Michael Myers as a child is an addition Carpenter made to the story he laid out previously for this hopeful sequel to Black Christmas, making Michael his own character rather than a copycat slasher. While the original financiers wanted a more playful Halloween setting, Carpenter went full-Samhain. Michael soared above a criminally insane human to an evil entity.

Debra Hill: A Horror Legend

Halloween' 1978: The Times Finally Reviews a Horror Classic - The New York  Times

I’m going to pause the momentum of the story to talk about Debra Hill. She is the reason that Halloween, Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are the way that they are. She took her female perspective and avid feminism and injected it into Laurie Strode, which is one of the reasons she is the ultimate final girl. Laurie does everything she can to stay alive, and she is a tough badass, but she is also showing her trauma and emotions at the same time. The shot displayed above is one of my favorite moments in the film, and while it is an impressive shot in general, Laurie has had to walk in on her dead friends, is responsible for two kids and is fighting tooth and nail to stay alive. Of course, she’s going to cry, who wouldn’t?

Hill’s writing, however, allows Laurie to cry without losing any of her power that she has continued to have in previous scenes. Another piece Hill added was Michael killing the innocent, sweet German Shepard in order to provoke emotions that most horror fans don’t feel when they’re watching other humans dying. She inserted that scene in just to get across how evil and merciless Michael is, further enhancing his image as the Boogeyman himself. It’s sad that her mastery wasn’t used in later films, but it is what makes the first film stand out in regards to character development. Remember her name and know that she should have as much credit as Carpenter does.

The Casting

This film had a lower budget, therefore the salary was limited to the prospective cast. The first role to come into fruition was Dr. Sam Loomis due to a lot of rejects. First offered to Peter Cushing, and then Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence adorned the iconic role, and we can’t imagine anyone else. The other actors fell into place by relation of the crew or working on previous Carpenter projects, but the role of Laurie Strode was the last to click in. Jamie Lee Curtis was not Carpenter’s first choice, nor was his discovery.

Halloween 1978: How A Subtle Easter Egg Hints At Laurie Strode's Dark Side

Once again, credit goes to Debra Hill, who noticed her on her multiple guest star performances on various TV shows of the 70’s, including titles such as Quincy, M.E. and Buck Rogers. What really interested Hill was Curtis’ mother. Her mother was Janet Leigh, who just happened to be Marion Crane in a little film known as Psycho. Hill knew that the tie to Janet Leigh would be great advertisement for the film, so they asked her if she wanted part. She was hesitant as she related more to Laurie’s socialite friends, but she took on the role anyways. We’re so glad she did, as Laurie Strode is iconic, and Sidney Prescott is the only one that could even give her a run for her money as the best final girl, and Laurie would still reign the supreme.

The Production

Halloween was shot in twenty days. A few facts about this filming process:

Mark Roberts Resurrects Michael Myers' Iconic 1978 Personal Effects | Dead  Entertainment
  • It was one of the first films to feature the Steadicam, which gives it those sweeping and following shots in the movie.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis’ reactions were not necessarily a reaction to what was happening. She and Carpenter developed a ‘scare scale’ from 1 to 10, and Carpenter would let her know what level she should be at in each shot. She had different facial expressions, emotions and screams for each level.
  • “The Shape” or Michael Myers’ actor Nick Castle received no direction from Carpenter other than the head tilt post-Bob pinning. Carpenter told him to “‘Examine him like a butterfly display.'”
  • There is a lack of pumpkins present compared to a usual Halloween, and that was because they filmed it in the spring. They had one shot available for the scene with Tommy Doyle as they had a little over three pumpkins on set and most were needed for later scenes.
  • The most iconic fact that most know: the Michael Myers mask is a modified William Shatner mask. They bought the mask for $1.98, stretched out its eyes a bit and painted it a blueish white to make it the mask.

Overall, it was a successful shoot, given the pressure on Carpenter to deliver in such a short time frame. The only thing left that will sell the scares is the music. That meant hiring a composer, right? Well, what if your director and writer is also a musician? Yes, Carpenter is a multitalented badass.

THe Music: One of the most iconic parts of the film

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is the one behind the iconic main and chase theme of the film. All produced by him and his synthesizer, he was paid $10,000 dollars total for the direction, writing, producing and composing of Halloween. It only took him three days and had assistance from Dan Wyman–a music professor–to write the score into sheet music, given that Carpenter only played by ear and memorization and could not read or write sheet music. The main theme is an iconic pop culture reference the first few notes distinguishes it instantly. Not to mention, it’s a bop.

Other songs used were “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes and “Don’t Fear (The Reaper)” by Blue Oyster Cult, which fit the feel of the movie perfectly. They make references to it in the awfully cheesy sequel Halloween: H20, when “Mr. Sandman” comes on the radio and Laurie promptly shuts it off. A very meta moment and a nod to the original that makes me giggle ever time.

The Reception: revolutionary for indie and horror alike

Amazon.com: Halloween 1978 Movie Poster 27in x 40in (Movie Theatre Size)  Horror Film: Posters & Prints

The film got a wide release and raked in $70 million dollars worldwide. This was and still remains one of the highest grossing independent films of all time, given that box office and movie theaters were still in the evolution process post-Jaws. If people didn’t know Carpenter, they sure did now. Not only was it met with financial success, it had massive critical acclaim, including a overly positive review from Roger Ebert. This kicked the door down for more independent horror to get wider releases, and the craze of home video was on the horizon which propelled horror into a more popular genre of the 1980s.

Laurie Strode became the face for the final girl, with multiple horror female protagonists made in the image of her. However, as I mentioned in my previous article on final girls, they focused a bit too much on one aspect: her virginity. Knowing more on Debra Hill, I assume she frowns upon this perception and would much rather the praise centers on Laurie’s actions, not her purity. Nonetheless, the deeply inspired Friday the 13th came out two years later and solidified the “you have sex, you die” rule.

The Sequels, reboots and Remakes: Twisty Timelines

This also opened a can of worms that would eventually harm the horror genre. This is the birth of the bloated sequel, in which constant iterations of the same thing taints the original project. This happened to Halloween, with wild backstories including Laurie Strode is actually Michael’s sister, which doesn’t add up in the logical timeline. Then there is the third one, which is actually a return to John Carpenter’s idea of making the Halloween series an anthology. No Michael Myers however meant a cut budget and negative reviews due to the villain’s absence.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) - IMDb

Then came 4,5 and 6 starring which contains a half baked story, the worst mask known to man, and a young Paul Rudd. These forgettable sequels brought us up to the mid-90s. 1998, however, the studio wanted to scrap the three most recent sequels so they rebooted and made a direct sequel to Halloween II known as Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later. Jamie Lee Curtis returns and we get a cheese-fest with good kills and LL Cool J. It stepped off strong and followed up with the worst of the sequels, Halloween: Resurrection.

It is all scrapped next time with Rob Zombie’s remake, which spawned a sequel. Instead of Michael Myers being simply evil, Zombie pack a bunch of backstory on Michael’s childhood and adds semantics to his nature. While some people really like these movies, I don’t care for them, as I just don’t care for Rob Zombie’s filmmaking that much. However, these movies received lukewarm reviews from critics and lean more on the brutal side versus the original.

The True Sequels: They do have carpenter’s blessing

This brings us to 2018. Who had it on their life bingo card that the true sequels to Halloween would be co-written by Danny McBride? Well, it’s here and we’re now two films into a finishing sequel for the series. In conjunction with David Gordon Green This is all with Carpenter’s blessing. Boy, is it a hard reboot too, and we’re thankful for it.

Jamie Lee Curtis on Saying Goodbye to Laurie Strode & Halloween Kills -  Variety

They’ve scrapped the entire sequel lineage, which included cutting off Halloween II. Therefore, the whole “she’s-his-sister” bit is out of the picture and cleans the timeline up. We also get a semantic-less Michael again, bringing him back to his evil throne once again with no motives. The special effects are up, the budget is up and Jamie Lee Curtis is back. I personally like where these sequels are going, and am excited for the next installment. It feels like the right fit and the fitting end. You can check out the most recent installment Halloween Kills on Peacock or in theaters today.

Conclusion

It was fun deep diving into this little wormhole and have this be the wrapping up of spooky season. Thanks for joining me in this abbreviated timeline of the making of this brilliant film and staple in the horror genre. Next week, the Mother of the Void takes on Gaslight and I will be deep diving into some psychological thriller picks for the transitional time between spooky season and the holiday season. The scares aren’t stopping, however. So stay tuned and follow The Void of Celluloid here on WordPress, or Facebook/Instagram/Twitter to stay up to date with the spookies. Happy Halloween, lovelies.

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