John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

pumpkin-poster

 

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, Brian Andrews.

Directed by John Carpenter.

Produced by Debra Hill, John Carpenter.

Execuitive Produced by Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad.

Screenplay by John Carpenter, Debra Hill.

Music by The Bowling Green Orchestra (John Carpenter).

Cinematography by Dean Cundey.

Edited by Charles Bornstein, Tommy Lee Wallace.

 

WARNING CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was first aware of this groundbreaking masterpiece as the buzz built up around it through word of mouth in late 1978. Culminating in January 1979 with its UK theatrical release. At that time I’d never heard of John Carpenter. I distinctly remember, like it was yesterday, seeing the ad in the local paper for our local cinema where it was screening. As I remember it was an image of Michael Myers on a plain white newspaper background, knife in hand, in his trademark boiler suit with that iconic mask. It had me intrigued to say the least. I can also clearly remember that word of mouth going around. Everyone who’d seen it, and some who probably hadn’t, were saying that it was one of the scariest films they’d ever seen. Not far off the mark to be honest. It still retains that power. However, at the time I would have been 12 years old and unable to see an X rated (18, or R) film at the cinema. At this point the home video revolution was yet to happen. That would happen a year or two later.

My first experience of seeing John Carpenter’s Halloween was a few years after it’s theatrical release. It was screening on TV late one Friday night. The problem was that it was on a TV station (network) that the TV didn’t receive a very good reception from. The picture had lots of interference. What we termed Snowy, and was actually like watching the film through a snow blizzard. That didn’t deter me at all from watching the film I’d been so excited to see for what seemed like forever. Even in the square screen formatted image with the poor reception I was blown away by the film that unfolded before my young eyes. The fact that this version cut out John Carpenter’s amazing use of the widescreen image didn’t spoil it for me at all. That crucial part of the film I finally got to see about 10 years later on it’s widescreen VHS cassette release. Then I realised how much his vision had been compromised.

Well as the film started, I was transfixed by the amazing credit sequence with the Jack O’ Lantern slowly coming towards the foreground of the TV screen with the yellow wording of the credits sequence and the sound of the now iconic music. It set the mood perfectly. As the credits finished it cut to two successive titles white on black “Haddonfield, Illinois” “Halloween Night 1963” with children’s voices chanting a trick or treat poem , and then onto a “continuous” point of view shot that has rarely been bettered. The scene was set for me to have the life scared out of me!

This opening POV shot was achieved using the then relatively new Steadicam camera. It is attached to the cameraman with a harness and uses a gyroscope to counterbalance the weight of the camera. This gives a smooth feel to the shot almost as if the camera is floating. The camera in effect becomes Michael Myers. It wasn’t actually one continuous shot. Hidden editing cuts were used because of the length of film stock that could be loaded in the camera at any one time which restricted the time the camera was able to shoot footage. Nowadays digital cameras would be used as they can shoot for far longer. These opening sequences were shot last, and unbelievably in one night.

The house used was in a state of disrepair, as was needed for the rest of the film. What they cleverly did was dress the house within the frame of the shot to look newer. The paint was apparently still wet as they shot these scenes. The genius of the first death scene is that not once do You see the knife pierce flesh, as is the case in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, which Halloween was heavily influenced by. In fact the whole of Halloween is virtually bloodless. The actual hand holding the knife belonged to producer and writer Debra Hill, because of the restricted hours children were allowed to work. Also she had small hands that looked childlike. The sequence culminates in the reveal at the end of the sequence that was, and still is, shocking. Concluding with a beautiful crane shot that was actually as ambitious for a low budget film with such a small crew as the whole of the previous sequence.

Halloween was the first film I’d seen Jamie Lee Curtis in, and was actually her first big screen role. I’d not seen Psycho, or her first film starring together with her mother, John Carpenter’s The Fog, at this point. So I wasn’t aware that her mother was Janet Leigh. The original Scream Queen. Carrying on the family tradition from mother to daughter. It was quite a buzz 20 years later to see them act together in Halloween H20. Initially John Carpenter didn’t know who Jamie Lee Curtis was and that she had acted on the TV show Operation Petticoat, because he didn’t watch much TV. When he found out who her mother was he thought that it would be the ultimate tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho.

Although she was initially hired because of who her parents were and would be a good marketing for the film, she turned out to be absolutely perfect for the role of Laurie. She was actually so disappointed with her performance on the first day of shooting that she was convinced she would be fired. When her phone rang that night and it was John Carpenter on the phone, she was certain it was the end of her movie career. Instead He called to tell her that she was great and he was very happy with the way everything had gone on the first day’s shoot.

Like many I just fell in love with Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode. Most people can maybe remember having a babysitter like her as children. I certainly can. No one has ever, or will ever play that type of character as she did. She added some nice little nuances to her performance that flesh out the character of Laurie. It is a testament to her great acting that she is totally different to Laurie. Jamie Lee Curtis has said the reason the audience cares for Laurie is that she is intelligent, forthright, and never gives in fighting back against adversity. I agree totally. Her performance and the writing brought so much depth to the character that is missing in many horror films. It is her performance as much as John Carpenter’s skill as a film-maker that makes Halloween the masterpiece it is.

In recent years She has used her fame as Laurie Strode to help with her Philanthropic and Humanitarian causes. She is a big supporter of children’s hospitals. Currently, she plays a leadership role for the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.

Well what Can I say about Donald Pleasence as Dr Samuel J. Loomis (the name being a tribute to Psycho. Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane’s lover). He was as creepy to the 12 year old Me as much as Michael Myers was. The role was actually first offered to Peter Cushing, but His representatives said He wouldn’t be interested in “your little horror film.” Christopher Lee was then offered it, but turned it down because he thought the script wasn’t that good, and he wouldn’t be paid enough. He said it was one of the biggest regrets of his career. I’m a fan of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but I’m glad neither of them played Dr Loomis because I feel to this day they wouldn’t have brought to the role what Donald Pleasence did.

He accepted the role at the insistence of his daughter who had been impressed with Assault On Precinct 13 and particularly loved John Carpenter’s use of music in it. I cannot imagine anyone else bringing the uniqueness to the role that Donald Pleasence did. He gives Dr Loomis a subtle maniacal edge that was perfect to put across how the character had strived over the years to make sure Michael Myers was never released from the psychiatric institution and then the frustration, and almost obsession, with stopping His killing spree. The one piece of dialogue that sums this up and defines His performance of Dr Loomis, and the film as a whole is:

“I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. 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.”

I cannot imagine any other actor delivering this monologue in the unique and brilliantly nuanced way that Donald Pleasence did. It sets the scene and atmosphere perfectly for everything that follows after that.

The monologue was based on John Carpenter’s own experience as a student studying at Kentucky College when on a visit to a psychiatric institution he met a 12 or 13 year old boy with this exact same look. He says it was a schizophrenic stare that was unsettling and creepy. It stuck with him so much over the years that he included it in the film.

The other line of dialogue that has always been memorable for me and encapsulates the humour in Dr Loomis, and the film as a whole, is when the young boys are daring each other to go into the Meyer house and Dr Loomis is hiding behind a hedge. He says behind clasped hands “Hey Lonnie get Your ass away from there.” The boys then quickly scarper away. It’s then cuts to Dr Loomis cracking a smile. It creeped me out as a 12 year old. As I got older I recognised the black humour in His performance. Dr Loomis has been described to me by a friend as Michael Myers’ Stalker. Which I love, and is pretty accurate from Michael Myers’ point of view.

John Carpenter says he was more frightened than he’d ever been in his life meeting Donald Pleasence for the first time. He needn’t have been because Donald Pleasence really respected what he, the cast, and the crew we’re attempting to do, even if he was initially surprised at how much younger than Him all they all were.

All of his scenes were amazingly shot in less than a week. It is testament to him, and his love for the character of Dr Loomis that Moustapha Akkad, Executive Producer of all the Halloween films up to 2002, said He wanted to do 22 Halloween films because Donald Pleasence said he didn’t want to do it forever and that he would stop at 22. He absolutely loved playing the role in the original and all the sequels. The reason being that it was refreshing for him to not to be playing a villain for a change.

I’ve always found his acting style gives a creepy edge to all his roles. Something that was used to great effect in Halloween. John Carpenter has said that Donald Pleasence taught him a lot about acting. In one scene near the end of the film he told John Carpenter he could play it two ways. Either “Oh My God I didn’t expect that” or “I knew that would happen” John Carpenter was blown away by the “I knew that would happen” way because he’d have never thought to have him play it like that. He used that take and I agree that it makes the scene more chilling. If you’ve seen Halloween you’ll probably know the scene I’m referring to. Donald Pleasence was an amazing actor that I’ve always loved.

John Carpenter wrote the role of Laurie’s friend Lynda specifically for P.J. Soles because he admired her performance of one of the bullying girls in Brian De Palma’s Carrie from 2 years earlier. She generates a lot of the humour in Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis has said she was jealous of all the fun scenes P.J Soles had.

Nancy Loomis was cast in the role of Annie, another of Laurie’s friends, because she had appeared in John Carpenter’s previous film Assault On Precinct 13 and she had impressed him. she has said with Annie “He tailored the role for what he perceived to be my sense of humour, because I have this streak of sarcasm and he thought it worked on film.” I have to agree. She has some really funny scenes that in the film that in any other actress’, or actor’s hands just wouldn’t be funny at all.

Nick Castle, an old friend of John Carpenter’s, predominately played the role of Michael Myers. In the closing credits he is actually just credited as The Shape. The name Michael Meyers was a thank you by John Carpenter to the UK distributor of his previous film Assault On Precinct 13, whose name was Michael Myers. The reason being it wasn’t a success in the US, but when it came to be released in the UK it became a UK box office hit. John Carpenter has said Michael Myers was actually inspired by Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger in the film Westworld. I can see that in Nick Castle’s portrayal. He is without a doubt the most underrated and overlooked actor in Halloween. No other actor has portrayed Michael Myers better. His movement was amazing with little nuances that brought more to the entire film than I’ve seen him given credit for. His movement should be of no surprise because his father was a choreographer for Fred Astaire. It seems he learned a thing or two from his father. His absolute standout moment is when he stabs and pins a victim to the door and moves his head from side to side. My description just doesn’t do the scene justice at all. If you’ve seen Halloween you’ll know exactly what I mean. I agree totally with Jamie Lee Curtis when she said that Nick Castle made Michael Myers more than just “a thug in a suit.” He was apparently one of the nicest guys that would never hurt anyone. More proof of how good he was in the role, if any is really needed.

The now iconic mask he wears was at $2 the cheapest they could find, because of the low budget. Many will know it was an adapted Captain Kirk mask, but some won’t realise that it is John Carpenter’s tribute to the French classic film Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage). The look of the slightly altered mask gives Michael Myers a more frightening look because it has no emotion at all. John Carpenter gives William Shatner credit for Halloween’s success, even though the mask originally looked nothing at all like Him.

The whole cast was perfect. Each and everyone gives great performances that bring something special to the overall film. Although out of all those playing teenagers Jamie Lee Curtis was the only one who was a teenager, being 19 at the time of filming. Each of the actors had input into the characters which I feel is what gives the whole film an added realism. All the child actors gave brilliant performances. The scene that still stands out for Me is the scene at school when Tommy Doyle is being bullied. I find it one of the most difficult to watch in the whole film. My heart goes out to Tommy every time. This is down to the acting of all the children, especially that of Brian Andrews who plays Tommy. This adds to emotional attachment of the audience and so heightens the impact of the latter part of the film as much as any of the adult characters.

Halloween has amazing cinematography by Dean Cundey who would later go on to The Thing, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Jurassic Park; to name but a few. In the early scenes it has a western like feel to it in it wide shots. Not surprising since John Carpenter is a huge western fan. The film begins with wide shots and then as the film progresses to the finale the camera gradually moves to more tight claustrophobic shots and so reaching a crescendo. The camera is used brilliantly to heighten the tension and scares. The composition of all the shots in the film are amazing. It is obvious that they were meticulously thought out and planned. Halloween has a beautiful look and depth to the cinematography. Not many other horror films use composition as well as it was used in Halloween and very few film-makers use the widescreen 2.35:1 format as brilliantly as John Carpenter. Michael Myers sometimes appearing at the edge of shots so that the audience is continually looking at either side of the frame in anticipation of something that is maybe about to happen. Teasing the audience with this anticipation.

Complementing and heightening the anticipation, tension, and scares was the brilliant music that amazingly was composed and recorded by John Carpenter in just 3 days. The music changed the film entirely and just wouldn’t work without it, as evidenced by the fact that Halloween was screened to executives without music and they didn’t find it scary at all. It is quite possibly one of the best uses of music ever in any film, certainly any horror film. John Carpenter credited the music to The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra, which is a reference to His childhood home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The idea of Halloween came from Executive Producer Irwin Yablans in the form of a concept of babysitters being stalked by a killer. At that point it was called The Babysitter Murders. He came up with the idea of setting it on Halloween because unbelievably Halloween had never even been used in a film title before then. He picked John Carpenter to direct as he was so impressed with Assault On Precinct 13 that he picked it up to release through his company Turtle Releasing. He thought that John Carpenter could bring to Halloween what was needed because of what he achieved with such a low budget on that film. John Carpenter wanted Debra Hill brought on board as producer. He also wanted complete creative control and his name above the title. For that he took a cut in his fee and a 10% profits from the film’s takings at the box office, which he was convinced wouldn’t amount to that much.

The whole film was apparently written in less than two weeks, with Debra Hill writing all the girl’s dialogue, which gives those scenes a very naturalistic feel. Their aim with Halloween was to do some fresh and stylish within the horror genre that hadn’t been done before. Debra Hill said “…the idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We 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. And then John came up with this fable of a town with a dark secret of someone who once lived there, and now that evil has come back, that’s what made Halloween work”

John Carpenter purposely made Laurie a “vulnerable little girl” so that the audience cared about her. In actual fact every character that gets killed is sympathetic and likeable, which is unusual in many “slasher” films. It really does adds extra emotional impact to every killing. This sets Halloween apart from most other films of the genre. Almost half of the film’s running time consists of letting the audience get to know and care for the characters. Something many other horror films seem to neglect to focus on enough.

An aspect that has been of much debate over the years about Halloween is the wrongly perceived misogyny. The fact that all the characters who are killed are women who are sexually promiscuous and that is the reason they are killed. I think this is far from the case. Men are killed too, which seems to be overlooked by some who focus on that aspect. I agree with John Carpenter when he says they are actually killed because they are not paying attention and are just doing what some teens get up to.

All the killings are disturbing, but have an almost lack of blood. This adds to disturbing nature of the killings by instead focusing on the reactions of the victims. The killing of the dog is especially disturbing and even though Debra Hill said she disliked it she understood it makes Michael Myers even more frightening by showing his total lack of compassion, feelings, and emotion by not even hesitating to kill a dog.

The whole film was incredibly filmed in only 20 days, and not actually in Illinois, but in various locations in California. If you look closely in the background of some shots you can make out palm trees. This fact to this day obviously still annoys John Carpenter. The filming was apparently a fun shoot, as I’ve heard over the years many horror film shoots are. John Carpenter knew exactly what he wanted which obviously made the filming run smoothly. Everyone had fun and did “10 jobs” on set, even Donald Pleasence. It wasn’t unusual to see Jamie Lee Curtis carrying around cases of equipment on set. Many of the actors, actresses, and crew also worked for free. For the love of film making.

The Final montage was put together in the editing room and was not actually in the original script. It was added to put across the idea that evil is everywhere, and maybe of supernatural origin. I’ve always loved the ambiguity of not knowing. Given how the film ends, it is now unbelievable to think that a sequel was never even intended by anyone involved in Halloween’s production. Most of the sequels are good films and work on their own level, but none of them can match the original masterpiece.

John Carpenter took Halloween to his old university, the University of Southern California (USC), to screen it to film students. 30% of the students walked out. Some of the students told him that it would never be a classic and asked him why he would want to make a disgusting horror film that was a piece of junk. Well time has proven them wrong.

When it came to finding a US distributor for Halloween it was a struggle. A screening was arranged, but no representatives from any of the major studios attended, so it was decided by Executive Producer Irwin Yablans to release it city by city, town by town, and theatre by theatre. On October 25th 1978 Halloween had a limited release in 4 cinemas in Kansas City. The takings were $200 to $400 per screen, but by the weekend the takings were 10 times that simply because of word of mouth by those who had seen the film. This word of mouth built up Halloween’s success over 3 to 4 months with takings going up whereas usually takings go down on most films. It wasn’t until it played at the 14th Chicago Film Festival in November 1978 that it was realised they had a commercial and critical success. It also became an interactive experience for the audiences, like The Rocky Horror Show. With some quoting lines from the film as it screened, such as Lynda’s use of “totally” throughout the film.

John Carpenter was initially unaware Halloween was a box office hit. It eventually went on to gross $47million in the US alone and $70million worldwide in its initial release. Not bad for a film that cost $300,000 to make that Moustapha Akkad, uncredited Executive Producer, was reluctant to fund until Irwin Yablans appealed to His ego by saying that it was a lot of money they were asking for and was probably more than he could afford. He very promptly gave them the funding. Halloween went on to become the biggest grossing independent film ever up to that point.

John Carpenter has said that Halloween is a film about the revenge of the repressed because he feels Laurie and Michael are both repressed in their own ways. An interesting point of view. He has also likened Halloween to a Jack n’ Box. Friendly, Enticing, then BOO! A cinematic ghost train that is more about what you don’t see rather than what you do. Which I agree with. The mind fills in the blanks by coming up with more disturbing images than the film makers ever could. This is shown in the latter stages of the film when Laurie pulls off Michael Myer’s mask and his face is revealed. Some have be disturbed by the deformed face they saw. In fact the actor’s face only has a knife wound when You look closely. The power of suggestion in film can produce some amazing results.

Halloween has one of the best combinations of sound, music, and visuals in any film I’ve ever seen. Couple this with a purposely slow build up that just pulls the audience in and along for the ride. You can tell that John Carpenter obviously learnt a lot watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films, especially Psycho. Halloween also has a vein of black humour running throughout that has much in common with Hitchcock’s films, especially Frenzy.

I’ve seen Halloween countless times over the years, and to me it never dates and still seems as fresh every time I re-watch it as it did that first time. I feel that Halloween is a film that really is like no other that I can think of.

Joseph Wolf of Compass Films, who distributed Halloween, has called it the “Gone With The Wind of horror films”, I couldn’t agree more. It is film making perfection. The absolute definition of Masterpiece.

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