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The Making of Halloween (1978)

The Making of Halloween (1978)

It was dubbed the ‘longest walk in Hollywood’, and all Laurie Strode had to do was retreat into the house. Instead, Halloween’s scream queen bounced from door to door like a cookie-bearing girl scout, pursed by the bogeyman and a camera operator bearing a Steadicam. Film critics called it a classic moment; director John Carpenter remains objective. “That thing kills your back.”

The oddity, and weight, of the Steadicam apparatus may have prompted some physio. Still, it also elevated the scene above horror’s typical slipshod photography.

So graceful was the take that if Hitchcock himself had sauntered into frame for a cameo, it wouldn’t have surprised.

Donald Pleasance and Irwin Yablans Making Halloween
Donald Pleasance and Irwin Yablans Making Halloween

Halloween executive producer Irwin Yablens never expected such craft – it just didn’t seem plausible based on a $300,000 budget, conceived with the cheapness of an Ed Wood movie. Only this time, young, cute babysitters would be terrorised. Titled THE BABYSITTERS MURDERS, producer Yablans liked the ring of it.

The actual idea of setting the movie on Halloween was a fluke. Yablans’ dig through the film archives proved that the title had never been used before. He optioned it without a passing thought to the connotations, for a jack-o-lantern would look wicked on the one-sheet poster.

But blending horror with Halloween was brilliant – even if only the production team could see its potential.

“We wanted to go to the idea of Samhain, the night when all souls are let out to wreck havoc on the living,” explains producer and co-writer Deborah Hill.

“I wanted the movie to say ‘Boo!’ Every ten minutes or so,” says Yablans

Debra Hill and John Carpenter on set making Halloween
Debra Hill and John Carpenter on set making Halloween

Enter John Carpenter

John Carpenter, the king of low-budget atmospherics, was offered first refusal on the project, and he liked the prospect.

Yablans offered him what he thought was a low-ball deal but ended up for Carpenter as the deal of a lifetime. $10,000 to write, direct and compose the score, plus ten per cent of the gross and final cut.

HALLOWEEN became the highest-grossing independent movie in history; Carpenter made an absolute mint.

With both parties sated, it just remained for Yablans to cough up the $300,000 for the budget. Moustapha Akkad – who called himself  HALLOWEEN’s godfather, footed the bill.

“Carpenter told me the story, in a suspenseful way, almost frame to frame,” recalls Akkad on what lured him in.

“We basically shamed Moustapha into it,” is Yablans’ alternative take, “We suggested that he didn’t have the funds to finance the film, and I guess we was wrong.”

Sadly in 2005, Moustapha Akkad and his 34-year-old daughter were killed in a bombing at the Grand Hyatt Amman, Jordon, in what was part of the 2005 Amman bombings by Al-Qaeda.

Micheal Myers backlit against a house in Halloween
Micheal Myers backlit against a house in Halloween

Carpenter started working on Halloween’s script with the budget finalised and total creative control. With his then-girlfriend Hill, the director toys with having the girls preyed upon by a master seducer. With no legal age statute for babysitters, however, that was ethically questionable.

Hill and Carpenter decided on the other ultimate evil, a psychopath who preferred dicing up young women to, well, the other thing.

The fundamental idea for Michael Myers came from a childhood experience of Carpenter’s. The director effectively met Halloween’s killer during a sunny school field trip to a mental asylum.

“I saw this child,” he shivers. “He had the devil’s eyes and starred at me with a look of pure evil. It was terrifying.”

The name of Halloween’s killer was a nod to the English distributor of Carpenter’s earlier low-budget success, Assault on Precinct 13. His name was chosen as a tribute to this success.

The killer’s suppressed rage was discussed throughout story meetings, resulting in the decision to conceal it behind a mask.

“Behind that mask,” says Hill, “Some event that happened to this person has frozen his psyche, and he has to keep recreating it.”

Jamie Lee Curtis and friend in Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis and friend in Halloween (1978)

Making of Halloween – Getting the Shot

The event in question was penned as scene one, a six-year-old Michael Myers butchering his sister. Carpenter knew this scene had to be shot the right way, like the shower scene in PSYCHO. It had to be critical for the audience to see the kind of evil they were dealing with.

Making a hefty withdrawal from the budget to pay for a Panaglise (Panavision’s Steadicam equivalent), John Carpenter produced one of cinema’s most meticulous POV shots, following little Michael Myers from voyeur to murderer,

The only drawback was the length of the shot. “It took exactly one roll of film each time,” explains cinematographer Dean Cundy. “So we’d only just nearly get it done and the film would run out seconds later.”

The crew nailed a complete take that Carpenter was happy with. Still, eventually, he decided to trim and splice the scene to up the tempo. Hence three cuts; One as the mask goes on, one as Myers daringly glances upwards after the murder and the last one as he exits the room.

Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978)
Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978)

Only the staging of the scene hinted at the modest production scale. The crew hid behind sofas inside the house, flicking the light switch as necessary. The arm of Michael Myers, as seen when he tests the items in the kitchen utensil drawer, belongs to a clown-suited Deborah Hill. The result is still outstanding.

The Panaglide set-piece also bolstered the threat of Myers by creating an event around which superstition could form.

Carpenter recounts another childhood tale to explain.

“There was this haunted house in my home town of Bowling Green,” Carpenter begins, “Legends about what exactly happened in that house grew with each telling. It’s that Old Testament reaction to what happens when something tragic takes place.”

In selecting the perfect haunted house for the production, production designer Tommy Wallace had trouble finding the right one.

“One of the houses I scouted in Pasadena was perfect and I went to take some measurements,” remembers Wallace. “The maid let me in and I went upstairs. But as I was happily measuring away, I turned around and realised that somebody was asleep in the bed – it was the lady who owned the house. I let myself out quietly so as not to wake her but, sure enough, she found out I’d been in her bedroom and threw us out.”

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978)

Making of Halloween – The Man Behind the Mask

Carpenter continued to use the Panaglide where he could, keeping Myers hidden in the shadows as much as possible. The production team had found a William Shatner mask. They removed the eyeholes and fake eyebrows and sprayed it white. HALLOWEEN was resting its scares on a mask that cost under $2 from a costume shop.

Four people in total brought Michael Myers to life on screen. Tommy Wallace assumed “The Shape” whenever it was scripted that Micheal would charge around the set, simply because, being a production designer, he knew what parts were collapsable.

Jim Windburn, a stuntman, did the concluding fall out of the window, and actor Tony Moran played the face beneath the mask.

All had their uses, but none more so than participant number four, Nick Castle.

A scene from Halloween (1978)
A scene from Halloween (1978)

A buddy of John Carpenter and a filmmaker himself, Castle was roped in to help after requesting that he’s like to hang out on a production that had a breakneck schedule of 20 days. However, he grew quickly accustomed to the gig, demonstrating that his father’s poise as a dance choreographer was hereditary.

A pause here, a head-tilt there, Myers suddenly became something much more than a lug with poor directional skills.

“Nick had a certain stance and movement that I thought was never captured in following sequels,” applauds Carpenter. “They just used actors or stuntmen without the grace that Nick had.”

What was now required was a sympathetic victim for Myers to stalk.

Nick Castle as Michael Myers
Nick Castle as Michael Myers

Enter The Heroine

“John wanted the daughter of the person on LASSIE [Anne Lockhart] to play Laurie,” admits Deborah Hill. When Lockhart refused, the role was offered to a fledgling Jamie Lee Curtis, who thought she did such a bad job on her first day of filming, that she was waiting to get fired.

John Carpenter disagreed since Curtis had the positive baggage of being Janet Leigh’s daughter (Leigh played Norman Bates’s victim in Psycho).

But unlike PSYCHO’s promiscuous Marion Crane, Carpenter wanted Strode to be a symbol of repressed American conservatism. Curtis refutes that intention, but Laurie Strode was a withdrawn yet capable woman who vetoed screwing jocks in favour of schoolwork.

John Carpenter denies, however, that it was Laurie’s virginal ways that secured her survival. He credits her attentiveness.

“The idea that Laurie’s the only one who can see the Shape [Myers] come from the idea that because of her repression, her shyness, she has the ability to watch,” Carpenter explains. “She’s a watcher, just like the Shape is.”

Jamie Lee Curtis is quick to concur, punctuating her reasons with wry smiles. “Those killed are just the ones who don’t pay attention. Who are so interested in their sex lives that they don’t see it coming… Sorry, bad choice of words.”

Dr Loomis in Halloween (1978)
Dr Loomis in Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter disagreed since Curtis had the positive baggage of being Janet Leigh’s daughter (Leigh played Norma Bates’s victim in Psycho).

But unlike PSYCHO’s promiscuous Marion Crane, Carpenter wanted Strode to be a symbol of repressed American conservatism. Curtis refutes that intention, but Laurie Strode was a withdrawn yet capable woman who vetoed screwing jocks in favour of schoolwork.

John Carpenter denies, however, that it was Laurie’s virginal ways that secured her survival. He credits her attentiveness.

“The idea that Laurie’s the only one who can see the Shape [Myers] come from the idea that because of her repression, her shyness, she has the ability to watch,” Carpenter explains. “She’s a watcher, just like the Shape is.”

Jamie Lee Curtis is quick to concur, punctuating her reasons with wry smiles. “Those killed are just the ones who don’t pay attention. Who are so interested in their sex lives that they don’t see it coming… Sorry, bad choice of words.”

Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter Making Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter Making Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter disagreed since Curtis had the positive baggage of being Janet Leigh’s daughter (Leigh played Norma Bates’s victim in Psycho).

But unlike PSYCHO’s promiscuous Marion Crane, Carpenter wanted Strode to be a symbol of repressed American conservatism. Curtis refutes that intention, but Laurie Strode was a withdrawn yet capable woman who vetoed screwing jocks in favour of schoolwork.

John Carpenter denies, however, that it was Laurie’s virginal ways that secured her survival. He credits her attentiveness.

“The idea that Laurie’s the only one who can see the Shape [Myers] come from the idea that because of her repression, her shyness, she has the ability to watch,” Carpenter explains. “She’s a watcher, just like the Shape is.”

Jamie Lee Curtis is quick to concur, punctuating her reasons with wry smiles. “Those killed are just the ones who don’t pay attention. Who are so interested in their sex lives that they don’t see it coming… Sorry, bad choice of words.”

Michael Myers menacingly standing in Halloween (1978)
Michael Myers menacingly standing in Halloween (1978)

Halloween’s Loomis

Dr Sam Loomis, Michael Myers’ shrink, was hot on Micheal’s trail trying to stop the killing spree. The character was as outlandish as UP POMPEII’s soothsayer and as morbid to match. The first choice for the role, Peter Cushing, passed, still too high off the STAR WARS phenomenon to associate with a small production like HALLOWEEN. Christopher Lee also passed on the role, although he later admitted he regretted the decision.

Quirky British legend Donald Pleasance accepted almost immediately. The movie had caught its top-billed star, and John Carpenter was thrilled.

“Why is my character doing all this?” Was the question that repeatedly came from Pleasance during shooting. It soon became apparent that Pleasance didn’t have the slightest clue as to what he’d signed up for.

His only reason, in fact, for participating was that his daughter was a fan of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.

Even when he began chewing through scenes enthusiastically, he didn’t seem any more illuminated. After eerily reciting Loomis’ iconic monologue on the evil within Myers – arguably the film’s most important speech – he observed, “It’s all a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?”

But the hyperactivity of a thirtysomething crew had its effect, and the star and director became close friends. “That’s horror movies,” chuckles Carpenter. “Everybody wants to be either a victim or a monster. George Romero tells me that every film critic that visits his set immediately wants to play a zombie.”

A shot of Michael Myers ad Laurie Strode
A shot of Michael Myers ad Laurie Strode

And with continued exposure in the HALLOWEEN sequels, Pleasance came to love Loomis’ quirky little ways. He even went so far as to offer theories on a character who had once done nothing but bemuse him.

“I think Loomis always felt responsible for the fact that he didn’t stop Michael Myers after he first murdered his sister.” The actor argued. “Stopping Michael is Loomis’s mission in life.”

Carpenter was glad that his movie offered enjoyment, but there was a practical purpose to serve as well.

“Horror serves a function,” he says intently. “If you can scream in a movie theatre and in safety, then come out into the real world and sleep peacefully, you realise you can survive the night. You can survive the terrors of the world.”

Alarmingly for John Carpenter, his ambitions seemed void when he first screened HALLOWEEN to a 20th Century Fox executive [it was minus the score at that point]. He was told it was a failure and lacked the frights to provide the catharsis he wanted.

Carpenter, however, was strangely unconcerned. Little did the executive know that the situation had been long since rectified by the Bowling Green Philharmonic. This tiny outfit merely consisted of Carpenter’s musically-inclined friends.

Playing with a rhythm taught to him by his father and adding a few synthesised flourishes, the essential alternation of HALLOWEEN’s theme was forged.

An Iconic shot of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978)
An Iconic shot of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978)

In its finished state, the overwhelming reaction to the movie gave the exec pause to think again.

“She said she was completely wrong with her earlier review, but I told her she wasn’t,’ Carpenter says fondly, “Without the music, she had seen a completely different film.”

Even after all of HALLOWEEN’s success, it seems destined to be misunderstood. There is virtually no blood and graphic killings, despite people maintaining there are. There was, however, a crew motivated to make the small budget go as far as possible and a director who knew not to send his killer basely running towards the camera like a twat.

“The films that live are the ones where something’s uncertain,” waxes Carpenter, “Where you taker something with you to mull over later. Otherwise it’s just muzak; you hear it, you forget it.”

Of all the questions mulled, there’s one that will always haunt the master of terror. “There used to be this fascination with what scares John Carpenter?” He cackles. “I think what scares me scares every human on the planet – loss, death…” A pause, Carpenter seizing the opportunity to serenade HALLOWEEN’s legacy with an appropriately dramatic crescendo. “…And evil. Like a natural element, it’s undeniable and it will not die!”

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