Halloween at 40: The ‘horrible idea’ that became a horror classic
As the new sequel arrives, Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter on making the original
Halloween: Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 film
John Carpenter had only shot and scored two semi-obscure features when the film producer Irwin Yablans came to him with a proposal: make a low-budget movie about babysitters being murdered. “It was a horrible idea,” Carpenter says. “But I wanted to make more movies, so I said, ‘Great!’”
Forty years later that movie, Halloween, continues to spawn sequels, remakes and reboots. The latest, which is also called Halloween, and opens on Friday, brings back Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the sole survivor of Michael Myers’s initial rampage. Now a gun-toting grandma, she’s hell-bent on killing the seemingly immortal masked psycho. “The thing that really moves me about coming back all these years later is the fans’ deep love and reverence,” Curtis says. “The passion for this movie is very powerful.”
She also calls it the greatest experience she has had professionally. “It gave me everything in my creative life.” She and four of her costars speak about their memories of making the original film in these edited excerpts from the conversation.
Along with the producer Debra Hill, his girlfriend, Carpenter wrote the script, setting the action on the titular holiday after Yablans suggested changing the film’s title from The Babysitter Murders to Halloween.
JOHN CARPENTER It was very smart. I can’t believe nobody else had called their movie Halloween before. I told Irwin I wanted final cut and my name above the title. It was important for me to have control over my own film. He said, “Yeah, sure.”
For the key role of Laurie, Carpenter cast Curtis, the 19-year-old daughter of Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher film Psycho. Several years earlier the producers of The Exorcist considered casting Curtis as the possessed child, Regan, but Leigh wouldn’t allow it. (The role went to Linda Blair.)
JAMIE LEE CURTIS My mother was protecting me from being a child in the movie business. Later I got a part on the ABC sitcom Operation Petticoat. I was fired, and I was devastated. Had I not been fired I wouldn’t have been available for Halloween. As my Jewish family would say, it was bashert – meant to be. I didn’t give it a second thought that it was a horror movie, and my mom had been in a horror movie.
CARPENTER That was pretty obvious – I wasn’t dumb. But the reason I cast her is she could play this innocent, repressed girl, and she had a spark of intelligence about her. This was her first movie, so I called her after the first day of shooting. She needed that.
CURTIS When the phone rang at my house the first night, and my room-mate told me it was John, I thought I had been fired. As soon as I picked up the phone I heard John say, in his sweet southern voice, “Darlin’, I just wanted to tell you how great today was.” That has never happened to me since.
NICK CASTLE I said, “I’d like to be on the set while you direct, because it’ll demystify the experience for me.” John said, “Great, we’re going to have a guy walk around in a mask. Why don’t you do it?” It was as simple as that.
CARPENTER Nick’s dad was a choreographer, and Nick has a grace to his movements. I would say, “Nick, walk over here and... action!” That’s what I needed him for, and he was perfect for it.
CASTLE It didn’t take going to Juilliard to be able to do this, but people seem to like the movements I did. I was clay in John’s hands. The production designer Tommy Lee Wallace went to Bert Wheeler’s magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard to buy a mask for Michael. He came back with two: a clown mask and one of William Shatner as Captain Kirk on Star Trek.
CASTLE Tommy came in with the clown mask on, and we went, “Ooh, that’s kind of scary.” Then he put on the Shatner mask, and we stopped dead and said, “It’s perfect.”
CARPENTER Tommy had spray-painted it white and cut the eyeholes bigger. It was chilling. It’s weird to wear a human face. I went up to William Shatner at a convention once and said, “Hi, I’m John Carpenter.” He was on his cellphone and never looked up.
WILLIAM SHATNER I don’t remember that. I would love to meet him. He’s a very talented man.
CARPENTER That is such [expletive]!
SHATNER I thought it would be amusing once if I took my own children out to trick or treat and I wore the mask. If they didn’t give my kids a treat, I took off the mask.
To lend the film gravitas, Carpenter cast the esteemed British actor Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape) as Michael’s psychiatrist, Loomis.
CARPENTER I was initially terrified, because he said to me, “I don’t know why I’m doing this movie. The only reason is my daughter liked the music you wrote in your other movie, Assault on Precinct 13.” But we became fast friends.
One of Laurie’s babysitting charges, Lindsey, was played by Kyle Richards, a veteran child actor who grew up to become a star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
KYLE RICHARDS People joke and say, “What’s scarier: shooting Real Housewives or Halloween? and I say, “That’s hard for me to answer.” It was really scary to watch myself in that movie. After I saw it I had to sleep with my mom until I was 15.
Working with a $300,000 budget, everyone had to pitch in. Cast members helped Carpenter decorate the set. The film was shot in southern California in spring, but leaves were hand-painted to make it look like October in Haddonfield, Illinois, where the film was set.
CARPENTER We were kids, and we wanted to be in the movie business. There wasn’t a lot of ego involved. Everybody was working together, and it was fun. You don’t get to have a whole lot of fun in movies.
NANCY LOOMIS (the babysitter Annie) John knew what he wanted technically, because he understood the medium. There was no reflection. It was just, “Let’s go out and make this movie, and let’s have fun.”
CARPENTER My job, plain and simple, was to scare the audience. It didn’t need to be anything more than that. The movie was a thrill ride.
Nowhere was Carpenter’s mastery more evident than in the movie’s opening, a five-minute single take from the killer’s point of view. He filmed it with a new camera, the Panaglide, that gave hand-held scenes a previously unseen smoothness.
CARPENTER The opening shot was a show-offy thing to do, when you think about the classic movies that have long tracking shots, like Touch of Evil and Scarface. It was a challenge, and that’s why it was exciting.
CURTIS That was the last day of shooting. Because it was such a limited budget, there were moments in the opening shot where electricians would run into another room as soon as the camera passed them, to light another corner. It was very exciting to watch.
CARPENTER The Panaglide had a movement that was unique. The camera swayed back and forth, and it added something really strange and spooky.
Also contributing to the film’s impact was its eerily effective score, composed by Carpenter and credited to the Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra. (The director had attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.)
CARPENTER I only had three days to write it, and the main title was a piano riff on my father teaching me 5/4 time on the bongos when I was 13. I thought it was unusual. I sat down at the piano, called my father and played it. It’s a very simple score. The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra was just me and the synthesiser professor at USC, a very nice man named Dan Wyman. We had no money, so that’s how you make a low-budget film.
LOOMIS The first time I saw the movie it was a rough cut without the music, and I thought, Oh, this is so forgettable. Then I went to a screening when the score was finished, and I was floored by how terrifying the movie was.
The film initially drew negative reviews and started slowly at the box office.
CARPENTER The first round of reviews, I was crapped on really badly as a director.
CURTIS It wasn’t a big success at first. I didn’t get any work from it, other than an episode of The Love Boat where I played my mother’s daughter. It was humiliating, but at the same time it was a gig. But Halloween built into a word-of-mouth hit and eventually earned raves from influential critics like Roger Ebert, who gave it four stars and likened it to Psycho.
CURTIS I remember going to see it in Hollywood, and in the middle of the movie, when Laurie is walking across the street to the house where PJ Soles’s character has just been strangled, this woman stood up and screamed, “Don’t go in there!” In that second I understood exactly what John intended. The audience cared about Laurie.
CARPENTER I was delighted when critics started praising it.
The movie ended up establishing the careers of Carpenter and Curtis.
CARPENTER It made my career. It got me noticed and associated me with horror films. It brought me work from then on.
CURTIS The stars fell on me, and I don’t know why. I’m almost 60 years old, and I’m sitting in a tower with a bodyguard outside my room talking to the New York Times.
Halloween became the most successful independent movie ever at the time of its release, grossing nearly $50 million (€43 million) domestically (about $180 million in today’s dollars, or €155 million in today’s values). Yet it also inspired a backlash among some feminist critics, who noted that the virginal Laurie survives while her promiscuous pals are slain.
PJ SOLES (the babysitter Lynda) That criticism is ridiculous. I mean, totally ridiculous!
LOOMIS The film is a very good example of where the patriarchy stood at that point. The fact that John has said that wasn’t intentional is really to the point. It was the norm.
CARPENTER The biggest mistake of my life was I went to get an award at a women’s film festival, and I was booed. I deserved it, I guess.
CURTIS The film has spawned a lot of PhDs, and that’s great, because we need more people who think.
In another sense the film advanced feminism, as it established Hill (who died at 54, in 2005) as a pioneering writer-producer and an influential advocate for equality.
LOOMIS Debra was pretty cutting-edge. She broke a lot of new ground, and she’s known for having helped many women gain access to positions that were otherwise unavailable to them.
RICHARDS As a child, seeing a woman in a powerful position did stand out to me. I remember thinking, Wow, this woman is one of the bosses.
SOLES Debra really was an inspiration, and it was John who, without a doubt, encouraged her forward momentum.
CURTIS She was very much a partner to John, but she was more than that. She was the voice of all three women in the film. I became very, very close friends with Debra, and I miss her terribly.
Although Michael Myers escapes at the end of the original Halloween, there were no plans for sequels or remakes – much less 10, including the 2018 version.
CURTIS It did not begin as a franchise. No one involved with the movie anticipated it would grow its own industry.
CARPENTER Michael’s disappearance at the end of the first film makes you gasp, and I wanted to leave the audience that way. I didn’t want any sequels. Boy, was I wrong, huh? – New York Times
Halloween opens on Friday, October 19th