There are very few movies in history that you can look at and point to and say… There. That one started it. With the “it” being an entire genre (or sub genre) of film. A bona fide lineage of films that follow in its footsteps.
“Halloween” is one such movie.
There are 293 films on IMDb with the keyword “Slasher Flick”. Of those, only 12 were released prior to “Halloween”, of those only six were American movies. Of those six, the highest user rating is “The Gore Gore Girls” at 5.2.
You can be assured that none of those films launched the slasher movie craze that dominated horror through the 80s and most of the 90s.
No, that honor belongs to “Halloween”.
In “Halloween: A Cut Above” (a special feature documentary), Executive Producer Irwin Yablans tells that “Halloween” began with his decision to make a horror film. However, he had severe budgetary restrictions, so he had to think of how he could do a horror movie cheaply. The idea came to him to do a horror movie revolving around babysitters, because everyone had either had a babysitter, or had been a babysitter. Plus it was a great excuse to put children in jeopardy.
The idea was to have it take place in one night was a budgetary decision. If the story is told in one day you need less costumes, less locations. And what a better day/night for a horror movie to be set on than Halloween.
Surely though, that title had been taken. Some other movie had to have been named “Halloween” already. No, according to Yablans, their research at the time discovered that not only had that title not been used, that WORD had never been used in a title. This movie was the first movie to be called “Halloween” anything.
With the concept of “The Babysitter Murders” (the stories original title) in hand, Yablans brought in a young director with two titles under his belt. John Carpenter. All the sources I’ve drawn from for this write up are quick to point out that the biggest line on Carpenter’s resume at the time was that “Assault on Precent 13” was critically praised… in Europe.
Still, Yablans had his man, and he would fit into the budgetary restraints. Carpenter promised to bring the movie in for less than $300,000 if he had complete creative control and his name above the title.
Yablans readily agreed.
Carpenter was enthused, and set out to write “The Babysitter Murders” with his girlfriend, Debra Hill. Yablan’s suggestion to set the film on Halloween night, however, influenced the story…
“…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 when 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.” – Debra Hill (Wikipedia)
Budgetary considerations permeated the production of the film. Per IMDb, a full half of the $320,000 budget was spent on the Panavison cameras so the film would have a 2:35:1 scope. $10,000 went to Carpenter up front (plus 10% of the profits), and $20,000 to Donald Pleasance (for five days of shooting).
By my math, leaves $130,000 for the rest of the cast, crew and production.
Not a lot of money for big name stars.
But they had a chance to get an actress they could promote as a star, Jamie Lee Curtis.
Though not the first choice for the role (Anne Lockhart turned Carpenter down) Jamie Lee Curtis was PERFECT for this role. Not merely because of the excellent performance she would turn in, but also because of her parentage. Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, both huge names in Hollywood. Plus, her mother starred in “Psycho”, a film which “Halloween” obviously draws upon and would inevitably be compared to. Jamie Lee was a contract player for Universal at the time, with a handful of television credits and no movies to her name. But by casting her in this movie the producers could promote her as the heir to the scream queen throne… It was her birthright.
The script was completed in three weeks. The film was shot in 20 days. A number of the people who worked on the film were friends of Carpenter and Hill, and worked for free. The cast wore their own clothes. Carpenter scored the movie himself… Yes, that’s the director who wrote and played the infamous 5/4 time piano riff theme song. Incredible.
The infamous William Shatner Halloween mask that Michael Myers wears wasn’t some brilliant production design… they couldn’t talk the mask manufacturer that they approached into taking a cut of the profits to design an original mask! And they couldn’t afford to have a mask custom made if they had to pay up front! So they went to a costume store, bought the cheapest mask they could (Shatner’s, $1.98), removed the sideburns, spray painted it white, cut bigger eye holes in it and mussed up the hair. Voilà! A legend is born.
But as it turns out, all of these restrictions were serendipitous.
The end result was a film that feels real. Authentic.
Everyone could relate to the characters… the kids, or the partying teenagers, or the babysitter.
But most of all, I think people could relate to the setting. If you lived in suburban America, this movie took place in your town. In your neighborhood. On your street.
And that’s a stroke of genius. Unlike previous well known horror movies revolving around killers… say for example, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Psycho”… the victims here had not gotten lost. They weren’t somewhere they shouldn’t be, they hadn’t wandered off and into some trap. They were home. And if you could relate to the setting, part of you felt as if you were being shown your home.
Home is supposed to be safe.
Of course, home is not safe. Not when Michael Myers is on the loose.
Myers is a primal character. In many ways, the ideal horror villain. Stoic. Non verbal. Physically imposing. Unstoppable. Unrelenting. He lurks in the shadows, stalks his prey deliberately, kills with power and inhuman strength. He is given no motivation beyond “being evil”. His mask allows him to be a blank slate. The viewer can project their own fears onto it.
He began to kill as a child. Spying on his sister fooling around and then stabbing her to death viciously. That a child could be so evil, so perverse… that he would stab people to death… it’s confounding. Hard to rationalize. Children that young are supposed to be innocent, not evil. The only explanation you can come up with is he was “born evil”.
One of the children in the film refers to him as “The Boogeyman”.
And he is.
The audience is told as much. Another incredible thing Myers has going for him is the greatest “Ahab” in horror history, Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis. The character served as a psychiatrist to the youthful Michael Myers, and now that Myers has escaped, he’s the only person who realizes the type of monster that is now on the loose.
I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, 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 what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.
Loomis scrambles to sound the alarm and warn the villagers, but in doing so, he raises OUR fears. It’s as if Myers has a publicist in the movie, loudly proclaiming what a horrifying evil he is. For us, the viewers, it serves to give Myers a mythological sense of proportion. He’s a force of nature, an abomination. Loomis serves less as a protector than as a prophet of doom, foretelling the coming slaughter with the zeal of a Pentecostal preacher.
And at the end, when his best shots fail to kill Myers, the “I knew we couldn’t stop him” look on his face might as well say, “He shall rise again”.
Through a magical combination of the right talent, the right timing, and a tight budget that proved a blessing in disguise, a horror classic was born. Not being able to afford gore and special effects, the movie relied heavily on suspense. Carpenter was kept on his toes, forced to be innovative. Creative.
It all worked.
Audiences responded in a major way. In spite of the fact that no major distributor wanted it and it had to have a limited release, word of mouth spread, and the box office take grew exponentially over time as city after city got their much-anticipated opening of the film. The small film – shot on a $320,00 budget – became the most profitable independent film ever (at the time). It grossed $47 million dollars domestically, and another $13 million internationally.
The movie spawned a host of imitators. It became the template for the genre. The steadicam first person perspective shots representing the killer’s point of view. The promiscuous, substance abusing teenaged victims. The monstrous, silent, indefatigable killer with a hidden identity. It set an entire sub genre in motion. A sub genre that would dominate horror, and movie releases overall for a time. Movie after movie after movie followed it’s blueprint. No holiday was safe from being used as a title and setting for a slasher film. IMDb may have 293 titles with the “Slasher Flick” keyword, but Slasher film fan site “A Slash Above” lists 537 of them.
“Halloween” is still, today, one of the most referenced, esteemed, cherished horror movies of all time.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”