“Halloween” was a small film that made it big

It was strange scheduling but the BIO Channel over Easter weekend was
broadcasting as part of its “Inside Story” series the making of the
original “Halloween.”

Much like many creative projects that go on to become classics or
cultural icons, “Halloween” flourished from humble beginnings and had
its difficult times before reaching its status today as a major
player in the horror genre, generally credited as the movie that
ushered in the era of the slasher movie, which still has its share of fans. Some film
historians acknowledge two eras in horror films – BH and AH for
Before “Halloween” and After “Halloween.”

Using snippets of interviews from most of the driving force behind
“Halloween,” from executive producers Moustapha Akkad and Irwin
Yablans, to director and co-writer John Carpenter and producer
co-writer Debra Hill, to members of the production crew and from most
of the cast members, led by Jamie Lee Curtis, “Inside Story” offers a
lot of information on how this project, under a modest budget of
$325,000, became one of the biggest moneymakers of all time and
achieved its lofty standing in the realm of horror movies.

Carpenter, although inspired to go into movies after seeing the
sci-fi film “It Came From Outer Space” in 3D – yes, there was 3D in
the early 50s but not as prevalent as it is today – was drawn more to
the Western. His hero was Howard Hawks, a director with a massive
resume of crime dramas, romantic comedies but also known for his
Westerns collaborations with John Wayne. Carpenter, who was trained at
the USC film school, directed an updated version of Hawks’ “Rio
Bravo,” titled “Assault on Precinct 13,” another small film that has
a dedicated following and has been remade.

“Assault” caught the attention of the Akkad-Yablans team, and it was
Yablans who approached Carpenter with the idea of making a movie
about babysitters stalked by a killer. It was to be called “The
Babysitter Murders.” Carpenter was cool on the idea, but as a
then-unknown entity in the film business realized he could not be
choosy. Nevertheless, Carpenter made what were outrageous demands of
a person with so little in previous work. He insisted on complete
creative control and he wanted his name to appear above the title of
the movie, a la Howard Hawks. Carpenter promised that if those
conditions were met he could bring in the movie for its limited
budget. He was given the green light.

Carpenter needed to keep his costs in control and thus looked to
friends and colleagues to help him make the movie, including former
girlfriend Hill, whose only previous experience had been working on
set designs, and friends Tommy Lee Wallace, who would serve as
production designer and editor – two responsibilities he said cost him months of
sleep – and Dean Cundey as cinematographer.

Casting, of course, also had to be limited to inexperienced, low-cost
actors. The company did score a coup by getting Donald Pleasance to
agree to play the pivotal role of Dr. Loomis. Pleasance was agreeable
to meet with Carpenter because his daughter Angela was a fan of
“Assault on 13 Precinct.” Pleasance needed to work only five days
and was paid $25,000 for his effort.

Curtis, whose career was just starting out, was known more then as
the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and Leigh’s role as the
shower-stabbing victim in the classic of all slasher movies,
“Psycho,” made for a nice tie in. Unlike Leigh’s Marion Crane, who
engages in less than honorable behavior before her murder, Curtis’
Laurie Strode would become the classic “good” girl who manages to
survive.

Wallace was able to enlist the services of his ex-wife, Nancy Loomis,
to play one of Laurie’s doomed friends, Annie. PJ Soles was the only
other recognizable face in the movie, having a high-profile role as
one of Carrie White’s tormentors in Brian DePalma’s adaptation of
Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Soles, as Laurie’s partying friend Lynda, is
still recognized today for her character’s excessive use of the word
“totally” in the dialogue and for teasingly saying “see anything you
like?” as she exposes her upper body to what she thinks is her
boyfriend but actually is the killer.

It was Yablans who then came up with the idea that the movie take
place in Halloween night and be titled simply “Halloween.” With that,
Carpenter and Hill wrote the screenplay, with Hill writing all the
female dialogue.

The shooting schedule encompassed only 21 days in spring 1978 and was
shot in Southern California, notably the Myers house was located in
Pasadena. Since the story is taking place in Haddonfield, Illinois,
on Halloween, adjustments had to be made to make California look like
autumn in Illinois. This meant having fallen, dead leaves scattered
on the ground. According to Nancy (Loomis) Kyes, because of limited
staffing, the actors often had to do set preparation work, which she
said was a relief because “acting was boring.”

All of those on the set mentioned Carpenter’s attention to detail,
but others also were singled out for their creative work. Cundey
devised the dimming light process that produced the chilling scene of
the masked Michael Myers sneaking out of the darkened room to an
unaware Laurie in the hallway. Wallace was credited with the idea of
adding a cold touch on exterior house shots by using blue lighting.

The most difficult of the shooting took place on the final day. Now
that the scenes in and around the dilapidated Myers house were
wrapped up, the house could be used for the opening scene that shows
the initial murder committed by a then-child Michael on Halloween
1963. It was to be a single-tracking shot, meaning no cuts – an
effective style that was seen in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in
1958 and later used in the classic opening of Martin Scorses’
“Goodfellas.” The scene was to offer the view of the killer as he
walks towards the house, circles to a back door, enters through the
kitchen, moves through the dining room and upstairs to his teen
sister Judith’s bedroom, where he stabs her to death after she has
had sex with her boyfriend.

Because of limited resources, only portions of the house could be
revamped to look like a well-tended home in 1963. Thus the tracking
shot had to be carefully choreographed so that only the cleaned up
areas of the house are seen on film. The crew was using the Panaglide
camera, another version of the Steadicam, but back in 1978 although
it was more portable than the bulky film cameras used, it still was
about 40 pounds and operator Raymond Stella was pretty worn out after
several takes going up the stairs.

When the editing process was done, Carpenter took the film to an
unnamed producer in Hollywood, who did not give the film a positive
endorsement. This was before the now classic score had been added. In
fact it had not been written yet. So Carpenter, the son of a
musician, sat down and wrote the haunting music, using 5/4 time, that
is now ranked up there with John Williams’ scores for “Jaws,” “Star
Wars” and others as an iconic movie theme. Carpenter is amazed to
this day that he hears those haunting bars of music as ring tones on
cell phones. Film critic Carrie Rickey called the score a “music box
from hell.”

On second viewing of “Halloween,” now with the effective music, the
producer was more optimistic. However, “Halloween” had a rocky
beginning once it was released. Back in the late 1970s, when the
blockbuster film phenomenon had yet to be recognized, movies often
were distributed regionally rather than nationally. Early reviewers
panned the movie and it was a box-office flop. But when it hit the
east coast, it had two boosters – Tom Allen from Village Voice and
stellar film critic Roger Ebert. Soon word-of-mouth spread and
“Halloween” went from bust to success, grossing more than $50
million, which in today’s dollars easily exceeds the coveted $100
million mark.

Among the highlights of the “Inside Story” presentation are the
insights offered by cast members. Although sobering to see Soles and
Loomis, now in their 60s, showing the ravages of time, they both were
exuberant in their recollections of the movie. Curtis, in her
mid-50s, still looks youthful although her gray hair is telling.
Kyle Richards and Brian Andrews, who played the endangered children
Lindsey and Tommy whom Laurie must protect, are now grown up.
Richards recalled that although the shoot lasted only 21 days, she
felt it had taken forever. Andrews recalled that the scene, in which
he is taunted by bullies at school, tripped and falls on the
jack-o-lantern he is carrying, required several takes because the
pumpkin did not break. Eventually, the pumpkin had to be cut in
strategic places so it would break upon impact with the ground.

Nick Castle, who did most of the Michael Myers scenes, was remembered
by cast members as a sweet, funny guy, hardly a crazed killer.
For the unmasking scene, it was a given that Castle’s
face would not do. So Carpenter, seeking an “angelic” face, cast Tony
Moran for the scene, which encompasses just a few seconds. Castle
commented that his most difficult aspect was trying to get a
motivational foundation to his walking around. He recalled that
Carpenter would direct him be saying “just walk. It will be alright.”

Carpenter recalled setting up the final scene in which Dr. Loomis,
upon shooting Michael several times, with Michael falling off a
second-story balcony to the ground, peers down from the balcony to
see that Michael has disappeared. The scene was shot with two
reactions from Loomis – one was a hysterical reaction that Michael is
still alive. The other was the scene used, a far more effective shot
of Loomis appearing not to be surprised Michael is still alive – his
resigned concession that Michael Myers is indestructible.

Most of those interviewed for “Inside Story” believed that the
subsequent sequels diminished the impact of the creepy ending to
“Halloween.” When more movies came out that explored Michael’s
motivation, the eeriness of his enigmatic killing spree faded. Rob
Zombie’s remake of “Halloween” was a totally different film, focusing
primarily on Michael and the hellacious household he was raised in.

While Curtis agreed to be in “Halloween 2,” she left the franchise
but was instrumental in “Halloween H20″ in which she reprises her
role as Laurie 20 years after the initial “Halloween,” a single
mother with a drinking problem. Curtis wanted to end the franchise by
having Laurie decapitate Michael, killing him once and for all.

In the years that followed, Carpenter went on to direct many movies,
including the critically acclaimed “Starman” and “Escape from New
York.” Interestingly, he has not directed a movie since “Ghost of
Mars” in 2001. Lately he has served as a writer for Halloween-themed
film shorts.

Hill, now credited as a pioneer in women film producers, died of
cancer in 2005 at the age of 54. Akkad, co-executive producer of
“Halloween,” was killed in a terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan in
2005.

Of the cast, only Pleasance was eager to reprise his role as Loomis
in the “Halloween” franchise even though Loomis supposedly blew
himself up in “Halloween 2.” In fact, his final turn as Loomis in
“Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers,” was in the can when he
passed away in 1995 at the age of 75.

Soles would have one more movie hit in her career, playing Bill
Murray’s MP girlfriend in “Stripes.” She still acts but often in
small roles in small movies.

Curtis, who was tagged the title Scream Queen for her work in other
slasher movies, notably “Terror Train” and the original “Prom Night,”
did go on to a varied career in dramas and comedies, and has written
several children’s books and has starred in commerciasl as a
spokesperson for Activia yogurt.

One advantage for Curtis to being linked forever to Laurie Strode: “I
don’t have to dress up for Halloween. I can go as me.”

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