Halloween (1978): Director Carpenter on Making the Cult Horror Film

John Carpenter is still best known for 1978 classic Halloween, in which a masked bogeyman named Michael Myers stalks the streets of suburban Illinois (actually South Pasadena) to terrorize a bookish babysitter named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role that made her a star–sort of).

Halloween (1978) theatrical poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster by Robert Gleason

Made for $300,000, the film went on to gross more than $70 million and launched the 1980s slasher craze. It also has spawned nine sequels of varying  artistic quality, which together have earned more than $362 million.

Carpenter also directed other genre-films such as Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988).

Regional Release:

John Carpenter: Halloween was released regionally. It moved city to city, just a few prints, and the reviews were horrible. I remember one memorable review: “Carpenter does not work well with actors.” And I thought, “Oh my God, I’m being put down across the country.”  But it was a word-of-mouth movie, so I didn’t really feel the success of it for quite a while. I was on the sidelines.

Original Goal:

JC: I was just trying to make a little horror movie. We had very little money and a very young cast except for Donald Pleasance, who was great as a psychiatrist — with a gun, which is fun. But it was a movie where the main character, the guy in the mask, really isn’t altogether human. He has no characteristics. He’s almost like a machine. He was just pure evil. That was what I intended to do. It’s evil out of nothing, evil from no background, which completely creeps me out as human being, that evil could arrive at my doorstep without a purpose, without a past, without an origin.

The Mask

JC: There was a choice we had to make, because we didn’t have any money to make a mask. So the art director went up to Bert Wheeler’s magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard, which was right up the street from our offices, and he got two masks. One was a clown mask, and one was a Captain Kirk mask. It was supposed to be Captain Kirk. It looked nothing like William Shatner, nothing like anybody, really. It was just a strange mask, which was perfect for us. So we spray-painted it, altered the eye holes and just did a couple things with the hair. I like to think it’s Shatner, but it’s not really.

Revisiting the Movie:

JC: I don’t watch the film anymore. I can’t handle it! I see all the mistakes. I watch a little bit and say, “What was I thinking? Why did I do that?!” I just as soon not watch it.  All my films are unwatchable to me. I can’t see them anymore. I can’t stand it. I cannot take it.

Casting Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode?

JC: I wasn’t aware of her as an actress. She came into the office, very pretty girl, very nice. She just nailed the part in terms of the hard part, which is the dialogue sounding real. I thought, she could do this. She was just great, and everything came easy to her: the tension, the screams.  I had a great cast. She’s had a great career, and Jamie and I have remained friends.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

JC: The idea was to do a different story. I thought that we were done with telling stories about Michael Myers and the guy in the mask. I thought there’s not much more to say. So we thought we’d come up with a new story every year. We could call it Halloween, but it didn’t have to do anything with Michael Myers. We approached Nigel Kneale, a British sci-fi writer who did some great stuff, to see if he had any ideas, and he did. He had the central idea for Halloween III.

JC: I haven’t seen it in a long time. I like the movie a lot. It’s kind of a subversive movie but very interesting. I provided a score for it. I hadn’t really done that before, provide a score for a movie I didn’t direct. I can’t even remember writing it! I just know it exists.

Score for Halloween

JC: It’s pretty simple stuff. I’m a pretty simple musician. DMy father taught me 5/4 time on the bongos. He gave me a set of bongos for Christmas one year. I must have been 13 or 14. And he taught me the 5/4 time: BA ba pa BA ba pa BA pa BA ba pa. And so I just took that and used some octaves on the piano and came up with it.  Old-time tube synthesizers you used to have tune up. It’s unbelievable when you see the technology today. I just had an album out called Lost Themes, and the technology we used for that compared to what we used for Halloween.

For Halloween, I had to score a movie, and I had three days to do it. This was an improvement on Assault on Precinct 13–I had one day to score that movie. It’s all practical on my part, because nobody could afford a composer or an orchestra. This was a way to sound somewhat big with limited resources.

Favorite Shot in Halloween

JC: It’s a shot near the beginning of the movie of an empty street and some leaves just sort of drop in the foreground, and I think it says “Haddonfield, Illinois” or something like that. I love that shot.

Opening: Shooting through the eyes of young Michael Myers’ mask?

JC: The opening was one complicated single shot. We shot in one direction, went through the house and came out the other direction. We had to change all the lights while the shot was going on. We came up the stairs, murdered the sister, came back downstairs. So it was just complicated to do. We added the mask in postproduction.

Young Michael’s Hand?

JC: It was actually Halloween producer Debra Hill’s hand, opening the drawer, holding the knife.


Production Notes