This article is part of Yahoo’s ‘On This Day’ series.
John Carpenter’s Halloween premiered with little fanfare at the AMC Empire theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, 43 years ago on this day, 25 October, 1978. Little did the audience know that they were witnessing the start of a cinematic revolution.
Carpenter’s previous films Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 had failed to trouble the US box office (they would later go on to be cult hits), and the film’s stars — Donald Pleasance and the as-yet-unknown Jamie Lee Curtis — were hardly considered big hitters at the box office, so expectations for this low budget ‘boogeyman’ film were low.
But this miraculous film — shot over 21 days for just $300,000 — went on to take $70m globally making it one of the most profitable films ever made, spawning an eleven-film franchise that continues to this day. The latest entry — Halloween Kills — is currently killing it at the box office.
It also single-handedly gave birth to the slasher genre that defined horror for the following decade and beyond. Like its bemasked, murderous protagonist Michael Myers, John Carpenter’s Halloween is a franchise that simply won’t die, but what’s the secret?
One thing that certainly helps keep the series alive is that title. Having a spooky film named after an annual spooky event is a stroke of marketing genius, but it could have been very different.
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Carpenter and his then-girlfriend Debra Hill took a more Ronseal approach to the title, calling it The Babysitter Murders in early drafts of the script. Indie film producer Irwin Yablans, who sought out Carpenter after seeing Assault on Precinct 13, suggested setting the film on 31 October and naming it after the annual celebration of all things supernatural, and Carpenter quickly saw the value in that.
Every year as Halloween approaches, a new generation of horror fans discovers the series purely through its name alone. However, as Garry Marshall’s forgettable rom-com trilogy Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and Mother’s Day will attest: a movie with a memorable title will quickly be forgotten if the film isn’t up to scratch.
Luckily, the original Halloween really delivers the goods. Despite spawning ten sequels, the 1978 film is still the best, and it remains one of the greatest horrors ever made even by 2021’s standards.
Kicking off with a rug-pulling flashback scene set in 1963, that introduces us to the psychotic terror of Michael Myers with a long tracking shot through a suburban house, John Carpenter sets out his stall early doors, grabbing the audience’s attention from the very first frame.
We then flash-forward to 30 October, 1978 where we meet Donald Pleasance’s series stalwart Dr. Samuel Loomis who is treating the grown up Michael Myers in a sanatorium. Michael quickly escapes, and his reign of terror over Haddonfield, Illinois really kicks off.
“Throughout the film, you have Dr. Loomis tearing around Haddonfield trying to tell people that Michael is ‘Pure Evil’,” explains Daniel Krupa, co-host of Halloween: The ‘Definitive’ Companion podcast. “He’s dismissed as a bit of a crackpot, but he’s being quite literal.”
We’re then introduced to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, the long-time hero of the series, who has appeared in seven of the eleven films released so far. It’s a career-making performance from the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh, who went on to become a global megastar off the back of the film.
But it’s Michael Myers himself who is the real star of the show. Simply named ‘the shape’ in the script, Myers is a moral void: A relentless looming physical presence that simply wants to kill, stalking the people of Haddonfield like a shark.
Michael begins pursuing Laurie during the daytime, and it’s a simple shot of the shape stood watching his prey walk down a leafy suburban street in broad daylight that really sends shivers up the spine. This could be any street in any part of the world. This could be your street. And Michael Myers is brazenly just stood there. Watching. Waiting. Ready to kill.
“He’s completely relentless yet has no discernible motivations, which is utterly terrifying,” adds Daniel Krupa. “He’s as blank as the mask that he wears.”
That distinctive — and easily replicated for Trick or Treating — look is key to his appeal. The blue overalls, the heavy boots, and that indiscernible white death mask. He never speaks. Never slows. Never ages. Never stops.
The look for Myers came out of the low budget constraints of the picture. Filmmaker Tommy Lee Wallace was hired by Carpenter as production designer, art director, location scout and co-editor, and he was responsible for cobbling together a costume for Carpenter’s friend Nick Castle who played ‘the shape’.
“The idea was to make him almost humourless, faceless — this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not,” said co-writer Debra Hill. A clown mask was considered first, but then Wallace picked up a Captain Kirk mask for $1.98 from Burt Wheeler’s Magic Shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and the rest was history.
“[Wallace] widened the eye holes and spray-painted the flesh a bluish white. In the script it said Michael Myers’ mask had ‘the pale features of a human face’ and it truly was spooky looking. It didn’t look anything like William Shatner after Tommy got through with it,” Carpenter recalled.
Carpenter’s incredibly simple effective synth-heavy score was the final piece of the puzzle. Composed over just three days, the film’s theme is as recognisable as Michael himself, and was another example of creativity coming out of the film’s financial constraints.
After its October debut though, Carpenter thought he had a turkey on his hands. “I thought I’d made a bomb in Halloween. Seriously, I did,” he recently told Total Film. “Initially, it was a regional release. And it got a bunch of bad reviews. Some of them I took to heart.”
Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael witheringly said: “[Halloween] satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.”
But after the film opened in New York, it slowly became a word of mouth hit, expanding into more and more cinemas as the weeks went on. Carpenter had already begun working on his made-for-TV Elvis film with Kurt Russell, but says that he began to get very popular around Christmas time.
“All my friends were looking at me like I was keeping some secret, and studio people wanted to meet with me,” said Carpenter.
He was able to parlay the success of the film it into an incredibly successful Hollywood career going on to make Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China and more. He’s still involved with the Halloween film, contributing to the scores for recent reboots Halloween and Halloween Kills.
But perhaps the biggest legacy of the film was the birth of the slasher genre. Although the subgenre had been around for a while (aficionados cite 1960’s Peeping Tom and Psycho as early examples), and had gained popularity with 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, the commercial success of Halloween paved the way for the franchising of the trope.
Halloween, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Child’s Play, Candyman, Scream and beyond all spawned multiple sequels, even influencing the Halloween series itself, with mixed results.
“Halloween really suffers from an anxiety of influence,” says Krupa, who cites 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later as the franchise’s most interesting sequel.
“There’s a 7-year gap between the second and fourth films (Michael didn’t even appear in the third), in which time Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street really exploded in popularity. So the later Halloween films get caught between the restraint of Carpenter’s original and the spectacular kills of those other series.”
However slashers continue to draw audiences, expanding and growing with sequels, prequels, remakes, television shows, and video games.
Long may Halloween’s reign of terror continue.
Watch a trailer for Halloween Kills