Reviewing a Cult Franchise – Halloween (1978)

Since it’s October, the scariest month of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to take a deep look inside one of the most popular horror movie franchises in the world. Just to clarify, I will be reviewing every single Halloween film, including Halloween III: Season of the Witch which does not include Michael Myers and I will also be doing the Rob Zombie remakes. It will be a lot of work and with a holiday fast approaching, I should get going.

Halloween is a franchise just like any other, it’s had it’s ups and downs. Franchises are normally spawned if an idea for a film is of particular substance that it can be expanded into many different areas, make more films and gain more of a fan-base. The more fans, the more of an outcry there is for the continuation of the story. The ‘continuation’ part is where eventually film-makers start making their biggest mistakes and audiences have to keep an eye out as to where the motivation stops being about making a good film and starts being about making more money. Halloween is no exception. But one thing that all franchises (good or bad) do have in common, is their first film. So where better to begin than with ‘Halloween (1978).

The original concept for the first Halloween film came from Irwin Yablans, the co-founder of Compass International Pictures. The company was initially intended to be a distribution company for low budget films but in the early days, they and Joseph Wolf (the other co-founder of CIP) had no films to distribute. The only solution was to their problem was to produce a low budget film of their own. The idea that Mr Yablans came up with boiled down to nothing more than ‘teenagers are stalked by a psychotic killer’, a story-line which would be used for many more low budget horror films to come. Essentially, ‘Halloween’ gave birth to the ‘teen-slasher’ sub-genre of horror films. With just an idea, the next step was to find someone to write the script and to direct the film.

Enter… John Carpenter.

By now, every film fanatic has heard of John Carpenter but back in the 1970’s he hadn’t yet made a name for himself. Fresh out of film school, the only credits to John Carpenter’s name was an extended film school project, ‘Dark Star (1974)’ and ‘Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)’ which didn’t perform well at the time but did gain a lot of positive attention in the UK and across Europe.

Carpenter shared Yablans’ enthusiasm for the subject matter of making a horror film that was set on Halloween night and of calling the film ‘Halloween’ which to everyone’s surprise, had never been used as a title for a film before. Carpenter promised to deliver a film in four weeks, he would record the music, all with a budget of $300,000 and in return, he would have complete creative freedom and his name above the title, along with some other benefits.

The next step in the pre-production process was to obtain the $300,000. Yablans turned to a well respected film producer and director, Moustapha Akkad. At the time, Akkad was directing ‘Lion of the Desert (1981)’ and was approached with the story-line for ‘Halloween’. Yablans and Carpenter convinced Mr Akkad of the worthiness of their little project and he agreed to finance the movie.

Once John Carpenter and his producer, Debra Hill had finished the script, all they needed know was some young actors and actresses to fill the roles.

For the lead role of 17 year old, Laurie Strode, the part went to Jamie Lee Curtis who is the daughter of another legend from horror. Jamie’s mother, Janet Leigh, played Marion Crane who became the first on-screen victim of the now legendary serial killer, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the Hitchcock classic, Psycho (1960). ‘Halloween’ was Jamie Lee Curtis’ first movie.

As for the other cast member’s, the lively Lynda was played by P.J. Soles whose most recognizable film credit to date was that of the film adaptation of the Stephen King short story, Carrie (1974). Nancy Loomis played the Sheriff’s daughter, Annie Brackett and John Michael Graham played Lynda’s boyfriend, Bob.

The town of Haddonfield, Illinois where the film takes place is watched over by the town sheriff and Annie’s father, Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers).

Another very important casting decision needed to be made, one that would make film history. I am of course talking about the pivotal role of Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis. The role went to veteran actor, Donald Pleasence who had appeared in over 100 movies and TV shows before being cast in ‘Halloween’ in 1978. Donald Pleasence continued to be an essential element in the Halloween franchise, appearing in five of the original eight films before his death in 1995 at the age of 75.

Of course, the film would not be what it is today without the masked, knife wielding psychopath, Michael Myers. Oddly enough, in the original film, Michael Myers was not played by just one person. For the opening shot, a six year old Michael was played by Will Sandin and for the all important ‘unmasking’ shot towards the end, Tony Moran donned the grey boiler suit. Even Debra Hill played both the child Michael and adult Michael for certain shots. But for the majority of the shoot, Michael Myers was played by Nick Castle, a friend of John Carpenter and an aspiring film maker at the time.

Even though ‘Halloween’ was a low budget production, the film does contain several shots and sequences that were ambitious for such a production. The opening sequence is a fine example.

The opening sequence in ‘Halloween’ was scripted as being the scene in which a six year old Michael Myers brutally murders his sister, Judith with a kitchen knife. To achieve the desired effect for the scene, Carpenter used a Panavision version of a ‘steady cam’ called the ‘Panaglide’. A ‘steady cam’ is a rig which is attached to a cameraman’s body in order to achieve a steady, continuous moving shot.

Carpenter used the Panaglide throughout the opening sequence in order to achieve a POV (point of view) perspective of the killer. The audience would essentially be watching the murder through the killer’s eyes. However, from the point that the movie starts, the audience doesn’t know that the killer is a mere child. That fact is only revealed at the end of the opening, when the clown mask is removed from the young boy’s face. This shot was ambitious for a low budget production at the time and achieved the goal of horrifying the audience and set the stage for the mayhem still to come. The scene itself lasts around 4 and a half minutes and the entire thing was shot in one night.

‘Halloween’ also boasts a unique trend in horror films, something which has rarely been done since. If you were to watch the film from start to finish, you would hardly see a drop of blood throughout the entire running time. This was a stylistic choice on behalf of the writers and the director and I agree with the concept. Carpenter and Hill wanted their film to be full of ‘suspense’ scares rather than it be a gore-fest. In light of such films like ‘Dawn of the Dead (1978)’ and ‘Friday the 13th (1980)’ or basically anything Tom Savini ever did, gore has been embraced as something to scare the audience with. It still works but it’s a different kind of scare, one that horrifies as opposed to the kind of scare that has the audience forcing an imprint of their own buttocks on the edge of their seats.

I think the reason that ‘Halloween’ succeeded in this area was because Carpenter made Michael Myers appear to be something more than human. He was not a man of flesh and blood but rather evil personified. In fact in the script, Michael Myers was not referred to by name. He was dubbed ‘The Shape’. Something that could be anywhere at any time. No corner, no room, no place was safe from this unstoppable creature. Anyone could shoot him six times, blow him up, force him down a mine shaft, beat him with a hunk of wood, fill him full of toxic chemicals and even cut his head off and he would still come back for more. That is something to be truly terrified of any day of the year, never mind Halloween. Plus that mask gave me nightmares.

The mask does deserve some close observation. Why is it so scary? In the film, the mask is just a basic Halloween mask that was stolen by Michael Myers when he broke into a store. He also took some rope and a few knives. In reality, Michael’s mask is a William Shatner/Captain Kirk’ mask with some of the features altered and spray painted white. The result was a blank, featureless face, which I think is the point. Michael cannot express emotions. His face shows no feelings because he has none. That mask is a perfect representation of Michael’s demeanor. Having said that, anyone who gets close enough to see that mask, very rarely lives long enough to tell the tale.

A movie is all well and good but one thing that can make or break a film, especially a horror film, is the music. Visuals and music walk hand in hand as both of them create an atmosphere. The music to ‘Halloween’ was composed by John Carpenter in just three days at the end of production.

When someone looks underneath the surface of ‘Halloween’, one will see that it was always going to be success. The concept was original at the time, the production was fast moving but tight, the editing was slick, the music suspenseful but above all, and this cannot be said for most modern horror films, ‘Halloween’ had a set of characters. And when I say ‘characters’, I mean people that have personalities and aren’t just fodder to be randomly picked off.

Surprisingly, upon release ‘Halloween’ was not successful right away. The film had a limited release with the team moving from town to town. Time after time, the film had been rejected by major studios for distribution and given horrible reviews. It was not until ‘Halloween’ was shown at the Chicago Film Festival that the film gained more positive reviews and revenue. In fact today, ‘Halloween’ is the third highest grossing low budget horror film ever made, coming up behind ‘Paranormal Activity (2007)’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project (1999)’.

So, to sum up… ‘Halloween (1978)’ is fucking awesome and did indeed spawn a franchise. But as we all know, franchises have their ups and downs.

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