How To Be Scary: Talking ‘Halloween’ at 35 with John Carpenter

Thirty-five years ago, a little micro-budget film shot in three weeks about a young man terrorizing his neighborhood's babysitters premiered to zero fanfare, before catching fire and becoming a box office-shattering phenomenon.

Three-and-a-half decades later, we are still feeling the impact of "Halloween." Not only did it launch the career of actress Jamie Leigh Curtis and set its director, John Carpenter, on the road to Master of Horror status, but it gave birth to the modern slasher genre which remains a big screen staple to this day.

To commemorate the film's anniversary – as it is being re-released in a newly remastered DVD featuring commentary from Carpenter and Curtis – we spoke to its director by phone about the crazy tale of making "Halloween," its legacy, and what scares us on the screen.

Why do you think, with all the scares that have come and gone from the screen since then, that this film still has such a visceral impact?

John Carpenter: Gee, that’s a tough question. It was terribly simple, and it didn’t try to overdo things. Let me put it to you simpler. The antagonist, Michael Myers, was a character that was between a human and supernatural, was not either. So, it brought a different vibe to the horror film.

This was the key film of a new golden age of horror in the 1970's. Did it feel like something special was in the air?

JC: No. As a matter of fact, at the time, there was nothing really happening in the genre. I grew up on science fiction and horror movies. I took everything that I had seen and learned, and applied it and tried to do something one step from what had been done. There had been some great 60's and 70's horror films before “Halloween.” Two of them I can think of, one was “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero invented the zombie movie. And “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper’s classic about this Texas family. So, there were some great things that were done. But I just took this stripped-down little horror movie, and added a bunch of tension and shock tricks that hadn’t been put together before.

How did “Halloween” come about for you?

JC: I was at the London Film Festival, and I met an investor who himself had directed a couple things, Moustapha Akkad, who was going to invest in little, low-budget horror movies. He and I met, and he was interested in American films and where I had come from. A little bit later, the head of this distribution company, low-budget distribution company, Irwin Yablans, approached me and said, “This guy’s going to put up some money. Let’s make 'The Babysitter Murders,' and the reason we were going to make 'The Babysitter Murders' is because every teenager in American can relate to babysitting." That was the premise of it all. Let’s do a movie about a killer who’s stalking babysitters, and it evolved from there. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, if I can have complete creative control, and my name above the title.” That’s what happened.

How does Michael fit into the tradition of movie monsters, like the noble monsters of classic horror?

JC: Well, they were all specific. Frankenstein was a poor creature made out of human parts and given life. Dracula was a vampire. But Michael Myers wasn’t anything but pure evil. It was like a force of nature. And he wore a mask. There had been masks before, but none like this. It had the features of a human face, but it was blank, just like who he was was blank. It was odd, when you think about it, because it doesn’t make any sense. The movie doesn’t make any sense, but it worked.

How did you set out to make this scary in a way that was different then what came before?

JC: Well, the music, the look, it’s a Panavision horror film. Little low-budget movies weren’t shot in wide-screen. It had the opening sequence of a point of view, which was different, just a bunch of things about it that started you off on that, that way. It used a lot of wide-screen trickery, foreground, background shadows, just all sorts of things going on.

You have daytime sequences that are every bit as creepy as the nighttime. How did you achieve that?

JC: Yes, oh yeah. Let’s have him everywhere, during the day, during the night. It’s a little easier, the nighttime, because you’ve got a lot of shadows and darkness to hide things, but in the daytime, you have to use different kinds of tricks.

How did you cast the leads in the film, Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles, and Donald Pleasance?

JC: Jamie Lee was a discovery of the producer, Debra Hill, and she came in and read. She was perfect, just a really delightful 19-year-old at the time. She was under contract at Universal. She was doing a TV series, but she was just great. P.J. I had seen and liked in “Carrie,” I thought she was terrific in that. Donald Pleasance was not my first choice. I wanted Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but they didn’t want to be involved in this little low-budget, trashy horror film. So, Donald agreed. He became a real close friend of mine.

How did they take to the material? Did they naturally get what you were doing and where it was going?

JC: All the girls did. The girls understood it perfectly. Donald Pleasance came over, and I met him for the first time for lunch, and he said, “I don’t understand this movie. I don’t understand my character. I don’t know why I’m doing this. Well, the reason I’m doing it is because my daughter is in a rock and roll band in London, and she liked the music to your last film, ‘Assault on Precinct 13.’ So, that’s why I’m here, but it just absolutely terrified me.” He and I became very close, and he’s just a tremendously underrated actor, tremendous.

His speech about what Michael Myers is sets the tone for the whole thing.

JC: Oh, a bunch of speeches. Yeah, he’s laying it on thick for the audience, because there’s nothing else there. This is a little, tiny low-budget movie.

Did you think of, sorry to get symbolic about it, but did you think of Mike Myers as sort of representing the evil that’s sublimated in society?

JC: No, no, no. No, no. That’s way too deep. We were just trying to make a movie. No, no, no, no. He wasn’t anything. It was the lack of what he was. Who knows why he kills his sister in the beginning? We don’t know. We see her fooling around with this boyfriend of hers, and he kills her for it. Well, that doesn’t make any sense, but he’s driven by something. I just like to think of him as a force of evil.

What was it like shooting this film? You did it in three weeks?

JC: Yeah. It was a blast. It was so much fun. Everybody was pulling to make this movie, and I now realize what the business is like, mostly, but then, it was a just absolutely, tremendously fun experience. We were all having a blast.

Working with the cast, how did you get them to keep up that constant sense of tension when you’re intentionally not showing that much gore?

JC: For most of the movies, the cast, except for Jamie Lee, doesn’t pay any attention to what’s going on. They’re just playing these normal characters. So, they’re not having to be that. Jamie had to carry the tension. She’s the one, what’s going on across the street? What’s going on here, what’s happening?

You composed and played the music to this famed score all yourself. How did you coming up with such a spooky score?

JC: Well, the reason I became a composer was that I’m cheap and I’m fast. We didn’t have any money to hire a composer and an orchestra or anything like that. So, the main theme, the theme that everybody’s familiar with, was something my father taught me. He taught me five-four time on a bongo: ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. He taught me how to pound it out, and so I just adapted it to piano with octaves: Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, and went up a half step. I had played around with that for years, just as – what could this be? On “Assault on Precinct 13,” I had one day to do the music. On “Halloween,” I had a total of three days. So, a lot of it was just different mood pieces. I didn’t score it from top to bottom. It was just a few pieces here and there of different moods and different feeling. So, I just banged it out, and it’s all improv. All this is just improvisation.

How did you cast Mike Myers?

JC: That’s one of my best friends from film school. He knew how to move, walk, and I wanted him to walk. I didn’t want him to be a monster. I just wanted him to walk like a man.

And how did you find the William Shatner mask Michael wears?

JC: We needed a mask, and the production designer, Tommy Lee Wallace, went up to Burt Wheeler’s magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and bought a Captain Kirk mask. Now, this Captain Kirk mask looks nothing like William Shatner, nothing. It’s ridiculous-looking, but he spray-painted it white and did some stuff on the hair, cut the eye holes a little bit bigger. He says, “Is this what you’re thinking?” I thought it was perfect.

How did you feel when this little film came out and became such a hit?

JC: It didn’t start out as a big hit. It came out, and didn’t do very well. The reviews were awful, just awful. We were destroyed. They thought it was a piece of s---. Then word of mouth began to spread on it. People began to go see it, so the box office started building. Then, it was re-reviewed in the Village Voice, and all of a sudden, things turned around.

When did you realize it was catching on?

JC: I was on another project. I was shooting a TV movie called “Elvis.” That’s where I met Kurt Russell, and we were shooting this crazy schedule. One night, these executives from Amco Amnesty came to visit me. “Well, how you doing? We’d like to make movies with you.” I realized, they’re not here just to be nice. They’re here because “Halloween” is starting to make money. So, that’s when I first got an inkling that things were going well.

How do you feel about the slasher genre that’s followed “Halloween”?

JC: Well, it started with “Psycho.” That invented, if you want to call it, the slasher genre. That invented it. So, I just took it to a different level. I think the reason that so many movies follow “Halloween” wasn’t because of its artistic triumph. It was because these producers took a look and said, “Well, look at what they did for little money, and they made a bunch of money. We can do that.”

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