Aspiring American movie producer Irwin Yablans was very impressed with John Carpenter’s sophomore full length feature thriller. Made on a minuscule budget of $100,000 Assault on Precinct 13 was daringly original with its distinctive color pallet, gritty realism, eerie soundtrack and solid acting.
In fact Yablans was so impressed–and inspired–that on a flight back to Los Angeles from the London Film Festival, he mapped out the idea for a horror movie that suddenly dawned on him. He set up a meeting with Carpenter at the Hamburger Hamlet on the Sunset Strip and pitched it to him.
“I said, I have this idea to do a movie about a bunch of babysitters being terrified on Halloween. But I want it to be theater of the mind. Think Psycho and The Exorcist. We won’t show any blood and gore. I said it was like a radio show. You set the audience up and let them scream. John and I, we connected immediately. He said, ‘I know exactly what you want to do.’ ”
Collaborating with then girlfriend and fellow screenwriter Debra Hill, Carpenter wrote the script in ten days tentatively naming it The Babysitter Murders. Yablans suggested the title Halloween instead and Carpenter, who had demanded full creative control (writing, directing, and scoring the musical soundtrack) in exchange for accepting a paltry salary of $10,000 and ten percent of the profits, agreed.
Filmed in twenty-one days on a budget of $300,000, Halloween premiered in Kansas City, Missouri on October 25, 1978. The premier garnered respectable numbers for an independent film. The next night, though, was a harbinger of the success to come.
“The numbers were double. The third night, they quadrupled. This means everybody who saw this picture felt compelled to go home and tell somebody else to go see it.” Irwin Yablans
Halloween went on to gross 70 million dollars, making it the most profitable independent film in cinematic history, until The Blair Witch Project bested it some twenty years later. The movie established John Carpenter as viable directorial star by showcasing his own distinctive film signatures, e.g., minimalism, natural lighting, claustrophobic framing, innovative music score, indestructible killer with tropes borrowed from other horror sub genres, molding a template for the slasher film prototype. In 2006 John Carpenter’s Halloween was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Precursors of the Halloween prototype:
The Scarlett Claw (1944) – director, Roy William Neill, starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce – A Sherlock Holmes movie, that employs the use of a distinctive weapon (a gardening tool) to dispatch victims. The camera focuses on the disguised killer’s arm as he raises “the claw” menacingly in the air and then repeatedly strikes. Fine use of special effects, camera work and music.
The Spiral Staircase (1946) – director,Robert Siodmark, starring Dorthy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore – Sophisticated thriller that blends elements of Gothic horror, psychological horror and film noir. Early use of mystery killer’s first person camera perspective, victim stalking and menacing black leather gloves visual.
Psycho (1960) – director, Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins – Undoubtedly the quintessential psychological horror film and precursor to the slasher. The first American film to thoroughly, unashamedly examine erotic violence. Tremendous use of musical score, foreshadowing, the light to dark motif, setting and subliminal terror. A harrowing, unabashed masterpiece. British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom proceeded Psycho by a few months and is an equal masterpiece in many respects and is similar in theme.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – director, Tobe Hooper, cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain – Shoestring budget exploitation film that emphasizes the dreaded remote location with documentary style camera work and disconcertingly, beautiful cinematography. Utilizes the “final girl”, “masked, lumbering killer” and “unusual weapon” trope.
Black Christmas (1974) – director, Bob Clark, starring Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea – Canadian, horror, mystery that employs the killer’s first person camera perspective, creepy, obscene phone calls, i.e., Get out! The call is coming from your house!! juxtaposed against a holiday setting. Deploys ensemble college age cast, strong female lead, feminist themes and ambiguous ending.
Deep Red (1975) – director, Dario Argento, starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Giuliana Calandra – Stylistic, Italian horror film with a complex plot, gobs of gratuitously choreographed violence and buckets of blood. Features an unidentified killer wearing black leather gloves, serial killings during the Christmas season, an unusual, deeply unsettling method of killing, a spooky children’s song and creepy doll. Deep Red is considered a horror masterpiece. View with caution.