John Carpenter's Halloween

It’s that time of year again, time for candy and masks and bats. I’m not sure why I singled bats outs, especially when we have them year-round here in Austin. But they fit right in during Halloween, the holiday that seems to be everyone’s favorite these days. So what better time than now to bring to you a Commentary Commentary on John Carpenter’s horror classic, Halloween?

It doesn’t hurt that Halloween is my all-time favorite film, a film I’m sure I’ve seen more than 100 times, no exaggeration. Okay, maybe a little exaggeration, but I’d be shocked to learn the number of times I’ve sat through it is far South of that. So here, presented in all its black and orange – but really just black – wonder, is the list of things I learned from the Halloween commentary.

Halloween (1978)

Commentators: John Carpenter (writer, director), Debra Hill (writer, producer), Jamie Lee Curtis (actress), and some annoying announcer guy who needed to be edited out.

  • Originally Carpenter wanted Halloween to open with a dolly shot down one of the streets in Haddonfield. The shot would have come upon a mask in a gutter, but Carpenter felt the slow push-in on the glowing pumpkin would have set a better mood for the story that was about to unfold.
  • According to Carpenter, Halloween was originally panned by most critics, who said the movie “wasn’t frightening”, “stupid”, “too low-budget”, and a “dumb idea”. Producer Debra Hill had set him clippings of these reviews, which made Carpenter extremely mad. A review in the Village Voice compared Halloween to Psycho, Carpenter to Alfred Hitchcock, and suddenly the positive reviews began to change. Critics re-reviewed the film, and the film’s box office began to climb.
  • The opening sequence of the film inspired by the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the single shot that moves around the streets of a small, Mexican border town. Carpenter also mentions the style of the film was inspired by Hitchcock. Carpenter notes the style was “driven by simplicity”, something that would completely lost on Rob Zombie 30 years later. Carpenter doesn’t say that. I say that.
  • The hand that pulls the kitchen drawer open and grabs the knife as well as grab the clown mask off the floor is, in actuality, Debra Hill’s hand.
  • According to Jamie Lee Curtis, the Myers’ house was actually as decrepit as it is for most of the movie. The opening sequence was the last thing shot, and the entire crew spent an entire night washing it, furnishing it, and making it appear to be in use. She also mentions, since there weren’t enough lights on set, the crew were working behind the scenes as the shot was being taken, moving lights from one room to another as the camera passed them.
  • Debra Hill mentions the nudity at the beginning of the film is the only nudity in the movie. I think PJ Soles might have something(s) that negate that later on. Hill also mentions Judith Myers’ death at the beginning is the only real violence in the film. There’s a knife in a wall and a phone cord that might have responses to that. Has Hill seen this movie?
  • According to Carpenter, Donald Pleasence only did Halloween because his daughter liked Assault on Precinct 13. Pleasence didn’t understand Halloween’s screenplay. Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, he’s crystal. That wacky Donald Pleasence.
  • The Dr. Loomis role was originally offered to Christopher Lee, who passed on it. Year’s later, Hill ran into Lee, who said he regretted not taking the role
  • When Michael Myers, played in the early escape scene by Nick Castle, smacks the window of the car, Carpenter points out you can see him holding a wrench.
  • Debra Hill is originally from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Haddonfield, Illinois, in the Halloween movies was named after her hometown. According to her, rumors about Halloween being based on a true story that happened in her hometown started.
  • Shot in Pasadena, Carpenter and his crew made every effort to keep palm trees out of the shot, since the movie takes place in Illinois. They don’t always succeed. You can see palm trees in the background of some shots. I’m originally from Illinois, and I can attest there are no palm trees unless you’re in a seafood restaurant. This gives me an idea for a Halloween remake set entirely in a seafood restaurant. Surely someone will finance that.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis thought she would be fired after the first day of shooting. That night Carpenter called Curtis, who thought she was about to be let go. He obviously didn’t. The fact that she was Janet Leigh’s daughter probably didn’t hurt. According to Hill, Curtis wasn’t Carpenter’s first choice. She says he wanted the daughter of the person on Lassie. Oh, yeah. Her.
  • Carpenter wanted to set Laurie Strode up as a lonely character. He mentions the movie was criticized by critics who felt the movie was saying Laurie’s friends who have boyfriends deserved their ultimate fates and Laurie, a virgin, survived because of this. Carpenter notes this is absolutely true, that Laurie’s friends are killed off because they’re too busy to notice what is going on around them. Hill also mentions there was never a conscious effort to make the virgin of the group be the sole survivor. She believes it was critics trying to place some sense of morality on the film that made this such an important aspect to the film, one that several horror movies after would take on, as well.
  • Originally, the screenplay had a phone conversation between Dr. Loomis and his wife. It was Donald Pleasence’s idea to cut this dialogue out of the film. He didn’t want his character to have a family or even a past. Carpenter was afraid to disagree wit him at the time, so the moment was cut.
  • The Phelps Garage truck Dr. Loomis discovers also served as the craft services truck on set when not being used in the film.
  • 19:56, some guy’s voice randomly comes in announcing Jamie Lee Curtis, as if she hadn’t been speaking this whole time anyway. I wonder how much that guy gets paid. It can’t be enough.
  • 21:06, that same guy announces Debra Hill. Okay, we get it, dude. You’re important. Can someone announce me whenever I’m about to speak? That wouldn’t get old in a hurry.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t see herself as the repressed virgin, and was surprised when she found out which of the three girls she would be playing. She notes she would have probably been better suited as the smart aleck of the group.
  • 23:05, John Carpenter is announced. I wonder if that guy gets invited to parties just to announce when people arrive. Or, more appropriately, announce them 20 minutes after they’ve shown up. Okay, I’m done bitching about this announcer guy, mainly because I don’t think he’s going to pop up again.
  • The score Carpenter came up with for Halloween was inspired by and reminds him of the score from Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Tubular Bells from The Exorcist. Hill notes Carpenter had the music in his head before filming began. He would play the theme for her on the piano as they were working on the screenplay.
  • The idea for Halloween came about when producer Irwin Yablans came to Carpenter wanting to make a $300,000 film called The Babysitter Murders. He asked Carpenter if it could be done. Carpenter said it could if he was given creative control. It was also Yablans’ idea to have to the movie be set on Halloween and name it after the holiday, as well.
  • Hill notes the teenagers in Halloween were written to reflect the teenagers of the time, the way they experiment and interact with one another, particularly during Halloween. She recognizes this is one of the main reasons why the film did so well financially.
  • While filming the opening sequence, they realized the running time on Halloween would be too short. Debra Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis who plays Annie, and a cameraman went out in a car and shot a sequence of dialogue to pad the running time. The scene with the girls talking about Annie’s dad was improvised and directed by Hill.
  • The story Loomis tells about meeting and treating Michael Myers was something Carpenter experienced while attending Western Kentucky University. A class visited a mental institution. Carpenter saw a boy there that matches precisely how Loomis describes Myers, devil’s eyes and all. Does Bausch and Lomb make anything for devil’s eyes?
  • Carpenter reminisces about the first movie he saw in the theater, It Came From Outer Space in 3-D. He remembers the opening of the film when the meteor flies at the audience and explodes. “It suddenly made me feel completely alive and terrified, but there was nothing to be terrified of. I was in a movie theater.” He realized then that was what he wanted to do, to achieve that same reaction from other audience members.
  • To achieve the shot of Michael Myers strangling the dog, the trainer on set held the dog in his arms and dropped him naturally. This was shot in slow motion to make it look as if the dog had been killed.
  • 45:37, the announcer guy is back, this time with a “Director, John Carpenter”. Because Carpenter was just speaking two seconds ago, and we might have forgotten who he was in this time. I’m beginning to wonder if this guy is an elaborate prank perpetrated by Anchor Bay. Well played, Anchor Bay. Well played indeed.
  • The idea of creative control comes up. Hill, after being announced yet again, mentions Carpenter getting creative control on Halloween was a big deal for him, especially at a young age. She notes he gets upset on films where he doesn’t have it and has actually walked away from projects because he couldn’t get it. Carpenter notes creative control has been a struggle with every director he’s ever talked to but that it’s absolutely worth the struggle to achieve it for the sake of art.
  • Hill mentions when NBC ran Halloween it edited out the shot of Nancy Loomis’ ass as she’s stuck in the window. There’s no nudity in this shot. A moment of a woman’s ass with underwear on was too much for them. And NBC is struggling today. It can’t be a coincidence, right? Hill goes on to talk about censorship and how she hates and fights it when it comes as an arbitrary decision.
  • Curtis brings up how she admires people who can take themes from works of art, the idea of looking at something and finding an underlying statement that’s told through it. She doesn’t believe that Carpenter or Hill put such themes in Halloween, at least not consciously, but she admires people who can find them. She also thinks these people probably have bad breath. I concur.
  • Carpenter notes the pace of Halloween, how it moves with a confident, steady progression and nothing is rushed. He notes Pauline Kael said in her review of Halloween that he has no sense of timing, but that the pace in Halloween is very deliberate to build the tension of when this killer is going to strike next. “All horror is basically a question of when is it going to happen?”
  • Dennis Quaid and PJ Soles were living together at the time Halloween was filmed. They tried to get Quaid to play Bob, Lynda’s boyfriend, but scheduling didn’t work out.
  • Hill talks about the teen splatter film and how it differs from the films she grew up with. When she was younger, the movies that scared her weren’t about the same things as the movies that scare younger audiences now. “Somewhere along the line either the audiences got sophisticated or the studios got scares, and they needed to have more and more and more graphic violence.”
  • Michael Myers tilting his head back and forth to admire his handiwork was Nick Castle’s idea on set to indicate the character’s deranged mental state.
  • Curtis mentions a quote she gave once about feeling more exploited in mainstream films than the “exploitation” films she’s appeared in. She explains that in exploitation films, she was never playing the character who was being exploited. She was playing the strong, capable leads. It wasn’t until she was in mainstream, studio films that she played characters who were being exploited, ie Trading Places. If you haven’t seen Trading Places, you’re missing out on some quality Jamie Lee Curtis exploitation.
  • 1:13:34, and he’s back. 1-2 punch announcing Carpenter then Jamie Lee Curtis. This guy shows up more here than Michael Myers. I’m now wondering if he wears a mask while making these announcements.
  • While filming, there was a number given to Curtis as to Laurie’s “terror level” during any given scene, indicating to the actress where her character is mentally, since Halloween was shot out of order. She also mentions Carpenter allowed her to make the character vulnerable by explaining to her it wasn’t a character weakness but a way to allow the audience in to where Laurie was mentally.
  • Curtis mentions the way the moment where she stabs Myers with the knitting needle then drops the knife looks stupid, since it was shot wide. She explains if it were shot closer, you would be able to see the revulsion on her face from holding the knife. As it is, it just looks like a dumb, careless act. She can’t explain why Laurie throws the knife away the second time.
  • Carpenter showed Halloween to an executive before it was finished. He showed the movie without the music. The executive didn’t find it to be scary at all. After the film was released, and she saw it, she changed her mind, an indication of how much Carpenter’s score adds to the film’s atmosphere.
  • According to Carpenter, Donald Pleasence asked him how the director wanted him to react when he looked down and saw Myers’ body had disappeared. The actor said there were two ways he could react, either shocked or as if he expected Myers to be gone. Carpenter had him play it both ways and used the one he felt worked better.
  • Hill and Carpenter saw very little of the money Halloween made, at the time the most successful independent film of all time. According to Carpenter, a sequel was going to happen whether they wanted it or not. Hill and Carpenter worked on it out of a business necessity, to get the money that was essentially owed to them from the first film.

Best in Commentary

“Still to this day, I can’t tell you, but I think the audiences as opposed to the critics created Halloween.” – John Carpenter.

“It’s the idea of confusing the mythology of Halloween that we all know and love and the reality of something that’s happening in this small town.” – Debra Hill

“I think what scares me scares every human on the planet. We’re all aware of the forces of darkness, of evil, of loss, death. We know it as little children. I think all of this is dealt with in Grimm’s fairy tales. I think it’s dealt with in horror movies. Horror is a universal language.” – John Carpenter.

Final Thoughts

Carpenter, Hill, and Curtis all give relatively insightful commentary for Halloween here. The commentary was lacking in on-set stories. Much of the commentary comes about from a philosophical angle, talking about censorship or creative control. Some of that commentary gets old after a while, especially after the third or even fourth time Hill brings up the morality critics have brushed the film with. However, those moments aside – and that damn, unnecessary announcer – the commentary is great.

Each of the three commentators were recorded separately, so as not to lose focus on what they’re talking about. Perhaps having them record together would have brought up some more fun anecdotes from filming. It would have also kept us from needing an announcement as to who was talking. As it is, though, it’s a very fruitful commentary track that any fan of the film or horror movies in general would find beneficial.


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