Entertainment & Arts

John Carpenter reflects on Halloween 35 years on

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween
Image caption Halloween was the film debut of television actress Jamie Lee Curtis

In 1978, a low-budget film about a masked killer stalking a young babysitter in a quiet Illinois suburb took the film industry by storm.

Filmed for just over $300,000 (about $1m today), John Carpenter's Halloween has since made more than $47m.

Cinema audiences were terrified and delighted in equal amount and Michael Myers, with his battered white facemask became a pop culture icon, preceding the likes of Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked brute from the Friday the 13th films and Freddie Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

"I can believe it," says the now 65-year-old semi-retired director, about the span of time since he created one of the ultimate movie monsters.

"I'm old now, 35 years ago I was a young kid then just trying to make a movie but some part of me still feels like that young kid."

Prior to Halloween, Carpenter had already known some success with the exploitation film Assault on Precinct 13 which, although a flop in the US, had enjoyed some resurgence in Europe after being screened at the London Film Festival in 1977.

He was called to a meeting in London with producer Irwin Yablans and Syrian financier Moustapha Akkad who wanted a film which, Carpenter says, "was originally to be called The Babysitter Murders".

"The idea was that every American girl can relate to that."

After persuading Akkad to part with the money and cede full creative control to Carpenter and his writing partner Debra Hill, work began on the script for Halloween.

Carpenter even composed the music for the film, its tinkling piano and doom-laden chords powering it on to become one of horror's most recognisable and enduring film themes.

Image caption The hulking Michael Myers was portrayed on screen by several actors

"The biggest memory I have in a way was how easy it was," says the director. "I had a few features under my belt so I was really rolling in terms of the physical problems of shooting a movie, just how to get through it. And I had the movie figured out and it was a lot of fun."

Slasher genre

Although the idea of a stalking killer was not a new one, having been seen in films like Michael Powell's voyeuristic Peeping Tom; Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 and even Tobe Hooper's creation Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween's Myers was a different beast.

"We had this idea of Michael Myers being not quite a human but almost a supernatural force," says Carpenter. "Evil as a force of nature in the personification of this man.

"So we put him in a mask so he wouldn't have human features."

The two-dollar rubber mask was a likeness of Star Trek actor William Shatner, sprayed a bluish-white - and it terrified people.

"The best compliment I got was standing outside a theatre and hearing the audience scream, that was just delightful."

Halloween ushered in the era of the slasher movies of the 1980s. Though they were not the first, it - along with Friday 13th - brought the previously niche horror genre hurtling into the mainstream.

Carpenter, however, plays down his reputation as the father of the genre: "I think the main reason that Halloween inspired other movies was very shrewd producers looking and saying, 'This idiot made this for $300,000, we can do it and make money'.

"It's all about making money in Hollywood. It wasn't about art."

The slasher genre now looks relatively timid when compared with the explosion in what became known as the "torture porn" of the 2000s. Super-violent films such as Hostel and the Saw franchise undoubtedly built on the brutal nature of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.

Since then, filmmakers have returned to the basics with ghost films like The Conjuring and The Woman In Black, which have proved to be a massive draw at the box office.

Image caption A remake of Escape from New York has long been planned

But Carpenter - who has dabbled in ghostly tales such as The Fog and Christine - again insists: "Horror films have been around since the beginning of cinema and each one leads to another so they continue to morph and change depending on society.

"None of this is new, there have always been ghost stories. There are just new ways of telling stories."


Though horror makes up the main body of Carpenter's work, the director has branched out into other genres such as the comedy-action of Big Trouble in Little China and the romance of Starman - which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination.

His influence on a younger generation of filmmakers can been seen, in particular in the work of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn of Drive fame.

In a recent BBC interview, he voiced his love for Carpenter's 1981 film Escape from New York - starring Kurt Russell as the anti-hero Cyclops Snake Plissken whose mission is to rescue the US president from the Big Apple - now a maximum security prison.

"God, I loved that movie," said Refn. "It's perfect cinema, a perfect soundtrack. That pulsey beat."

Carpenter, roaring with laughter, is clearly delighted with the compliment: "Hell yes," he cackles. "Who wouldn't be?"

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Carpenter is blessed indeed, for alongside the seven sequels to Halloween, no fewer than four of his films have been remade in recent years, with an adaptation of Escape from New York long rumoured.

Image caption Carpenter has worked in the film business for more than 40 years

British actors Jason Statham and Tom Hardy are believed to be front-runners to take over the role of Plissken.

"I'm mostly extremely excited, especially when they have to pay me money," says Carpenter. "I made my films and the remakes are the remakes, so its fine with me."

After 43 years in the film business, Carpenter is now semi-retired but offers a word of advice to young filmmakers.

"The biggest challenge is surviving the movie business and making films despite all the obstacles in your way," he says. "Nobody tells you how to survive.

"I don't know if I'm as hungry as I was. I'm not as driven as I was, my entire life's goal was to become a professional director and I did that, I've nothing left to prove to myself."

A 35th anniversary edition of Halloween is out on 21 October.

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