The world had seen slasher flicks before. It had seen psychos and chainsaw-twirling Texans. And it had certainly seen William Shatner masks. But on Oct. 27, 1978, the world saw Halloween — a $300,000 indie about a killer with the singularly unspooky name Michael Myers, starring some nobody named Jamie Lee Curtis — and got the bejeezus scared out of it to the tune of more than $55 million.
No one was more shocked than director John Carpenter, who started Halloween with little more than a vague directive from backer Moustapha Akkad. Impressed with the 29-year-old Carpenter’s 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13, the producer hired the shaggy helmer to make a movie about a killer who stalks babysitters. ”I told him I wanted final cut, and he agreed,” Carpenter told EW in 1997. ”I never would’ve gotten that deal from a studio in a million years.”
Casting was the next hurdle. Even in 1978, $300,000 didn’t buy much star power. Carpenter forked over $20,000 and a Winnebago to get ”recognizable” actor Donald Pleasence to play obsessed shrink Dr. Loomis, and slapped down $8,000 to secure TV unknown Curtis for the role of plucky Laurie Strode. The 19-year-old’s main assets were a strong pair of lungs and a horror pedigree (as the daughter of Psycho‘s Janet Leigh). ”We bought my entire wardrobe at JCPenney for probably a hundred bucks,” she later recalled.
Cash was tight all around: You know that spooky white visage? A spray-painted Starfleet-edition Capt. Kirk mask. But the tiny budget didn’t curb Carpenter’s artistic ambitions: He embedded homage after homage into his schlockfest, mimicking Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in the opening Steadicam shot and showing Laurie watching The Thing From Another World (a film he would remake in 1982).
Even though Carpenter’s flourishes didn’t impress critics, audiences felt differently. Before long, Curtis and Carpenter launched their careers — though some would argue that Carpenter’s later work (like this year’s dud Ghosts of Mars) doesn’t match the brio of his early efforts. Indeed, Carpenter himself has said that the hell-for-leather spirit of Halloween is something he hasn’t felt since.
From Halloween itself, a franchise was born, culminating in 1998’s Halloween: H20 and Halloween: Resurrection in 2002. More important, the way was paved for such cut-rate entertainment as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street — and, ultimately, the Scream movies. ”I hear that music in my head when I’m writing,” says Scream scribe Kevin Williamson, who wrote the H20 treatment in honor of his all-time favorite film. ”It’s corny, but I do.”