On this day in 1978, a low-budget horror thriller opened quietly in Kansas City, Missouri. It would end up changing the genre forever. The simple tale of an unstoppable killer stalking and killing young people on All Hollow’s Eve, Halloween earned a staggering return on its small investment and prompted a slew of sequels and “slasher movie” imitators. But the original film was one of skilled craftsmanship, genuine wit, and low-budget ingenuity; here are a few fun facts about its production.
1. Halloween’s total budget was $320,000. It grossed $70 million in initial release — making it the most profitable independent film ever made until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
2. Director/co-writer John Carpenter was paid a mere $10,000 for his work on the film. But in exchange, he got final cut, total creative control, his name above the title — and a cut of profits, which would turn out to be a very lucrative agreement indeed.
3. The film’s original title was The Babysitter Murders. Executive producer Irwin Yablans suggested modifying the story of a killer stalking babysitters to include the holiday setting, and changing the title accordingly.
4. With a release around the holiday in mind, the filmmakers had to move very fast. They had four weeks to prep the production, four weeks to shoot it, and four weeks to edit it.
5. That four weeks of prep included writing the script; Carpenter had been hired merely on the basis of the horror premise. He spent three weeks writing the film with producer (and lover) Debra Hill. She wrote most of the dialogue for the female characters, taking great pains to give their characters real authenticity.
6. Jamie Lee Curtis, who was cast in the leading role, was a 19-year-old contract player at Universal. This was her film debut; she had only done television work until then. But producer Hill recognized the promotional power of her casting — she was the daughter of Janet Leigh, who played Marion Crane in Psycho. (Both Curtis and Leigh would later appear in the 1998 sequel Halloween: H20.)
7. Curtis was not Carpenter’s first choice for Laurie — but weirdly, his initial pick also had a mother/daughter connection to Hollywood’s past. He offered the role to Annie Lockhart, whose mother June starred in TV’s Lassie. Lockhart turned down the role.
8. Carpenter and Hill had loved P.J. Soles’ work in Carrie, and wrote the role of Lynda the cheerleader specifically for her.
9. They wanted Soles’s live-in boyfriend (and later husband) Dennis Quaid to play her on-screen boyfriend Bob, but he had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t take the role. John Michael Graham, who ended up playing Bob, never appeared in another film.
10. Soles’ other best-known role in the 1970s was Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which was also shot by Halloween’s director of photography, Dean Cundey.
11. Nancy Loomis, who played Annie, was actually 28 years old at the time of production. She was married to Tommy Lee Wallace, the film’s production designer, who would go on to direct Halloween III and the TV-movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Loomis would play a different character, Linda Challis, in Halloween III.
12. Nancy Stephens, who plays Marion Chambers (the nurse in the car with Loomis), returned in Halloween II, where she met and would later marry that film’s director, Rick Rosenthal. Stephens also returned for Halloween: H20; Rosenthal would direct the film that followed that one, Halloween: Resurrection.
13. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee turned down the part of Dr. Loomis. Donald Pleasence, who took the role, didn’t understand the movie at all; he only made it because his daughter had liked Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precinct 13.
14. Pleasence was the closest thing they had to a movie star. His $40,000 salary added $20,000 to the film’s original $300K budget. All of his scenes were shot in a week, and for that week, the production rented him a Winnebago. (The only other production vehicle was a VW bus that carried the lights and equipment.)
15. The influence of Alfred Hitchcock is all over the film — most explicitly in the name of Pleasence’s character. Sam Loomis is not only the name of the doctor pursuing Michael Myers; it’s also the name of Marion Crane’s lover (played by John Gavin) in Psycho. The role was taken over by Malcolm McDowell in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake.
16. Another Hitchcock shout-out: the little boy Laurie is babysitting shares the name Tommy Doyle with Wendell Corey’s cop character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
17. Similarly, Carpenter and Hill named the character Sheriff Leigh Brackett after the screenwriter of such films as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo (which inspired Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13).
18. Ben Tramer, the boy Laurie has a crush on (unseen in this film, killed in Halloween II), was named after Carpenter’s friend Bennett Tramer, who went on to work as a writer/producer on Saved by the Bell.
19. During the shoot, which was done (as most films are) out of order, Curtis and Carpenter developed a numbered, one-to-ten system of how scared she should be at every point. Before each scene, he would give her the number, and she would play it accordingly.
20. The film was shot in just 20 days. The crew was just as young as the cast, and everyone involved remembers its laid-back, Mickey-and-Judy atmosphere. But the short shoot also meant that a few imperfect takes made it into the final product. For example, when Lynda and Bob head up to the bedroom, P.J. Soles tripped on the dolly track. But it’s a minor stumble, and Carpenter liked the rest of the shot, so it stayed in.
21. Another little gaffe: in the scene where Laurie thinks she sees someone near the hedge and Annie goes to check it out, you can see smoke accidentally provided by Carpenter, smoking too close to the frame.
22. Carpenter’s original opening shot was a pan down a Haddonfield street, landing on Michael Myers’ discarded mask lying in a gutter.
23. The opening scene they ended up with, a point-of-view shot of Michael Myers killing his sister, was shot with a “Panaglide,” a kind of junior varsity Steadicam. Carpenter wanted to replicate the unbroken-shot opening of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.
24. Though the shot appears unbroken, there are actually two cuts: one when the mask goes on and we go to a point-of-view through its eye holes, and another before he moves down the stairs after killing his sister.
25. The long, complicated shoot of the scene (and its copious nudity) made the idea of using the actual child who played Myers impossible, save for the last, reveal shot. Instead, producer Debra Hill’s hands double for Michael’s.
26. The nudity of Michael’s sister was no big deal for actress Sandy Johnson — she was Playboy Playmate of the Month for June 1974.
27. The opening scene was the last one shot, and took two days. The complexity of the scene was part of the reason; also, the house doubling for the Myers home was in the decrepit state seen in the rest of the film, so the entire crew and cast spent the day fixing up the place: whitewashing, wallpapering, cleaning, and furnishing.
28. Carpenter used lenses to build tension and claustrophobia in the film. In the opening scenes, he’s heavy on wide shots and compositions with distance from the camera. As the film progresses and the Shape gets closer to Laurie, the camera gets closer to the action.
29. The climactic shot of Laurie falling down the stairs was created by throwing the camera from the upper landing, attached to a bungee cord.
30. Tommy Doyle watches Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World on TV. Carpenter used his own 1” videotape of the film and his own television for the inserts. He would later direct a 1982 remake of the film.
31. The film’s towns of Haddonfield and Smith’s Grove are fictional — at least in Illinois. But they were named after Debra Hill’s hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey and the town of Smith’s Grove, Kentucky, near Carpenter’s hometown of Bowling Green.
32. The film also wasn’t shot in Illinois, but in southern California: Pasadena and Hollywood, specifically. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey struggled to keep palm trees out of the wide shots. But the main trouble was that the fall-set film was shot in spring, and though bags of brown leaves were brought in, and giant fans were used to blow them around, one can’t help but notice they’re on the streets while the trees above them are full and green.
33. In the script, Michael Myers is only referred to as “The Shape.” Carpenter’s USC classmate Nick Castle (whose father was a choreographer for Fred Astaire) played The Shape. He went on to co-write Carpenter’s Escape From New York and direct several films, including The Last Starfighter and Dennis the Menace. He improvised Michael’s most chilling moment: the little turn of his head after stabbing Bob.
34. Castle’s face is only seen once, at the beginning, when he jumps up on the car while escaping. The face of another actor, Tony Moran, was used when Michael is “unmasked” at the end.
35. Carpenter says that the idea of a killer hiding behind an expressionless mask was inspired by the classic movie Eyes Without a Face.
36. The low budget prevented the creation of a custom mask for Michael Myers. So production designer Tommy Lee Wallace went to a store and bought a Captain Kirk mask (though one that weirdly didn’t look much like William Shatner). He took off the eyebrows and sideburns, spray painted it white, and called it done.
37. Laurie’s bedroom wall sports a framed print by James Ensor, an expressionist painter known for depicting characters with disturbing masks.
38. The final montage that closes the movie was not in script. It was created in the editing room, to create that idea that, in Carpenter’s words, “He’s not only not gone, he’s everywhere.”
39. No dogs were harmed in the making of Halloween. When “Lester” the dog is killed by Michael Myers, Carpenter merely shot the dog’s trainer slowly lowering the pooch to the ground, and ran the shot in slow-motion.
40. The low budget also meant that the film has no special effects — and as a result, very little graphic violence. In this way, Halloween is markedly different from the “splatter” films that it inspired, in that it has so little gore; its imitators couldn’t replicate Carpenter’s mastery of mood, so they just slathered on the blood.
41. The sound effect of the knife going into Lynda’s boyfriend Bob was creating by stabbing a watermelon.
42. The music on the radio in the first of the Laurie/Annie car scenes is by “The Coupe De Villes,” a rock band featuring director John Carpenter, production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, and actor Nick Castle.
43. Carpenter composed and recorded the score (under the joking handle “The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra”) in three days. He says it was inspired by “Tubular Bells” in The Exorcist and the score of Suspiria, a film he cites as a big influence. He pinpointed the distinctive rhythm of the main theme as a 5/4 beat that he had learned years earlier when his father bought him a pair of bongo drums.
44. Carpenter showed the film to 20th Century Fox, who were considering distributing it, without the music (which was not yet done). The executive he showed it to said it wasn’t scary.
45. Producer Yablans invited representatives from several major studios to a special screening, so they could consider it for distribution. According to Yablans, none of them showed up. So he decided to distribute it himself, on an almost town-to-town basis, through his Compass International Pictures organization.
46. Halloween opened not in New York or Los Angeles, but in Kansas City, Missouri, at the AMC/Midland Empire.
47. Its phenomenal box office is even more impressive considering that most of its initial play dates were after Halloween. It was truly a word-of-mouth hit, and the seasonal element was ultimately unimportant to its success.
48. Though it had already opened in Kansas City and New York, the film played the Chicago Film Festival in November. Its champions in Chicago included Roger Ebert (“an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho”) and Gene Siskel (“a beautifully made thriller — more shocking than bloody — that will have you screaming with regularity”).
49. However, most other original notices were dismissive. Carpenter says Tom Allen’s review in the Village Voice was the real turnaround, prompting the film to be taken seriously by critics.
50. Halloween’s television broadcast rights were sold to NBC for $4 million, and it was set to air in October 1981, tied to the release of Halloween II. But with the snipping of nudity and (the little bit of) graphic violence, it was about 12 minutes shorter than it needed to be to fill a two-hour slot. So Carpenter shot a handful of additional scenes while in production on Halloween II, some of them broadly foreshadowing the sequel’s reveal that (spoiler) Laurie is, in fact, Michael’s sister.