‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’ is not only a question posed by the psychotic killers in Wes Craven’s brilliant Scream series but one that pops up every year at Halloween.
For many, the answer is the same as the name of the festival, for John Carpenter’s 1978 classic is revered as a masterpiece for many reasons. From the iconic opening tracking sequence to the surprising (at the time) ending, via the creation of one of cinema’s greatest boogeymen, it’s a film rich with ideologies of its own (intended or otherwise), Freudian overtones and genuine scares. It’s the definitive slasher flick; a film that created all the rules.
Yet what is not often talked about is that Halloween is also a masterclass in low budget filmmaking. It was filmed for a not immodest but hardly expensive $300,000 and became one of the most successful independent films of all time. The techniques to get around the shoestring budget were not only necessary, they were masterful. Halloween is a masterclass in making a masterpiece without the money.
It starts, very simply, with an idea. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Deborah Hill wanted to make a film about a killer coming back to his home town on the scariest night of the year. A strikingly original pitch but a basic plot. Halloween doesn’t get pulled down in backstory – much of that comes later – but it also doesn’t get too involved in plot development either. Michael Myers kills his sister, goes to an institution, escapes, is pursued by his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis and stalks teenagers with the intent to kill. What made him a murderer and quite why he is so fixated on Laurie Strode are somewhat ambiguous, leaving the audience to discuss and ponder upon afterwards. It means the script limits the need for exposition and treated the audience with intelligence, meaning the film could focus on mood and atmosphere with all the themes and story theories carrying on in the background.
Initially, the murders were set to take place over a series of nights but the bulk of the action is limited to one evening – 31st October. By confining the action to largely one street on one night, the need for costume and set changes were limited and money was saved. In fact, hardly a penny was spent on costumes at all – the actors, in true low-budget filmmaking style, wore their own clothes. One thing that the filmmakers did have to spend money on was the now infamous mask. The frightening, emotionless look of Michael Myers has entered filmmaking legend – and it was all made from a $2 William Shatner mask that was turned inside out, spray painted white and had the hair cut off and the eyes cut out. One of horrors most iconic images was made for next to no money and in little time. Part of the genius of this is that were Halloween a real story, this is something Myers himself could have done quite easily.
Yet there is a more overt, logistical element to John Carpenters Halloween that is related to its (lack of) budget but that also is one of its many selling points. For a film about murders, there is very little blood. In Scream 2, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) discusses the rules of a horror sequel. 1. The body count is always bigger. 2 The death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore…carnage candy. This obviously ties in to the ‘bigger, louder’ element of sequels that affects films in all genres. Yet one of the reasons this is possible is again the old factor of money. Halloween could not afford a big cast or gallons of red paint, so relied heavily on the power of suggestion…and it’s all the better for it. In this day and age, horror films are over-reliant on blood and guts but would Halloween have been more effective with more innards exposed? The death itself is not the scary part, but the build-up of tension and dread. Power of suggestion.
Halloween shares much DNA with Hitchcock’s Psycho both in a postmodern way (Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter), a knowing self-referential fashion (both have a character with the surname Loomis) and in their ability to convince the audience that they’re seeing more than they actually are. We never actually see the knife going into Marion Crane during the famous shower scene in the same way we never actually see the knife going into Judith at the opening of Halloween. Again, this removed the need for prosthetics and special effects, with the sound being created with a knife and a cabbage.
The brooding atmosphere of Halloween can also be attributed to what lies in the shadows and once again, this was as much about logistical necessity – there wasn’t enough money for more lights. Carpenter and his crew had to work with what they had. This did include a simple dimmer switch and during the films climax, this was used to slowly illuminate Myers to make it look as if he was appearing out of the dark behind Laurie. Another iconic moment, another simple effect.
There are many other stories which highlight Halloween’s low budget – the autumnal leaves from one scene to the next were swept up by the crew and re-used, and the filming period lasted just twenty days. It has a credited cast of just 20 people and a crew of less than 50.
Yet with little money, no CGI, hardly any blood and no costume department, they created an influential horror masterpiece that still shocks and scares to this day and has transcended the great many sequels, re-makes and re-boots to retain its iconic status as a classic of the horror genre. It’s proof that a good idea, a great script and working with what you have can create cinematic gold.