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‘Halloween’ Magic: How a Slasher Flick Redefined a Genre and Became One of the Decade’s Most Important Films

John Carpenter wrote a little movie called "The Babysitter Murders." Then, it changed the course of Hollywood.


Exactly 40 years after John Carpenter’s “Halloween” was released in 1978, David Gordon Green released his modern-day sequel to an estimated $75 million opening weekend. It has the benefit of strong reviews, original star Jamie Lee Curtis’ return to the lead role, and its placement as this year’s holiday horror film release — but it was never just a horror film. This ultra low-budget slasher flick was one of the most important movies to be released in the 1970s.

Among the top-grossing films released in 1978, “Halloween” was no. 10. However, those that did better — “Grease,” “Superman,” “Animal House,” “Every Which Way You Can,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Hooper,” “Jaws 2,” “Revenge of the Pink Panther,” and “The Deer Hunter” — may be unfamiliar to anyone 40 or younger. Even last weekend, which would be week 2,036 of release, “Halloween” remains vital in the public consciousness: It grossed $9,553 last weekend.

Adjusted to 2018 prices, the 1978 independent film made $184 million on a budget of about $1.3 million. Among R-rated horror films (excluding the sci-fi “Alien” series) it still ranks as #7. It is ahead of any film in iconic horror franchises “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Saw,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Paranormal Activity,” trailing only the first two “Scream” entries.

However, “Halloween” did more than make a lot of money.

Horror films stretch back to the days of “Nosferatu” in 1922, and then developed into the 1930s’ monster-movie titles at Universal, ‘B’ studio movies like “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie,” and on to the likes of “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” early films by Brian De Palma, and “The Exorcist” — a film that, in current dollars, has grossed over $1 billion domestic since its release in 1973.

Drive-in movies were another scary-movie resource with a steady flow independent hits like “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Last House on the Left,” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Those movies made money, but they were also a reliable source of negative press attacking its ultra-violence and social irresponsibility. Studios considered those films too taboo to touch.

So, the studios mostly stuck with “safe” projects like the very successful “Carrie” in 1976. That left a market gap: How could Hollywood studios tap into the demand for low-cost and disturbing horror movies, while dodging the media brickbats that came with them?

Enter “Halloween.” Moustapha Akkad, whose prior film industry experience was limited to directing the 1976 religious biopic “The Message,” fronted the $300,000 budget. Executive producer Irwin Yablans asked Carpenter to write a movie about a killer stalking babysitters, and later suggested that he change the title of “The Babysitter Murders” and set the movie on Halloween night. The film was the first release for Yablans and Joseph Wolf’s Compass International Pictures, but it couldn’t coordinate a national rollout; instead, it had to push “Halloween” across the country in fits and starts through a patchwork system of local subdistributors, mostly after October 31. (The world premiere was October 25, 1978 in Kansas City, Mo.) Nevertheless, it quickly became a hit.

And this time, the studios took notice. The film felt no different than a regular studio release, which set it apart from the earlier, more guerilla efforts that sometimes looked ragged and cheaply produced. It was shot in widescreen, had a distinctive score (written by Carpenter), and its production design made it appear mainstream while maintaining an edginess lacking in more conventional genre films.

By 1979, “Halloween” ignited a slasher-movie frenzy. American International Pictures, which thrived on B movies through the 1960s, released its biggest film ever with “The Amityville Horror” in July 1979 and went on to become the year’s second-biggest film. That same year, Columbia greenlit “When a Stranger Calls,” and got it in theaters in by October.

Then came “Friday the 13th,” which inspired a bidding war between Paramount Pictures and United Artists that Paramount won for $1.5 million. The first film came out in May 1980, and has generated 10 sequels since. Unlike “Halloween,” it was pure concept and title and marketing, with few people then or later regarding it as a classic. But it worked, and spawned its own franchise as well as leading other studios to push for the same.

While “Halloween” mainstreamed the violent, lower-budget film, it also provided studio entree for directors like Wes Craven (“Nightmare On Elm Street”), Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) David Cronenberg (“Videodrome”), and Joe Dante (“The Howling”). All were filmmakers who cut their teeth in independent horror films — but it took “Halloween” to turn that into an asset.

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