John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis are re-teaming for another stab at the Halloween franchise. But how is this approach different from the last 10 times, in a series that seemed to have gasped its last breath?
He’s coming home, he’s coming home, he’s coming… Michael’s coming home.
It’s a cloudless June day in LA and Total Film is standing in Hill Valley square, craning up at the famous clock tower that Doc Brown dangled off during the events of 12 November 1955, as Universal Studios’ backlot tour trolleys rumble past at regular five-minute intervals. “This,” intones each guide to rows of awestruck tourist faces, “is the famous set from Back To The Future!” It’s an apt setting for TF’s meeting today with the team behind the 11th bite of the Halloween cherry, given that this go-around – 40 years on from the original – messes with timelines and questions whether time truly heals all wounds. Can they, Marty McFly-style, re-set a franchise of diminishing returns, mending past mistakes and creating a stronger future?
After ogling through the windows of Lou’s Cafe and the Essex Theater,
TF wanders around the corner to the new-build sound stages, sitting at the foot of the hill crested by the infamous, looming home of Norman Bates. It’s an iconic reminder of Universal Studios’ long and profitable horror legacy. Part of that history includes the distribution of John Carpenter’s Halloween series (they took on the baton from Compass for Halloween II and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch before further incarnations moved to Fox, Galaxy, Dimension and, most recently, The Weinstein Company). It snapped up the property after the original film – shot for $300,000 over 20 days in 1978 – became a huge hit, netting $70 million and creating an archetype.
Carpenter’s groundbreaking self-penned, directed and produced original slasher (co-authored by Debra Hill) placed shy babysitter Laurie Strode (a then-19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis) at the centre of events in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois, as an escaped mental patient and psychopath, Michael Myers – wearing a blank mask that matched his impassive killing – stabbed his way through the neighbourhood on All Hallow’s Eve.
Over four decades and 10 films, the series has made nearly $400 million globally and cemented Myers, or ‘The Shape’ as he was initially known, as one of cinema’s most enduring and terrifying bogeymen. Little surprise then that despite shrinking returns, unfavourable reviews (“Yet another misbegotten instalment of a long-exhausted franchise,” The Hollywood Reporter said of Rob Zombie’s 2007 sorta prequel) and Carpenter’s own despair with the continued milking of his property (“All of my ideas were for the first Halloween
– there shouldn’t have been any more”), that Universal would be interested in exploring the possibility of extending the series’ longevity.
The very definition of insanity then, repeating the same thing and expecting different results. But this time Universal has a proven disruptor on-board in the shape of Jason Blum and his horror-reinventing shingle, Blumhouse Productions, who has a 10-year first-look deal with the studio. Famed for his shrewd business model, ability to reinvent and subvert the horror genre as well as bring home the bacon and awards (Paranormal Activity and The Purge have reaped serious box office while Get Out won an Oscar), Blum took on the curating of a Halloween return in 2016 when Universal acquired it from Weinstein.
“My deal-breaker was: I didn’t want to do it without John Carpenter,” Blum tells TF as we sit in a dressing room on stage 13. Belying his reputation as the new master of horror, Blum is dressed in white and has a cornucopia of candy spread out on the table between us. “So I met him, and he agreed to jump on board and do the music for the movie, which was great.” Oh. Seems almost too easy, especially given the no-bullshit approach of Carpenter, who has never withheld unfavourable opinions.
Carpenter, in the next door dressing room (head-to-toe black), is characteristically blunt about his reasons to return. “They [Blum and producer Malek Akkad] said, ‘Come back as an executive producer, and shepherd the movie through.’ I thought, ‘You know what? That’s a good idea. Rather than complain, let me do something positive. Let me help.’” Carpenter wanted to write the music and had a couple of important beats he wanted to see in a script but, with his ‘godfather’ blessing, Blum began feeling out filmmakers, among them Stronger’s David Gordon Green and his screenwriting bud, Danny McBride. Wait, whaaaat?
“You know, I’m a big believer that if you’re a good filmmaker, you can make a good scary movie,” shrugs Blum of a pair best-known for creating comedy as a team. “Which is very antithetical – Hollywood believes you have to make good scary movies to make more good scary movies. I think that’s a bunch of malarkey.” Green appreciated the franchise from a nostalgic point of view having grown up watching Carpenter’s output, while McBride was a selfconfessed fan. “Throughout my career I’ve always looked at what I engage in professionally almost like what I engage in as a film fan, as an audience member,” says Green. “This was an opportunity for me to do something different, to be able to juggle comedic work and dramatic work.”
THE PERFECT 10
The duo’s starting point was to go through all 10 films “from a point of positivity”, acknowledging increased
audience savviness and paring back to the simplicity of Carpenter’s original story. “We just put ourselves in the position of the audience,” recalls McBride, “What have we liked? What have we not liked? Quickly, in our process, we realised if we tried to connect this to all these other movies, we’ll fall in the same trap these other guys have fallen in, where you spend 30 or 40 minutes of the setup trying to justify where this fits in.”
Bearing in mind Laurie Strode had been offed in Halloween: Resurrection and Myers had variously vacillated between a psychopathic mental patient, a rageful sibling, evil incarnate, the product of a cult curse and a supernatural superman, the duo decided to get back to basics and strip right back to the original film; in effect ignoring all the events that come after the final reel of Halloween 1. “That doesn’t negate those other films,” McBride reasons, “Those films are there. No one will come and take them away from your Blu-ray collection. But this is a way to continue what Carpenter started, and hopefully in a way people enjoy.”
And that means embracing certain tropes that have since become clichés in a post-Scream and horror comedy world. “Homage, satire, parody and rip-off, there’s been a lot of these things that you can exploit,” says Green. “For us, it’s a subjective sense of taste. There’s no way to make a babysitter home alone with a bad guy with a knife in the house an original idea. But we could acknowledge that the audience has seen it 100 times, and come up with a few twists and turns in execution.”
No pun intended.
Discovering Laurie Strode
40 years after the events in
1978 – now a gung-ho gran cloistered from the world as a result of her trauma and inability to let go of the belief that Myers will return – and adding the zeitgeisty element of a true crime TV show team investigating the case, à la Making Of A Murderer, the concept was pitched first to Carpenter and then Jamie Lee Curtis.
With Carpenter sold, Curtis was approached by Green’s Stronger star. “Jake Gyllenhaal who is my, I guess, unofficial godson, called me,” says Curtis, striking in a tailored black suit and black-framed glasses, in a dressing room two doors away from Blum and Carpenter. Like Carpenter, she isn’t one to suffer fools gladly. “I said to [Green], ‘Send it to me, I’ll read it, and if it works for me, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll tell you.’” Though impressed by the concept of the true crime journalists opening up the tale, Curtis was also keen to ensure her four-decades-in-the-making character got to reclaim her narrative as well as fulfilling the destiny Carpenter created for her with her first film role.
“John is the most significant creative shape shifter for me, he gave me an opportunity. He’s given me a life, a creative life. I feel like I have honoured it,” she ponders, recalling how Carpenter called her after her first day of work to congratulate her on her performance. But, she insists, being grateful can sit alongside strength. “I have 40 years of experience of being alive and making decisions,” she says when comparing herself now to the green 19-year-old in 1978. That means that Curtis now not only wanted to help shape her character but exec produce the movie. After all, seismic shifts in female empowerment have happened in Hollywood and society since she last inhabited Strode. “This movie is the ultimate #MeToo movement,” she nods as we discuss how 50/50 by 2020, #MeToo and #TimesUp have changed the cinematic landscape and audience expectation. “And yet, what’s so compelling is that Laurie herself is the oppressed, abused, traumatised woman but when he comes, she is prepared.”
“There’s no way not to empower women more as a result of what’s happened in the last year,” says Blum over coffee. “It’s not a conscious ‘let’s alter it for this’. It’s in our DNA, in our consciousness now. So it’s impossible that storytelling wouldn’t reflect that to a certain degree.” Green and McBride agree. The spotlight on female empowerment right
‘HOLLYWOOD BELIEVES YOU HAVE TO MAKE GOOD SCARY MOVIES TO MAKE MORE GOOD SCARY MOVIES. I THINK THAT’S A BUNCH OF MALARKEY’
now is reflected in the script “100 per cent”, says McBride. “Not only just for the message that sends, but also just for the basic storytelling of it. If you really want to take a character like Laurie Strode and continue her story, nobody wants to see her screaming in the closet and being terrorised. People want to see growth. It gives her a storyline she deserves.”
“It was great to have Jamie Lee, who, as a strong and empowered female voice, can call bullshit on you when you’re writing something that feels false,” Green smiles. “It helps you navigate something that feels effective and authentic.”
Script sorted, the team began filming in Charlestown, South Carolina, in January. Though Carpenter’s involvement day-to-day was minimal (“I wasn’t directing, so I didn’t have to worry about any of that. Mostly, I just watched the basketball season while they shot!”), he did suggest one fan-pleasing nod to the original. Bringing back the original wearer of the mask, Nick Castle, to play ‘The Shape’ once again. “Ah, nobody moves like he does,” Carpenter grins. “It’s such a specific set of mannerisms that he had in the original film,” Green enthuses, “It can’t just be anyone who can possess a mask.
It fits everybody a little bit differently.” He chuckles, recalling a geeky on-set moment; “There’s a very well-known Dr. Pepper photo of Nick, from 1978, drinking a Dr. Pepper through the mask. We recreated that image.”
The team were keen to take Castle and his performance back to the mortality of
the original – no seemingly supernatural survival or textbook motivation here. “If you want to have stakes in this, you have to know that there’s a way to beat him,” says McBride. “I remember, in the second Halloween when he gets shot as he’s entering the hospital and he just gets back up, I was like, ‘Fuck, what’s going to work now? Why does an explosion work when gunfire didn’t?’ It just makes the rules confusing. And once there was a definition of what drove Michael Myers, who exactly he was and why he was killing the way he did – it took what was scary about him away.”
Of course, respectful homage, truthful characterisation and artistic endeavour are all very well, but Jason Blum is also about making big bucks. His lean business model is well known; lowcosts, rigorous audience testing, smart marketing and no advance pay. “We call that cheap!” Carpenter grizzles with a twinkle. But doesn’t that enhance creativity, TF ventures? “I could have gone back to that [creative] place if he had paid me a whole lot of money too so that has nothing to do with it. But Jason has a great formula for producing horror films: he makes cheap movies, but they’re effective. He’s king of the world, like what’s his name? The Titanic guy.”
Curtis, on the other hand, felt artistically inspired by the paucity of pay. “Nobody got paid well. It’s the energy of people who wanted to be involved with this movie, creatively. It felt very much like the original movie. The way Jason makes movies made me want to – I went home and wrote a movie. I’ve never written a movie in my life! This movie has given me my mojo back!”
With Halloween falling into Blum’s franchise model (The Purge, Paranormal Activity, Insidious), there’s no breaking of the above-the-line spend. “Which means no one gets paid up-front, even on the sequels,” he nods. “They only get paid in success.” That success then, needs to be carefully orchestrated. Though Curtis talks of seeing scenes on-set that were “crazy scary, I got double goosebumps”, Blum is more sanguine. Audiences want to be genuinely terrified for their ticket money and that requires clear-eyed finessing. “You have to figure out new ways to get under people’s skin, or reinvent the old ways. And you can’t really tell until you put it in front of an audience. You think you have the scariest thing in the world and the audience just sits there. It’s so important to test, test, test, test. I’m more vocal about it and [Blumhouse] do more of it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You have to keep your eye on [fan reactions] but also ignore it. If you’re just guided by that, then you have a movie made from research, and it’s going to be very bland. Any movie that you make that would make them all happy, would be horrible!”
And if it works the way it should, does Blum plan further expansion? Ask most directors or producers this question and they’ll modestly talk of waiting to see, but Blum is not for such disingenuous chat. “I hope so. If it does well, we’re going to make more, for sure. I’m interested in commercial success.” McBride admits that he and Green have an idea for where the story could go in subsequent films but Green is keen to stress that fans shouldn’t worry about quality. “The last thing anyone wants to do is crank out a bunch of movies and make a quick cash grab,” he insists. “We wanted to put everything into this movie. If there are stories that branch off, or are inspired… and for me personally allow risk to be taken, lessons to be learned and curiosity fulfilled? Then I’d be interested in it.”
Come October then, it’s time for audiences to decide if there’s enough reinvention and reverence to get Halloween sprung from cinematic incarceration and off on another killing spree. We’ll vote, with bums on seats, whether Blum and team have pulled it off. Trick or treat…?
Halloween opens on 19 october.
‘IF YOU WANT TO HAVE STAKES IN THIS, YOU HAVE TO KNOW THAT THERE’S A WAY TO BEAT HIM’
triCk or treat? The film embraces the tropes of its past while catering for the savviness of today’s horror audiences.
Original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle reprises the role for the first time.
the Write stuff The franchise’s founder turned chief critic John Carpenter (below) not only gave his approval for the new film, but also wrote the music.
Jamie lee Curtis returns as laurie strode – but she’ll be doing more than playing the victim this time…
doCtor’s orders The film recreated this famous shot of Nick Castle drinking through the mask (right).
movie makinG Curtis on set with director David Gordon Green (left).