One of Jamie Lee Curtis’ single finest movies is currently the 7th most watched movie on Netflix USA. That is especially impressive when you consider that it is a nearly 50 year old movie, and it spawned a lot of garbage between now and then. The movie is 1978’s Halloween, directed by John Carpenter, then followed by a whole lot of other movies called Halloween. While it has been oft-rebooted and remade, it is one of the true originals of the horror genre. It could be (and should be!) argued that it did more than any other single movie to codify what we now call slasher films. The final girl syndrome? That’s Halloween. People who do drugs or have sex getting brutally murdered? Yep, Halloween again. A chilling, icy theme song that instills a sense of dread in your very soul? That’s definitely Halloween.
Jamie Lee Curtis was 19 when she filmed Halloween, and it shows. That is meant in the best possible way. Her character of Laurie Strode has become the definitive archetype of a horror movie survivor. Curtis has played her in multiple decades now, and perfectly embodied her from her original incarnation as a terrified random teenager being stalked by The Shape (the murderer who would come to be known as Michael Myers) through to a hardened, battle-scarred warrior prepared to hunt down that same killer. And it makes sense. While Curtis had little screen experience at the time she was cast, there were two great advantages to having her in the movie: she would work for cheap and she was the daughter of Janet Leigh. Her mother portrayed perhaps the single most famous victim of a crazed murderer in all of film in 1960’s Pyscho, as Marion Crane, the unfortunate woman who embezzles money and gets stabbed to death in a shower for her trouble. Whether audiences could tell at the time or not, watching Halloween in even 1978 was to partake in a lineage of horror.
The original title of Halloween was The Babysitter Murders, which shows you where everyone’s head was at when they were making the movie. Jamie Lee Curtis was of course, one of the titular babysitters, and the movie was written in ten days by John Carpenter and his producer girlfriend (later, wife, even later, ex-wife, Debra Hill). It was essentially commissioned to try to cash in on the success of the massively popular 1973 horror film The Exorcist. Carpenter was already gaining a reputation for being able to make films on a tight budget, and pulled triple duty to direct, co-write and wrote/performed the electronic score of the film (which became iconic in its own right).
Everything about Halloween was essentially done on the cheap, although you would never know it now. In one of those miracles of coincidence that makes or breaks films, many of the elements of the film that were done out of sheer necessity just added to the odd, foreboding tone of the film. There was no budget for extras, so they simply didn’t have them; the effect was to turn the fictional Illinois suburb of Haddonfield into an eerie ghost town. The iconic white mask worn by Michael Myers (played in this movie by future film director Nick Castle) was famously a distorted William Shatner mask, but the real reason it was used was the price tag: $1.98. As a movie, it was essentially an ideal meeting of efficiency and necessity that created a perfect horror film.
Audiences noticed. Although the closest thing the film had to a star was British actor Donald Pleasance as Michael Myers’ troubled Doctor Loomis, it was an enormous box office hit. In its original theatrical run, Halloween grossed $70 million worldwide, off an approximately $300,000 budget. Critics largely praised it at the time (notably Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were huge fans), and it has only grown in critical stature since. And there is a very fundamental reason: its simplicity. This is a movie that wastes no steps, uses no extra time. Jamie Lee Curtis is a teenager in danger. Michael Myers is a killer that cannot be stopped. It is Halloween night in the suburbs, and nobody’s there to help. It is so breathtaking in its stark horror, it’s no surprise that it is still so watched decades later.