In his review of the 1978 thriller, Halloween, Roger Ebert wrote, “sometimes we want to be scared…if you don’t want to have a really terrifying experience, don’t see Halloween.”
Pauline Kael put it this way: “a lot of people seem to be convinced that Halloween is something special — a classic. Maybe when a horror film is striped of everything but dumb scariness… it satisfies the audience in a more basic, childish way.”
Authored by two of the most perceptive film critics ever, these descriptions about the appeal of Halloween remain on the mark forty years later. It is a terrifying movie, simple in concept and ageless in its ability to attract an audience.
The movie was written in ten days and shot in less than three weeks. Production costs ran around $320,000. There’s made on the cheap, and then there’s Halloween, made on less than the cheap.
It grossed north of $70,000,000 — and spawned endless sequels. The most recent installment, released last year, netted more than $255 million.
The creator and director of the first Halloween, John Carpenter, says that he “has no clue” about why the product is so successful — “but I am happy about it,” he adds.
Carpenter hit a grand slam in an industry that isn’t welcoming to independent vision or small concepts; shooting on the run in Pasadena, California neighborhoods with a crude “Captain Kirk” mask doesn’t fit the template. And yet, here in the 2019 Halloween season, Carpenter’s original 91 minute production can be found playing in first run theaters across the country.
Twenty years before Carpenter’s unlikely bullseye, another Hollywood director, this one much more established and working well within the system, pulled off a similar tour de force.
Right after the lush North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock decided to shift gears and minimalize his approach. Shooting in black-and-white on a very reduced budget ($800,000, give or take), Hitchcock deployed his television crew to create an unexpected masterwork, Psycho.
Those around Hitchcock, particularly studio functionaries, had grave doubts about the project: why should the most accomplished Tinseltown director waste his time on what appeared to be a souped-up “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television episode?
Sir Alfred navigated against the tide and the results were spectacular: Psycho was the most profitable film released in 1960 and went on to capture $32,000,000 in box office rentals (big bucks in those days.)
Psycho has never gone away, and in fact, is more highly regarded today than ever. This Halloween it was given the full orchestra treatment at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles — the LA Opera Orchestra accompanied a Psycho screening with a live performance of the Bernard Herrmann score.
The common denominator between Psycho and Halloween is, of course, the fear factor. What is it about scary films that make them so endearing to a mass audience? What prompts such loyalty to movies that are made to frighten?
Researcher Christopher Dwyer says that we get such a rush of feel good biochemicals (endorphins, dopamine) that fear becomes a kind of pleasure. And since this fear usually takes place in a safe enough environment — a movie theater or haunted house — our minds can evaluate the situation and recognize that we are not in any real danger.
“It’s like your brain is at the edge of danger, but knows it’s not actually at risk,” psychiatrist Katherine Brownlowe explains.
Aside from the chemical release of well-being, it’s true that some people just enjoy flirting with disaster and are sensation seeking. Especially if the risk is served up at a distance by Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter.
In the latter case, fear is also a source of social connection — a date, a movie audience, those with whom we creep through haunted houses or moonlight cemeteries, form bonds based on short-term “dumb scariness.”
Just for the record, Hitchcock was completely turned off by his own métier. “I’m full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications,” he said. “I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm.”
Fortunately, for millions of movie lovers, he, John Carpenter, and a handful of other artists have left legacies guaranteed to mercilessly frighten. And then bring us back for more.