John Carpenter Returns to USC for 40th Anniversary of Halloween

by Aiyonna White

On September 22, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts welcomed alumni John Carpenter and Nick Castle back to campus with a 40th-anniversary screening of the horror classic Halloween. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Carpenter and Castle, who became close friends after sharing classes together in 1968.

For nearly 20 years, Halloween was the highest grossing independent film of all time. The low budget production is credited with creating the modern slasher movie, as well as common horror movie tropes. The film follows a group of friends after an escaped murderer comes back to his hometown for revenge.

The screening was set to take place in the massive Frank Sinatra Hall, but a leak in the building forced a last minute move to two small theatres in SCA. By the time doors opened at 6:35, the line wrapped around the building. It was standing room only. The Q&A that followed was as entertaining as the movie itself.

Michael Myers was a revolutionary horror villain in that he doesn’t have much of a personality. “I’ve seen a lot of horror movies in my life, and they all seem to make the same mistake, which was to have too much of a backstory for the killer,” said Carpenter. “If you knew too much about him then he wasn’t scary. Even Norman Bates. I knew too much about him…”

Castle was an aspiring director when he was cast as the antagonist Michael Myers. According to him, after telling Carpenter he wanted to hang out on set and watch him direct, Carpenter responded, “Put on the mask and you’ll be here the whole time.”

Carpenter remembers casting Castle for his grace and acting ability. “Michael Myers was conceived as a cross between a human being and a supernatural force. You never knew which one he was… he was just meant to be a force of evil.”

One student asked for advice when dealing with “big name actors.” Carpenter worked with Donald Pleasence, who apparently told him, “I have no idea why I’m making this movie.” Carpenter advice was, “Have confidence in your vision. Look them in the eye. If they’re a decent enough human being, they’ll listen to what you say. Hopefully you don’t get a piece of shit.”

By now we have a good grasp of Carpenter’s candid and maybe a bit brutal honesty. A young man asks what they wish they had known when they went to USC. Carpenter answers, “I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know stuff because I probably would have done something else. It could get really grim sometimes. I’m glad I didn’t know better,”

He then turns to the moderator. “Can I ask you a question? Why don’t you ask any women to ask questions?” It was silent for a beat, before the uproarious applause.

It was true. For the past 30 minutes, every person who asked a question had been outwardly male. “Why don’t you pick who asks?” the moderator said. “No, no, no,” said Carpenter. “You see a bunch of girls asking questions and you just pass them by.” Until the end of the Q&A, only women were called on.

One woman asked Carpenter about his effect on the horror movie genre. “When you were thinking of who Laurie was, did you ever expect that she would become this character that would become such an important part of horror films, to be replicated again and again? What is it like seeing that become a cultural phenomenon?” She was asking him directly about the “Final Girl” trope.

“I’ve heard of the Final Girl trope recently. I don’t understand what that means… Laurie as a character has some similarities to Michael Myers. That’s why she sings that song, “The Two of Us.” They’re both repressed… she triumphs in spite of it. She’s a survivor. She’s an action hero girl, so that’s how I saw her. Maybe I haven’t seen enough horror movies to know what the trope is. I’m sorry.”

Carpenter is then asked by the moderator if people interpreted messages in his film that were not intentional. “There was the whole thing about the punishment of the sexually active girl that I never understood. It just came out of nowhere…the virgin is the one that lives? I have no idea where that came from.” Carpenter has perhaps unwittingly described the “Death by Sex” trope.

Too many decisions go into filmmaking for coincidences. In the film, Michael Myers kills his sister after she hooks up with a boy. He comes back to Haddonfield and kills Laurie’s friends Annie, Billy, and Linda who were on their way to have sex or just finishing sex, respectively. He positions Annie’s body on the bed next to his sister’s tombstone. Myers has a problem with sexually active teenage girls. I’m not the first person to theorize this. Even if not intentional, the message is clear.

But then again, how could Carpenter, with his outspoken support of women, create such sexist and harmful tropes? When picking the next question, Carpenter points out to the moderator, “There’s a girl right here.” He and Castle take time to congratulate the advancements the film industry has taken towards inclusion.

“One great change is that there’s more women making movies now than there was when I was younger,” Carpenter says. “I’m impressed with some of these directors making great films.” Castle adds, “The women that were in our class were some of the best filmmakers in 1968, ‘69, ‘70, and they didn’t get as good a shot as we did. Hopefully, the world is changing in that regard. I know it is, but it’s still a struggle. We have to be diligent in terms of our unions and demanding of the studios to make sure there’s a more inclusive world.”

The event was fun and surprising. I didn’t expect the conversation to be topical, but that was my mistake. Horror has always been the genre of social commentary. After the last question, Carpenter tells the audience, “I have to go buy drugs, so we need to wrap this up.”

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