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John Carpenter's Steadicam of Terror

By David Konow

The director and cinematographer of Halloween recall the making of the memorable opening sequence of the 1978 horror classic, including its innovative use of the then-new Steadicam.

Last month, Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It’s a well-deserved honor. The Steadicam is indeed a wonderful innovation that’s taken the bumps and shakes out of camerawork, and as much as we love the shakicam scenes we’ve seen in horror flicks like the original Evil Dead, any movie fan knows there are innumerable incredible segments and camera moves that wouldn’t have been possible without the Steadicam.

And if you’re a horror fan, you also know that two of the best movies in the genre had very innovative use of the Steadicam: Halloween and The Shining. Once Stanley Kubrick found out about the Steadicam, he knew it would be the perfect tool to help making The Shining, and John Carpenter was able to get his great Steadicam work on the big screen first for the opening segment.

As Carpenter told me, “I’ve always admired long tracking shots. Touch of Evil comes to mind, and there’s one in the original Scarface. An acquaintance of mine had done a short film that was all one take, and it was really an engrossing way of moving the camera through an environment.”

Dean Cundey, the cinematographer of Halloween, who also shot Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park, says the opening scene “was written to be one fluid shot. We didn’t have a lot of time or money. How do you tell three pages of a story, one shooting day, that has no dialogue? We couldn’t have done it without the Steadicam. There was no other piece of equipment that would have been able to go across the street, look into the house, go into the kitchen, up the steps, into a bedroom, and back down again.”

As Cundey further explains, because the Steadicam was a completely new device at the time, “There were very few guys who were able to operate it and carry it around with them. It was a new technology that we learned to use by the seat of our pants. It was the most intricate use of the Steadicam of anybody at the time, no matter what the budget.”

Amazingly, the opening scene in Halloween wasn’t storyboarded.

Carpenter had it all in his head, and walked everybody through the shot, practically acting it out frame for frame. Ray Stella, the camera operator on Halloween, recalls the shot took about three hours to get the final version, which was actually done in two takes. The scene was timed to change camera reels when Michael puts on his mask. (The POV with the mask on with the two eye-holes was an optical that was added in post.)

Stella says, “I got so many calls to do Steadicam shots after that you wouldn’t believe it, and the Steadicam was a tough little thing to pull off, especially in those days. I look at some of my Steadicam stuff and I go, ‘How did I even get away with it?,’ because today you can't even tell a Steadicam shot. As a matter of fact, on some recent movies I've been doing, we don’t even have a dolly, we do the whole thing in Steadicam.”

Cundey says that with the opening shot in Halloween, “I think the idea was to make the statement that the audience was the point of view of somebody. John wanted to create the illusion and the feeling that we were a person watching. Who was this? Our life is one continuous shot, except when we sleep. But as soon as we wake up, every day is one continuous shot. So I think John wanted to be sure the audience understood that’s what we were seeing. We were this mysterious presence. He wanted to take the audience through this event, watching through the window, sneaking in the house, getting a knife, going upstairs, killing the girl, and then escaping.”

In her review of Halloween in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “[Carpenter] quickly sets up an atmosphere of fear…The film is largely just a matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen…in fact, there’s so much subjective tracking you begin to think everybody in the movie has his own camera…”

Looking back on the scene today, Cundey says, “I think it was an innovative thing because never before had anyone been able to take the camera so fluently. Yes, you can hand-hold it, but there's always a certain feeling of hand-holding. You can always sense the steps, the movement of the camera operator. The Stedicam is a lot more fluid. That’s what Carpenter wanted to create, this very real first person situation of moving through a house and all of the stuff that you couldn’t do with conventional camera shots.”