The Original Halloween: A Debra Hill Production

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This week the latest installment of the horror franchise Halloween was released to great box office success. A direct sequel to the original, it ignores all other installments and re-boots and has broken box office records.

In celebration, Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted the following:

The Tweet was shared on the horror social media page Dread Central and although it was received positively by most, there was also the expected backlash against anything celebrating the achievements of women by more than several of the rank and file immature fanboys. One commenter asserted that John Carpenter created the original film and therefore Curtis owes the success of the new film (and the entire franchise) to him. The facts beg to differ.

Halloween was co-created by a woman. Her name was Debra Hill. She is credited as the film’s co-writer and producer. It’s right up there on the screen with Carpenter’s name, although – despite their supposed literacy – many viewers have simply ignored its presence. In the minds of some fans, it’s almost like her name isn’t there at all. “This,” I replied to the commenter, “is why we need feminism.”

In the interest of fairness and equality, let’s talk a bit about Ms. Hill.

Debra Hill first met John Carpenter in 1975 when he was looking for a script supervisor on Assault From Precinct 13. A few years later, they went on to create Halloween together. She co-wrote the screenplay and also acted as producer.

Hill was responsible for all of the character development and dialogue of the three female leads. Without her, there would be no Annie with her sarcastic put-downs, no giggling, air-headed Lynda and – most importantly – no Laurie Strode, the shy intelligent final girl who sings to herself “I wish I had you all alone…just the two of us…” An unforgettable characteristic to be sure.

Hill’s realistic dialogue gave 1978 audience someone they could relate to. The scene that best illustrates this is the one in the car where Annie attempts to get Laurie out of her shell and ask a boy on a date while smoking weed. Hill herself directed the largely improvised scene, having discussed the context with the actors beforehand. The result is that we sympathize with these young women and in the end, root for Laurie to survive. Without the likability of three characters, Halloween would likely not have struck a chord with audiences of the day and would be forgotten rather than serving as a template for the countless imitators that came after it.

Hill is also responsible for the naming of the town Haddonfield, where the film takes place. She was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey and went to Haddonfield High School. She chose all the (now iconic) houses for the locations and she even played the hands of the young Michael Myers that pick up the clown mask at the opening of the film.

She went on to work as producer on Halloween II and III and re-united with Carpenter for 1980’sThe Fog, 1981’s Escape From New York and its 1996 sequel, Escape From L.A. In 1985, she produced David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Dead Zonestarting Christopher Walken as well as the Tim Curry classic Clueand 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee.

THE FOG, producer Debra Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis on set, 1980, (c) Avco Embassy

As one of Hollywood’s first female producers, she was a member of the Producer’s Guild of America, eventually coming to serve on their board of directors as well as on the Executive Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which also won a Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy for the year 1991.

In 2002, I was honored to watch Ms. Hill give a presentation at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, California on the films she worked on with John Carpenter. Along with anecdotes from the making of the films, she spoke of the need for more women in the film industry to get behind the camera and the difficulties she faced as a female writer/producer. “I was assumed to be the make-up and hair person, or the script person…everybody called me “Honey.” I was never assumed to be the writer or producer.”

I was later shocked to learn that she was likely ill on the day I watched her speak. In 2005, after a long battle with cancer in which she had both legs amputated below the knee, she passed away. She was only 54.

In her name, The Producer’s Guild of America has established The Debra Hill Fellowship, which awards both men and women who complete an accredited graduate program in producing and “whose work, professionalism and passion mirror that of Debra Hill.”

In October of 2012, The New Beverly Cinema hosted the first Debra Hill film festival with all proceeds going to the Fellowship.

Debra Hill once said, “I hope someday there won’t be a need for women in film. It will just be people in film.” She was a pioneer who should not be forgotten by anyone. Least of all by horror fans to whom they owe a debt of gratitude for helping to create one of the genre’s most beloved modern classics. Thank you, Ms. Hill. Rest In Peace.

 

Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/debra-hill-527694.html

https://www.thewrap.com/debra-hill-film-festival-honor-pioneering-producer-60091/

https://www.producersguild.org/page/DebraHill

http://www.cinefilles.ca/2015/10/01/remembering-halloween-co-writer-and-reel-survivor-girl-debra-hill/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1485210/Debra-Hill.html

4 Forgotten Films To Watch On Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and though there are plenty of newer films available to honor the day, why not celebrate the feminine with a few forgotten old school films? None of the films on this list were commercial blockbusters at their time of release but all of them are now highly respected and/or considered classics with the added benefit of having kick-ass soundtracks. Enjoy.

Season of the Witch (a.k.a Jack’s Wife) (1972) Dir: George A. Romero

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Image ©Arrow Video

The only film on the list written and directed without the input of a woman, this film nonetheless shows remarkable insight into the minds of aging housewives in the late 1960’s at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement. The plot concerns Catholic housewife Joan (Jan White), who has spent the best years of her life doting on her abusive husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), and raising her very cool free-thinking daughter, who is now in college and no longer needs her. Despite having all the comforts of a suburban life, she regularly attends therapy sessions for her recurring nightmares in which she is tied up like a dog and left in a kennel by Jack. Eventually, she meets a practicing female occultist and decides to explore “the craft” in an effort to gain meaning and empowerment in her life. The question at the heart of the film is whether witchcraft is responsible for Joan’s ensuing emancipation, or if she has manifested these things through her own decisions. She casts spells, but she also initiates practical steps that are in no way supernatural and directly lead to her having an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend, breaking off her relationships with her older, more conservative-thinking female friends, and ultimately to the death of her husband. The power, it seems, was Joan’s all along and it is her decision alone who she will submit to. No irony is spared when we see her dead husband being carted away on a stretcher intercut with images of her kneeling down, completely nude for indoctrination into her local coven. Entirely happy with her new identity, the film’s conclusion is nonetheless haunting as it seems the rest of the world has yet to catch up with the new modern Joan as she is still referred to socially as “Jack’s wife.”

In the UK, Arrow Video will be releasing this film later this year on Blu-Ray. Definitely check it out.

Foxes (1980) Dir: Adrian Lyne

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Image ©Warner Home Video

Starring a young Jodie Foster and The Runaways’ Cherie Curie, the film follows the friendship of a group of girls in L.A. in their last year of High School in the late ‘70s. Although each girl has a coming-of-age storyline, the plot’s focus lies mainly with latchkey kid Jeanie (Foster), and her close relationship with her druggie friend Annie (Curie) who constantly parties to avoid going home to her physically abusive policeman father. Director Lyne is no stranger to drawing complex authentic performances from his female actors as evidenced by his excellent take on Nabokov’s Lolita (1997) and this film is no exception. Jeanie is not just a kid. She’s the smartest person in the room even when she’s with her mother or her teachers. She takes care of everyone and everything. Consequently, she has difficulty finding people who will look after her when she needs it. Her parents are divorced and both act younger than her. After tragedy befalls one of their group, Jeanie leaves them all behind for college and hopefully a better future.

Times Square (1980) Dir: Allan Moyle

Time Square

Image ©Network Video

This film is probably my favorite on the list. The development of the unlikely friendship between shy well-off Pam (Trini Alvarado) and volatile street musician Nicky (Robin Johnson) into the band the Sleeze sisters serves as emancipation from expectations for both girls, who become beloved by all the young girls in the city for their take no bullshit attitude. The excellent music is enhanced by the backdrop of decaying 1980 Manhattan, which almost becomes a character in and of itself with the age-old question of culture vs. gentrification featuring prominently. The changing city has an important impact on the way these divergent girls come to understand each other, their sexualities, and the outside world. In the end, the message is one of rebellion, self-expression and believing in yourself, even when at odds with those closest to you. As if those weren’t enough reasons to see it, the soundtrack rocks (it features the Ramones and XTC among others) and Tim Curry plays a DJ.

Girls Town (1996) Dir: Jim Mckay

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Image ©Lions Gate Films

Not to be confused with the 1950’s Mamie Van Doren movie, this title is another film about the last year of high school, this time set in gritty urban New Jersey. The film follows a gang of four girls (Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, Anna Grace and Aunjanue Ellis) one of who is a single teen mother to a little girl, who must cope in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent suicide of one of their group. Feelings of rage, sadness and hopelessness cause the surviving three to act out towards in various ways, to just about everyone in their periphery despite the prospect of college and a better future. The girls become closer in their shared trauma and they know in their hearts, that no matter where any of them end up in life, this will be the event that defines their friendship. The writing (with contributions from co-star Lily Taylor) is especially poignant when dealing with mother-daughter issues and the guidance or lack thereof provided after the incident. This one is hard to find as it was only ever made available on VHS, but it is worth looking for the occasional screenings on IFC, which is where I first discovered it. The performances are incredibly strong and the soundtrack features some great music from that era, including Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y., which is used to great affect as the girls patrol their neighborhood spoiling for a fight.