Recently at BeyondFest 2014, the second year of the “world genre film festival dedicated to delivering the best in horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and badass cinema,” I had the pleasure of attending a screening of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The film was presented by both Jamie Lee Curtis and Carpenter himself, something that in the almost forty years since its release had never happened before. The Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California was packed with horror fans and the event sold out faster than you can say “Michael Myers.”
After a wonderful Q&A, the lights went low and the opening credits rolled. As to be expected at a sold out fan screening, cheers erupted at the sight of John Carpenter’s name. There was applause for Jamie Lee and P.J Soles as well as cinematographer Dean Cundey. Then, producer Debra Hill’s name graced the screen, and I started to applaud. But a curious thing happened: I found myself to be the only one.
No one else cheered for Hill. I was shocked. In a room full of die hard horror nerds, not a one of them would clap for her? Did they not know about how important she was to the invention of their favorite movie or did they just not care? I was so confused and frankly, I was also a little mad. So this week, in light of my favorite holiday and in honor of the mega ultra special Halloween box set that just came out, I wanted to write something remembering Debra Hill because, and this is important, boys and girls: Without Debra Hill, there is no Halloween. There is no The Fog. There is no Escape from New York.
Debra Hill and John Carpenter began working together on the set of Assault on Precinct 13. Hill was the script supervisor and as the completed film was on the festival circuit, according to Reel Terror by David Konow, the pair attended the London Film Festival with Precinct and raised the money needed for the now horror classic Halloween, which Hill co-wrote with Carpenter. While Carpenter has been known to be a fan of the tough, Hawksian leading lady, Tommy Lee Wallace, who helped on the editing for Precinct and cut both Halloween and The Fog, also recognized the type of leading woman that would star in a Debra Hill production, saying of seminal “final girl” Laurie Strode, “She [Hill] was not going to have a weeping violet type as her heroine, no way.” Hill herself explained Laurie as “a strong character who was very willful and feared nothing. Here was a woman who didn’t run from danger but stepped up to it.”
It was Hill who pushed Carpenter to cast Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and hire Dean Cundey. The legendary cinematographer who went on to shoot basically every movie you’ve ever loved and work with Carpenter many, many more times? That introduction was Hill’s, who, as Reel Terror puts it, thought he and Carpenter would “make a good team.” Still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who was also on set for Halloween, explained Hill this way: “She always got the job done on time, and usually under budget… She took care of business, and he took care of shooting.” During the time they were working together Carpenter himself acknowledged Hill as an equal partner, saying often in interviews, “We’re a team.”
After the success of Halloween, Hill went on to write The Fog, Halloween II and Escape from New York with Carpenter. She produced them as well, in addition to also producing genre favorites like The Dead Zone, Clue and Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. She died in 2005 after a battle with cancer and was quoted in her New York Times obituary after being honored by the Women In Film organization in 2003 as saying, “I hope some day there won’t be a need for Women in Film. That it will be People in Film.”
By all accounts, Debra Hill made incredible contributions to horror as we now know it and she was half of the creative team behind what became one of the most successful independent films of all time. She helped to redefine a genre and deserves a big round of applause. Thank you for everything you did, Debra Hill. I really wish I could have met you.