Dean Cundey on ‘Halloween’

Halloween is just around the corner. It’s a weird holiday. No banks are closed, no kids get to skip school. It’s based on pagan harvest celebrations.

One manner of celebration involves giving out candy to cosplaying kids. Another newer tradition has people watching horror themed films during October. The influence of the John Carpenter film “Halloween,” which premiered in 1978, continues to this day. The most recent version “Halloween Ends” is still in theaters and the franchise from Universal Pictures will no doubt outlive us all.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview the cinematographer of the original “Halloween” Dean Cundey in conjunction with the 35th anniversary Blu-ray release of the movie for which Cundey personally oversaw the transfer.

While “Halloween” may seem tame in comparison to today’s breed of horror films in its day it was a huge financial hit as well as a critical success that jump started the careers of many involved.

MB: You attended UCLA film school and one of your professors was the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. What year was that?

DC: I graduated in 1968. He had just finished “The Heart is A Lonely Hunter” and was just about to start “The Molly Maguires.” He invited me to the set just to see what a big movie was all about.

In Halloween you’re using the Panaglide system. How is that different from the Stedicam?

Pretty much the branding. There were some subtle differences but nothing radically different. Panavision built a lightweight camera to attach to it. It was their complete system as opposed to the Stedicam, which was built to mount various cameras. 

There had only been a couple of other films shot with a Panaglide/Stedicam system at this point, right?

The first one I saw was “Bound For Glory,” which was the famous shot where the camera comes off a crane at the refugee camp and follows David Carradine through the camp. I was told about it by a guy who was working at Todd AO, which was to then become Cinema Products who were the agency for the Stedicam. He called me one day to tell me there was this amazing shot with this new device and he couldn’t talk about it. He told me about this shot in “Rocky” where the camera just floated up these stairs and moved around Stallone. But we were one of the first films to make extensive use of the Panaglide throughout the entire movie. 

The tracking shot in Halloween following the boy in the schoolyard from behind the chain link fence was especially creepy but then a car drives by – and I don’t know if there’s a cut – it’s like all of a sudden the camera floats in the back of the car and we’re watching the boy from the back seat.

That was one of the things that John was good at, which was seeing the capability of this new technology and then finding ways to use it.

But there are also traditional set-ups for Halloween.

We mixed up the techniques. A lot of the time we used a dolly inside. Anytime we wanted a stable shot. The inclination was to use a Stedicam anytime the shot involved Michael Myers; either his point-of-view or following him. That became the signature movement for Michael Myers.

The music for Halloween was also inventive. The entire score was composed by Carpenter and we only hear one other song the entire movie, which is when Laurie and Annie are in the car smoking a joint and on the radio you hear “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

John, whose father was a concert violinist, grew up around music. He was very astute when it came to applying the music to the movie. Famously he decided that he didn’t want to sound stable or rhythmic like music in 4/4 or 2/4. He used 5/4 rhythm, which is kind of disquieting when you hear it. That became the signature of the Halloween music, which is now so identifiable and iconic.

You oversaw the mastering of the film elements for this newest Blu-ray release.

I was pleased to be able to so because for of all the previous releases they either looked at a print or they just followed what they thought was right. I was never really happy with any of the previous transfers. This transfer was done off of original material, not like some of the electronic versions. It’s the most accurate representation of the movie we made in 1978. Very often audiences who say they love the movie have never seen it on the screen. Most of the exposure was on television. It’s a thrill for me to know that now there’s a very high quality version. People can experience it almost the way it looked in theaters when we made it.

Because the film stocks from that era of the 1970s are no longer used.

No they’re not. As they increased the speed and sensitivity of the film, the older film stocks disappeared. The film we used was a lot slower and sensitive to light and we had to use more light. It took a lot of care to get the effects that today you can achieve with natural lighting. One of the things that we took advantage of when we made “Escape From New York” was the fact that they had just come out with a faster film, leaving behind the film stock we had used on “Halloween.”

For as influential a film as “Halloween” is to the horror genre there is actually very little blood.

It’s stayed popular with audiences for all these years and since then horror films of all kinds have come out. We deliberately said we weren’t going to use any blood. And there is none. People are fooled because of the way we staged the violence. For instance cutting Nancy’s throat in the car was really just a knife but no blood. “Halloween” is all about the psychological effect of suspense and horror as opposed to the blatant blood that’s so often seen nowadays.

What did you think about the 3D conversion of Jurassic Park?

I was quite pleased. I went to see it just out of morbid curiosity and not being a big fan of 3D. But I have to say the way Steven shot it, the way we used wide lenses, it was almost like it had been shot for 3D. We very deliberately and carefully selected angles that were telling a story about the size of the dinosaurs.

The scene where the helicopter lands by the helipad next to the waterfall seemed like a sequence onto itself with the helicopter as the main character. Was it meant to be like that?

I think that one of the things about the story is that the island is so isolated. And rather than the helicopter coming into land on something that looked like an existing landing pad Steven and Rick Carter, the production designer, decided that they wanted it to be dramatic and visual. That helipad was actually built at the base of a waterfall at the end of a long twisting road. That was built very specifically and at great effort. It paid off because it’s certainly a dramatic entrance.

Another film you shot for John Carpenter, “The Thing,” was partially shot in Canada and Alaska. What kind of technical difficulties did the cold play on the equipment?

One of the things I did was I went to Panavision before I went to those locations and said we’re going to be in sub-zero weather. Also it’s quite a strain on the film because it can crack if it freezes. Static electricity can appear and destroy your image. So there was a lot of thought that went into winterizing the cameras. They put in special lubricants and special parts; built heaters for the film magazines. As we were filming we found when we were shooting outside the set, the main compound that was in Steward, British Columbia – very, very cold, the temperatures were below zero – if the camera assistants took the cameras inside to work on them or for lunch the lenses would fog up, and not just on the outside but on the inside. We ended up taking all the doors and windows off the camera room so that the rooms were the same temperature as the outside. The camera assistants rarely got any relief.

I look at that as being the most trying environmental situations I ever shot in. “Romancing the Stone” was also logistically difficult; we had rain and mudslides in Mexico. But “The Thing” was the most trying.

You also shot a lot of films for Robert Zemeckis. The “Back to the Future” trilogy has gone on to become a kind of cultural landmark of the mid-‘80s. What struck me at the time was the Freudian element of that film, where this high school dude goes back in time and discovers his mom as a hot teenager.

A lot of the appeal of the “Back to the Future” series is we all wish we could back and fix things. There’s also that element of going back and being confronted with stuff you didn’t think about. That element of Marty going back in time and meeting his mother and his mother being attracted to him certainly is one of those uncomfortable thoughts that intrigue the audience.

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