The 40-Year History of Halloween at the Box Office

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures (Halloween 2018), Compass International Films (Halloween 1978), Dimension Films (Halloween H20)

On October 25, 1978, a low-budget horror film called Halloween quietly premiered at a theater in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Directed by a young filmmaker named John Carpenter and featuring a cast of unknowns (save British character actor Donald Pleasance, who had previously starred in The Great Escape and You Only Live Twice), the film slowly grew in popularity as it swept across the country, ultimately grossing $47 million in North America over the course of a prolonged theatrical run. Its smash success ushered in the so-called “slasher” boom of the succeeding decade, resulting in a glut of inferior imitators and spawning a franchise that has reached new commercial heights 40 years after the original made its unassuming debut in theaters.

The original Halloween proved to be such a phenomenon that a sequel was all but inevitable, but with Carpenter refusing to direct—though he did co-write the script, alongside his original collaborator Debra Hill—an unknown filmmaker named Rick Rosenthal took the helm. Unlike its predecessor, Halloween II opened wide via a major studio (Universal Pictures) and debuted with $7.4 million, nearly three times its $2.5 million budget. But with the novelty of the concept having worn off, it faded more quickly than the original, finishing its run with a still-impressive $25.5 million. That made it the 23rd highest-grossing movie of 1981 and the second highest-grossing horror film, after the John Landis special effects shocker An American Werewolf in London ($30.6 million).

In the aftermath of the follow-up’s success, the Halloween series continued apace, with a third installment—Halloween III: Season of the Witch—releasing on October 22, 1982. Unlike the first two films, the new installment functioned as a standalone entry, swapping out the Michael Myers storyline for a plot about mystical Halloween masks engineered to kill children on Halloween night. Written and directed by Halloween and The Fog editor Tommy Lee Wallace and produced by Carpenter and Hill, the film was meant to kick off a series of Halloween anthology films, but the disappointing box office effectively upended those plans. Opening to $6.3 million on 1,297 screens, Halloween III fell precipitously in subsequent weekends, ultimately earning $14.4 million on a budget of $2.5 million, making it the lowest-grossing entry in the series so far. That led the Halloween series to embark on an unofficial hiatus, though it would return six years later with its original villain intact.

“The first two Halloweens were successful, but everybody came out of the third saying, ‘Where’s Michael?’” Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers producer Paul Freeman told Fangoria magazine during production of the 1988 film, which rebooted the Myers storyline after audiences’ tepid reaction to Season of the Witch. This return to the series’ roots proved to be reasonably successful—Halloween 4 debuted with $6.8 million in its opening weekend—though its final gross of $17.8 million was ultimately much closer to the third entry than that of the first two films (and on a substantially increased budget of $5 million). One year later, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers effectively tanked at the box office, opening to just $5.1 million and finishing its run with a series-low $11.6 million off a  $5 million budget.

With the slasher boom having faded by the end of the 1980s, the Halloween franchise took another extended hiatus between the fifth and sixth installments. It returned in 1995 with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, which posited that a Druid-like cult had compelled the title villain to kill. The first of the series to be released by Dimension Films, The Curse of Michael Myers debuted with $7.3 million in late September but faded quickly, ultimately finishing its run with just $15.1 million.

Stung by the poor critical and audience reception to the sixth film, Dimension attempted another series reboot three years later with Halloween H20, which brought back original star Jamie Lee Curtis for the first time since Halloween II. Ignoring the events of all non-Curtis installments, H20 married the bare-bones plots of the first two films with the self-aware tone of the Scream series to great success. Notably, it was the first of the series to debut outside the fall season, opening instead in early August 1998. Riding a wave of hype and relatively strong reviews , the film debuted to a series-high $16.2 million and raked in a total of $55 million in North America off a $17 million budget, making it the highest-grossing Halloween installment yet, not adjusting for inflation.

Curtis returned, however briefly, for the reality TV-influenced follow-up Halloween: Resurrection, which opened to $12.2 million in July 2002. Savaged by critics, the film dropped more precipitously than H20 but nonetheless cleared $30.4 million in North America by the end of its run, as well as an additional $7.3 million overseas (Resurrection is the first of the series for which reliable international box office data is available) off a $13 million budget.

The franchise underwent its most drastic reimagining since the third entry with 2007’s Halloween, a remake of the first film directed by House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects helmer Rob Zombie. Taking a more psychological approach to the Myers back story—including a prolonged first act featuring Myers as a young boy—the film received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics and polarized audiences, some of whom disliked Zombie’s explanatory style and preferred the more mysterious approach favored by Carpenter. Nonetheless, the film debuted to a series-best $26.4 million in August 2007 and ended its run with $58.3 million, besting H20’s previous franchise record. It brought in an additional $22.2 million overseas, bringing its worldwide tally to an impressive $80.5 million off a reported $15 million budget.

Zombie returned to the director’s chair two years later for Halloween II, which may have been hurt by audience apathy to the previous installment. Debuting over the final weekend of August 2009, the film opened to $16.4 million—roughly $10 million lower than its immediate predecessor—and finished with $33.4 million in North America and $39.4 million worldwide, less than half of the gross of Halloween 2007.

Zombie, who later described working on his two Halloween installments as a “miserable” experience, would not return to the franchise again. In the aftermath, a follow-up titled Halloween 3D was tentatively scheduled for October 2012, though Dimension ultimately scrapped those plans. Another follow-up—this one entitled Halloween Returns—was later announced to be in the works with Marcus Dunstan attached to direct. When that project failed to materialize, Dimension Films effectively lost the rights to the franchise, leading owner Miramax Films to shop it around. The series ultimately landed at Universal, with Miramax and Blumhouse co-financing a new film and original creator John Carpenter on board as an executive producer.

Similar to Halloween H20, the 2018 Halloween retconned the series, recognizing only the events of the 1978 original. Bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis and featuring original music by Carpenter, the David Gordon Green-directed reboot dropped jaws when it debuted to a massive $76.2 million on October 19, 2018—easily besting the total gross of every previous Halloween installment (not adjusting for inflation) in its opening weekend alone. It also ranked as the second-highest opening weekend ever for an R-rated horror film (behind the previous year’s It) and the second-highest grossing October opening weekend ever, second only to Venom. Notably, the original Halloween also broke box office records in its concurrent re-release from event cinema distributor CineLife, when it became the largest domestic classic revival of 2018 (though no official numbers were provided). Halloween 2018 ended its run with a huge $159.3 million domestically and $255.5 million worldwide off a $10 million budget—a stunning success that injected new life into the 40-year-old franchise.

On the heels of that enormous success, the Halloween series didn’t slow down. Halloween Kills, delayed one year by the pandemic, brought back a big portion of fans to the tune of a $49.4 million domestic opening. That plus its $92 million domestic and $131.7 million global totals were down from the 2018 release as word of mouth proved more mixed, coupled with Universal’s experimentation of releasing the film simultaneously in theaters and streaming for free to Peacock subscribers.

Promising an end to the current trilogy and the story of Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis returns one final (presumably) time in Halloween Ends, releasing October 14, 2022 in theaters and streaming at the same time again.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures (Halloween 2018), Compass International Films (Halloween 1978), Dimension Films (Halloween H20)

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