Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
It can be argued that Bob Clark kicked off the slasher sub-genre with his 1974 Christmas classic, Black Christmas – and you’d be right – but the real success story to utilize the stalk-and-slash formula was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The film cost a mere $325,000 to produce, yet the record grosses it took in made it the most successful independent film of all-time until The Blair Witch Project (1999) became a hit some 20 years later. To this day it stands as one of the greatest films the genre has to offer, with a legion of fans to back up that assertion. Carpenter utilized all of his finely-tuned skills as a director to create an atmosphere that is palpable, oozing off the screen with ominous presence and the promise of bad things to come. He employs the “less is more” method, preferring to let his characters carry the bulk of the film so that we can become accustomed to them, grow to like them as individuals, and all the while a faceless, blank Shape appears intermittently to remind us danger can be around any corner.
Halloween also benefits from receiving one of the most widely-remembered themes in all of cinema, let alone horror. Carpenter, who also composed the film (in addition to producing and writing), laid down a moody, simplistic score that eschews complex arrangements and orchestration, relying entirely on the tones created using piano melodies. This basic approach also worked wonders for Jaws (1975) a few years earlier, a fitting fact considering Michael Myers is the “shark” of this film, methodically staking his prey until striking at the precise moment.
On the extremely-off chance that someone reading this isn’t familiar with the film, a brief summary. It’s Halloween night, 1978, and Michael Myers has escaped from the mental hospital he was committed to fifteen years earlier for murdering his sister. Hot on his trail is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), his psychiatrist and the only man who knows what evil lurks behind those eyes. He’s returning to Haddonfield, back to his home, and a young group of girls are about to be reminded that on Halloween night, everyone is entitled to one good scare.
A film can only be as good as its leading characters, and few female trios are as memorable as Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Lynda (P.J. Soles), and Annie (Nancy Loomis). Carpenter had the good sense to write these high school girls like real people. Horror films are often guilty of exaggerating personalities to make them more distinct, but Halloween gives these girls an authentic voice. Their friendships feel genuine, not like a forced group of friends cobbled together for easy pickings later on. On-screen deaths don’t mean anything if there isn’t a connection with the audience to these characters. Laurie feels like a relatable person. She isn’t the most popular girl in school, nor is she the prettiest. She’s just an average teenager who wants to get good grades and have fun with her friends. Even dating isn’t seen as a high priority to her, although part of that reasoning fits into the “morality play” aspects of most horror films. Laurie is certainly the most “virginal” of her friends, and that’s exactly why she makes it to the end.
I’d be remiss not to mention the late Donald Pleasence, whose role as the Myers-obsessed Dr. Loomis remains one of the great protagonists in horror. The role was originally offered to both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who later said turning it down was a big regret) before going to Pleasence, who at that time was best known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967). His relationship with Myers is almost like that of a father, and he’s desperately trying to retrieve him before more blood is spilled. Loomis manages to remain collected and professional, but there is an aura of frenzied desperation bubbling just under the surface because he knows what Myers is capable of doing. The role came to define his career, for better or worse, and his presence in the sequels injected them with gravitas.
Producer Irwin Yablans told it best to Carpenter that the audience shouldn’t be graphically scared, but rather “it should be what they thought they saw that frightens them.” Taking this ethos quite literally, the film features virtually no bloodshed, and most deaths don’t even involve Myers’ trademark knife. The film took a then little-used technique of assuming the killer’s POV, an effect that greatly amplifies the tension because now the audience can tell where the boogeyman is going to strike from but the actors on the screen are none the wiser. It’s a bit like the “bomb under the table” technique filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock would employ. It all comes down to setting a mood, and Carpenter’s long, languid shots lull viewers into a false sense of tranquility before snapping them back to reality with Myers appearing at the sound of a stinger in the score. There’s virtually nothing Carpenter can be faulted for here, delivering what is for all intents and purposes a perfect horror film in every regard.
It’s so great, in fact, that fans will gladly (grudgingly?) line up to purchase any and every new edition that is released – leading us to Anchor Bay’s brand-new 35th Anniversary Edition. This time around, we’re treated to a few new supplements, but the real meat in the bag is the new transfer, approved by cinematographer Dean Cundey.
The previous Blu-ray edition of Halloween had unauthorized color timing changes made, giving the film a heavily-saturated appearance which essentially negated the intended effect of looking like fall weather. Now, I realize that it can only look so much like fall since it was shot in the spring of 1978 in Pasadena, CA, but this new transfer claims to be more in line with the aesthetic Carpenter and Cundey were aiming for. Everything looks cooler and crisper this time around, with a steely/grey tone given to the picture. It feels more like the Halloween season. This change has also benefited the film’s fine details, which now look more apparent than ever. Faces and lines are more sharply defined, resulting in an image that should win over anyone on the fence about buying the film again. The prior Blu-ray looked like a film shot during spring. The grass was so green it was practically bleeding off the soil. And skin tones looked much hotter there than this new edition, where faces have a softer, more neutral balance. I can’t say I minded the blue push given to some of the night scenes, as it did give the film a more ghostly atmosphere. But it’s hard to argue when Dean Cundey himself is behind the controls, and this is by far the best presentation we’ve seen yet. I did a direct A-B comparison, switching back and forth between the two discs, and the results here are startlingly impressive. If you’re a purist who wants the most accurate presentation possible for films you love, this is a no-brainer for the image alone.
On the audio side of things, this disc gets a major boost by receiving a lossless English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround sound track that, quite simply, murders the previous disc’s PCM track. As soon as the film begins, there is an immediately noticeable difference in the range allotted to the score, with Carpenter’s deep synth tones reverberating through your system. Dialogue levels register at a higher level, giving them a fullness that was lost in previous editions. The expanded dynamics provide more impact to musical stingers. Music is of major importance to this film, inexorably so, and the richness provided by this track provides an immersive experience fans could have only gotten in a theater before. Rear supports carry a lot of ambiance with them, filling out the sound field with elements of rain storms, trick-or-treaters, and screams that were previously lessened in their effectiveness. The original mono track is also included, though it shows clear limitations when stacked up against this new multi-channel affair. Simply put, it’s the best the film has ever sounded.
The supplemental department is a mixed bag on this new release, with a two new features hosted alongside some re-purposed extras. First up is a new audio commentary with writer/director John Carpenter and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of re-recorded commentaries since, especially for a film like Halloween, it’s been dissected a million times already. But I really liked this track. Not only because I could listen to Carpenter – now a little older, wiser, and slightly weary – talk about his days of yore endlessly, but because Curtis seems to have this new-found exuberance for her days as a scream queen. These two converse like a couple of close, old friends, holding nothing back and speaking candidly about working together, the ensuing years that have passed since, and much more. It’s great to hear Curtis show some real excitement. She controls most of the track, while Carpenter sort of sits back and gives her the reins while offering up his own thoughts on the picture all these years later. The Night She Came Home is an all-new documentary on Jamie Lee Curtis’ one and only convention appearance, at the HorrorHound weekend show in November 2012. Curtis admits right up front that she has essentially chosen to ignore her horror fan base since it’s not really her thing and she no longer identifies with that genre. But now she’s back to monetize her fandom by signing items at this show and donating her earnings to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Accompanied by the ubiquitous Sean Clark, Curtis spends hours each day talking to fans, cracking jokes, and reminiscing about her horror days. She’s open and candid, holding nothing back while she squeezes every last drop out of this, her one-time gift to fans all over the world. You’d think it could get boring watching Jamie sign posters and gab with fans for an hour, but this doc breezes right by with no lag. On Location: 25 Years Later is an old featurette that appeared on one of the previous DVD releases done by Anchor Bay. Running for just over 10 minutes, the piece looks at some of the key locations alongside interviews with a few cast & crew members. TV Version Footage collects all of the scene Carpenter shot to pad out the network premiere of the film, some of which add important details to the mythos. Of course, it would have been better if they saw fit to include the TV Version on this disc. Wrapping things up are a handful of trailers, TV spots, and radio spots.
Another selling point of this disc is the DigiBook packaging. The profile is very slim, with the interior containing a 20-page booklet featuring production photos and essays. The disc itself is contained inside a paper sleeve, which has been glued to the last page. It’s a cheap design, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear many fans hate it. The cover art admittedly did little for me when glimpsed online, however, in person the minimalist artwork does look a little more impressive. The cover is also slightly embossed, giving it a bit of texture, too. And, hey, if you don’t like you can just hold off and buy the 40th anniversary edition that is no doubt forthcoming. Like me, I’m sure all of you are sick to death of re-buying your favorite classics again and again and again. This release stands as the definitive representation of Halloween from an audio and video standpoint, but the clear omission of numerous bonus features means that, at the least, you’ll have to hang on to all the old copies piled up on your shelf.
5 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5