"Was that the boogie man?"
"As a matter of fact, it was."
Halloween, director John Carpenter's third feature film, became an instant word-of-mouth hit in 1978, not only kick-starting the careers of the cast and crew, but also bringing the slasher genre to American audiences. For many, the film is the pinnacle of horror, a hair-tearingly suspenseful thriller shot with style and sincerity. In fact, it's not uncommon to see Halloween listed as the greatest horror film of all time. For better or worse, its influence and lasting power are undeniable.
The film centers on three teenage girls who are terrorized by a psychotic killer, Michael Myers (Nick Castle). There's Lynda (P.J. Soles), a carefree cheerleader, Annie (Nancy Loomis), a perennially horny wiseass, and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a naive and homely babysitter. During the course of Halloween night, Myers stalks them, with the intention of killing them all. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), spends the night looking for him, hoping to prevent exactly the kind of killing spree that Myers hopes to unleash on the unsuspecting town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
The plot is absurdly simple, and should be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of horror. What sets Halloween apart from its imitators (which includes the untold sequels to this film) is John Carpenter. Carpenter's idea of suspense was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, and most importantly, his 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Combine this with an extremely low budget that didn't offer the chance to shoot a lot of coverage, leading to long wide shots. The rhythm of the film is slow, constantly building tension. It's so slow by modern horror standards that a comparable film literally could not be made today. It would be ripped apart and all the suspense would be edited away by studio execs who presume all audience members have ADD. To give an idea of how different the pace of Halloween is, there's a single murder in the first five minutes, and then no other deaths until fifty minutes later. Try to imagine a horror film today that spends almost an hour building character and suspense.
The other major contributor to the effectiveness of the film is the score, also by John Carpenter. The haunting, melancholic piano piece, repeated incessantly throughout the picture, is one of the most recognizable in film. And it drills into your brain with laser precision. Combine the music, which is dark and foreboding, with these long takes that seem to stretch on and on, and you get this incredible sense of anticipation. Carpenter uses this to stage one of the greatest cat-and-mouse games ever committed to celluloid. Laurie and her friends stroll and drive through the town, followed by Michael. Loomis frantically searches Haddonfield, hoping to stop Michael before he can do any harm. These three elements push and pull against each other, making the audience increasingly uncomfortable. In one particularly stunning sequence, Laurie and Annie pull up in a car, talk to Annie's father, and drive off as Loomis walks up. As he talks to Annie's father, Michael drives by in the background. The effect is absolutely stunning.
And speaking of stunning, Michael Myers is a terrifyingly effective villain. As one of the enduring Hollywood horrors, this statement seems a bit obvious. But imagine, back in 1978, seeing this nondescript person, wearing a disturbingly blank fright mask, staring deliberately at young girls who have no clue he's even there. The effect, especially when shot with the subtlety displayed here, is about as convincing as you can get in a film in this genre. The fact that Myers has been marginalized over the course of the film's sequels (controlled by a cult, kung fu fighting with Busta Rhymes, etc.) cannot alter the chilling nature displayed here. Interestingly, it took a complete re-imagining of the franchise by Rob Zombie to make the character scary again.
The problem, at least for me, comes when Michael finally starts killing people. The tension bursts like a dam, and I don't feel the film ever really regains that sense of dread. And things get even worse once Michael starts going after Laurie. All of a sudden, this killing machine can't seem to land a hit with his knife, and Laurie falls for the same "play dead" trick twice in a row, along with displaying some absurdly bad judgement. It really seems at odds with the accomplished and intelligent filmmaking we've seen up to that point. Even worse, the last forty or so minutes of the film became the guide for just about every bad slasher made ever since, only they didn't have the benefit of a skilled filmmaker like John Carpenter behind the camera. So if you feel like the various Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare On Elm St. sequels, along with other various generic slashers have ruined horror, this is where it all started. And what's worse, those inferior imitations have actually watered Halloween down. Watching it now, you can't help but get a sense of deja vu, like you've seen all of this before, many times over.
Still, despite its flaws, Halloween remains a horror landmark. And I will admit that until recently, I was overly critical of it for the very reasons I outlined above. But watching it again, I can see the skill and the care that went into its creation, along with some very good performances by the cast, especially Curtis and Pleasence. In fact, compared to the standard acting in horror films, the performances here are Academy Award-worthy. In the end, its place in film history is secure, and deservedly so. You might have seen Halloween, and you might have seen its sequels, and its rip-offs, but it's still worth seeing again. Just be sure that when you turn out the lights, the only boogie man is safely on the screen.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Halloween is one of six titles to be released in the first batch of Blu-ray discs from Anchor Bay, a fan favorite company known for releasing deluxe editions of cult movies. They are also known among DVD collectors for releasing several different versions of a film with minor differences in an attempt to maximize sales from what are generally seen as niche titles. I've lost count of how many editions of Army of Darkness Anchor Bay has released over the years (I myself have the "Limited Edition" Director's Cut with the golden colored case). Halloween is one of Anchor Bay's crown jewels, and as such, it has also received several different releases with slight differences (the most useful being the TV cut that Carpenter made for airing on NBC), and this Blu-ray version contains elements of many of the previous versions.
Anchor Bay originally released Halloween on DVD in 1997, during a period where they had poor compression due to a particularly cheap authoring house. Thus, that first edition looked awful. The less said about it, the better. The film was re-released by Anchor Bay in 1999 with a significant jump in quality. I remember reading rave reviews when it first came out. For a while, it was considered one of the top DVDs on the market. Of course, time went on and DVD authoring got even better (plus, Anchor Bay will do anything for a buck), so they re-released it in 2003 in a "25th Anniversary Edition," which featured a slightly improved image, but inexplicably changed the color scheme. Most noticeably, the blue tint that made the nighttime scenes so moody was gone. This caused an uproar among fans, and there was worry that when this Blu-ray was released, that it too would contain the incorrectly color-timed transfer.
In response to these worries, Anchor Bay announced they would in fact be using the older transfer approved by Cundey. And at a first glance, they seem to be telling the truth. The nighttime scenes have a bluish tint to them, and the daytime scenes look like Fall in Illinois. But this 2.35:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer does not seem to have the same color levels as the 1999 transfer. The nighttime scenes, while blue, are not nearly as bathed in blue light as they were before, although the daytime scenes get very close to how they used to look. It's not as bad as the Divimax, but it's not quite where Cundey and Carpenter wanted it to be. However, that being said, it's still the best Halloween has ever looked on home video. Now, the film was shot on an amazingly low budget ($300,000 with an additional $20,00 paid to Donald Pleasence), and was shot using cheap late 70's film stock, so it's not going to compare to today's Hollywood blockbusters. That being said, I was still extremely impressed with practically every element of the image. The all-important shadow detail is excellent. Fans of the film will no doubt remember the moment where Laurie, having discovered several of her friends murdered, backs into a dark corner, only to have Michael appear from the darkness behind her. In HD, the reveal is especially chilling. As most of the film was done with long shots, there's not as much detail to be found as films that use more traditional methods of coverage. Still, I can't imagine finding a version of the film that shows more detail than what we get here. There's a fine layer of grain that gives the whole film a very cinematic presentation, something that HD sometimes finds difficult. There are a few specks of dirt here and there, but you'll only notice them if you're paying very close attention. In short, this is about as good as Halloween is ever going to look. Salivating yet?
Anchor Bay provides three audio tracks for this release: The original mono, Dolby Digital 5.1, and an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track. Now, I'm sure some home theater junkies will kill me for it, but out of the three, I actually preferred the mono track. After all, it is the original mix that the crew put together for theatrical exhibition. Also, the surround mixes just don't sound much better. In fact, the dialogue actually sounds worse in the multichannel mixes, because they're using the same mono sources, but putting them up against remixed versions of the score and the sound effects, making the dialogue sound thin and artificial. The best part of the 5.1 tracks is the score, which spreads effectively across all channels. The Dolby Digital and the PCM tracks are almost indistinguishable, and they just can't hide the fact that they're using elements from a low budget 1978 film.
This is where things start to get a little fuzzy. Anchor Bay has released Halloween on DVD so many times that it's difficult to know what we're getting and what we're missing. I know for a fact that there are supplements that aren't included here, most notably the original documentary "Unmasked." However, what we do get is pretty darn good, although none of it is in HD.
- Commentary with Writer/Director John Carpenter, Producer/Co-Writer Debra Hill, and Actress Jamie Lee Curtis: This commentary was originally recorded in the mid-90's for the Criterion Collection laserdisc (that's right, the other disc-based movie format), and it's a keeper. All three participants offer insightful comments on almost all the aspects of the film. Carpenter and Hill give a very detailed description of how the opening sequence was put together, and Curtis talks about her experience as a novice actress. Her best moment comes when she mentions how despite doing six "exploitation" (read: horror) films, she as an actress did not get exploited until she started doing mainstream films. Hill, being a producer, mostly focuses on how little money the production had and what they did to work around the problem. Carpenter touches on a variety of topics, from working with Pleasence to his concept of what The Shape represents, to several disparaging thoughts on the film's sequels. The only issue I have with the commentary is that all the participants were recorded separately and then edited together, but the content is so good that it's only a minor quibble.
- Halloween - A Cut Above The Rest: The back of the case lists this supplement as a "featurette," which to me usually means the piece is between 5 and 15 minutes, for the most part. Not so here. "A Cut Above The Rest" runs an impressive hour and a half, and touches upon every aspect of the film and its legacy that one could think of. It's got interviews with Carpenter, Hill, executive producer Moustapha Akkad, P.J. Soles, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dean Cundey, Nick Castle, and many more, providing several viewpoints on the film not available in the commentary. Carpenter, Hill, and Curtis do repeat some of the stories they told in the commentary, but then again, how often can you talk about the same movie and still have something new to say, especially if you're relating its history? The highlight of the documentary is behind the scenes footage with the late Donald Pleasence that shows him interacting with Carpenter on the set.
- Fast Film Facts: Looks like Anchor Bay has taken a page from Lions Gate's book and have included a pop-up trivia track that plays while the film is running. You can also play it at the same time as the commentary if you want all your information in a concentrated dose. This is, as far as I know, the only extra exclusive to the Blu-ray.
- Theatrical Trailer: The only thing of note about this trailer is that it is a red band trailer.
- TV Spots: Three in all.
- Radio Spots: And three of these.
Halloween is a horror classic. But more than that, it's got some of the best filmmaking you'll ever have a chance to lay eyes on. The majority of the movie is simply breathtaking. Even if the climax doesn't live up to what's come before it, the fact is that Halloween is a must-see film that will stand the test of time. I was very impressed with the film-like image on this Blu-ray disc. It's the best Halloween has ever looked on home video. The sound isn't quite as impressive, and the disc doesn't include all the various extras Anchor Bay has produced for the film over the years, but the strong audio commentary and in-depth documentary are both excellent. Regardless of whether you're a horror fan or a fan of great cinema, you need to own this film. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.