Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There were popular 'instant cult' horror films in the 70s, but the only one that was constantly
being recommended to me by all kinds of people was Halloween. After a screwball
student film-turned theatrical release (Dark Star) and an overachieving ode to Howard
Hawks (Assault on Precinct 13), young John Carpenter made this modest horror film, and
came into his own. Halloween is successful because the resourceful director created
his own totally controlled little cinematic world, with a simple but universally
identifiable story. Also, Halloween's young cast actually resembled and behaved like reel
teens. An astronomical success, it unfortunately spawned decades' worth of imitations and
wannabes ... for sheer influence, this 70s show is more potent than even Star Wars.
Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) witnesses the asylum escape of Michael Myers,
who killed two people as a small boy fifteen years earlier. Myers returns to his hometown on
Halloween night, and while preparing for a night of slaughter, becomes infatuated with teenager
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a dateless
charmer with two faster friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles).
Twenty-five years later, Halloween still looks impressive. The horror content is now
on the tame side, but the film wasn't all that explicit even in 1978. What we remember, as in
films, is the assured, professional build-up that interests us in his characters, and presents
the tale with the kind of authority that says, 'this is important.' If he's not an A-grade director,
then or now, it's because his stories never conclude as interestingly as they begin. Commercially,
this is no flaw, as those thrills he does induce were way more than sufficient. But Halloween
is now more an interesting milestone in horror, than a completely satisfying picture.
In 1978, Halloween had it all. It dipped into the practically untapped motherlode of
teen fear, the kind Stephen King told us stemmed directly from summer camp 'campfire' stories
about shapeless, meaningless boogeymen. One of the most effective moments in American Graffiti
had been a dark scene out on some rural road, where the teen heroes talk themselves
into a scary fit. The only effect was a soundtrack of subtle, eerie sounds; the scene
reminded us of the dumb AIP teen films of the 50s (especially Invasion of the Saucermen),
only it worked. Even though horror films were aimed at teens and little kids, nobody really picked up
on the commercial potential until Carpenter came along five years later.
Halloween broke the mold - in a way it was the ultimate film-student 70s picture: made
for kids, by kids. These teens break the rules, get drunk, get naked, yet are still lovable because
they care for children and each other. A studio has more of a problem achieving this with career
Of all the 70s wunderkids, Carpenter is the most formally-obsessed. Clearly a fevered student of
the nuts'n bolts auteur-worship interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut, he also
worshipped Howard Hawks and was determined to find a style of his own. Assault on Precinct 13
played like a direct Hawks imitation with diversions, but in this picture Carpenter found his
own prowling, SteadiCam (or Panaglide) look. Halloween's slow, cruising camera favors wide
masters with action in both the horizontal and depth plane. The extra width gives us information
instead of witholding it, and we soon become busy collaborators in the movie experience, looking for
important new clues in the periphery. Given this kind of freedom, we're more susceptible when
Carpenter chooses to
get visually dictatorial in his tense scenes. The scares are very old-fashioned: hands and people
enter the screen without warning, unexpected action comes from some calm corner of the frame.
Some of Carpenter's distinctive touches, though effective, haven't aged all that well. His
synthetic keyboard score is really a
minimal rhythm-and-tone track that fills in the vacuum of sparsely written scenes. The 'power chords'
that accompany Michael Myers' repetitive shock appearances soon grow tiresome, although they
certainly kept audiences
entertained when the film was new. And his spare, minimalist approach makes for easily understood
storytelling, but the picture gets pretty thin, once one is past the popcorn scare show years.
Yet for what it is, Halloween remains a fun ride. Jamie Lee Curtis is a captivating, charming
heroine to spend our time with - she surely launched a thousand feminist film theses on women in
slasher pix. Her girlfriends compensate for being too old by acting appropriately vapid, but not
stupid or obnoxious. P.J Soles and Nancy Loomis are both likeable individuals. The thankless role
goes to token adult star Donald Pleasance. He has to carry all the heavy-duty dialogue, and sell us
the hardcore horror notion of the villain's unkillable lunatic vendetta.
Anchor Bay's 25th Anniversary Divimax Series Edition of John Carpenter's Halloween is the first
video version Savant's seen, although he's aware that the show has a long history on home video.
The first quality collectable edition was an expensive Criterion laserdisc set. The picture
on this DVD version is bright,
colorful and punchy in the night scenes, with very little grain. The 'Divimax' monniker is a
proprietary name for Hi-Definition premastering, which has been common for several years, but I have
no complaint with the way the DVD looks, so more power to them. 1
On my monitor, some of the black levels around Mike Myers' mask eye-hole mattes have some distracting
patches where the black levels aren't smooth, but I've long since learned not to judge fine points
of video transfers on an uncalibrated home projection TVs. Savant's not the source for exacting
tech data on waveforms and bit rates, and chasing absolute perfection leads to high blood
All the tech aspects of the DVD look far better than adequate to these eyes - not having the experience of
Halloween on previous releases. This two-disc set comes in a shelf space-saving normal-thickness
keep case. The first disc has a commentary with the director, producer Debra Hill, and star
Jamie Lee. The second has one long docu done for television that's only a couple of minutes shorter
than the feature itself. It contains a wealth of info, but be prepared to re-view practically
the whole picture in clip form. Since the majority of the filmmakers were so young, they're all
still here to tell us the tale, and other than a third-act feeling of repetition, it's a good show for
Halloween fans. A second ten-minute show uses footage of producer Hill and P.J. Soles revisiting
the L.A. area locations, but itself is a free-standing overview of the film, and is a real slog after
the already long main feature doc.
The rest of the goodies are listed below; they're all in great condition and well researched. A DVD-Rom
feature gives us not only an original screenplay, but a selection of screen savers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Commentary with John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Producer Debra Hill, trailers,
Halloween - A Cut Above The Rest docu. Shorter featurette On Location - 25 years
Later, TV Spots, Radio Spots, Poster and Still Gallery, Talent Bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2003
1. Apparently there's a
web uproar over the look of this transfer: 'knowledgeable sources' claim that the transfer ignores
the original timing scheme of the film, that darkened and colored scenes to hide the fact that
late-October in the midwest was achieved by throwing some dead leaves around on green, late-spring
Pasadena streets. Cameraman Dean Cundey had apparently approved a transfer on an earlier release,
that followed his edicts, and those who know flipped at this reversion to what looks bright and
colorful for DVD. So, purists beware.
2. The screen savers are a great idea ... thanks, Anchor Bay!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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