"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:
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?