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.
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 most Carpenter 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 contract players.
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 pressure anyway.
All the tech aspects of the DVD look far better than adequate to these eyes - not having the experience of seeing 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. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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!