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Back in 1977 a close friend of Savant was producing a science fiction film with ambitious stop-motion effects. When the budget expanded, investor-producer Irwin Yablans became involved and naturally started asking questions and demanding changes, etc. My friend remembers becoming incensed because Yablans kept comparing the sci-fi production unfavorably to a little horror film he also had in the works, which had no special effects and thus was coming in very inexpensively. Well, Yablans' 'little horror film' turned out to be the surprise mega-hit Halloween. Ex- film student John Carpenter became a major success story by delivering up '70s screen horror for the teenage trade, yanking the genre away from gut-wrenching 'fringe' shock shows like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
After one screwball student film-turned theatrical release (Dark Star) and an overachieving ode to Howard Hawks (Assault on Precinct 13), young John Carpenter came into his own with Halloween. The resourceful director created his own totally controlled little cinematic world, with a simple but universally identifiable story. His young cast actually resembled and behaved like real teenagers. The show spawned a franchise series as well as a decade's worth of imitations and wannabes ... several of which became successful franchises of their own. Its influence was almost as pervasive as Star Wars. Halloween has already been on Blu-ray for six years, and has undergone a series reboot courtesy of Rob Zombie. This Halloween 35th Anniversary Edition has an all-new transfer and significant new extras.
A small town is visited by a terrible curse. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) witnesses the asylum escape of Michael Myers, a lunatic who as a small boy in 1963 murdered his own sister. Myers returns home on Halloween, 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).
Halloween took on horror at a level its audience could understand. It dipped into the practically untapped mother lode of teen fear, the kind Stephen King told us stemmed directly from summertime campfire stories about shapeless, meaningless bogeymen. 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 about a local legend called the Goat Killer. The only special 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), except that it worked. Before the 1970s, horror films aimed at teens and little kids usually starred adults. Nobody really picked up on the genre's full commercial potential until Carpenter came along.
Halloween remains the ultimate film-student '70s picture: made for kids, by kids. Its cast of teens breaks the rules, gets drunk, gets naked, yet are still lovable because they care for children and each other. With the help of his writer/producer Debra Hill, Carpenter keeps the emotional story on track. We like Laurie Strode, and care very much what happens to her.
Of all the '70s horror film directors, Carpenter is the most obsessed with formal compositions. Clearly a student of the auteur-worship interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut, his nuts & bolts style appears to make heavy use of storyboards. Carpenter also worshipped Howard Hawks' personal style and was determined to find one of his own. Assault on Precinct 13 plays like a direct Hawks imitation, but in this picture Carpenter found his own prowling, SteadiCam (or Panaglide) look. Halloween's slowly cruising camera favors wide masters with action in both the horizontal and depth plane. The extra width gives us information instead of withholding it, as in the horror films of, say, Ridley Scott. We soon become busy collaborators in the suspense experience, looking for new clues in the periphery of shots. What is Laurie's best escape route? From which direction will the bogeyman next appear? Given this kind of freedom, we're more susceptible when Carpenter chooses to throw surprises at us. The scares are very old-fashioned: hands and people enter the screen without warning. Unexpected threats always come from some calm corner of the frame.
The only weak aspect of the show is the music. Carpenter's synthetic keyboard score is really a minimal rhythm-and-tone track that fills in the vacuum of sparsely written scenes. Yet Halloween remains a fun ride. Jamie Lee Curtis is a charming heroine to spend our time with - she surely launched a thousand feminist film theses on women in slasher pix. Her girlfriends P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis are likeable individuals that come off as appropriately vapid, but not stupid or obnoxious. The thankless role goes to token adult star Donald Pleasance, a genuinely adventurous actor who seemed to gravitate toward weird characterizations. Pleasance carries all the heavy-duty dialogue, hard-selling the movie's gimmick of an unkillable villain with a lunatic vendetta.
All these many years later, Halloween's horror content is now on the tame side, but the film wasn't all that explicit even in 1978. The scares are the result of assured direction. As in most Carpenter films, what we remember is his professional suspense build-up that interests us in his characters, convincing us that the story he's telling is important. If Carpenter is not an A-grade director, then or now, it's because his stories never develop as interestingly as they begin. Commercially this is no flaw, as Halloween still works with an audience.
Starz / Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Halloween 35th Anniversary Edition is the latest repeat for a popular title that can be traced back to an early, deluxe Criterion laserdisc set. I haven't seen the earlier Blu-ray release but was pleased by the colors and sharpness on this transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Dean Cundey. I'll bet that after his experience with 16mm on Dark Star Carpenter vowed never again to go near smaller formats, especially because his movies have so many dark scenes. Cundey's work makes smart use of depth of field. When Laurie is in focus in the foreground, the slightly blurry background serves as a sort of substitute peripheral vision. In at least one BOO! scene Michael Myers stands up right in the middle of the background. We perceive him as much more mysterious and threatening precisely because his image is less distinct.
An earlier commentary with John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis and producer-writer Debra Hill has appeared on numerous DVD editions. As Ms. Hill passed away in 2005, this 35th edition carries a new commentary with just the director and his star. Carpenter is even more laid back than he was on earlier commentaries (when not being pepped up by Kurt Russell). Halloween was Ms. Curtis' big entry into feature films. She continued with Carpenter on The Fog and Halloween II. The new featurette The Night She Came Back shows Curtis attending a fan convention in vérité form, starting with her arrival at the airport. Her voiceover puts a rather neutral attitude on the whole experience, as she immediately says that her interest in revisiting the Halloween chapter of her career is to "monetize it," an honest statement that might prompt attendees to reassess the whole film fan / convention dynamic. A few statements later we do hear something about the profits going to charity. Ms. Curtis' sister is the featurette's director. We see some quick reunion greetings in a green room hotel suite with other franchise actors, all surrounded by convention organizers that can't possibly have seen Halloween when it was new. Out in the public hall Curtis' initial interest is to find buyers for the collectible merchandise she's brought. She shows off copies of the Michael Myers mask (well, the Bill Shatner-Michael Myers mask). They're fully autographed, like a baseball.
A few of the older extras are present as well, including the still-good "On Location" making-of docu and the expected selection of trailers, TV spots and scenes used for the TV version.
The 35th Anniversary packaging resembles one of Warners' 'Little Golden Books' except the the Blu-ray can be found in a page repurposed as a disc sleeve. It's less that twenty pages, but is filled with attractive B&W photography emphasizing vintage shots of the actors and director smiling on the set.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.