Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on October 1st, 2013
“I met him fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”
In 1968 Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell hit the American pop charts with the song Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing. They didn’t know it at the time, of course, but they were talking about John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween. The sad fact is that this original classic sometimes gets lost, or worse, considered along with the various sequels and remakes. It’s a crime, to be sure. The first film is nothing like anything that followed and should be considered more as a standalone film than it is now. That was always Carpenter’s intention, and that’s how I’d like you to consider the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray of Halloween.
That’s not to say we should dismiss the influence the movie has had on American cinema. Halloween certainly wasn’t the first slasher movie. It did establish some genre rules that have been followed for decades to come. It might well be one of the most imitated films in the genre.
Of course, Halloween did not exist in a vacuum itself. The film is obviously heavily influenced by the works of the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Carpenter makes no bones about the influence, and there are several homage elements within the film. The character of Dr. Loomis is named for a similar character from Hitch’s Psycho. The boy Tommy Doyle also comes from that film. Of course, we can’t forget that the star of the film, Jamie Lee Curtis, is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who changed how we look at our showers forever in that same film. The Hitch influences don’t end there. You can see his touches in the cinematography as well. Carpenter made excellent use of light, shadows and angles that come straight out of the Master’s handbook.
The story couldn’t be more simple. A child murders his sister and is sent to an insane asylum where he grows under the watchful eye of Dr. Loomis, played quite effectively by Donald Pleasence. In 1978 he escapes, only to return to his small town and begin to kill again. That’s the film in a nutshell. It’s not the story so much that makes this a powerful film. It’s the execution, and I don’t mean Michael’s killing spree.
John Carpenter would have made a wonderful stripper. No, I’m not talking about his looks. I’m talking about his natural talent for the tease. If you haven’t seen this film for a long time, it will be a bit of a shock to you that there is almost no blood at all in the film. It’s not as violent or as gory as you might remember. Carpenter allows you to leave believing that you’ve seen far more than you really have. He also knows the value of anticipation. Before he does give you anything juicy, he makes you wait for it. And then he makes you wait for it again. And when you think you can’t wait any longer, he dangles the payoff in front of your face, and he makes you wait some more. Unfortunately, this is not an aspect of the film that has been so often imitated. Today slasher films are filled with loud music and manic cuts, and the only time you’re allowed to linger is on a tableau of blood and guts. After all, the makeup guys have to show off their work. There’s none of that here. The climax of the film begins with Curtis’s character slowly walking across the street to the “death” house. It’s nearly ten minutes of no dialog and no real “action”. Another pending victim is about to enter a car where we know Michael will be waiting for her. Ah, but she forgot her keys. No quick cut. We are forced to follow her unhurried walk back to the house, a search for the keys, and a return to the scene of the impending crime. It’s all in the anticipation, and no one has done that better than John Carpenter in Halloween.
Then there’s the Halloween theme. It, too, is as simple as you can get. It’s a haunting keyboard riff. Like the Tubular Bells of The Exorcist or John Williams three-note theme from Jaws we’ve been conditioned by these scores. You need here only a measure or two and your mind has conjured startlingly crystal clear images. This one was written by Carpenter himself. It’s in my top 10 scariest themes ever.
Many of the film’s themes are even more relevant today. Carpenter plays a lot with voyeurism here. We see through the eyes of others, most often the killer. It’s through the eyes of Michael that the film opens. We witness, through the eye slits of a mask, “naughty” things and the brutal murder that serves as penance. Later we see the three young girls as they engage in the silly minutia of life from the perspective of someone who is watching them. Today if you get that feeling you’re being watched, it’s because you are. You can’t really go through a day without being captured on video. There are cameras everywhere, and we live in a society that is becoming insensitive to being watched. Of course, there aren’t any maniac killers behind those cameras…but how do we know?
Another theme that strikes us today is that of safety. Unlike many modern slasher films Halloween doesn’t take place at a secluded summer camp or isolated location in the wilderness. It takes place in our homes in a suburban environment we still recognize today. We need to feel safe in our homes now more than ever. 9/11 has taken away some of our sense of security, and perhaps our homes are the last place we still hope to feel safe. Take it from a guy who had a neighbor drive a Cadillac through his house, it’s all an illusion, and John Carpenter tried to tell us that 35 years ago. I ask you. What’s more terrifying? A place you don’t think you’d ever find yourself in, or the familiar and warm setting of your home? What do you think makes the Paranormal Activity films so effective? John Carpenter was there first.
The production is simple and executed on a $325,000 budget. The locations were mostly in Hollywood area and Pasadena. It was spring, so the fall atmosphere was pretty much fudged and never really convincing. But how many of you remember the trees had green leaves and there were palm trees in full view from time to time? It’s an old magician trick of sleight of hand. Carpenter is so effective at focusing your attention the rest never really registers at all.
The cast was pretty good, as well. Again Carpenter’s patience and willingness to linger makes these girls quite real and sympathetic to us. This was the first movie for Jamie Lee Curtis. She was only 19 and had only done guest spots on television shows. Perhaps it’s that inexperience that allows her to appear so natural and naive. Nancy Loomis played Annie. She pretty much got her start on Carpenter’s first real breakout film Assault On Precinct 13. P.J. Soles played the third girl, Nancy. Nancy was the party girl of the group, but she’s quite tame compared to what is normal in today’s horror films. She’s the bouncy member of the cast, and like Curtis had pretty much bounced around television roles before Halloween. Of course it would be Curtis who would go on to have an impressive career. At first she was a typical scream queen doing a few other horror pieces. She broke that mold for comedy in Trading Places and has ended up with a pretty nice and eclectic career.
The surprising get for such a small budget film turned out to be the stabilizing force behind not only this movie but the entire Halloween franchise is Donald Pleasence. At first he thought he’d made a huge mistake. He was put off by the inexperience of Carpenter and his crew but eventually became a believer. His performance gives us the authority in the movie. He’s the only one who really knows what’s going on. You believe every word he says, even if no one else in the movie will. Pleasence delivers a perfect blend of knowledge and desperation to the performance. He’s driven by the idea that he’s the only one who can stop what will happen. Of course, he can’t, not really, and you can see in his eyes that he knows that even from the start.
While John Carpenter has gotten a lot of deserved credit in this review one can’t neglect the contributions of his partner in crime here the late Debra Hill. She wrote the first draft of the screenplay and is responsible for many of the elements that Carpenter brought to the film as director. She was a strong presence on the set and deserves much of the credit here. We can credit her for the name of the city Haddonfield. It was the name of the city she grew up in in New Jersey, while this one is in the midwest.
Halloween is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35-40 mbps. This is totally different from the previous Blu-ray release. You will absolutely want to upgrade. Gone are the over-bright colors and the odd textures that made that a pretty weak release. This one was done from scratch and involved the film’s cinematographer Dean Cundey. This high-definition image presentation looks just as I remembered the film as a 17-year-old in the theaters. The texture is what really stands out here. You can see the pores on faces and feel the fabric of the clothing and furniture. Yes, it was low-budget and colors do often suffer from softness. Forget that and notice the contrast that gives you outstanding shades and shadow images. You’ll even capture several camera shadows from time to time. The grain is intact and black levels are pretty good. This film is all about atmosphere and this works quite nicely for me. I only wish I could see it in the larger-than-life format of a theater again.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 track is a mixed bag. The quality of the sound is flawless. Carpenter’s eerie keyboards are crystal clear and just as haunting as ever. My problem is that there are times the film appears too big in the sound. I’m not talking too loud. I mean there is too much separation. There is a 2.0 track to help with that, but it’s not as dynamic, and ultimately this is going to be the best choice in 7.1. I give credit for not trying to clean things up to the point where it sounds contemporary. They could have really blown it and gotten larger. The subs are average, and I’m totally OK with that. Here less is absolutely more.
There is a very sweet Commentary Track with both Carpenter and Curtis. Before you get upset, this is not that spliced together monstrosity they’ve been selling us since the DVD. This is a brand-spanking-new track where the two sit together. Curtis proves the superior memory, and Carpenter is content to play with her somewhat. It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve heard in years.
The Night She Came Home: (59:43) HD Curtis’s daughter and son-in-law film a video journal of Curtis’s rare convention appearance. She did it for charity, and it’s a pretty good look behind the scenes of a convention.
On Location 25 Years Later: (10:25) SD Short behind-the-scenes feature with narration. It plays out like an episode of Biography.
TV Version Footage: (10:46) HD When the film made it to television, of course stuff was going to be cut. To draw in the audiences a few scenes were added. Most of them involve Dr. Loomis at the hospital.
Booklet with great notes. There is a down side. The disc sits into a sleeve and I hate those things. The film deserved better.
Michael Myers with his William Shatner mask has become quite an iconic figure over the decades. He’s listed in the credits as The Shape and has been somewhat of a mystery and subject of much debate in the horror community. Is he a supernatural being? Likely not; Michael’s just damn hard to kill. He’s not really any different than most action heroes. Of course, there’s that whole murdering rampage thing going on. Much of the mythology we do have now came later. The sister connection isn’t really made in this movie. That comes later. One thing is for certain. “It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”