Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Stars: Donald Pleasence (Dr. Samuel J. Loomis), Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Nancy Loomis (Annie Brackett), P.J. Soles (Lynda Van Der Klok), Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Brackett), Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace), Brian Andrews (Tommy Doyle), John Michael Graham (Bob Simms), Nick Castle (Michael Myers)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1978
Country: U.S.
Halloween Blu-ray
The night he came home.John Carpenter’s Halloween is a stripped down, primal horror movie. Made on a shoestring budget in the late 1970s before “slasher movie” was a worn-out derogatory phrase, it went on to become the most economically successful independent movie at the time (made for about $300,000, it grossed some $70 million in theaters), spawned largely by word-of-mouth and surprisingly good critical notices.

In terms of heartland American horror, Halloween is certainly the best and most influential movie since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the film most directly responsible for instigating the crucial shift in the horror genre that moved terror away from farway, exotic locations and into the American home. The boogeyman doesn’t come from Transylvania and he wasn’t created in a mad scientist’s lab; rather, he is a deviant byproduct of the American family. In Halloween, the boogeyman is Michael Myers, who, as a child, stabbed his sister to death with a butcher knife and then spent the next 15 years locked up in mental institution.

When he escapes, he returns to his hometown because that’s what he knows. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), tries to explain Myers in the only way he can: as pure evil. This is a clever move on the part of screenwriters John Carpenter and Debra Hill, as it frees Michael from the constraints of motivation; when someone is “pure evil,” that is more than enough to explain everything he does. By also tinting Michael with the aura of the supernatural—suggesting that he both is and is not human, which is implicitly suggested in his nickname, “The Shape”—they make him that much more frightening.

The horror in Halloween works largely because of the ordinariness of the setting: the small, Midwestern town of Haddonfield, Illinois, both instantly recognizable and instantly forgettable. It is populated by average, normal people who strike us as realistic and sympathetic. The main characters are a trio of teenage girls, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh, in her first role), Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), and Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles). Laurie is the virginal brain of the group, always wishing she were more extroverted and uninhibited like her friends. On Halloween night, they spend the evening babysitting at different houses, while Michael Myers stalks in the shadows outside, picking them off one by one for reasons that are only fathomable to him.

It’s an almost ludicrously simple set-up, and if that’s all there were, Halloween would be a shallow film, indeed. Yet, what sets the film apart from its many imitators is Carpenter’s intuitive sense of the power of cinematic style. The opening sequence is a great example, as it uses what would become the film’s primary visual motif, an extended, gliding point-of-view shot, to depict the murder of Michael Myers’ sister. Critics of Halloween, and slasher films in general, have complained that such a shot forces us to identify with the killer, which is an ethically problematic move. What they don’t take into account, though, is the subtle ways in which the POV shot works and the manner in which our identification shifts. Like Hitchcock, Carpenter is playing us.

For the first half of the shot, we don’t know whose eyes we’re looking through or what that person’s intent is. It starts out innocently enough, but gradually takes on an aura of voyeurism and maliciousness. When we see a hand grab a butcher’s knife and begin ascending the stairs, it creates an interior struggle, as we simultaneously realize what is going to happen and that we are powerless to stop it. This is one of the primal strengths of horror movies: witnessing without the ability to intervene (which is why audiences yell at impending screen victims not to go into the dark basement). And, of course, the use of the POV shot is used primarily to obscure the killer’s identity, so that when he walks outside and the film cuts to an external shot of Michael’s parents removing the mask, we register with shock that it is a child who did this, not some physically grotesque monster. At that moment, the film has us and it never lets go.

Apart from the point-of-view shots, Carpenter also proves himself to be a master of utilizing the horizontal space of the widescreen frame (when Fritz Lang says in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt that CinemaScope is only good for shooting snakes and funerals, he clearly hadn’t thought much about the horror genre). Throughout the film, Carpenter generates chills by simply situating Michael Myers in the corner of the frame where you may or may not see him. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Laurie backs up into a dark corner, and as her eyes adjust to the darkness, the ghostly face of Michael’s white mask slowly appears in a doorframe behind her. The widescreen is crucial in this regard, as Carpenter plays with our sense of security that the center of the frame is the place to look; instead, he makes us jittery by constantly forcing us to scan the entirety of the frame, always checking the corners.

Since its release 25 years ago, Halloween has, against all odds, been labeled a classic, not just of the horror genre, but of American filmmaking in general. That label often weighs a film down, but even after repeated viewings, Carpenter’s masterpiece holds up as a staunchly effective thriller that will always stand head and shoulders above the cinematic progeny it spawned.

Halloween 35th Anniversary Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/director John Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis
  • The Night She Came Home!! documentary
  • “On Location: 25 Years Later” featurette
  • Trailer
  • TV & radio spots
  • Additional scenes from TV version
  • DistributorAnchor Bay Home Entertainment
    SRP$34.99
    Release DateSeptember 24, 2013

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    As long-time fans of Halloween know, there has been significant controversy regarding the film’s various transfers over the years, particularly Anchor Bay’s 2003 25th Anniversary Divimax edition, which altered the color timing quite significantly, much to the consternation of fans who felt that it betrayed the film’s intended look. Anchor Bay’s 2007 Blu-ray came under similar fire, as it apparently utilized the same high-definition master as the 2003 DVD with only minor tweaking. Thus, the new 35th Anniversary Blu-ray was an opportunity to correct past “injustices,” and Anchor Bay has clearly taken the opportunity to heart in enlisting cinematographer Dean Cundey to personally supervise and approve the new high-def transfer, making this the definitive home video version of Halloween (and Lord knows there have been oh-so-many at this point). Kudos to Anchor Bay, though, for coming through with such an excellent presentation of the film. The image is sharp, well-detailed, and nicely balanced, maintaining a rich filmlike texture while also boasting an impressive smoothness and lack of artifacts or wear. The color timing will be the main issue of debate, and given Cundey’s supervision, it is clear that this is how the film should look. Compared to the previous Blu-ray, the image is significantly cooler, with a stronger emphasis on steely grays and blues in the nighttime scenes and a more subdued palette during the daytime scenes, which lends the film a more appropriately autumnal tone (the abundance of green resulting from the film being shot in southern California during the summer is significantly darkened). The disc also boasts a newly remixed Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel surround soundtrack (for purists, the original monaural soundtrack is also included). The mix is outstanding, although I don’t think most viewers will notice the impact of the additional two rear channels from the previous six-channel mix. Still, the soundtrack is clean, clear, and surprisingly immersive at times, especially when Carpenter’s signature theme kicks in.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    There are two new supplements included, along with some familiar extras from previous releases. The first is a newly recorded audio commentary by writer/director John Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis. They had previously contributed to the commentary (along with the late producer/cowriter Debra Hill) that appeared on Criterion’s 1994 laser disc and was subsequently included on both Anchor Bay’s 2003 25th Anniversary DVD and 2007 Blu-ray. Long-time fans probably won’t learn anything new here, but it is still nice to hear Carpenter and Curtis side-by-side watching the movie and swapping stories about the production. The other new inclusion is The Night She Came Home!!, an hour-long documentary by John Marsh and Kelly Curtis (Jamie Lee Curtis’s brother-in-law and sister) about how Curtis uses the rabid Halloween fanbase’s desire for signed memorabilia to raise money for her children’s hospital charity (Curtis has been notoriously unwilling to engage with the Halloween fan culture). Most of the documentary simply follows Curtis as she attends various horror conventions and events and interacts with the fans. Recycled supplements include 11 minutes of additional footage shot for the television version (which, unfortunately, have not been integrated into the film as a viewing option via seamless branching), the original theatrical trailer, and several TV and radio spots. Also from the 25th Anniversary edition we have “On Location: 25 Years Later,” an intriguing 10-minute featurette that revisits the southern California locations where Halloween was filmed. Surprisingly enough, most of these locations, from the Strode house, to the hardware store, to the infamous Myers house, look virtually unchanged (well, the Myers house is now painted blue and houses a business).

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Anchor Bay Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)



    James Kendrick

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