One of the most financially successful independent motion pictures of all time, John Carpenter's highly influential 'Halloween' is the kind of horror movie that creeps out at you from behind the bushes and taps you on the shoulder, sending a long, ice-cold chill down your spine. And like its star boogeyman, Michael Myers, it is a film whose legacy just won’t die. With its cheap budget, simple premise and highly imitable conventions -- girl, monster, knife, blood -- 'Halloween' begat one of the most incredible phenomenons in recent motion picture history: the slasher movie. Yet Carpenter's stylish scarefest is so much better than its imitators as to be almost incomparable; it has been called the most terrifying motion picture next to 'Psycho' and 'The Exorcist,' and for once the hyperbole is not that far off the mark.
Although it presents an admittedly simplistic modern fable -- Myers returns home on Halloween, fifteen years after brutally murdering his sister, to wreak even more havoc on a trio of babysitters -- Carpenter's minimalist brilliance proved impossible not to copy. Simply put, upon its debut in 1978, Carpenter and co-scenarist Debra Hill's skeleton-thin narrative was the perfect film at the perfect time, tapping into America's then-growing fear of random, faceless, unmotivated violence. Myer's "The Shape" remains a terrifying cinematic creation because of its very blankness -- the white mask (actually a painted visage of 'Star Trek's William Shatner!), black eyes and almost robotic walk suggest pathology at work, but never explain it. Myers is just smart enough to be truly dangerous but lacking the intelligence to allow for reason, and he's the archetypal boogeyman, evil personified in human form and blown up to mythic proportions.
Though slow by today's quick-cut standards, 'Halloween' is arguably one of the most expertly constructed modern horror movies. All ranking a cut above are the film's sharp cinematography (by future Oscar-winner Dean Cundey), memorable performances by a cast of then-unknowns (including Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut performance as Laurie Strode, and still the genre's honorary "scream queen") and Hill's fine ear for teenage "girl talk," which effectively counter-balances Carpenter's sometimes nihilistic worldview and his unrelenting need to scare the audience, occasionally at the expense of logic.
The film's most noted stylistic features have also been those most exploited by its imitators. The spooky haunted house interiors, cat-and-mouse games and "Gotcha!" scares are the cinematic equivalent of peek-a-boo, but don't rely on a drop of blood to work up our nerves. Carpenter's sometimes sluggish pacing can tax our patience to the breaking point because he stretches the suspense to such a degree that we almost want him to kill his next victim just to get it over with. Yet, unlike so many of the copycat slasher pics (and most of 'Halloween's own dreadful sequels), we never cheer Myers on, but instead are always emotionally on the side of his targets. Carpenter is an intuitive filmmaker who understands that it is not the blood and violence that gets the audience off, but the build-up.
Sadly, the years have not been totally kind to 'Halloween,' if only due to the sheer dreck that it inspired. As was so evidenced by the recent, utterly horrid Rob Zombie remake, the material itself is not foolproof, and its elements are now so familiar that those seeing 'Halloween' for the first time may wonder what all the fuss was about. But it is Carpenter's innate respect for craft -- and absolute glee in playing the audience like a piano -- that has earned 'Halloween' its rightful place in the horror film canon as a must-see classic (and, it is worth noting, a fresh slot in the National Film Registry). It is the one American franchise horror film of the past three decades to rightly earn comparisons not only to Browning, Whale, Hitchcock and Murnau , but as one of the true greats of a ill-reputed genre.
Over the years, the major studios have taken a lot of heat for "double dipping" their top titles ad nauseam on disc, but indie distributors are not immune to the disease, either. Case in point is Anchor Bay (newly christened Starz Home Entertainment), which has released, re-issued, and re-packaged 'Halloween,' oh, about 5,237 times now. There was the original (and utterly dreadful) 1997 DVD version, followed by various single- and double-disc special editions, culminating in the 2003 "DiviMax" version, which boasted a newly-remastered transfer minted from a new high-definition master.
Unfortunately, that DiviMax version caused quite an uproar with fans when word quickly leaked out on the eve of its release that neither John Carpenter nor cinematographer Dean Cundey had approved the new master, and without their input, great liberties were taken with the film's color timing. Originally, to compensate for the film's low budget (and the fact that the movie was shot in the summer in California, not in Illinois in the fall), Cundey and Carpenter used filters and other tricks to create an appropriately spooky feel. Sadly, that's long gone on the DiviMax edition -- the deep midnight blues of the night scenes were turned star white, and the intentionally stylized orange cast of the daylight exteriors were "corrected" to blandness. Sure, image detail and clarity were improved, but it came at the expense of the mood originally intended by the filmmakers.
Sadly, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 sports most of the same color timing problems as the DiviMax DVD edition. Although earlier reports had indicated that Starz/Anchor Bay had planned on using the old, Cundey-approved master for this Blu-ray edition, judging from the results here, I have to assume that they just used the DiviMax master and tweaked it a little. Though the daylight exteriors are much closer to previous Cundey-approved masters (including a 1995 Criterion Collection laserdisc, as well as earlier Anchor Bay THX-certified DVD editions), the nighttime scenes -- about 3/4 of the movie -- still just aren't right. The effective blue-orange complimentary color palette is white-washed away, and though fleshtones may be more "accurate," this is just not the 'Halloween' it should be. (For a look at some comparison pics between the Blu-ray and the THX-certified, Cundy-approved transfer, see this thread in our forums area.)
Other aspects of the transfer are much better. The print is not perfect -- there are still quite a few white speckles and dirt granules -- but it's pretty clean for a thirty year-old low-budget flick. Detail is also noticeably sharper than any previous standard-def release, including the DiviMax DVD. During Carpenter's many tracking shots of the Haddonfield neighborhoods, textures on houses, cars, and trees are now distinct (before, everything was a little mushy). I was not as fond of the shadow delineation and still feel the DiviMax master is too bright -- there is more detail visible in the dark portions of the image than ever before, but it just looks too bright compared to the old Cundey-approved versions. Finally, regardless of which disc version you choose, 'Halloween' looks a little soft by modern standards. Although this Blu-ray edition is without a doubt the most three-dimensional ‘Halloween’ has ever looked on video, I’m sorry to say that I just can't recommend it. I've always been a big fan of both 'Halloween' and Anchor Bay/Starz (I've certainly bought enough of their DVDs over the years), so I was really hoping they’d spent the money to re-transfer the movie under the guidance of Cundey and Carpenter, but unfortunately, despite this golden opportunity, it seems we'll have to wait for another Blu-ray double dip to see if a proper high-def version of 'Halloween' is at last a possibility.
(UPDATE: Since I originally posted this review, many readers have asked how I could possibly have rated the video on this disc so poorly when others have reported strong results for this disc's video. To be clear, setting aside the color timing issues mentioned above, this is a generally strong transfer, and if you're not sensitive to the issues inherent in preserving a director's intentions, you're not likely to take issue with the video on this disc. As a longtime fan of 'Halloween,' however -- and as someone who feels strongly that the filmmaker's intentions should always be sacrosanct -- I take particular issue with the decision to yet again utilize a compromised master that's been disowned by John Carpenter himself for this release. If you don't happen to share this same sensitivity, you're likely to find the picture quality on this disc perfectly acceptable and even quite superior for an almost thirty year-old indie film.)
'Halloween' is making its first appearance in uncompressed PCM 5.1 on this Blu-ray disc, but unfortunately this is one of those cases where the very limited nature of the source material just can't deliver much of a jolt.
Anchor Bay has remixed 'Halloween' in surround a couple of times now for various DVD incarnations, and none of them have ever blown me away. Same goes here -- this may as well be a mono mix given how inactive the rear channels are for most of the film's 90-minute runtime. In fact, I only counted one real instance of prominent discrete activity, and that is with some thunder during the early scene where Michael Myers breaks out of the asylum. Otherwise, dialogue is always in the center channel, and John Carpenter's seminal score is barely separated for stereo. There just is no sense of envelopment throughout the vast majority of 'Halloween.'
In terms of dynamics, this PCM track is perhaps a smidgen stronger than the previous standard-def DVD editions. Much of the sound was either recorded on location or looped, and it sounds like it. Dialogue is rather flat, and low bass is about as punchy as a tambourine. The quality of the source is pretty good, though, and there is no obvious hiss or distortion. Still, this is far from the most effective 5.1 mix I've heard of an old mono horror flick.
(Note that thankfully, Starz also included the film's original mono mix, which I actually prefer. It's more limited in feel but sounds more natural than the 5.1 mixes.)
Since Anchor Bay has released 'Halloween' so many times already on disc, they certainly have plenty of archival material to draw from. However, this Blu-ray is not the absolute definitive treasure trove some fans may have wanted -- missing is the fabled "TV cut" with 12 minutes of additional footage that was previously released on DVD, and some featurette material has been also snipped. On the bright side, the vast majority of the good stuff has been ported over to the Blu-ray (if all but the documentary in standard-def 480i/MPEG-2 video), making this a fine package of supplements overall.
The 89-minute documentary "'Halloween': A Cut Above the Rest" seems to want to outdo all of the TV specials and featurettes that have glutted the market over the past several years, and to its credit it is certainly the most comprehensive. Although Jamie Lee Curtis only appears via old electronic press kit footage (shot during the publicity tour for 'Halloween: H20'), the majority of the cast and crew return for new interviews, including John Carpenter and Dean Cundey; warring producers Irwin Yablans and Joseph Wolf; the late Debra Hill and Moustapha Akkad; actors P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Brian Andrews, and Nancy Loomis; and the shape himself, Nick Castle. Most exciting for die-hard fans is the inclusion of nearly ten minutes of production footage shot on location by a British television crew, which features very rare material with the late Donald Pleasance (appearing as curmudgeonly as always -- god bless him). While the length of the doc is a bit punishing -- only the most devoted 'Halloween' fan will care about some of the minutiae -- this is a detailed and thorough look back at not only a classic horror film but a seminal moment in independent moviemaking. (Note: Big kudos to Starz for presenting this in full 1080i/MPEG-2 video, even if some of the various source elements are clearly 480 upconverts.)
Anchor Bay has also licensed the audio commentary from the 1995 Criterion laserdisc (long out of print), which features Carpenter, Hill, and Curtis (each recorded separately then spliced together). Though a dozen years old now, its freshness can be attributed to the fact that it was recorded long before the trio had grown tired of talking about 'Halloween' (who can blame them?). Much of the material covered in the track is inevitably redundant if you've already seen the doc or all the previous DVDs, but it has a spark and energy that is quite appealing (particularly Curtis, who is a hoot).
Rounding out the extras are a promotional gallery, the film's original theatrical trailer (quite scratchy in 1.85:1 letterbox), and a trio of full-frame TV spots. There are even three vintage radio spots, which show just how far the art of movie advertising has come in thirty years. Ah, those were the days...
(Note that this Blu-ray edition drops the "Halloween: 'On Location' - Twenty-Five Years Later" featurette and a still gallery, both of which graced the DiviMax DVD edition.)
'Halloween' is the king of slasher films. Those who've been weaned on thirty years of remakes, homages, parodies, and torture porn flicks may wonder what all the fuss was about, but John Carpenter crafted a simple, effective genre piece with great style, atmosphere, and wit.
Alas, as the first Starz/Anchor Bay Blu-ray title that I've reviewed, this one ranks as a major disappointment. That's because the distributor appears to have chosen to use a master not approved by either Carpenter or the film's director of photography, Dean Cundey, so what we get is just not reflective of the filmmakers’ intent. In all other respects this is an acceptable release, but for the true Michael Myers devotee, the definitive video version of 'Halloween' remains elusive. Here’s hoping that Anchor Bay finally gets this one right with the inevitable next double-dip.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.