Halloween (1978) [DVD]
Director : John Carpenter
Screenplay : John Carpenter and Debra Hill
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1978
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)
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, Halloween 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 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 home town 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 minor masterpiece holds up as a staunchly effective thriller that will always stand head and shoulders above the cinematic progeny it spawned.
|Halloween Divimax Two-Disc 25th Anniversary Edition DVD|
|Audio|| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
English Dolby 2.0 Surround
English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by cowriter/director John Carpenter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and producer/cowriter Debra Hill|
Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest retrospective documentary
“On Location: 25 Years Later” featurette
“Day of the Dead: Behind the Scenes” production footage
Original theatrical trailer
Three TV spots
Poster and stills gallery
Original screenplay (DVD-ROM)
Screen savers (DVD-ROM)
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 5, 2003|
|There has been no end of controversy surrounding the new high-definition Divimax transfer of Halloween on this DVD. The issue is with the color, which, when compared with Anchor Bay’s now out-of-print Limited Edition two-disc set released in 1999, looks somewhat drab. For the 1999 transfer, the image was digitally restored and the colors tweaked under the auspices of THX, colorist Adam Adams, and the film’s original cinematographer, Dean Cundley. The new transfer on this DVD was not restored in this manner, thus it more closely reflects the actual theatrical experience of watching Halloween. So, in a nutshell, neither transfer is “right” or “wrong,” and it will really be up to the individual viewer which one he or she prefers. For the record, the 1999 transfer reflects what Cundley always wanted the film to look like, while this new transfer reflects what it actually looked like in theaters in 1978. Color issues aside, the transfer is generally rock solid, with good detail, a minimum of film grain, and almost no dirt or other imperfections.|
|The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack available on previous Anchor Bay Halloween DVDs is available here, as well. It is a good mix from a monaural source that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. For the most part, the sounds are limited to the front soundstage, with minimal use of the surround channels. The disc also includes a 2.0 surround track and the original monaural track for purists.|
|Anchor Bay has released Halloween on DVD so many times, it makes one’s head spin. I guess they know a good property when they see one, and as long as people keep buying ’em, they’ll keep producing ’em. This 25th-Anniversay Edition offers some new supplements, but it also eliminates a lot of other ones, meaning that, if you want all the Halloween supplements available (particularly the additional scenes shot for the film’s TV broadcast), you will have to own multiple DVDs. |
The first new supplement, an audio commentary by cowriter/director John Carpenter, cowriter/producer Debra Hill, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis, actually isn’t new at all. It has been ported over from the long out-of-print 1994 Criterion Collection laser disc. It’s a good commentary that’s definitely worth a listen, and fans have been clamoring for it be included on a DVD for some time now. Other previously seen supplements include a theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, some short talent bios, and a stills gallery that pales in comparison to the one available on the two-disc Limited Edition DVD.
The major new supplement is Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, a retrospective documentary that, at 87 minutes, is only a few minutes shorter than the film itself. Longtime fans will probably not learn anything new here, but it’s still nice to see new interviews with John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as P.J. Soles, Nick Castle, cinematographer Dean Cundey, editor and production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, and a host of others. The documentary painstakingly covers every aspect of the film, from its conception, to its production, to its marketing and theatrical release.
“On Location: 25 Years Later” is an intriguing little 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).
©2003 James Kendrick