Halloween 25th Anniversary SE Review
Halloween is, hands down, the greatest exploitation film ever made. I hope the use of the word ‘exploitation’ doesn’t sound pejorative because I certainly don’t intend it to. Exploitation cinema frequently throws up some of the very worst trash you’d hope never to see but at it’s best it has a vitality and a freshness which more respectable films can rarely hope to match. The term, for me, simply means a film which was made with the simple aims of meeting an audience on their own terms, giving them what they want and hoping to make as much money as possible. Within these strictures, it’s entirely possible for an exploitation movie to have artistic motives as well or, indeed, to produce art by accident, but this will be incidental to the main purpose. Looking back at over a century of American filmmaking, some of the best films were pure exploitation - Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Shock Corridor, Night of the Living Dead, Dirty Harry, Assault On Precinct 13, MS45, The Terminator among others – and there’s often been a creativity in these relatively low budget movies which has been lacking in their lavish counterparts.
But of all the exploitation movies, Halloween stands out as something special. A cheaply made quickie based on a premise entitled “The Babysitter Murders”, it transforms the basest of plot elements into pure gold and, through this alchemy, become a genuine classic. As the delectably grouchy Leslie Halliwell once said (not, I hasten to add, about Halloween) it’s all in the handling. The plot certainly doesn’t raise many high hopes. Back in 1963, a young boy called Michael Myers kills his sister on Halloween night. Fifteen years later, he escapes from an insane asylum and returns to his hometown to terrorise a group of teenage girls. However, one of them – Laurie Strode (Curtis) – is resourceful enough to fight back over the course of a tense Halloween night. That’s about it, give or take Michael’s plucky, irascible psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Pleasance), a few kids and an ineffectual local cop (Cyphers). Nothing in this description would seem remotely interesting at first glance…
But that’s reckoning without John Carpenter. A brilliant filmmaker who has spent the past 20 years slowly dissipating his undoubted talent, and occasionally producing something memorable to remind us of his abilities, he was on a roll in 1978 after the slowly developing cult success of his first movie Dark Star and the surprising critical acclaim which greeted Assault On Precinct 13, his unofficial remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Several factors made Carpenter the ideal director for this material. Firstly, his ability to work hard and fast; Assault was made in a couple of weeks for $100,000 but looked a lot more professional than most of the big budget all-star extravaganzas then being churned out by an increasingly desperate Lew Grade at the time. Secondly, his ingenuity when working on location with a small but dedicated crew; Assault used real locations and managed to squeeze a great deal out of limited shooting time. Thirdly, his admiration for the ‘grafters’ of American cinema, the storytellers who could take standard genre fodder and make it something special; his favourite director, Howard Hawks, did this time and time again in films ranging from Rio Bravo to The Big Sleep. Finally, his film literacy, which told him that some of the greatest horror/suspense movies created terror through implication rather than explicit gore; his role model was Psycho, a film with under two minutes of graphic violence in over a hundred minutes of screen time.
Carpenter’s sheer flair for filmmaking reveals itself very quickly in Halloween. Quite apart from the splendidly creepy music score which he provided for the opening credits, the prologue is a masterclass in how to economically and atmospherically set-up a suspense film. Beginning with a group of children singing about the season, Carpenter’s camera reveals an attractive small-town house, absolutely normal, then immediately distorts the picture using a first person perspective. As the eyes of the young Michael Myers survey his home, so too does the film gradually make everything normal seem strange. The windows become peep-holes for a young voyeur, watching his sister make out with her boyfriend; the hallways leading from room to room become a madman’s labyrinth; the lights seem a little too bright; the Halloween mask which Michael wears becomes a confessional window through which we see his horrible crime. This scene appears to be one shot but is actually two, broken at the moment when Michael puts on the mask. Dean Cundey’s brilliant lighting, superbly controlled through the film, allows us to see just enough of the murder but not too much – the breasts covered in blood are discreetly shot in half-shadow – and the use of the Panaglide camera creates an unnerving, other-worldly atmosphere. When the perspective shifts, and we see the criminal, whose witness – almost accomplice - we have been, revealed as a young child, there is a crane shot which shows the scene of the crime and the perpetrator from with godlike subjectivity – the connection between us and the killer is broken and will never be resumed. But in four minutes, Carpenter has discomfited us and played with our sympathies and has thus brilliantly messed with our expectations.
Immediately after this prologue, our sympathies shift to the heroine, Laurie Strode, and Carpenter pays a debt to Hawks in his creation of this girl, a true Hawksian women; independent, vaguely dissatisfied with her life but intelligent and resourceful. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a beautifully shaded performance as this most undemonstrative of heroines and although she became described as a ‘scream queen’, her most memorable reaction in this is one of sheer astonishment followed by courageous defence as she continually tries and fails to kill the creature who is menacing her. Laurie seems at a slight remove from the world around her and she becomes directly linked to the all-pervading autumnal atmosphere; leaves drifting on the wind, sun never quite breaking through, dark ever so slowly encroaching on the light. It’s not hard for us to like Laurie, the girl who is the best friend of cheerleaders but never quite made the squad, and Curtis has rarely been so purely likeable again. She’s well matched by the other two babysitters. P.J.Soles is very funny as Lynda, the eternal cheerleader whose good-natured malice is never quite vicious enough to be meant, and Nancy Loomis makes a strong impression as Annie, a sort-of slacker prototype who is becoming frustrated by Laurie’s apparent inability to find a boyfriend. But Laurie is the one we like and remember. It was a stroke of genius to give her some kind of supernatural link with Michael – regardless of the narrative convolutions of the sequels to this film – and make her the only one who can see him during the first part of the film. In other words, the audience is in conspiracy with her because we alone know that she really isn’t crazy. After all, we can see Michael too. Of all the heroines of the slasher movie craze which followed – many of them more interesting than contemporary critics, especially feminist writers, acknowledged – Laurie is the best characterised and, more importantly, the most believable.
Carpenter’s sense of pacing is as sure as his command of atmosphere. After the prologue, the film goes helter-skelter into rain-lashed hysteria as Dr Loomis discovers that Michael has escaped his prison. The Loomis character does, to be honest, breathe the only really stale air in the movie; a collection of psychiatric-priest dialogue clichés, he’s barely credible as a working doctor and his screaming that “the evil has escaped” would surely see him encased in one of his own strait-jackets. But he provides an important role in the narrative – the all-seeing savant – and he helps the pacing because his scenes allow us a breather from the intensity of the cat and mouse between Michael and the girls. It also helps a lot that Donald Pleasance brings real credibility to the part and brings as much conviction to the speeches as any actor possibly could. Otherwise, the pace is brilliantly controlled, moving slowly but with steely certainty from day to night. Carpenter is content to let the atmospherics take hold before Michael goes on the rampage. Indeed, even the scenes where he kills two of the girls are elegantly extended as the inevitable voyeurism becomes stalking before turning into murder.
Virtually every ‘slasher’ movie which followed Halloween stole this pattern of murder set-pieces but they missed two vital elements. Firstly, they forgot that much of the first two-thirds of Halloween is devoted to setting up setting and character, unsettling the audience with hints and glimpses rather than wallowing in gore and the pointless killings of equally pointless minor characters. Secondly, and probably more ruinously, they ignored Carpenter’s elegance and style when it comes to scaring the audience. He positively refuses to indulge in gore for its own sake and the only blood in the film comes during the prologue – which is still relatively discreet – and on the body of a hapless trucker whose body is found by the roadside. Virtually no violence takes place on screen and when it does, as in the various injuries suffered by Michael, it’s oddly abstracted with the use of shadow and the mime skills of the actor playing the killer, Nick Castle. Nor, despite those writers who confuse the film with its imitators, does he make the crass suggestion that only ‘bad girls’ who fool around with boys deserve to die. As Debra Hill points out, the girls who die in Halloween do so not because they’ve had sex but because they were distracted at just the wrong moment.
It’s worth pointing out in this regard that one of the girls doesn’t actually have sex, although she seems to have that intention when she meets her fate. It also has to be said that few directors working in any genre or, indeed, anywhere in the world have quite the same ability to get the most out of every corner of the 2.35:1 frame as Carpenter at his best. A simply comparison would be with Rick Rosenthal’s watchable but generally worthless Halloween 2 - hack work at its least dignified and exactly the kind of mindless slash fodder that Halloween so clearly was not.
Another element of the film which marks it out is the beautifully understated sense of the supernatural which infuses it. Early on, Loomis describes Michael as being ‘evil’ and having “the blackest eyes, the Devil’s eyes” and gradually, Michael seems to become more a supernatural force than a flesh and blood monster. The film is packed with suggestions of the way in which we make the irrational part of our world and, indeed, celebrate it – isn’t that what October 31st is all about - and the film takes place in a realistic environment which seems to have another, darker world intruding upon it. In this sense, it’s quite similar to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso and, perhaps, Spielberg’s Duel, all films where something infinitely strange and frightening seems to have spilled over into our own reality. Then there’s the “unkillable killer” trick which seemed reasonably fresh back in 1978 but which has been done to death since. What’s interesting is how Carpenter rarely employs the ‘make ‘em jump’ tactic, perhaps realising that having something simply happen in quite a banal way is more unnerving in the long run than having loud music startling the viewer and, once they’ve screamed, making them laugh. Michael is more a force than a character – a force of evil, perhaps, or of something beyond us – and when Loomis says at the end that yes, Michael was the bogeyman, it’s not hard to believe agree.
The film is a model of good film craft. There’s nothing in it which doesn’t need to be there, not a single ounce of fat but nor is there the a disregard for character and dialogue. The lines written for the girls are often funny and even the little kids are less annoying than usual. There are a lot of ingenious ploys to disguise the fact that a town in autumnal Illinois is being played by one in sun-laden California springtime. All the collaborators seem to have had the mutual goal of bringing as much skill to the film as possible and every element, from Tommy Wallace’s evocative production design to Dean Cundey’s richly atmospheric lighting, simply works. I certainly don’t want to pretend that Carpenter had high artistic aims in Halloween or that the film is particularly original. It shares some plot elements with Bob Clark’s considerably less interesting Black Christmas and has roots in the post-Psycho rash of maniac movies. But whatever the intentions or the influences, Halloween is great film art; sinuous, intelligent and still genuinely frightening if you’re willing to watch it in the right spirit. If ever there was a film for a dark, stormy night when you’re alone in the house and every creak from upstairs sounds like the stealthy footfall of a stranger, this is it.
Anchor Bay have now released three versions of Halloween, unless I’ve missed a couple by accident. First we had the original double sided 2.35:1/panscan version with one of the most miserably awful transfers I’ve ever seen. Then we had the 2-disc Special Edition released in both the US and the UK containing the original film, the TV version with extra scenes and a very brief making-of documentary. Now we have the 25th Anniversary Edition, a fine double disc package which will probably be the last word on the film. It doesn’t contain the extra scenes from the TV version but I can happily live without those in exchange for the excellent bonus features on this new DVD.
To begin with the most important part of the package, we’ve been given a good transfer. I say good rather than excellent because there are a few respects in which it could be better. The film has been transferred in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is anamorphic. The disc is mastered in ‘Divimax’, a high definition process which apparently maximises video quality. Indeed, I have to say that it’s an improvement on the middling transfer which appears on the 2001 UK release of the film. There’s plenty of detail to the image and the contrast is absolutely marvellous. The colours are sensational throughout with the golden-brown shades of autumn coming across strongly. My quibbles with what is certainly a strong 8/10 are that there is a shade too much grain for comfort, particularly in the earlier scenes, and I did notice a small amount of compression artifacting during the frequent night-time scenes. Neither of these problems are particularly serious but nor is this the ‘wow’ transfer that I had hoped for. However, there are also moments which look simply glorious so I think that on the whole this is quite pleasing.
There are two soundtracks on the disc. Neither of them is the original mono soundtrack, which is a great shame, but otherwise the remixes aren’t as teeth-gratingly annoying as some of Anchor Bay’s hatchet jobs. In both remixes, most of the dialogue is monophonic and the surrounds are used for sound effects and some of the music ‘stings’. Actually, the film sounds fine and the soundtrack has been thoroughly cleaned up so it generally sounds fantastic. There is only a minimal difference between the two soundtracks as the .1 LFE is rarely used.
In these days when virtually every new release gets a 2 disc special edition, we’ve become quite cynical about the value of extra features. Thankfully, this is one disc which restores your faith in the whole concept of bonus materials. There are not a large number of extras but what is there is of excellent quality.
First up is a superb audio commentary. Licensed from Criterion, this is the excellent track which featured on the laserdisc. It features John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Jamie Lee Curtis and all of the participants supply fascinating comments about the film and the experience of making it. They are recorded separately and the comments are linked by a narrator who introduces each speaker. Curtis is compelling on the way she feels more exploited by mainstream films than exploitation movies and Carpenter is fascinating, especially when talking about his childhood and his love of other films. Debra Hill’s voice is a little strident but she has a lot of interest to say.
On the second disc, we get the rest of the extras. A splendidly atmospheric montage leads you into the menu screen. Firstly, there is a generous 87 minute documentary entitled “A Cut Above The Rest” which goes through the making of the film in plenty of detail and is quite reminiscent of the “Terror Takes Shape” documentary on the DVD of The Thing. Virtually everyone involved in the film who is still living has been chased up to offer their views and there are some fascinating on-set clips which have been unearthed. Footage of Carpenter directing Donald Pleasance is especially interesting. Picture quality on this is very good and it is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with film clips in the original 2.35:1 ratio. The documentary is dedicated to Irwin Yablans, the man who first presented the idea of “The Babysitter Murders” to Carpenter, who died shortly after it was completed.
“On Location:25 Years Later” is an enjoyable 10 minute featurette in which P.J.Soles and Debra Hill return to the locations used for the film. This is shot on video and windowboxed. Nothing special here but it’s interesting to see how the locations look after a quarter of a century. Be warned though that you will become incredibly annoyed with the narrator.
As you’d expect, the original theatrical trailer is present, in anamorphic 1.85:1. It’s fascinating to note both how long this is and how many good moments it gives away. Additionally, there are 2 TV spots – for some reason presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 and 2 unintentionally amusing radio spots. Lengthy biographies of Carpenter, Pleasance and Curtis are provided along with selective filmographies. Finally, there is a poster and stills gallery which is pretty good as these things go. The DVD package contains a short but well presented booklet about the film.
There are 16 chapters for the main feature. Yet again, regrettably, no subtitles are provided for either the film or the extra features.
Halloween is a great film on any terms and one which John Carpenter will probably never match, although he did come close with The Thing. This DVD is well presented and contains some very good extra features. Highly recommended.