A few weeks ago, while I was waiting for a showing of The Bourne Ultimatum to start at a local theater, I noticed that the Rob Zombie-directed remake of Halloween was playing in the auditorium next door. Despite hearing nothing but damning opinions about Zombie’s modern-day update of the 1978 John Carpenter classic, I was curious to see if it was actually as bad as everyone had said it was and decided to take a ten-minute preview. It turns out that it wasn’t as bad as everyone had said it was. It was actually worse. Loud, vile and badly acted even by slasher movie standards, I couldn’t imagine sitting through more than ten minutes, let alone 110, of this cinematic obscenity.
Fortunately, one doesn’t have to endure Zombie’s torture porn or the seven other crappy entries in the saga of Michael Meyers to appreciate and enjoy the Carpenter original, which is making its high definition debut via Starz/Anchor Bay home video’s impressive first wave of Blu-ray releases.
We all know the story by now: fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween night in 1963, escaped mental patient Michael Meyers has returned to the sleepy little town of Haddonfield, Illinois to continue his murderous ways. With determined psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) in pursuit, Michael sets forth and targets a trio of teenage babysitters (Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis) on All Hallow’s Eve, 1978.
As is the case with any ground-breaking film in a particular genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, George Lucas” Star Wars and or the Wachowski Brothers The Matrix, John Carpenter’s Halloween was a highly-and justifiably- celebrated film that unfortunately launched thousands of sorry knockoffs while establishing a boatload of genre clichés. In Halloween all of the slasher film elements that have become the norm are here: the dark, abandoned house or neighborhood, the horny teenagers who are also walking targets, a fake scare followed by a real one, the helpless victim squaring off against the unstoppable boogie man and so on. Even if you have never seen the movie before (I’m sure there are three or four of you out there), you can pretty much figure things out right from the get go.
But even if that familiarity breeds a degree of contempt, the original Halloween still gets the job done in effectively creeping one out. Carpenter’s directing, backed by one of his better music scores, do a terrific job at creating and maintaining a creepy atmosphere throughout. The filmmaker’s helming carefully escalates an uneasy but necessary sense of dread and unease without pouring on buckets of blood and gore. Hell, first season Heroes episodes were far more graphic than this film is. And the performances by his cast are a notch above what one would expect from the horror genre.
Halloween may seem tame, even boring to some by today’s horror film standards (which personally I think suck beyond measure), but even after three decades still manages to elicit thrills and chills while creeping oneself out by the time the end credits roll. Even if it falls into that redheaded stepchild of a movie genre known as the Slasher film, Halloween remains a class “A” example of horror/thriller filmmaking that holds up remarkably.
As with Sony Home Video’s release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there have been plenty of complaints being leveled against the Blu-ray edition of Halloween. Apparently, the master used for this Blu-ray was one used for Anchor Bay’s Divimax DVD edition a few years back and was one not approved by Dean Cundey, the film’s cinematographer. As such, the color scheme and the brightness levels were tinkered with for the Divimax edition, which caused a major uproar amongst the die-hard fans of Halloween.
I have never seen the Divimax edition (The last time I saw the film? It was on Laserdisc. Yeah, it was that long ago.), so I can’t comment on whether this disc used the Divimax transfer or not. Since everyone else seems to say so, I am going to assume that it was. What I can comment on here is that I thought the Blu-ray presentation looked good, but not as great as I was hoping. The 2.35:1/MPEG-4 AVC/1080p encode has solid black levels, sharp levels of background and shadow detail and acceptable colors, be they tinkered with or not. The print condition is fine given the film’s age (with only a few nicks and scratches here and there), grain is minimal and compression artifacts are nowhere to be seen.
So why am I saying that the transfer is good but not great? Well, some people have complained about the color timing and brightness altering. Personally, I found myself irritated by the on again, off again softness of the picture. It wasn’t consistent enough to make me think it was an authoring issue, so I kept wondering throughout the film’s 91-minute running time if the softness was an issue in regards to Cundey’s use of anamorphic lenses used to shoot the film. I am guessing it was a lens issue, but you never know.
In the audio department, Starz/Anchor Bay has nicely offered fans three aural flavors to choose from: a remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital track, an uncompressed 5.1 PCM track and the film’s original mono track from 1978. I’ve never been the biggest fan of taking a mono soundtrack and remixing it for 5.1 surround sound (I’m looking at you, Wild Bunch), but the remixes on Halloween are quite satisfactory.
Despite the additional use of multiple channels of sound, Halloween is still a mainly center-channel affair. The dialogue on the 5.1 remixes is okay at best, with voices sounding a bit scratchy at times, especially when someone is screaming (check out the scene where Laurie is screaming for help toward the end of the film). The left and right front speakers spring to vibrant life whenever Carpenter’s music score pops up, albeit at a much louder level than the dialogue. Surrounds and bass are used sparingly, the one notable exception being Michael’s escape from the mental institution during a rain storm. The 5.1 Dolby Digital and uncompressed PCM tracks are pretty similar, though the PCM track is a bit smoother than the Dolby Digital track. The original monaural track is obviously much quieter than the other two tracks, but for those who want to listen to the movie the way it was meant to be heard, it comes as a welcome addition and I applaud Starz/Anchor Bay for its inclusion.
Considering the legacy of this film (and the multitude of DVD releases from Anchor Bay in the past ten years), one would have expected this Blu-ray release to be all inclusive in terms of bonus material, among them the 25th Anniversary-related documentaries and featurettes, as well as twelve minutes of deleted footage shot for the film’s television broadcast back in 1980. Most of those are not included on this Blu-ray edition, but what we get is a solid selection of supplements that should tide fans over until the next Blu-ray release (Don’t act surprised when it happens, we are talking Anchor Bay here.).
Taken from the 1995 Criterion Collection Laserdisc, the Feature-Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter, the late producer Debra Hill and star Jamie Lee Curtis is one way to get your Halloween information fix. It’s an informative audio track, and Carpenter, Hill and Curtis all make for engaging hosts.
Next up is an informative and entertaining 87-minute documentary entitled Halloween: A Cut above the Rest. Filled with interviews with the cast and crew, this doc traces the production history of the movie, the influences that helped Carpenter shape the story, tales of actors and actresses who were originally wanted for the film (Anne Lockhart for Laurie, Christopher Lee for Dr. Loomis) and the surprising success of the film at the box office. Even the dismal sequels are discussed by Carpenter and company (A six pack a night of Budweiser helped Carpenter write Halloween II, which explains quite a bit). If you haven’t seen this documentary before and are a fan of the movie, this doc makes for essential viewing.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray release is a Pop-up Trivia Track that offers tidbits every few minutes while the movie is running. A lot of it offers redundant information found on the commentary and the documentary, but if you don’t have the time for either of those, you can pop on the trivia track and get sharpen your Halloween IQ (for whatever hat is worth). Rounding out the extras are the Theatrical Trailer (in pretty rough shape), and some Television and Radio Spots.
As Charles Cyphers” character states in the film, everyone deserves one good scare on Halloween. Thanks to Starz and Anchor Bay, you can get that in all its high definition glory. The audio and video presentations of the film on Blu-ray are decent, with extras extensive enough to give fans both old and new further appreciation of the work that went into the production. Along with Starz/Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray editions of Dawn of the Dead and Evil Dead 2, Halloween comes highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald