Back in April 1978, John Carpenter and his producer/co-writer Debra Hill set out to make a simple horror film on a shoestring budget of $320,000. Little did they know that their project would turn out to be one of the most successful independent films of all time and that they would change the way people look at horror movies in general. It would also go on to be called one of the greatest horror films ever made.
The story is known to most people, even to those who have never seen the film before. On Halloween night in 1963, young Michael Myers murders his sister for no apparent reason. Because of this, he is committed to a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). At first, Dr. Loomis does what he can to reach the boy, who appears to be in a catatonic state, but Loomis soon realizes that this boy is something different altogether. Behind the boy's eyes, he sees nothing but pure evil, an evil that must be kept locked up at all cost.
Fifteen years later, Michael breaks out of the hospital and steals the car that Loomis was using to pick him up for a court appearance. Loomis can only assume that Michael is attempting to return home to Haddonfield, Illinois where he had murdered his sister all those years ago. Meanwhile, we meet the other key characters of the film who reside in Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie Brackett (Nancy Kyes), and Lynda van der Klok (P.J. Soles) are best friends who are trying to put together their plans for that night, which just happens to be Halloween.
Laurie's plans involve babysitting a young boy named Tommy (Brian Andrews), while Annie, who also has babysitting duties nearby, and Lynda want to spend time with their boyfriends. Throughout their preparations for the evening, Michael keeps a close watch on them, planning what his next move will be. Evil has returned to Haddonfield and now it's up to Dr. Loomis to stop it before it's too late.
Michael Myers is one of the single most iconic characters of horror cinema, one that is recognizable even if you never seen the movie. His trademark white mask (a William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask spray painted white) is known just as well as Jason Voorhees's hockey mask or Freddy Krueger's sweater. Throughout this film and the several sequels that followed, you’ll notice that he's a slow, stalking type killer, never in a rush to kill his victim.
This is in stark contrast to the others I've already mentioned. I've always seen Jason as being a faster villain whereas Freddy is fast, but likes to take his time when it comes to his victims (or rather the directors of those films like to allow enough time for the viewer to fully appreciate the dreamscape). My point behind all of this is that having Michael's approach be slower than normal allows the tension to build much better than if he was to simply rush at his victim.
Taking an example straight from "Halloween," there's the famous scene after Laurie has discovered the bodies of her friends, and consequently, Michael has discovered her. In an attempt to escape, she rushes back to Tommy's house across the street only to discover that she has forgotten the keys. Michael slowly begins his trek across the street while Laurie bangs helplessly on the door, trying to get Tommy to come downstairs and unlock it. Carpenter takes this time to cut back and forth between the two as Michael slowly gets closer and closer. There's enough tension there to be cut with a knife.
"Halloween" is also famous for setting the standards for slasher films even to this very day. Many people say that Hitchcock's "Psycho" is the very first slasher film, but I'm talking about in the sense that we know them most famously (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, etc.). The influence of “Halloween” can be seen in each and every one of those films, from the use of masks (Freddy's burnt face can be seen as such) to the stalking method.
Now what is it that makes "Halloween" so great as to sit with the best of the best? For me, it's the amazing sense of mood and atmosphere that Carpenter is able to create through the use of lighting, camera angles, and especially his infamous score. No other horror film I can recall has such a big impact while barely doing a thing to achieve it. When most people think of horror films nowadays, they tend to think of buckets of blood or seeing people being killed in gruesome ways, but back in the 60s (Night of the Living Dead), 70s (The Exorcist), and 80s (Friday the 13th), horror movies didn't need all of that to be effective.
I want to go back to Carpenter's score for a moment because that's really an essential part of what allows him to build such an amazing atmosphere throughout his film. It's also another element that most people will recognize whether they've seen the movie or not. The melody of the main theme is unmistakable and tends to send shivers down anyone's back. Some time ago, I read a story where, for Halloween, someone’s neighbor wore the Michael Myers mask and had the theme playing in the background while simply standing at the end of their driveway. Young kids who had never even heard of the film were creeped out enough to stay away. I can only imagine their reaction if they had actually seen the film.
Carpenter also opens and closes the film in an incredibly unforgettable fashion. The opening scene is a famous shot from the POV of young Michael (age 6) as he watches his sister and her boyfriend making out before they retire to her bedroom. Eventually the boyfriend leaves after which Michael ascends the stairs to find a clown mask that he places on his face, minimizing our view to two round holes. We witness the murder first hand and follow as Michael calmly walks down the stairs and out the door to find his parents arriving home.
It's not only famous for being done as a POV shot but also in that there only appears to be one obvious cut in the entire four-minute sequence (when he puts the clown mask on). They're somewhat hard to see, but if you look at this section closely, you'll notice places where other cuts are hidden (a moment where the picture goes slightly out of focus, a quick panning shot that passes through a dark section of the house). Carpenter, using a bit of cinematic trickery, turns this into what looks like one unbroken shot, and subsequently constructed one of the film's most memorable sequences.
The ending of the film is equally memorable. After the final events play out between Michael, Loomis, and Laurie, Loomis notices that Michael has disappeared. On the soundtrack all we hear is Michael breathing in his mask while shots of several locations inside and outside of the houses are shown, as if to tell us that Michael could be anywhere and that this is not the end by far.
As we are led to believe throughout the film, Michael may have been a human at the start, but that night back in 1963 something changed in him. It's never truly explained what made Michael this way, and this is something else that makes the film and the character so effective. There's no explanation for his evil. He kills his sister for some unknown reason, then, after 15 years, he goes back to Haddonfield for a murder spree, again for some unknown reason. He is simply, as Carpenter himself put it, "a force of nature that won't stop." Most of the other icons of horror have their reasons (Jason witnessed his mother's murder, Freddy was burned alive by the parents of Elm Street), but Michael is just pure evil, plain and simple.
It's a sad fact that horror films just aren't made this way anymore. Filmmakers always think they need to go way over the top to get the scares they desire (The “Saw” franchise being a prime example), but more often than not, they end up failing because they’re forgetting that horror isn’t about being grossed out, it’s about being scared or thrilled. Over 30 years ago Carpenter and his crew proved that sometimes a minimalist approach is the best way to get to those scares. Sometimes all it takes is a simple story, a creepy score, and some low lighting to allow the viewers’ imaginations to race in wonder at what lies in the darkness.
Now let’s take a look at the revamped specs for this 35th Anniversary Edition. The film is presented in an all-new 2.35:1, 1080p HD transfer supervised and approved by cinematographer Dean Cundey. Carpenter’s masterpiece has never looked better with the picture looking sharper and clearer than ever before. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Original Mono audio has also been spruced up for the occasion. The dialogue and score are have been given top-notch treatment, making it sound as good as it looks. For a film whose score is one of its most important elements, it’s great to see that such care was taken with it.
Special features on the disc include:
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director John Carpenter and Actor Jamie Lee Curtis
- The Night She Came Home Featurette
- On Location: 25 Years Later Featurette
- TV Version Footage
- TV & Radio Spots
Starting with the new commentary track, it features Carpenter and Curtis discussing everything about the film, including when and how certain scenes were shot, along with little tidbits of extra info. This is an excellent source for those looking to learn some background on the film. The Night She Came Home featurette is unfortunately a bit pointless as all it is is an hour of following Jamie Lee Curtis around as she signs autographs and poses for photographs with fans for charity.
The 25 Years Later featurette simply looks at the locations used in the film, including the houses and streets, many of which don’t look all that different. The TV Version Footage is just the ten minutes worth of extra scenes included in the version that aired on TV. As I’ve said before, the only decent addition that Carpenter made for this version was the scene in which Loomis is imploring a pair of doctors to have Michael locked up. The rest are merely filler.
Overall, these special features are a bit disappointing, with the only thing really worth taking a look at being the commentary. The previous Blu-ray release included a pretty good commentary as well, plus a comprehensive documentary about the making of the film, in addition to the trailer and various spots. As to why they didn’t import the documentary or include other “Making of” featurettes for this special occasion is a mystery.
Still, it’s rather hard to knock this release what with the amazing quality of the film. Even a lack of good extras can’t diminish how incredible a horror film this is. However, if you were to twist my arm and force me to choose, I’d probably say that you were better off sticking with the previous release, especially if you’re looking for the better extras. Regardless, "Halloween" still remains the greatest horror film of all time, and that’s more than enough to recommend any release it gets.
Movie Score: 5/5
Special Features Score: 3/5
Overall Score: 4/5
Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.