I only have two film traditions: on December 24th I watch It's a Wonderful Life and on October 31st I watch Halloween. Last night I closed the blinds and curtains to cut out the light and settled back to see what one of my favourite horror films would look and sound like in high definition.
Before Jason and before Freddy, there was a psychopathic serial killer who caught the public's imagination and became a household name: Michael Myers. After working together on Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote a screenplay for a horror film - Hill providing the babysitter element by drawing on her own experiences and Carpenter adding the 'evil' factor. The script was titled The Babysitter Murders, Carpenter was persuaded to change the title by producer Irwin Yablans to Halloween and set it around the scariest of holidays - many were to follow, such as April Fool's Day, Happy Birthday to Me and Prom Night.
Opening with a long one-take shot, influenced by Touch of Evil, we see someone stalking a house before entering, picking up a large kitchen knife, walking upstairs and stabbing a young woman, his older sister Judith, to death. The killer is revealed to be Michael, a six year old boy.
Fifteen years later and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is travelling with a nurse to the mental hospital where Michael has been kept ever since in order to transfer him, as he is now 21, to a maximum security prison. As they approach the gate, several gowned inmates are milling around and, whilst Dr. Loomis gets out to contact the hospital staff, Michael jumps on the car, attacks the nurse and takes the car.
As Loomis has studied Michael since he was a boy he knows that he is going home, to Haddonfield, Illinois. The day began quite normally with Laurie and her friends Annie and Lynda talking about school, boys and the upcoming dance with Annie and Lynda planning to ditch their babysitting duties and spend time with their boyfriends in the empty houses with their parents away. As resident 'girl scout' Laurie Strode babysits her neighbours' children on Halloween, the worst night of her life begins as, one by one, her friends can't be reached and the figure that had stalked her earlier on is intent on doing away with babysitters.
It's unusual to shoot a film set on October 31st in spring in California where the trees are green and lush so the art department had to make hundreds of fake brown leaves and, whilst the effect is not entirely convincing, you soon forget about the foliage as Laurie's night of terror sucks you in. After the numerous sequels and other slasher films, including the reflective Scream trilogy, the first of which referenced this beautifully, I half expect to be so jaded and used to these that it would have no effect but am pleasantly surprised each time.
Jamie Lee Curtis is such a great casting choice as she has that youth and naiveté needed for the role and, being as much as nine years younger than the actresses who play her more worldly wise friends, really seems their junior and someone needing a bit of coaxing. When it comes to surviving Michael's onslaught, she shows why she was (and still is) regarded as one of the great 'scream queens' with a great face for showing terror and a fair pair of lungs! Providing the experience and knowledge is Donald Pleasence who was paid $20,000 of the film's $300,000 budget for his five days work but added much needed know-how and a recognisable name - the only one in the cast - for the marketability.
Although the slasher genre was really started by Bob Clark with Black Christmas, Halloween was such a massive hit that most regard it as the film that established the conventions and led to all the imitations and spin-offs that dominated American teen horror in the 1980s. Michael Myers is such a great killer as he has no emotion and the murders are almost inexplicable - everyone will have their own explanation why he does what he does. My own interpretation is that the babysitters resemble Judith and Michael is only picking up where he left off fifteen years earlier. Of all the slasher films this is by far my favourite and age has not affected how much I like it as, if anything, I appreciate Halloween more now than when I first saw it all those years ago.
The disc is not the most comprehensive release as some of the supplementary material that graced other versions has been left aside but, thinking about it, this isn't necessarily a bad thing as much of it isn't missed - do we really need the TV version?
The commentary by John Carpenter and Debra Hill from the original release is well delivered and informative, with Carpenter doing most of the talking, but what Hill has to say is worth hearing. The two had a long and productive partnership which is evident from this as they know what to say and who should say it.
There is the Halloween Unmasked retrospective from 2000 in which Carpenter, Hill, Moustapha Akkad, Jamie Lee Curtis and others talk about the film and its impact on their careers. Running at over 90 minutes this is a comprehensive and enjoyable piece that adds lots of trivia and adds to the commentary in your understanding and appreciation of how the film was made and its lasting impact.
Also included are three TV trailers and three radio spots and, like the Hellraiser disc, there is a trivia track which repeats some of the information from the commentary but is bang up to date with a couple of references to the 2007 remake.
Shot in Panavision (2.35:1 anamorphic), this looks very good with deep blacks and vibrant colours; there is some noise on some of the low-lit scenes, but nothing to detract from the otherwise fine picture. Considering Halloween is now over thirty years old I was a little sceptical how good the HD picture would be and whether they would go over the top with DNR but the balance is just right with excellent skin tones and colours and black levels that are as good as I've seen. I mentioned somewhere before that you know when the contrast is good when the blacks in a letterboxed film merge into the black bars so you can't tell where they begin or end and this is the case with this transfer - the blacks are black!
The cinematography is excellent and began a long relationship between John Carpenter and Dean Cundey and the pioneering use of the SteadiCam, then called a PanaGlide, is tremendous. Half the budget went on Panavision equipment and it was worth every cent! The film is remarkably bloodless, relying on tension and the presence of 'The Shape' played by Nick Castle, to give Michael a real menace just with sly reveals in shadows.
The disc has the options of the original mono, a stereo track or Uncompressed PCM 5.1. Over the years I have watched the film with each and actually prefer the 5.1 as the surrounds provide much more tension through the atmospherics and Halloween features the finest score that John Carpenter ever wrote and one of the best in the horror genre. Both the mono and stereo tracks are fine but the PCM 5.1 definitely has the edge as the surrounds are used to great effect, especially if you turn the volume up to make the dialogue loud enough! It's a relatively simple soundtrack but stunningly effective - if you watch the more scary scenes with the sound off, they lose almost all of the tension.
This is an extremely effective horror film with a heroine with whom you empathise, a killer who is an emotionless psychopath and one of the best scores in the genre. There are also plenty of jumps to keep the more nervous viewer in a constant state of suspense.
Made for just $300,000 and shot in 20 days, this was low budget filmmaking at its best. Everyone's friends helped out, make up was done in a Winnebago and some, including John Carpenter and Debra Hill, worked for free. Halloween gave the then TV actress Jamie Lee Curtis her big break, spawned a huge franchise and, together with Black Christmas, led to the whole stalker/slasher sub-genre. It is one of the most influential horror films ever made and still retains its power to scare and shock even now. Halloween is one of the greats of the genre and a personal favourite.
I suppose the big question is: 'is it worth upgrading?' - I haven't seen the film look or sound this good and, with the best of the available extras plus a new trivia track, horror fans and devotees of the film will not think twice about paying £6.99 (as I did) to see one of the great films of the genre in this quality.