Halloween (1978)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2008-10-31 16:01

Written by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nick Castle

Reviewed by: Brett G.

It goes without saying that John Carpenter's Halloween is a landmark film in the horror genre. However, this wasn't always the case with me personally, as I was always more of a Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th fan during my formative years. At some point, though, I decided it was time to check out the series; it had to be sometime in the late 80s because I can remember the cover art for Halloween 4 intriguing me the most, and, to be honest, Michael's mask terrified me a bit. So I started with the first film and moved my way through the available entries at the time and, before, long, Michael joined Freddy and Jason in my horror obsessed childhood, and, over the years, the film has significantly altered me as a horror fan.

Halloween appropriately opens on Halloween night, 1963, in Haddonfield Illinois. Here, we wander through a seemingly normal suburban home from the perspective of a masked character, who quickly grabs a knife and heads upstairs. There we find a topless teen girl that's just got finished messing around with her boyfriend; she is then promptly slaughtered, and the masked killer heads outside before being revealed as six-year-old Michael Myers. The camera pans away slowly, as if it were also aghast at what just happened before the film flashes ahead fifteen years to 1978, where Myers is due to be tried as an adult for his crimes. After some rather ominous dialogue between Myers' doctor, Dr. Loomis, and his assistant, Marion Chambers, the two arrive at Smith's Grove Sanitarium, where something is obviously amiss because the inmates are wandering around outside. Taking advantage of this confusion, Michael steals Loomis's car and heads back home to Haddonfield, where he ends up stalking an unassuming Laurie Strode and her friends on Halloween night.

So much discussion about Halloween centers around its status as a landmark in the genre and the fact that it was responsible beginning the 80s slasher craze. Whether this is true or not has been a hot subject of debate in recent years, as many fans feel that Bob Clark's Black Christmas deserves more credit that Carpenter's film. However, I'm not here to add my two cents to this debate, as I feel like doing so is a disservice to both films, and, ultimately, it's the films themselves that are important. Thus, the bottom line is this: regardless of its place in history or its similarities to Black Christmas, the fact remains that Halloween is one of the greatest horror films of all time, and I dare say it's a perfect horror film. Everything about Halloween is top-notch: the acting, the story, and, of course, Carpenter's direction, which all adds up to make the most elegant slasher film of all time.

One of the film's greatest strengths is its leanness, as, in many ways, it's the Great White Shark of horror films: it only exists to move forward a brisk pace, and there's no excess or unnecessary movements. Instead, every element of the film serves to build towards the film's spine-tingling climax that has yet to be outdone by any slasher film to this day. There's just enough character development, atmosphere, and scares to make the film a completely effective work of horror.

That said, much of the film's brilliance lies in what Carpenter chooses not to show: there is very little to no gore, and, for most of the film, Michael lies in the shadows and in the corners of the screen. Furthermore, there's no lengthy backstory or explanation for Myers's dementia; instead, he remains an enigma who unleashes an inexplicable carnage on the town of Haddonfield. This decision by Carpenter renders the character of Dr. Loomis absolutely critical to the plot, as he not only serves as a foil to Myers, but he also acts as a cipher for his madness. This is one of those rare instances where telling is better than showing from a story perspective, as Loomis essentially sells the character of Myers. We don't need to see any flashbacks or any other evidence of his madness, as Donald Pleasence truly portrays Myers to be a walking avatar of evil who knows no reason, remorse, or even the most rudimentary sense of right or wrong. Pleasence's portrayal of Loomis also serves as the film's moral or sympathetic center along with Curtis's Laurie Strode.

Speaking of which, Laurie and her friends, Lynda and Annie, manage to be memorable characters in their own right. Whereas many later body count films would introduce large ensemble casts to serve fodder, Halloween chooses instead to focus on these three in an effort to further their characterization. While these aren't the deepest characters ever written, they're serviceable enough, as their interactions and dialogue are both extremely natural (no doubt due to the fact that Debra Hill wrote this part of the script). Charles Cyphers also does a good job in the role of Lee Bracket, the somewhat cynical and skeptical sheriff of Haddonfield. Because of the excellent cast, the film doesn't really feel like a body count movie because we don't feel like these characters are just here to die.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film's atmosphere is unlike any other slasher ever created. There are so many Halloween touchtones strewn throughout the film that set the film apart from others: the jack 'o lanterns, the falling leaves, the trick or treaters. One of my favorite touchtones is Carpenter's use of the Halloween movie marathon that Laurie and the kids watch throughout the film, as nothing says Halloween like one of those cheesy local tv movie marathons that used to air on Halloween every year. Carpenter's film of choice here is The Thing from Another World, a film that has since become a Halloween viewing staple of my own solely because of Halloween. Again, like many elements of the film, it feels simple and inconsequential, but it goes a long way in creating the perfect Halloween setting and atmosphere.

At the center of all of this is John Carpenter, whose direction is absolutely masterful. Amazingly enough, this was only his third proper feature film (and only the second intended for theatrical exhibition), but he was already exhibiting a masterful use of the anamorphic widescreen frame, which gives the film an epic, high-budget quality. Furthermore, there are so many iconic shots in the film: the establishing shots of the Myers house, the various shots where Michael himself is placed inconspicuously in the frame, and, of course, the film's final montage that serves as one of the best endings to any horror film. Carpenter gets a lot of visual help from cinematographer Dean Cundey, whose masterful lighting bathes much of the film in moody, blue-tinted shadows that give the film a very unique and somewhat surreal look. Cundey's lighting is also key in giving the daytime scenes a fall look, as the film was actually shot during the summer. Unlike many slashers, which have a very quick and dirty aesthetic, Halloween is a very beautiful, wonderfully shot film. Finally, something must be said for Carpenter's score, which, like the rest of the film, is a moody and efficient composition that is sparse, yet effective. Everyone is familiar with the now iconic main theme, but I think Carpenter's biggest accomplishment is his use of stingers to highlight or accent the visuals on screen.

Though I first saw Halloween all those years ago, I think it's one of those films that I've actually grown to appreciate over the years. Even though Michael was definitely among my pantheon of horror heroes, he still took a bit of a backseat to Freddy and Jason up until one night when I was about 11 or 12 years old. After years of living my entire life with a handful of television channels, my family finally got satellite television sometime in the fall one year. Thus, Halloween was inevitably playing on some channel one weekend, and I sat down to watch it. I'm not sure what it was about that night. Maybe it was the perfect, late night setting in a house that always made a lot of weird creaking noises, but the film chilled me to my bones. In fact, that's one of the last times I can ever remember being scared by a horror movie, and it reinvigorated my love for the franchise. It wasn't too long after this that the sixth film in the franchise was released, so it truly was the perfect time for my interest in the franchise to be rekindled. These days, I regard it as the most complete and perfect slasher film ever created. This doesn't mean that it's my favorite horror film ever (Dream Warriors still gets my vote), but it's the one that I appreciate the most as a masterwork of the genre, as it led me to so many other films: Carpenter's other works, the aforementioned Thing From Another World, and countless others.

Halloween has had a long, complicated DVD history. It was first released on DVD way back in '97 by Anchor Bay, and it was a shoddy release that should be avoided at all costs by enthusiasts (luckily, it's long out of print). Anchor Bay atoned for this poor release two years later with the release of an excellent Limited Edition set that contained both the theatrical cut of the film and the Extended Television Cut that featured new scenes shot exclusively for the film's airing on NBC. This edition is long out of print, though, but there is hope for those that want the Extended Cut, as Anchor Bay also gave that edition a standalone release that can be found pretty easily on the secondary market these days.

Furthermore, the theatrical cut disc from the LE release also got a stand-alone release that still serves as the definitive version of the film to this day because its transfer was supervised by Dean Cundey himself (the screenshots from this review come from this transfer). Unfortunately, the 25th Anniversary Divimax Edition, while containing better special features and a sharper transfer, has some extremely regrettable color timing issues. Remember Cundey's excellent cinematography that I mentioned earlier? A lot of that is lost, as the trademark blues are drained from their scenes, and the outdoor scenes inaccurately look like summer time instead of fall. Thus, as a purist, I can't recommend the Divimax version's presentation. If you're a hardcore fan, it's certianly worth picking up for the extras, which include a commentary with Carpenter, Hill, and Curtis, an 87 minute making-of-featurette, an "On-Location 25 Years Later" featurette, trailers, and some photo galleries. However, you'll also want to have the '99 disc's version of the film itself, even though the transfer there isn't quite as sharp; it is, however, not a poor transfer by any means. In fact, it would seem that Anchor Bay themselves admitted to their mistake on the color timing when they re-released the '99 disc last year and dubbed it the "restored edition." Thus, it is still very easy to find, and, along with the extras from the Divimax version, serves as all any Halloween fan needs. High-def fans are probably wondering how the Blu-ray edition stacks up, and, having seen it, I can say that it still doesn't get everything right in terms of the color timing, but it is better than the Divimax release. It also carries over all of the special features and usually carries a low price tag; thus, if the color timing issues don't bother you, it's a worthy high def edition. Ultimately, however, Halloween is easily one of the most important horror films to be released in the past 30 years, and every horror fan should own it regardless of its home video incarnation. Essential!

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