starring Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles
screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
directed by John Carpenter
by Walter Chaw As tempting as it is to write the umpteenth dissertation on the importance and brilliance of John Carpenter's Halloween, it's almost enough to say that there is very possibly no other seminal Seventies film--not The Godfather, not Star Wars, perhaps not even Jaws--that has had a greater influence on popular culture. It's a movie about a fishbowl that exists now only in a fishbowl, a picture so examined that its sadistic ability to maintain an atmosphere of horrified anticipation is consumed by the intellectualization of its hedonism=death equation. A screening with fresh eyes reveals a picture and a filmmaker owing incalculable debts to Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.
Having already aped Hawks's Rio Bravo with the in-ascendance Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter makes reference to the great director in Halloween's spacious tableaux and canny utilization of depth of field, as well as directly in an oft-glimpsed late show revival of The Thing from Another World, a film he would, of course, remake four years later. Hitchock-ily speaking, the picture's prologue murder, borrowing the killer-child's POV shots from Bob Clark's under-credited Black Christmas, owes to Psycho the fast-edited shower attack, while the character of vein-popping psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) owes that movie's beefcake lover his name. Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis is, of course, Janet Leigh's daughter, and her character, naïve babysitter Laurie Strode, answers a phone in her employer's house the same way as a housekeeper in Rear Window. Film buffery aside (and Carpenter is unofficially among the first wave of film-brat filmmakers in the United States), Halloween works because it understands Hitchcock's idea of suspense: The first two-thirds of the picture essentially character development and set-up, and the last third a continuous pay-off.
Laurie isn't so much the prototypical virgin of psychosexual slasher operas to follow as she is just generally ignorant about the harshness of life. In a way, Halloween can be read with most profit as a coming-of-age fantasy--a Little Red Riding Hood fable, a story of course with decidedly overt sexual elements, where the Big Bad Wolf is an indestructible archetype of entropy rather than just a statement of the bestial nature of sexuality. Notice that in Halloween, the victims of the boogeyman are the ones who stray, literally, from the safety of the "path" as Laurie strides, again literally, the straight and narrow. The moment that Laurie crosses the street, in effect bisecting the safe passage, is also the moment she becomes viable prey.
The power of Halloween, aside from Carpenter's brilliant use of Panaglide tracks and push-ins and gift for packing the fore- and backgrounds with information, lies in the clarity with which these occasionally wayward teens care for children and one another. With the element of empathy the very thing that distinguishes the best of Carpenter (The Fog, The Thing) from the worst (Vampires, Ghosts of Mars), Halloween is at some level about sacrifice and love. Even histrionically-prone shrink Loomis is something of a disillusioned father figure, the delight he exhibits in scaring a few kids away from the killer's home a complicated gesture that speaks at once of paternal concern and prurient delight. At its heart, the same warring instincts define the film proper, which, for all the babysitting lives claimed by the mad-dog killer, dedicatedly spares the lives of its youngest charges, often as a direct result of the selfless actions of the teen protagonists. Halloween cares about the cult of childhood, and that, above possibly anything else, is reason enough that the picture is an enduring modern masterpiece.
Anchor Bay, an outfit I praise effusively and without reservation for their dedication to the preservation and restoration of important genre films, has dropped the ball with their 25th Anniversary Divimax edition of Halloween. Cinematographer Dean Cundey's colour filters have been messed with, rendering the picture ludicrously bright at the expense of any real believability that it takes place near the time of the titular season. The frustration of the video presentation is that it's married to the long-coveted Criterion LaserDisc commentary track featuring producer Debra Hill, Carpenter, and Curtis; in a perfect world, this yakker would attend the format's previous, Cundey-approved transfer of Halloween. The world is, alas, a flyblown mistress, and the best extras for this seminal offering come with a video transfer that's far from the worst, and also sadly far from faithful. All things being equal, though, it's far better to see this picture in its 2.35:1 glory with 16x9 enhancement (see also: MGM's Special Edition of The Fog, Cundey's amazing work rendered with more faithfulness therein). There's more information at the peripherals and foreground in Carpenter/Cundey's worst than in the best of most--thank Hawks's influence for that, despite Hawks's own aversion to widescreen. Here's a movie not conducive to panning-and-scanning.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix doesn't sound any different from the last couple of iterations to these weary ears. Dialogue is crisp and Carpenter's excellent score is rendered with fidelity from every channel. Most impressive is the use of surround and rear channel effects--dare you not to jump at least once to a cunning atmospheric creeping up from behind. The abovementioned feature-length yakker is informative and good natured, with Hill providing the bulk of the "meat" and Carpenter the fluffier potatoes--which is not to say that he doesn't impart neat information ("This is where PJ Soles trips on the dolly track...right...there"), just that he seems more convivial than Hill. Hill also irritates with her early assertion, never corrected, that Michael Myers's soon-to-be dead sister is the only girl topless in the flick--I'm no expert, having only seen the film a few dozen times, but I could swear that Soles displays her wares, and conspicuously to boot.
A second platter reveals an 87-minute documentary, Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, that will be mostly second nature for a fanboy, but is arranged and presented in such a way as to make it indispensable for the neophyte while still serving as a nice reference for the scholar. It's probably unavoidable, for the breadth of both, that a lot of the information is duplicated in the commentary. (The treasure of the piece for me, as you might imagine by now, are the bits with Cundey.) A 10-minute "On Location, 25 Years Later" is a factory-fresh featurette featuring "then and now" shots of the picture's locations with commentary by Hill and Soles (all of it superfluous, if you ask me); a shoddy-looking 1.85:1 theatrical trailer; two 1.33:1 television spots; two brief radio spots; a DVD-ROM interface through which you can access the script and screen savers; and an exhaustive promotional art/stills gallery make up the requisite portion of the extras.
Additionally, Anchor Bay's wonderful bio-writers chime in on the careers of Curtis, Carpenter, and Donald Pleasence. If you skip the bios on other discs, and for good reason, don't make that mistake on any of Anchor Bay's product--you'd be missing out. Packaged in a standard-width, two-tray keepcase, the Divimax Halloween: 25th Anniversary Edition (the term "Divimax" referring to a process of HiDef premastering) is thisclose to being the definitive home video version. Unfortunately, for the inexplicable mucking about with Cundey's timing, that crown still goes to the Criterion LaserDisc. Originally published: October 30, 2003.