Review: John Carpenter’s Halloween – 35th Anniversary Edition (U.K. Blu-ray)

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Label:  Starz/Anchor Bay UK
Release date:  21st October 2013
Format:  Blu-ray
Video format:  1080p MP4 AVC
Aspect Ratio:  2.35:1 (OAR 2.39:1)
Soundtracks:  Dolby TrueHD 7.1: English;  Dolby 2-channel Mono: English
Subtitles:  English SDH, Spanish
Runtime:  91 mins + extras
No. of discs:  1 x BD-50
Packaging:  Steelbook
Region Coding:  Region B
Rating:  BBFC 18

Official Synopsis
In 1978 John Carpenter’s Halloween was hailed as a “brutally efficient exercise in tension” (Entertainment Weekly), scaring audiences worldwide with a new breed of menace and a whole new set of rules. 35 Years after its original release, Anchor Bay return to the original source material alongside creator John Carpenter and Director of Photography Dean Cundey to supervise an all new High Definition transfer. Containing the original audio and an all new 7.1 audio mix alongside a feature length audio commentary from John Carpenter and international star Jamie Lee Curtis. In the small town of Haddonfield, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds her night of babysitting turns into a night of sheer terror as she comes face to face with the “Bogeyman”. As her friends are cut down one by one Laurie becomes the focus of attack turning one night into what seems like a lifetime… a lifetime about to be cut devastatingly short.

Review
Popularising the slasher formula beyond Bob Clark’s seminal (and more giallo-styled) 1974 film Black Christmas, what makes 1978’s Halloween work so well and such a popular film with so many then and since is the utterly masterful control director John Carpenter maintains over the audience’s mood throughout, using nothing but the classical language of cinema augmented with the Panaglide camera. This is not a horror film in the sense of disgust but in the sense of terror – the film is built to create tension in the viewer, to wind it up or down as needed, until in the final act it kicks into overdrive, twisting up to unbearable levels. Not having seen it projected, one can only imagine how this must have gripped viewers seeing it for the first time on a big screen, especially with no home video to allow for constant rewatches until the sheen wears off.

The big surprise, revisiting it now after so many have ripped it off, is the lack of excess. This is not a film crammed full of nudity and gore, nor is it an overwhelming expression of misogyny. This is a classical thriller, pared down, about surviving a seemingly-unstoppable force.  The film’s pacing is finely-tuned, with lots of space both visually and temporally, allowing for the second quarter of this lean 90-minuter (remember those?!) to feel longer than it actually is, while the finale feels far more packed and fast-moving than it actually is if one looks at the clock. It is never-less-than carefully thought through, every shot, every motion, every edit chosen for effect. Not a moment is wasted in any sense. Whether it still works as well as it once did depends to some degree on how experienced a horror viewer you are, but the elements are all still there to make one tense, uncomfortable and still occasionally jump.

Jamie Lee Curtis’ big-screen debut is layered, nuanced beyond what the production and role demand. One never holds it against her when she starts screaming, as she holds it back as much as possible in order to fight for both life and the kids she’s baby-sitting. Also, the characters are nowhere as clueless as later slasher flicks come to rely on; these are characters living their normal lives in a normal neighbourhood, doing what teenagers do. No-one expects what happens, and the other storyline indicates that few believe it can even happen.

That other storyline of Dr. Loomis, the Van Helsing to his patient Michael Myers’ Dracula, is what helps ramp up the fear, while also grounding it in something approaching believable even if a presumed man of science is using the phrase “pure evil”. After so many years without him, it’s a shock to see one of England’s finest, Donald Pleasance, on-screen once more, looking hale and hearty, providing conviction and class in a production filled with young talent still to make their mark. Loomis is a classic Pleasance character, and a reminder that since his passing there has been no-one like him to step into such roles. One wants to cheer him when he does his cavalry act in the finale.

Carpenter may be a master of genre – action, thriller, horror, sci-fi – but his first love, the Western, always pops up, sometimes in the least expected of ways. Here, it is the moment when Curtis tries to get neighbours to help her, and after their actions show they know she’s there, they cut her off. As she goes door to door, one cannot help but think of a beleaguered sheriff or townsperson seeking help from fellow townsfolk who shutter their shops and homes to him, a classic moment of some westerns. Loomis’ approach to matters as well feels somewhat like an old-style preacher, a man convinced he is right but unable to convince others since he won’t dial down the barely-explained conviction when he speaks.  Finally, the timing of his arrival and his weapon of choice in the finale all speak to typical resolutions in classical westerns – it is the enemy that is radically different.

That, perhaps, is both Halloween’s greatest creative choice, but the flaw of so many rip-offs thereafter. Making Michael Myers “the Shape”, what would now be termed a “supernatural spree killer,” a seemingly unstoppable, inhumanly strong killing machine, works perfectly here to increase fear and prolong tension. It would make other, similar characters anything but, increasingly boring as they were unkillable, and sure to be back for another cash-in sequel. Halloween is a refreshing reminder that there was a time in horror where we felt fear because we automatically sympathised with the human characters, whether we liked them or not, because we the viewers are humans too. One may not like the other teenagers, but nothing they do warrants what they suffer, and suffer they do before dying; one does not finish the film going “Hey, I want to be a supernatural spree killer!” as if it’s a lifestyle choice. Instead, the film ends as chillingly as it begun, with Loomis and Curtis facing up to the fact that they have survived, but so has he; they may never sleep soundly again, and nor has many a viewer of it since.

Video & Audio
This transfer of the film is approved by Carpenter and original cinematographer Dean Cundey, and it shows.  This is, without doubt, the best it has ever looked on home video. Barring a few shots here and there that seem to be problematic due to the original stock and/or lighting, or the source print, this is filmic, crisp, colourful without being overheated (the criticism of the last home vid transfer), with such fine contrast it restores Cundey’s work and Carpenter’s choices to pre-eminence over decades of poor TV and VHS airings, besting DVD by far in light, shade and detail.  All 35-year-old 35mm films should look so good at home today.

The audio is more problematic. The lossless 7.1 mix is excellent, but includes the additional effects Carpenter approved for the 25th Anniversary 5.1 mix. Purists will decry this, settling for the lossy mono track, except that some reviewers have noted it as a down-mix of the 7.1. Not having watched the film in years, it says a great deal about the sympathy and skill that has been applied to the newer mix that your blogger failed to notice the additions the first time he heard the new track, and therefore cannot comment on whether the 2.0 is a downmix. Certainly, if the mono track is, then that is a missed opportunity and a shame, as it makes this release less than definitive.

Extras
A brand-new commentary from John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis is the key draw here. From the moment it starts, you know you’re in for one of those fun, relaxed chats that have graced previous Carpenter film releases. Curtis’ memory for details both on- and off-set is remarkable, and combines nicely with Carpenter’s occasional lapses in recall. There is no small degree of pride in both their voices, which is as it should be.

The longest video extra is an HD hour-long piece following Jamie Lee Curtis’ one-off return to the fan convention circuit, done with the aim of raising money from Halloween fans for charity.  For those who have never attended a fan event, it will seem a lengthy oddity; for those who have attended cons for work or pleasure, however, this is an enjoyable, revealing piece about an actress who was a beloved genre great before she was a star.

A ten-minute piece from the 25th Anniversary DVD look at the film’s locations as they are today, combining the footage with interviews with producer Debra Hill and actress P.J. Soles.  This is not only entertaining but revealing, proving highly useful for non-U.S. fans, as the effect of using such a neighbourhood as the setting of the film added to the terror U.S. viewers would have experienced in way not possible abroad.

Another ten-minute piece collects together those sequences Carpenter and team shot for the TV version of the film.  Modern film fans probably find the very notion bizarre, but it is interesting to reflect on the way creators used these to try and retain some of their vision as their adult cut transitioned to a tamer television version.  Certainly, without the context these seem like deleted scenes rather than additions, which speaks to the quality and the effort put into them. It would have been nice to have the option, as with the 25th Anniversary DVD, to see these in sequence with the rest of the film as they were intended for, but still, at least they are here.

Finally, an 18-page booklet with on-set stills and text from Stref Hutchinson form a valuable addition to the set, contextualising the film nicely beyond the on-disc extras. Presumably this is the same material that makes up the U.S. digibook version of the same release, ensuring we get everything in the U.K. edition.

Final Verdict
If you already own one of the earlier editions of Halloween, then you’re going to be annoyed that more extras haven’t been ported over to create a definitive edition. However, the two new extras are worthwhile, but it is the new transfer and sound mix you’ll really be paying for, and they’re worth it. If you don’t already own this modern classic, then this is the version worth taking home just for that transfer.