Halloween (1978)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles
Extras: Documentary, Trailers, TV/Radio Spots, Bios, Still Galleries, Trivia

The slasher film genre has been a mainstay of horror films since the mid 1970s. With so many killers chopping, grinding, and sawing their way through the rubble, one villain has stood a little taller and a little longer than anyone else. Michael Myers, of John Carpenter's "Halloween," has survived decades of sequels and remains one of the most terrifying of movie predators. The faceless, wordless, and seemingly limitless knife-wielding hulk has become an indelible part of pop culture and of the title holiday. Who can imagine spending Halloween night without revisiting the original 1978 film? Now, just as a new incarnation of the slasher classic hits the big screen, the original comes to DVD shelves yet again.

On Halloween night, 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers brutally killed his sister with a kitchen knife. Fifteen years later, the certified sociopath escapes from a psychiatric ward to return to his old neighborhood for more carnage. Frantic to capture him before he can commit repeat homicides, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) decides to keep watch at the old Myers house, where he believes Michael will return. In the meantime, the masked Michael sets his sights on a trio of teenage babysitters. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the most high-strung of the bunch, suspects early on that they are being stalked, but her libidinous friends (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles) convince her that she is just paranoid and needs to loosen up. As night sets over the small town, the babysitters quickly discover that Halloween is no night to let their guard down and that there really is such a thing as the bogeyman.

With just a shoestring budget and minimal storyline, John Carpenter fashioned one of the towering exercises in terror of the 1970s. The tale of babysitters being stalked by a faceless killer tapped into many of society's most primal fears, not the least of which was a fear of unbridled sexuality. With its phallic knives and depictions of voyeurism, "Halloween" garnered justified comparisons to Hitchcock's "Psycho" (Dr. Sam Loomis is named after a character in that film, and Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh). Michael Myers is not so much a human character as an unstoppable force. He seems to appear and vanish without a trace, killing without motive or interest in his victims. His cold detachment is made all the more terrifying by his expressionless, ghostly white mask.

What gives the film its power to scare, even after nearly 30 years of derivative sequels, imitations, and rip-offs, is the sparseness of onscreen violence. While most contemporary slasher films indulge in explicit, almost pornographic violence, "Halloween" contains hardly a drop of blood, spending most of its time building the tension before Michael attacks (another throwback to Hitchcock). The suspense becomes nearly unbearable as the characters put themselves in increasingly vulnerable situations. When the violence finally does occur, the realism and non-graphic nature of it grips us where today's bloody fetishes detach us. Carpenter's iconic score works in much the same way that John Williams' "Jaws" score worked, creating a feeling of threat and movement even when nothing is happening onscreen.

The conviction of the lead actors also plays a large part in helping to build up suspense. Donald Pleasence is strong, determined, and utterly unflappable as Dr. Loomis. His level of talent is not common in low-budget horror fare such as this, but he gives his character an edge and a sense of history that is so important, not only in believing him but in establishing the evil of Michael Myers as well. Jamie Lee Curtis, in her feature film debut, is down to earth and natural as an everygirl. Her Laurie is not just a victim, but a fully realized heroine with her own sense of strength and survival. Because of her early suspicions, Michael Myers becomes almost as much an object of her gaze as she is of his. And of course, and she can scream with the best of them.

More than anything, "Halloween" has reached that pantheon that is reserved for only a few of our most cherished movies. We know it by heart, and yet it never becomes tiresome or old. The film hits us at a level deeper than most slasher films, and even as we are entertained by it, we are drawn in by its powerful suspense and implications. John Carpenter demonstrates what can be done with a small budget and a lot of ingenuity. The basic elements of horror are present here, delivered without the sensationalized clutter that bogs down most contemporary shockers.

The only fathomable reason for Anchor Bay's new DVD edition of "Halloween" is to coincide with the theatrical release of Rob Zombie's remake. The studio has already released several worthy editions, including at least two definitive ones (the restored limited edition in 1999 and the 25th anniversary Divimax edition in 2003). There was a bit of a brouhaha over the Divimax transfer, which apparently desaturated the colors and removed much of the restored transfer's memorable blues in favor of warmer colors. Anchor Bay's new transfer appears to be the one from the 1999 release, with the blues restored and the colors boosted. The film is presented in both anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen and pan-and-scan versions. Although this transfer seems to be the one many fans prefer, a comparison with the Divimax edition reveals considerably more dirt and speckles on this release, most noticeably in the early daylight scenes. Aside from this, however, the transfer looks about as good as it will look on standard DVD (the Blu-ray edition is set for October).

The audio comes to us in Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0, and the original mono soundtrack. These are apparently the same tracks that have been included on the previous releases, and they all sound spectacular in their own way. The 5.1 track showcases a few new sound effects, notably some new clashes of thunder during Dr. Loomis' drive to the psychiatric ward at the beginning of the film. The mono track, which I played while watching, still sounds fresh and clear.

All of the special features here were previously featured on the 1999 restored edition DVD. First up is "Halloween Unmasked 2000," a 27-minute documentary featuring interviews with Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, financier Moustapha Akkad, cast members Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nick Castle, and others. There is some very good information to be found here, but after the extensive features of the Divimax version, this falls short on substance. Rounding out the disc are a pair of trailers, some TV spots, radio spots, talent bios, still galleries, and some trivia.

If you already own one of the previous DVD editions of "Halloween," I see no reason to upgrade. If you do not own it already, I would recommend seeking out the still-available Divimax edition for the most complete supplements or tracking down a copy of the now out-of-print restored edition for the extended television version. Even with so many editions available, it is easy to see why people keep returning to "Halloween" year after year. It has lost none of its edge in the last three decades and can still frighten us to the core. Although it was not the first slasher film, in many ways it set the gold standard that has yet to be rivaled. It is a small masterpiece in its own right that, like its mysterious villain, simply refuses to die.