As I've mentioned on this site before, there's been no small level of controversy surrounding the various DVD and Blu-ray releases of John Carpenter's seminal slasher opus, the 1978 All American Slasher Film, HALLOWEEN... let's talk about it, shall we?
At this point, it's almost pointless to talk about the film proper anyway; I personally think it's a bit dry and, outside of the brilliantly staged opening scene and the utterly masterful score, I just think the film is kind of over-rated. Not bad or anything, but as a serious thriller it pales to even the average giallo feature from a decade prior, and as a trashy slasher movie it's simply too bloodless and procedural to be all that exciting. This was absolutely Carpenter at the peak of his visual creativity and it's always been nice that this one was always respected and spoken of in the same breath as masterpieces like Psycho, Jaws, Alien and The Exorcist, but my fascination is one of curiosity and respect for the subtle, polished execution of Carpenter's vision, rather than outright adoration. By contrast, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th Part 2 are much less ambitious and unique entries into the slasher cycle kick-started by this modest little thriller, but they're so earnest, so shameless and so dedicated to their amoral, sadistic concept that I find them, on the whole, much more entertaining pictures for it.
Then again, seeing how ultimately disposable and forgettable the first non-Carpenter directed sequel that plays very much the same way - to say nothing of the increasingly embarrassing mulligans that Meyers and Loomis got after the unrelated "Part 3", Season of the Witch, failed to light any notable fires - perhaps I've been more dismissive of the film's methodical, stylistic perfection than it deserves? By all counts, Carpenter has made a brilliantly executed film that cemented the first "Scream Queen" and basically re-wrote the DNA of horror films permanently, becoming the but of an ironic line of jokes 20 years later that you may remember as a shitty franchise called Scream. Yeah Kentai, we know, you don't do 90s guffawing irony very well... but still. Fuck those movies.
At the end of the day I think a big part of my letdown is in Michael Meyers himself - an iconic presence, to be sure, but at the end of the day literally just Carpenter's pal in an off-the-shelf Captain Kirk rubber mask. The film's true scenes of terror are the scenes early on when Michael stalks the streets of Haddonfield unmasked, his heavy, lustful pants as he coldly follows after strange children in broad daylight... Michael was the killer next door, the small town maniac that could be lurking in each and every one of us, ready to snap and start a one-man massacre without any warning. As a concept, the notion that Michael Meyers could be anyone - even you! - is one that was very modern and unique at the time, and the fact that he was, ultimately, just a skinny asshole in a rubber mask worked into his favor as a unique movie monster.
The problem I have with it all is... honestly, I just don't buy any of it. Yes, sociopaths exist and sometimes they go completely undetected by those around them, but Michael snapping and murdering his sister as a young boy, without any previous inclinations of mental illness, just doesn't make sense. It just happens because. The expanded TV cut -ith footage shot by the people behind the okay but not great Halloween II shows just a little more backstory into Loomis and Michael's back and fourth in the early years (an element that would be used to dramatically better effect by Rob Zombie in the oft-unfairly shat upon remake), but even then it falls pretty flat. Michael Meyers isn't particularly compelling, and ultimately that might be his greatest flaw; He's not a tragic antihero lashing out at the world around him like Jason Vorhees or a maniacal super villain like Freddy Kreuger... he's literally just a walking blade dispenser. I guess there's an appeal in stripping a horror film down to its most absolutely basic elements, I'm just not the target in that case.
The score still kicks ass, though. I don't want people to think I hate Halloween... I just don't get it.
In any case, Anchor Bay's new HALLOWEEN: 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION Blu-ray is an ultimately worth-while, but somewhat frustrating edition for a film that's probably had more home video editions than the The Bible has had printings over the last 20 years. With that mentioned, the first pressing actually comes in a sort of knock-off Digibook, which is... kind of shit, to be honest. I seem to be in the minority that thinks the simplistic, monochrome cover image by graphic minimalist Jay Shaw - the same guy who did those sweet, sweet Goblin posters we discussed last time - is quite striking, and the book's cover is embossed and has a metallic finish on the orange accents. It's a handsome package at a glance, and personally, I liked it when I first saw it. For fans of the iconic one-sheet, it's on the inside cover, and the inside is full of liner notes from Stef Hutchinson, the director behind HALLOWEEN: 25 YEARS OF TERROR, and numerous behind-the-scenes stills. From a design standpoint, this book package is kind of sweet, and having actually bought this off a pal who wanted to trade this in for the sexy in its own right UK STEELBOOK, I was at first confused by his negativity towards it...
The book itself is no thicker than a typical BD case - it feels a bit flimsy to be honest, but whatever, aesthetics trump the notion of it somehow being built to last, unless you're talking about a hartbox or a steelbook. The real trouble comes when you get to the back cover, where the BD itself is stored in the shittiest, flimsiest possible cardboard contraption: It's basically just a cardboard sleeve you'd have gotten an AOL CD-R in 15 years ago glued to the fucking cover. My buddy removed the disc twice, and the wrinkles and creases on the dog-eared flaps were evident when I opened it for the first time... they're only going to get worse, too, and let me tell you the friend of mine who offered it to me and I myself are OCD stereotypes when it comes to limited packaging like this. It's simply a very ugly, poorly designed method that (I'm sure) was substantially cheaper than affixing any sort of "real" hub to the inside cover.
Honestly Anchor Bay, when your BOOK OF THE DEAD DVD from a decade ago had a better disc-holding method, you done fucked up.
STILL the motherfuckin' king of all Digibooks.
Another minor, but no less frustrating complaint is that the cover itself - a matte black, and a handsome one in many respects - is also quite porous, which means that you're liable to have nasty glue stains on the back cover from the cement keeping the vital-statistics attached to the package. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I find those four off-colored blobs on the back pretty damning to a package that was already on thin ice. I guess all of this will quickly be a moot point anyway; AB made it clear from the start that the book package was limited only to the first print run, and we're already seeing retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Fry's stocking a simpler keep-case version, sometimes right next to the LE release. If nothing else, the minimalist, monochrome art works much better as a part of the book than it does on a typical blue keepcase, and if anything I'd recommend the interior photos as a selling point.
Advertising a new 2K scan from the original negatives, there was bound to be all sorts of controversy and teeth-gnashing over the color grading. Before we talk about this release, we'd be doing a disservice by not talking about what came before it...
Just pretend this is the Criterion LD, alright?
That cover is too goddamn cool not to share.
The first notable release of the film for serious collectors was the Criterion Collection LD from 1994, which included a widescreen "digitally mastered" transfer from a newly struck 35mm IP, a commentary track with director John Carpenter, writer Debrah Hill and star Jamie Lee Curtis, an episode of Sneak Previews with Siskel and Ebert praising Halloween (whilst shitting on everything else it inspired), the alternate scenes shot for the TV version, the original theatrical trailer, a Music and Effects track - a rare treat to this day for those curious about how audio mixes are constructed, and a number of "photo essays" and "genre guides", which were a far more important draw in the days before Wikipedia. While I do think Criterion's releases these days are often praised for doing nothing particularly out of the ordinary, 20 years ago that was more than any Halloween die-hard had a prayer of asking for.
Anchor Bay purchased the rights and released the film in 1997... but the initial results were not particularly impressive. Featuring the same non-anamorphic video master as the Criterion LD, it contained no bonus features - unless you count the inclusion of a pan-scan 4:3 version on the B-side of the disc an extra. (And no, we don't.) Anchor Bay had a number of great titles and was largely at the time relying on re-releasing the LD materials they had prepped with Roan Media Group, not factoring in that DVD was capable of component color, progressive scan, and anamorphic widescreen features, which... meant that at the time their DVDs were basically seen as "Laserdiscs with compression artifacts". Particularly for a title that had been given the white glove treatment by the goddamn Criterion Collection, AB had really stepped in it this time...
The company grew, though. It learned from its prior mistakes, and began to embrace DVD as the truly impressive technological beast that it was, offering remastered and bonus-feature packed releases, with one of their first truly worth-while releases being...
Lenticulars are an absolute bitch to scan.
In 1999, Anchor Bay ditched the Bargain Bin Bullshit act hard, and created a new 16:9 anamorphic master. It was in standard definition - perfectly standard for the time, I must add - but they even brought in the film's original DP, Dean Cundey, to supervise the transfer and tweak it to his own specifications, burying the unpleasant memory of literally crapping whatever materials had been handed them and calling it a day. Anchor Bay had something to prove here, and the results were interesting, to say the least; having been shot in sunny California but set in a fictional Illinois town, Cundey used this opportunity to shift the foliage in the early scenes to a healthy, East Coast orange, and shifted the Halloween Night scenes to a colder hue. It was the first all-digital, 16:9 encoded, dual-layered DVD release of the film ever released, and for the time it was rightly considered a reference disc for genre fans and the slowly emerging videophile demographic alike. Anchor Bay was so proud of their work they had the whole thing approved by THX, which... actually kinda' means nothing, but it makes it easy enough to call the '99 transfer the "THX Master" for the discussion going forward.
It was also, for the record, sold as a "Limited Edition" - complete with a hefty $45 price tag! - but seemingly justified it by including the "Extended Cut", not to mention an exclusive 30 minute retrospective. These 12 minutes of extended footage were actually shot during the production of Halloween II in 1981, and while they were shot specifically to beef up the runtime of the TV version - and supposedly by John Carpenter himself -Anchor Bay's DVD release restored all of the violence, nudity and sailor talk trimmed from all actual broadcast prints. Much like the "Integral Version" of Re-Animator, it's an interesting bonus for long time fans, but of little value otherwise, and certainly helped - along with a competitive lineup of limited, remastered editions of their "big" franchise titles including The Evil Dead and Hellraiser - to shift the opinion of those who had slogged through AB's early output. Eventually Anchor Bay would sell out of the LE release with its bitchin' hologram cover, and saw fit to release both the "THX" theatrical DVD and the "Extended" DVD as single, stand-alone discs, because Anchor Bay has never understood what the words "Limited" meant and would consistently re-release a numbered set a year later if they thought there was any more suckers to squeeze a few more bucks out of.
GET IT? Because "H20" was a thing!
Shit got really weird in 2003 - Halloween's 25th Anniversary, no less, when Anchor Bay was in full swing with their "Divimax Collection" initiative. It was basically just a way for them to re-release films they had already put out on DVD using new, and at the time relatively state-of-the-art HD mastering technology. It also gave Anchor Bay an excuse to throw in some new bonus features, the most notable of which included the inclusion of the original Criterion Collection audio commentary, plus an impressive 87 minute long made-for-cable documentary titled Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest. There were other bonus features as well, but nothing particularly noteworthy, and it's worth pointing out that when Anchor Bay moved to Blu-ray in 2007, their release of Halloween was basically just the Divimax DVD in High Definition - same HD master, same bonus features, same iconic cover art too.
Unfortunately, top of the line HD mastering in 2003 included a lot of digital grain removal, contrast boosting and weird digital artifacts abound. It's unfair to call the Divimax line poor quality - it's more fair to say that Anchor Bay was already producing reference quality SD transfers, and were trying to "clean up" the prints for their new HD masters without fully understanding that 'cleaning up' things like film grain and dark lighting are only damaging the film's bottom line. While HALLOWEEN's fancy new "Divimax" master was spared the ghosting of Dawn of the Dead and the heavy-handed smearing of Evil Dead II, there was still some pretty dramatic changes, most notably in the color grading. Y'see, when Cundey was asked to oversee the THX master in 1999 and given total control over his own movie, he chose to tweak the look of the film to better suit the limitations of the actual shoot: the 2003 master was made, likely, from the same 35mm Interpositive elements, but without Cundey's guidance the color grading was, largely, left to be a much more naturalistic affair. The blue cast in the final reels is no longer there, and the area-based orange foliage in the opening scenes are long gone.
To be totally fair to Anchor Bay, however, they were essentially just showing the 35mm elements as they already existed; at the end of the day, a colorist's first job is to find where black and white exist in any given shot, and the rest of the color spectrum should, assuming the elements aren't completely fucked, fall into place pretty obviously from there. While the Divimax master was (generally speaking) had pushed contrast and color saturation, it was also true to the unmolested 35mm elements they were sourced from; Cundey dictating that areas of foliage be tinted orange or shadowy figures be cast in a blue gel were revisionist leanings created in 1999, not a part of the original film's color grading scheme as released in 1978. Essentially, the THX master was "as Cundey requested", the Divimax master was "as it always was"... there's also the oddity of John Carpenter having approved the 1994 Criterion LD, which looks closer to the Divimax transfer than the THX transfer, but it seems doubtful that Cundey was involved without him being explicitly mentioned.
This brings us all back to the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray... The short version is that the new Blu-ray looks phenomenal. The new 2K scan is - for the first time - pulled from the original camera negative, which has yielded a sharper, lower contrast image than any previous IP was even capable of. The fact is HALLOWEEN couldn't have looked this good up until now, and while the Anchor Bay BD from 2007 was, by far, the pick of that rather stunted litter, this has eclipsed it in every way, visually speaking. I could do a hundred screenshots, but I feel like CAPS-A-HOLIC has made this point for me very clearly. The new disc looks great!
So why are people still discussing it?
You can use the above comparison and make your own decision, but the short version is that the 1999 THX SD master was "approved" by Director of Photography ("DP") Dean Cundey, the man tasked with filming and very much crafting the look of John Carpenter's Halloween. The entire third act was given a dark blue push on the THX master, which has largely been carried over to the new master. However, the golden leaves - which were green on location when the film was actually shot - were not replicated.
This is all put into question specifically because DP Dean Cundey was directly involved with the 1999 SD master, and - as far as anyone can tell - had no direct input in the 2003 HD master. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that Cundey would have wanted a new, HD master to match the same color grading as the 1999 masters... but, one would be ignoring THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW, in which Dean Cundey's thoughts on the whole thing are pretty much solidified beyond any shadow of a doubt:
"I was approached [by the Blu-ray producers] actually; John [Carpenter] had looked at this new version and thought it looked really good, but suggested that I go in to oversee some final work on it so that fans would finally have the version they deserve. See, a lot of the previous editions were made from a print or a previous digital version and the people working on those versions were just doing what they thought was right. When you have
a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox though, that just doesn’t translate; things get skewed.
So I was very impressed by the fact that, for this release, they used the original camera material because they wanted to make this the definitive version. For me, it’s the most accurate portrayal of how John and I wanted Halloween to be seen. Most fans have never seen Halloween the right way either between all the TV, VHS and DVD versions over the years so this Blu-ray is really something special."
So, there you have it: The guy who originally made those color grading choices almost 15 years ago says the new master is an improvement, and that "improvement" manages to be less processed than it used to be. Considering the main reason everyone flocked to the THX master in the first place was because of Cundey's seal of approval, I think we can finally agree that - while revolutionary, and still one of the best early DVD releases available for one of the most iconic genre films ever made - that we can finally retire the THX master from its pedestal. Times have changed, and at this point we're only reaping the benefits. I think a lot of film makers - not just old school directors, but young bucks cutting their teeth on early projects as well - have been overwhelmed by the tools now at their disposal to make their films look polished and slick with a level of control that, even 15 years ago, would have seemed completely unprecedented. It's hard to blame Cundey for being able to tweak and mend things that may have always bothered him when he finally had the tools to do so... but that doesn't mean he had to, or that when he did we should assume that version supersedes all others. This is one of those times where a film maker has been asked to re-appraise their work, and came to not only a natural, but sensible conclusion. It's heartwarming, really; he didn't re-invent the wheel, he just fixed some consistency issues and called it a day. In short, it's the best kind of presentation because it acknowledges the modern concerns of the creators without erasing the history behind it.
I'm glad to see that the more time passes and the more film makers themselves have a chance to experiment with the color grading process, the less inclined they seem to be to go crazy with it in the first place - at least in regards to their older catalog. After "Director Approved" messes like The French Connection and Suspiria, alongside less dramatically awful (but still obviously flawed) like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Last of the Mohicans, it's refreshing to see the presentation of a film with such a long and bizarre history of digital tweaking resurface in 2013 with such a naturalistic, understated presentation.
Does the 35th Anniversary of Halloween have other issues? Oh, you bet. For one thing the mono track is not the original '78 theatrical mix, but the newest 7.1 remix folded down into a flat track which literally no-one asked for. I can accept an original mix simply being bumped for a surround upgrade - both The Evil Dead and Taxi Driver are otherwise perfect presentations, and knocking points off for not including a mono mix just feels pedantic. Including a mono mix that isn't a vintage track, however, seems even more disingenuous; if you're going to ignore the past in favor of a remix, fine, whatever. But including a purported duplicate of the original track and it not actually being the "original"? Fuck that noise!
For the record, while Jamie Lee Curtis hasn't said much new about the film that put her on the map in the better part of 20 years, I refuse to believe that following her around at a convention for an hour was the best - and only - substantial bonus feature the Akkad family could come up with. True, we already have the Halloween: 25 Years of Terror documentary, but that's now dated by about a decade, and its exclusion this time around feels like a pretty major gap in the presentation.
Ironically, both this and the original mono track can be found on the older Anchor Bay Blu-ray. Those are both notable letdowns to plenty of fans, surely...but not quite big enough to keep me from recommending it to anyone with even a passing fancy for vintage slasher icons, or even just reference level transfers for anything shot for less than a half-million dollars.
Wish I had more time to share with the Kentai Blog, friends, but I'm happy to say I'm entertaining friends over the holidays. Happy Halloween, which we all know is the most fun of the holidays for anyone who's not a glutton or a sentimentalist.