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    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Countdown To - Halloween

    This is the final installment of my "Countdown To Halloween" series. Here are the previous posts:

    Tobe Hooper Double Feature (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre/Poltergeist)
    The Shining
    The Descent

    Tonite: the Halloween Blu-ray.

    Now then...I'm an unabashed John Carpenter fan/geek. If you don't believe me, look at this video.

    I remember watching Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1980 and seeing them give Carpenter's Halloween a big "thumbs-up." This was a surprise, as I thought most critics looked down their noses at horror films.

    Back then, our neighborhood didn't have cable, so watching film clips on TV shows like Sneak Previews was a big deal. I remember Siskel and Ebert played the scene at the end of the film when The Shape attacks Jamie Lee Curtis in the closet. I was riveted. That looked like some intense shit!

    We finally got the ON-TV pay channel right around this time, and Halloween was broadcast in the fall of 1980, uncut, uncensored, with no commercial interruptions. Remember, in the early '80s, there was really no significant home video market; no Blockbuster Video, no pay-per-view (as we now know it), and cable/pay TV was in its infancy. It was a really unique thing to see a movie like this, in this manner.

    Halloween lived up to everything I had heard/read: it was frightening, it was stylish, it was funny, it was just so friggin' cool. I was perplexed by the long, smooth tracking shots (this was before I saw The Shining), and couldn't figure out how they were accomplished. They were too smooth for hand-held, and the shots tracked through close quarters and inside houses, so a crane was out of the question. After watching the end credits, I wanted to know more about the "Panaglide" (a clone of the Steadicam). This was one of the first instances where I wanted to learn more about the director, John Carpenter (who also composed the memorable score), and his cinematographer, Dean Cundey. But the biggest surprise was that the film wasn't gory. The intensity of the film was generated by pure, delicious suspense.

    Since my introduction to Halloween was via pay-TV, I didn't realize I had missed probably 1/3 of the movie, compositionally. The square-ish 4:3 aspect ratio of television cropped out a significant portion of the film's original widescreen 2.35:1 image, and it was not until the letterboxed Criterion laserdisc was released in the early 1990s that I saw the ingenious framing Carpenter and Cundey employed throughout the feature.

    In 1997, Anchor Bay released a horrific DVD of Halloween (horrific in a bad way). This release was so atrocious, many folks nearly wrote off the then-new video format. The image quality was absolutely dreadful.

    Enter Bill Lustig, who at the time was restoring and producing DVDs for Anchor Bay. In 1999, he stepped in to take the reigns and produce the Limited Edition DVD of Halloween, and it was a revelation. The film transfer and color timing was approved by Dean Cundey, so this was a reference disc for Halloween fans. In some ways, it still is (more on this in a bit). Here's the production diary of the Lustig Halloween DVD from DVDReview.com.

    In 2003, Anchor Bay released Halloween as a DiviMax DVD, which sported a new high-definition transfer of the film. There were improvements in sharpness and clarity, but the color timing was wrong. Big time. Unlike the Cundey-approved version, the DiviMax DVD had bright green leaves throughout the first third of the film (Halloween was shot in the spring of 1978 in Southern California), and the incredibly cool and creepy blue backlights and shadows in the final third of the film were turned pale/white. I found this DVD to be incredibly frustrating to watch. There were clearly benefits from the hi-def transfer, but the colors looked wrong. I gave up on it and stuck with my 1999 DVD for my annual viewings on All Hallows Eve.

    So last year, Anchor Bay (now Starz) released Halloween on Blu-ray, and a part of me cringed because they were using the existing DiviMax transfer for the hi-def disc. I picked it up anyway.

    The good news is that the HD upgrade is substantial. Resolution is greatly improved, and the 5.1 audio sounds incredible in uncompressed PCM. There was an attempt to bring the color balance closer to Dean Cundey's approved transfer, but it still falls short: while the leaves look like fall again, and some of the blue backlights and shadows have returned, a lot of the blue is still MIA. Here are screen shot comparisons of the different versions. Judge for yourself.

    Do I recommend the Halloween Blu-ray? Yes, with reservations. The special features, including the 89-minute documentary "'Halloween': A Cut Above the Rest," are fantastic, and the entire package is a great value. However, this is still not the Halloween I know and love, and hope that one day it will be released as intended by the filmmakers.

    But tonite, I'll be spinning my Halloween Blu-ray disc with a big, Loomis grin on my face: "Hey Lonnie, get your ass away from there!"

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    © 2008 Felix E. Martinez