Watching Halloween Shouldn't Be This Complicated!

I've got a bunch of new releases and updates to cover this month, but before I do that, I'd like to squeeze in just one more post where I get fairly definitive about an important horror classic.  This one's been a long time coming, and as you read on, you'll see why.  Today I'd like to look at the dueling blus, the controversially color-timed DVDs, the MIA mono track and of course the latest 4K UHD of John Carpenter's original masterpiece: 1978's Halloween, surely the second the greatest horror flick ever written about the most frightening of holidays.
No, but really.  Halloween is interesting, because of course it's the original, trend-defining slasher film that defined the horror genre for at least the next decade.  ...And yeah I know, the same case could pretty much be made for Psycho, which came well before it; and the slasher film could be argued to date at least as far back as 1932's Thirteen Women.  It's complicated if you really want to clarify historic firsts and lock down specific precursors.  But there's no question that Halloween introduced a massive sea change into the horror genre and specifically spawned a horde imitators and sequels, which are still continuing on to this day.
But the interesting point I was getting at is what's not interesting about it.  Essentially, it's a very basic, unenlightening color-by-number plot.  A flat, faceless character walks around and kills a bunch of horny teenagers until he's stopped by the virginal one.  Okay, Halloween came "first" (again; it's complicated).  But apart from having staked that little flag in the ground, what makes Halloween better than the bajillion and one other slasher films that tell nearly the exact same story in the exact same way?  Okay, Donald Pleasance's character provided an exciting and original twist to the formula: a hero character who's almost as mad as the villain.  But still, lots of knock offs were able to replicate that to one degree or another.  So what makes Halloween better than, say, Halloween 4 that tells virtually the identical story including the returning Loomis character and everything?  It has updated special effects, so that one should be even be, like, .5 percent better than the original, right?
Of course it's not.  And Halloween can certainly point to a lot of positive points it has going in its favor: the performances are universally strong across the board (a real sinking point for a gross number of slasher clones), Dean Cundy's 'scope panagliding is positively haunting and Carpenter's iconic score is absolutely perfect.  But really, I think it comes down to Carpenter's clever direction; each new scare is like a fresh pull from a Hitchcockian bag of tricks, like: 1) the killer's infamous POV tracking shot as he stalks his victims, 2) the moment where he's clearly standing there in an open shot then vanishes after a quick cut, 3) having a character in the foreground move to reveal the killer had been in the background all along, or 4) slowly dialing up a soft light to reveal the killer had been hidden in the darkness of a single shot all along.  Sure, films have done these things before and particularly since; but even to this day, I can't think of a more slickly performed collection of inventive suspense moments in such an expert, single package.
I should pause to point out, by the way, that we're only really looking at the proper, theatrical version of the film, but there is also an extended TV cut.  In features some of the usual censorship for network television, but it's noteworthy because it also includes several unique, and fairly long scenes, adding roughly twelve minutes to the total running time.  These were never part of the original artistic intention, and weren't even filmed until the shooting of Halloween 2, so I feel confident in saying there's only one definitive cut of the film and the TV version ain't it.  But they do include Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis and PJ Soles; so while they might detract more than they add to the pacing and thrust of the picture, they should certainly still be of at least some nominal interest to serious fans who're already intimately familiar with the proper theatrical cut.
So, Anchor Bay released it as part of a "limited edition" 2-disc set with the THX version (more on that in a minute) in 1999, and as a stand-alone DVD in 2001 [left].  I put limited edition in quotes because they released 40,000 copies of that set, so even today, it's not exactly super rare.  Anchor Bay UK also put out a version of the 2-disc set in 2001, and it was included as a standard def bonus in AB's original, 2008 blu-ray boxed set of the franchise.  Scream Factory has given it the best edition to date as part of their massive, 2014 15-BD boxed set.  But even there, while the bulk of the TV cut is in HD for the first time, it's still a composite cut with all the added TV footage in SD.  Nobody's gone back and restored that footage in HD as of this writing, and I wouldn't hold my breath.  Even in the big box, it's basically just one of many extras on the final, bonus disc, and they didn't bother to create subtitles for it or anything.  Rather than pushing the entire alternate cut, the 35th Anniversary blu-ray and Lions Gate's UHD now just include the TV footage as an extra, like deleted scenes, and honestly, I'm perfectly happy with that.
Now, the four DVD cases along the top of this post may seem like I'm coming up a little shy of "definitive;" but actually, except for the oldest, 1997 Anchor Bay DVD - which wasn't even anamorphic - I believe I'm about to represent every significant transfer on the market.  And I'm showing the first two a little out of order here, because the first DVD in my collection is a repressing.  I'll get into all big debate of the alternate color timings in a bit, but in brief, Anchor Bay's 1999 DVD (a.k.a. the THX edition) featured a new transfer, timed and supervised by Dean Cundy himself.  Then, in 2003, they made a new version for their 25th Anniversary edition (a.k.a. the Divimax edition) with different timing that a lot of people objected to.  Therefore, in 2007, they re-issued the 1999 THX version.  So first up we've got the 1999/ 2007 DVD, which includes both full and widescreen versions, then the 2003 DVD.  Then we've got Anchor Bay's first blu-ray, also from 2007, which essentially doubled down on the 2003 DVD's timing, followed by the 35th Anniversary blu (also supervised by Cundy), which was released separately in 2013, and slightly adjusted for Scream Factory's big Halloween collection boxed sets.  I've got the boxed set version (and specifically, I have the 10 box set, not the 15), but all 35th Anniversary editions feature the same transfer... it's just the special features that are different.  Then finally, of course, we've got the latest Lions Gate UHD, which also includes the 2007 Anchor Bay blu-ray in the pack.  It has a new, Lions Gate label on it, but the actual disc contents are exactly the same, right down to the opening Anchor Bay logo and Starz autoplay ad.

Confused?  Don't worry, things should hopefully get clearer as you read on.
1) 2007 AB full DVD; 2) 2007 AB wide DVD; 3) 2003 AB DVD;
4) 2018 AB/LG BD; 5) 2013 AB/SF BD 6) 2018 LG UHD.

Where to begin?  Okay, well, the 1.31:1 version is a pan and scan travesty that chops off the sides and only reveals a thin patch of additional vertical information.  Thankfully, the days of having to take transfers like this seriously are far behind us.  Then, the 2.31:1 widescreen version of that same disc is far better framing wise, despite still being slightly off and a bit window-boxed.  It's still pretty heavily artifact-laden and over-compressed, though, even for a DVD.  Putting aside the question of color-timing for a moment, the 2003 DVD was a definite improvement, ditching the window-boxing, correcting the AR a bit more to 2.37:1 (pulling in a smidgen more picture info in the process) and cleaning up detail.  It's still a little smudgy, but perfectly fine for SD.

And that takes us to HD.  Every version from now on is an even 2.35:1.  The 2007/ 2018 blu-ray is definitely a boost in clarity compared to the DVD, but by blu-ray standards, it's pretty lackluster.  There's no film grain and fine detail seems washed out, while edges look nastily pixelated.  When the camera pans, the image jerks as if the image were 1080i.  This image was definitely tampered with, presumably because the master they were using was sub-par, but what they did to it only made it worse, like they DNR'd it (even the grass looks like a smooth, flat plane) and then put sharpening on top of that.  So the 35th Anniversary is the first one that really starts to look like a decent HD presentation of a film.  Grain is light, but it's definitely, finally there; and now the camera can pan without stuttering the picture.  But the grain is really well captured on the UHD.  Now it looks properly filmic, and fine detail is much more natural in the new, maximum resolution.  The 2013 blu was quite nice for its time, but it still wasn't a contemporary 2 or 4k scan, which left a lot of room for Lions Gate to step forward.  In other words, compared to new releases with same day BD and UHD releases, where you might need to work to really spot the difference in the UHD resolution, here you can easily see and appreciate the difference, which will be rewarding for fans who've already purchased and re-purchased this film a half dozen times or more over the years.
1) 2007 AB full DVD; 2) 2007 AB wide DVD; 3) 2003 AB DVD;
4) 2018 AB/LG BD; 5) 2013 AB/SF BD 6) 2018 LG UHD.
Okay, so I took some extra comparison shots, specifically selected for the color issues.  Of course, the varying color timings affect every single frame of each transfer, but the two biggest points of contention seem to be how sometimes the grass and leaves could be said to be too green, and the heavy blues of the nighttime scenes being stripped away.  Now, Cundy is credited with supervising two of different versions: the 1999 THX DVD, and the 2013 35th Anniversary blu-ray.  And looking at the nighttime scenes feels like an easy call.  The versions he didn't supervise work hard to bring out the reds and skintones, stripping away is cool, blue shading.  The 2003 DVD took the most flack, but that shot of the 2007 BD looks even worse.  I mean, yeah, the characters stand boldly out and the colors really pop (also check out the kid's red coat in the earlier set of shots... it's almost like the little girl from Schindler's List), which is clearly the effect AB was going for; but it's a very different effect.  One that Cundy obviously switched right back from on his next pass.  And happily, the UHD sticks with this look for the latest version.
1) 2007 AB full DVD; 2) 2007 AB wide DVD; 3) 2003 AB DVD;
4) 2018 AB/LG BD; 5) 2013 AB/SF BD 6) 2018 LG UHD.
But now onto the daytime footage, where it gets a little stickier.  It's interesting that Cundy seems to have changed his mind this time around, giving us the orange leaves in 1999, but going back to green in 2013.  I know it's supposed to take place in the Fall, and plenty of reviewers before me have made a case for the leaves appearing appropriately orange on the THX DVD.  The Divimax DVD got a lot of heat for showing them so bright and green.  But those don't look like aging leaves about to drop in the THX version; they look like healthy green leaves being presented in an unnaturally yellowish hue.  It's just a minor but inherent flaw in the film... they filmed in California when the grass and leaves were fresh.  Trying to change it in post just made all the colors look weird (i.e. the flesh tones got all flattened out and the street looks red).  It's also inconsistent.  Here's one more shot from the 1999/2007 THX version...
...where the leaves don't look yellowed at all.  So even if the autumn effect works for you, it comes and goes in the versions that attempt it.  Plus the sky looks yellow and the whole shot seems a little washed in a single, overly heavy lean towards one color.  Here's the same shot from the 2013 35th Anniversary blu - the only other transfer Cundy directly approved...
...where everything looks more vibrant and photo-realistic.  Now, to be fair, the second shot has the advantage of being HD, while the DVD is of course crushed to SD.  But ignoring the extra detail, the colors just feel more honest.  The previous shot looks like it has one of those old Instagram filters nobody uses anymore.  I imagine, in 1999, still the early days of DVD, AB and Cundy may've gotten a little over-ambitious with the way you can "fix everything digitally," and his 2013 pass is a more mature, refined pass.  And okay, maybe I'm starting to overreach, but bottom line: I think maybe the THX version has become a tad romanticized over the years, and I prefer Newer Cundy's vision.  And thankfully, that's more or less what we get with the UHD.  Sure, the colors are a bit darker and more subtle, which seems to be the trend in HDR, but essentially we get the bluer nights and cooler tones that do suggest the season, even if nature doesn't want to play along.
And the audio?  Oh yeah, that's complicated, too.  There's a lot more to report than just the BDs having lossless versions of the mixes from the DVDs (and, by the way, all of the BDs and the UHD have optional English subtitles, but none of the DVDs do).  Halloween has a recurring issue on home video, where the original track seems to get lost, and we're only given the updated, remixed 5.1 mix.  Now, I don't have anything against releases taking advantage of modern sound systems, but the problem is, with older films like this one, that were only mixed in mono, liberties have to be taken.  In this case, because modern sound-mixers can't separate audio elements that are "burned" into the same track, in order to create separation (i.e. sounds that only come out of the left or right speaker), they have to replace them with brand new sounds that weren't part of the original film.  Ideally, they pick ones that sound very similar, but not to get off too much further on a tangent, I'll say that with Halloween, the new audio and the original sound distinctly, noticeably quite different.
There are changes throughout the entire movie of course, but if you want a quick, easily identifiable way to tell which version you're listening to, go to 9:08 in the film, with the nurse driving Loomis and asking, "you mean you actually never want him to get out?"  When Loomis replies, "never.  Never.  Never," there's a subtle rumble of thunder in the background of the original mono track.  In the remixes, that sound has been replaced by a loud thunder crack (though you can still hear the original mix in the background of the audio commentaries)!  The 1999 and 2007 DVDs have that mono track (on both the full and widescreen versions).  Several subsequent versions, like the Lions Gate UHD, have a mono track, but it's still the 5.1 remix, just "folded down" to a mono track.  So, in other words, it has all the new sounds, like the thunder crack, just crushed back into mono (2.0) audio.  The 7.1 mixes use the new sounds, too.

The only versions that restore the original mono are the 2007 the 35th Anniversary blus.  And now I should clarify, that there are really two 35th Anniversary blus: the one sold separately in 2013 and the one included in the 2014 boxed sets.  I've been referring to them interchangeably, because they use the same transfer, but they're actually different discs.  The solo disc features two audio tracks: a new (at the time) 7.1 lossless mix, and the mono.  The boxed set version features four: the 7.1, a lossy 5.1, and two versions of the mono.  See, the mono version on the first two blu-rays, unfortunately, is lossy, essentially a direct port from the DVD.  Only the boxed set version also includes a lossless version.  But hey, okay, took a while but we finally got it!  Now everything should be all set for Lions Gate.  All they have to do is take what's already been created and slap it on their disc.  However, again - a problem horror fans thought we'd solved! - the LG UHD brings back that remixed, folded down mono track.  Sure, you can hear the (lossy) mono on the blu-ray included in the combo pack; but who buys a UHD just to watch the movie on blu anyway?  And the worse looking blu at that?  This mono issue is the biggest let-down of the UHD, really.
Oh boy!  We've gone this long and we're just starting on the extras now?  Well, actually for such an popular and critically acclaimed, unchallenged horror classic, things aren't all that flush.  Much smaller flicks have had lusher special editions.  I guess that's partially because some of the most definitive, full-length documentaries like Halloween: The Inside Story and 25 Years of Terror have been sold on their own, as opposed to being bundled with the film.  So let's look at what has been included.

The 1999/ 2007 DVD kept it pretty light, with basically just the 20+ minute featurette Halloween Unmasked.  By the way, I've already covered all the Halloween docs in my post dedicated to them, so if you want detailed coverage of those, just click the links.  Anyway, besides that, you just got the trailer, some radio and TV spots, and a couple galleries.  Plus the extended cut if you bought the 2-disc version, or a cool holographic cover if you bought the 1999 edition.  The 2007 repress had a slipcover.  Then the 25th Anniversary DVD from 2003 added a bunch more: the audio commentary with Carpenter, Curtis and producer Debra Hill from the Criterion laserdisc, the feature-length documentary A Cut Above the Rest, and a ten minute featurette called On Location where Hill and Soles visit the old Myers house.  They lost Unmasked, though.
The first blu from 2007, matched the 2003 DVD.  Then the solo 35th Anniversary blu lost Cut Above the Rest, but added the hour long Curtis doc, The Night She Came Home, and the TV footage presented as deleted scenes.  It also came packaged in a nice digibook with notes by Stef Hutchinson.  The boxed set version of the 35th blu also included an all new, second audio commentary by Cundy, Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle.  It's pretty breezy, but doesn't really tell you anything you haven't heard in the all the previous extras.  Plus, if you got the 15-disc set, the bonus disc includes the Horror's Hallowed Grounds episode, a bus tour featurette and the extended cut again... not to mention all the stuff related to the sequels, of course!  You can also find that Horror's Hallowed Grounds episode on the 25 Years of Terror DVD, by the way.

And the UHD?  It has most of the stuff: the original audio commentary, The Night She Came Home, On Location, the TV deleted scenes, plus all the trailers & spots.  And because it's a combo pack with the old blu-ray, you also get A Cut Above the Rest.  So, just that one affordable release lets some of the odds and ends slide, but nets you pretty much all the major essentials.  It also comes in a slick slipcover.
A large part of what makes Halloween so effective is how straight-forward and simple a tale it.  Unfortunately, it's life on home video disc has been anything but.  Still, for your average layperson, the UHD should be enough; they can leave it to us purists to stress out over the myriad of little short comings and distinctions.  That, or if you're not that fussed over the 4k resolution, you might just want to stick with the boxed set blu-ray, the only one to pretty much have it all: lossless mono, all the extras including that second commentary, and at least one of the Cundy-approved transfers.  You don't even need to cop the 15-disc set; the key Halloween 1 disc is in the 10-disc version, too.  That's probably your best bet, actually.  Though if you're not a fan of the sequels/reboots, the UHD is a nice, cheap way to just get a respectable stand-alone version of the 1978 original by itself.

3 comments:

  1. Dean Cudney either can't make up his mind or he refuses to acknowledge his eyesight has been failing in the past 15 years.

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  2. French distributor ESC Editions recently released a 40th Anniversary 4K/BD combo pack. It claims to be using a "new" transfer but I believe they just mean the 35th Anniversary/UHD transfer. Here are scans of the front and back:

    Front: https://i.imgur.com/bD2YEn1.jpg

    Back: https://i.imgur.com/evYaida.jpg

    What's interesting to me about this release is that the BD is the HD/SD TV version. The theatrical is only on the UHD.

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    Replies
    1. Ah yeah, I'd guess it's the same UHD transfer, too. But that's a good (and only?) way to get the TV cut in HD without springing for that whole 15 disc box, which is great if you don't dig most of the sequels.

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