DVDanger: 'Halloween'/'Prince of Darkness'/'Eyes Without a Face'
Three throwback horrors for your Halloween pleasure
By Richard Whittaker, 9:00AM, Tue. Oct. 29, 2013
When the sun goes down on All Hallow's Eve and you've run out of Halloween candy, there's nothing more comforting than sitting down with a classic scary movie. And they don't come much more classic or scary than John Carpenter's 1978 frightener Halloween.
Yes, 1978, so you're now officially old, but it also means that Anchor Bay can release a new 35th anniversary digibook edition. And, yes, probably most of you have either already got a copy of Michael Myers' first bloodbath or seen it so many times that it's seared into your memory. But what this edition has going for it visually (other than an embossed cover) is a restored print, overseen by cinematographer Dean Cundey.
It really does cast a new light on the classic tale of suburban terror, because it's easy to forget how much Carpenter's classic chiller changed the slashing game. There had been plenty of cinematic psycho murderers before, such as Norman Bates in Psycho, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre family, but you had to go to them. There's a good reason why this is called the night he came home. The Shape isn't an interloper, and he's not unknown to the audience. Carpenter's genius is that he takes what many films would treat as a flashback – Myers' origin as a murderous child – and turns it on its head.
Carpenter knew exactly what cinematic traditions he was subverting. With Pasadena standing in for Haddonfield, Ill., he has babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) leave the kids watching traditional spooky, disconnected fare like Forbidden Planet and (in a nod to future success) the original The Thing From Another World. Horny teens bedhop like they're in a sexploitation comedy. This is picket fences, clapboard houses, and 2.4 kids. And it all falls apart when "Death has come to your little town," as shrink/soothsayer Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) warns the sheriff.
Halloween is about the evil within, and it's Pleasence as Loomis – worn out, frayed, humorless – who reinforces that message. He's not a crank, and from moment one the audience knows he is right. That's why there's so much tension about the fate of the locals, chopped down in silence, one by one, until only Strode remains as the last girl. It's not just about the monster that was born there: Carpenter beats David Lynch to the punch about the inhumanity of the suburbs. There's something eternally chilling about Strode running down the road, shrieking "help me, please," as the neighbors turn out the lights and close the shutters on her.
Both Pleasence and Curtis' performances have been rightly and constantly lauded, but somehow Nick Castle's creation of the adult Myers is lost and overlooked. Truth is, he made a defining movie monster. Credited as The Shape, this is Castle's only memorable role (and maybe the alien from Dark Star, plus as a director, he's probably best known for The Last Starfighter.) It's more than that famous white-painted William Shatner mask. Towering, slack-shouldered and gangling, he made Michael unique – arguably, his Michael is unique within the franchise. By Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, he'd become a generic, supernaturally tinged monster, replete with cult trimmings. But in this first film, he's something so critically psychologically broken that he is unstoppable. There is a silent, implacable logic to his killing spree: After all, this is a child that sat immobile in a hospital for 15 years, waiting the day when he could finish butchering his family. When he pins a victim to a wall with a carving knife, there's no bloodlust. He just angles his head with the fascination of a dysfunctional kid starting at a squished bug. It's still odd that Carpenter chose to replace Castle with bit player Tony Moran for a maskless shot of Myers.
As for this release, no disc is perfect, and there'll be the constant complaints about double-dipping. Just as Cundey tweaked the visuals, it wouldn't have hurt to bring somone in to fulfill the same role on the audio and restore original supervising sound editor William Stevenson's mix, as some lines get buried under Carpenter's iconic synth soundtrack.
Yet there's a sense that this release may be timely. The highlight of the extras is The Night She Came Home, an hour long doc with Curtis as she attempts to come to terms with the film's legacy and importance. It's not always an easy experience for an actress that has often tried to put horror behind her.
By contrast, Carpenter is happy to be the king of American terror, and Scream Factory's valiant effort to introduce modern viewing audiences to his entire back catalog is now robbing the late ’80s graveyard with Prince of Darkness. This is the turning point for Carpenter fans: It's either the pinnacle of his career, or it's the movie where he started to go off the boil and it's next stop Ghosts of Mars.
Prince of Darkness is undoubtedly one of his oddest creations. There's a sealed vat of green swirling liquid in a church cellar, and it may or may not contain the anti-Christ. OK, that's the description everyone has heard, painting it as a late addition to the rich vein of 1980s Catholic horror. But it really does not sum up the creeping Cthulhian sense of dread that pervades this tale of the impending apocalypse. A priest (Pleasence returning to the fold) invites a university physics lecturer (Big Trouble in Little China's Victor Wong, another Carpenter regular) to help him examine the vat. It's leaking. That can't be good.
Like much of later Carpenter, it can be uneven. It lacks the punch of the stark winter and whitewash imagery of Halloween, instead gut punching with a handful of dark, surreal shots. In part, that's a byproduct of the limited budget with which he perennially struggled. It also has one of his weaker leading characters: Jameson Parker, struggling behind a frustratingly, distractingly uneven Magnum P.I. mustache, is a post-doc researcher pining for slightly street-touch post-doc researcher. Let's just say he's no Kurt Russell in The Thing. Yet the film itself is arguably second cousin to Carpenter's Antarctic alien chiller, while presaging Carpenter's first full-blown excursion into Lovecraft, 1995's The Mouth of Madness. Carpenter himself has linked the three, dubbing them his Apocalypse Trilogy. The thing in the jar is not a monster, but the chemical potential for the beast, a pandimensional virus that can distort and pervert humanity. Like Lovecraft's cult busters scrabbling in the dark, Carpenter's researchers are trying to describe non-Euclidean geometry with a slide rule.
If Prince of Darkness is closest kin any other Eighties movie, it's probably Michael Mann's semi-lost and tragically mutilated World War II horror The Keep. The heroes are bugs before gods: Mann's ancient demon obeyed no laws of logic, while Carpenter's monsters are powered by malice and string theory. By contrast, even the thing looks like a man in a rubber suit.
It's also possibly Carpenter's most visually experimental film. Blurred video footage serves as psychic transmissions from the beyond: That stands in odd contrast to, say, the aliens in They Live, which hide behind TV signals, but are ultimately just guys in masks. As the leaking green goo changes its human victims, it's chilling and horrifying.
For a more glacial French art house sliver of terror, Criterion presents documentarian Georges Franju's eerie 1960 drama Eyes Without a Face, aka Les Yeux San Visage. Like Halloween, it establishes the unexpected source of menace from the first scene. Rather than a small child carving up his sister, there's a woman driving a car down a small country lane just outside of Paris. Louise (Alida Valli) seems to be fleeing some unseen threat, but it is she that is the menace: In the back of her 2CV is the dead body of a young woman, her face removed. Louise is dumping the leftovers from a failed experiment: Her employer, Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), has been kidnapping young women in the hopes of finding a transplant donor. His daughter, Chistiane (Edith Scob) was hideously disfigured in a car crash, and now daddy wants to give her a new – or at least second-hand, one careful owner – face.
A shaping influence on cerebral Eurotrash humpers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, Eyes is a French counterpart to Hammer's ever-growing Frankenstein franchise. Like Victor, Génessier is fixated on the potential of science: Yet Génessier at least has guilt on his side, blaming himself for his daughter's disfigurement. That almost makes his crimes worse: There is a father's desperation as he sacrifices other women his daughter's age in his quest to fix his mistake.
But it's for its visuals that Eyes is best known. There is one graphic sequence of surgery (muted by Franju shooting in black and white.) As Scob explains in the brief interview contained on the disc, its roots go back to Franju's short doc "Blood of the Beasts." The 20-minute narrative is also included here, and it's a brutal but poetic depiction of the slaughterhouse process of 1950s Paris meat markets. Franju's camera never blinks as cattle, calves, and even horses are butchered for consumption (and if you ever were on the fence about eating veal, this will fix that conundrum for you.)
Like Curtis, Scob has had a complicated relationship with her most important part. Curtis got to break out, finally, while the French actress often found herself rejected by other directors, instead becoming a Franju regular. But without her ethereal performance, Eyes would not wield the dark magic it holds. It's the surreality of Chistiane walking through the ranks of caged dogs in her father's cellar, wearing a featureless mask to hide her knotted scars, that still haunts.
Eyes Without a Face (Criterion), Prince of Darkness (Scream! Factory) and the Halloween 35th anniversary edition (Anchor Bay) are available now. Next week on DVDanger: Six films from a true horror master with The Vincent Price Collection.