Happy Halloween, everyone!
Today, we’ve got two DVD reviews to get you into the Halloween spirit: John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978), now available in a 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray package from Anchor Bay, and John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), another Paramount re-issue from Warner Archive.
It’s difficult to provide an original opinion on Carpenter’s Halloween, as its status as a classic of the horror/slasher genre has been cemented over the past 35 years. The story is spare – a masked killer seeks to murder a circle of teenage babysitters on Halloween night – and its themes have been outlined and elaborated upon over the past decades. Yes, the killer seems to punish those who sin. The drug users, the underage drinkers, the cigarette smokers, and the sexually active teens get slashed first, leaving the geeky virginal Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) the last woman standing to fend off the Boogieman. Hell, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) even turned it into a meta punchline. So, aside from nodding my head in agreement, what else can I say about a classic?
Halloween was the first horror film I was obsessed with. I ate up the mythology (that later jumped the shark in the later installments) and relished those scenes where Michael Myers seems to materialize out of dark shadows, despite the ghostly pale visage of his mask. Yet, not having watched the film in about fifteen years, I forgot that Carpenter’s main means of making it an effective horror film stem from his use of cinematic point-of-view. In the opening long take, he puts us in the shoes of the murderous Michael as he puts on a mask and stabs his older sister to death. When the mask is removed, we’re shocked – not only because of the revelation that we have allowed our point of view to align with that of a killer – but because we realize he’s just a child.
Later in the film, Carpenter inverts this when Laurie goes into the haunted house, triggering the final showdown. The film’s narrative structure–limited omniscient– has played into Hitchcock’s formula that suspense is created by a rift between what the viewer knows (Michael is in the house and he has killed everybody) vs. what the character knows (Laurie is just going over to check on her friends). Thus, Carpenter creates suspense. The horror comes in when we’re forced to occupy Laurie’s point-of-view as she navigates the shadowy halls and staircases. We’re like visitors at a haunted house; we anticipate a scare and the anticipation is what thrills us, putting us each on the edge of our seats. What deepens this relationship between suspense and horror is that Laurie is a fully defined character. Most horror films seem to dispense with characterization (even Cabin in the Woods satirizes this), turning protagonists into the equivalent of anonymous cattle being led to the slaughter house. While Jamie Lee Curtis was allegedly disappointed with having to play the boring, book smart, geek, she makes her more than a stereotype and humanizes her.
Sadly, the Anchor Bay 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray does not do the film justice. The video transfer is better than the previous, overly bright and saturated, release. It’s more toned down, but it is still blue-green in comparison with the older DVDs, making it seem less like autumn in Illinois and more like a street in Pasadena with some fallen leaves blown about. More significantly, the Blu-Ray is missing the old Criterion commentary (with Carpenter, Curtis, and producer Debra Hill) and the feature-length documentary on the making of the film. Instead, we get a new commentary with Carpenter and Curtis that is not nearly as insightful as the original and a feature length documentary on how Curtis capitalized upon the Halloween fan base to raise money for children’s hospitals. There are some fine observations and anecdotes in this but, at sixty minutes, it’s a bit overblown. Overall, the set is a disappointment and you’ll want to hold onto your old DVD or Blu-Ray copy with all the extras intact.
Like Halloween, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death plays with cinematic point-of-view to draw out some scares. However, it isn’t nearly as effective as the former. In fact, it’s not a very good movie period.
This deserves a deeper plot synopsis than Halloween, as it is not as well known. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death follows the psychologically fragile woman (Zorah Lampert) who gives the movie its name. Unfortunately for our protagonist, her husband and their mutual friend decide to take her out of the city and move her to a rural town…in a hearse…stopping off at a cemetery on the way. It also doesn’t help that the three of them stay in the house, which they soon discover may be occupied by the ghost of a dead woman.
Of course, as things do in horror movies, bad things happen. Ghosts appear to Jessica, dead bodies appear and disappear (making those around her question her sanity), and the locals really hate our trio of Hippies. Unfortunately, the level of character stupidity needed to fuel the engine of the plot is only one of the film’s many problems. The filmmakers also try for social relevance, embedding the characters in the social milieu of the late-1960s/early 1970s, but do little with it beyond setting up that old binary between culture and the counter-culture that Easy Rider (1969) had already set up and explored a few years earlier. Moreover, the film isn’t just about ghosts, it’s about vampire, war veteran ghosts, which pulls the thread of credibility far past its breaking point.
Finally, the film’s most serious offense is it never capitalizes upon the limited point-of-view it has been milking all along. Jessica is unstable, but does the reality we’re shown have any relationship to an objective reality? I kept waiting for it all to be a violent fantasy that the protagonist had created out of sexual frustration, similar to the misfire High Tension (2003). Do the vampire ghosts really exist? Or are they purely the product of her neurosis? We never know. The filmmakers seem to think the means are the same as the ends and never really plant any clues either way. Yet, the filmmakers could have made such a rug pull work as the film’s strongest asset is the performance of Zohra Lampert. The performance she gives is strong enough in its nuance that she could have sold it.
Unlike the Anchor Bay Halloween Blu-Ray, the DVD of Let’s Scare is – like most Warner Archive releases – bare bones. The transfers for this low budget chiller are serviceable. However, like Fire in the Sky, I think this is one of those releases that only caters to a demographic who is nostalgic towards the film. Judging from some of my older friends, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death holds a special place in their hearts. If I had been fifteen and had seen this in the 1970s theatrically or on television, it probably would hold the same place.
For the uninitiated, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a mess and there are much better low-key horror movies that came out around the same time (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now are some of my favorites).