John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is arguably the greatest horror movie ever filmed and transcends genre boundaries to enjoy critical success on multiple levels. Although Carpenter provided horror fans with a memorable run of classic films (The Fog, The Thing, Christine, They Live), he was never able to recapture the atmospheric brilliance of Halloween. Regardless of the less-than-spectacular offerings he has directed in the last decade, he will always be a legend among horror fans.
In this article I want to briefly discuss the DVD transfer options, as well as a brand new 35th anniversary Blu Ray HD transfer, to help fans understand the differences between the different DVD’s. I think it is safe to suggest that die-hard horror fans are the most devoted fans of any genre and will purchase multiple copies of the same movie for no other reason than they “need” to own them all. It would seem that various distribution companies who own the rights to horror films are just taking advantage of their rabid horror fan base and release multiple editions of the same movie to earn a profit. This is no doubt true. Yet there are legitimate and necessary reasons why a distribution company will release several versions of the same film. For 80% of movie viewers, the differences between the various editions are unnoticeable or uninteresting. But for the rest of us, the slight nuances between two editions of the same horror film are fascinating and we wait for the “perfect” transfer from film to DVD.
In some ways, Halloween represents the epitome of this process. Some six (6) editions of the film were released on DVD and there are already two (2) editions released for Blu Ray (including the brand new 35th Anniversary Edition). Two of the DVD transfers are by far the most important and most popular and it is on these two versions that I will comment. They are: The 1999 “Restored” edition and the 2003 “Divimax” 25th Anniversary edition.
One more factor in this discussion needs to be addressed before a comparison is made between the 2 editions. His name is Dean Cundey, the cinematographer for Halloween. A significant reason for Halloween’s success is due to Cundey’s brilliance with lighting and mood and he does not receive near enough credit for making Carpenter’s story come alive. The most memorable scenes in Halloween, such as Myer’s “materializing” behind Jamie Strode, or the famous walk across the street from the Wallace house to the Doyle house while Jamie is pounding on the door, are permanently etched in our minds in large part because of the look Cundey brought to the film. The DVD transfer process for Halloween, in some ways, centers around Dean Cundey. Here’s why…
In 1999, Anchor Bay Entertainment decided to release a “Restored” version of Halloween on DVD. Restored to what you may ask? Well, restored as close as possible to the way the film looked on the big screen in 1978. They figured, quite correctly, that the person who would best know how to transfer the film for the most accurate preservation of the original feel was the original cinematographer, Dean Cundey. Thus, Cundey was brought in to assist and approve the film’s transfer for the 1999 version. The result was the “definitive” version of Halloween, a version that was released an amazing three different times by Anchor Bay Entertainment. In this “restored” version, the film highlights the signature blue hue that is found throughout the film’s duration and tends to have a darker, perhaps even a bit of a “grainier”, look to it. The transfer is still sharp and crisp, but looks like a 1978 film.
Anchor Bay then decided to release a “25th Anniversary Edition” in 2003 and thought it would be a good idea to once again make a new DVD transfer from the film. This time, however, Dean Cundey was not involved. Well, you probably will not be surprised to learn that Cundey hates the 25th Anniversary transfer with a passion. The differences between it and the 1999 “restored” version are very noticeable, even for viewers who tend not to care about such things. The 25th Anniversary, or “Divimax”, transfer brightens up the film dramatically and reduces much of the signature blue hue. In scenes where the restored version keep things fairly dark, making the viewer wonder what might be in that dark shadow, the 2003 version brightens things up to a degree where those shadowed areas become much clearer. The result is a transfer that “pops” out at you much more and it looks super clean, absolutely breathtaking. (in case you are wondering, and chances are you aren’t, the audio for the two transfers is virtually identical).
Here is where things get really weird. In 2007, Anchor Bay suddenly reverted back to the 1999 restored version in their distribution of the film. There was no reason given by the company for why they stopped producing the 2003 edition and went back to the 1999 transfer. So, if you purchase a copy of Halloween today from Amazon.com or from Best Buy, you will be watching the Cundey approved 1999 transfer. Even the first Blu Ray edition of Halloween was based on this Cundey transfer. Some have speculated that the company desired Cundey’s name to be on the box so they went back to his transfer. Others suggest that Anchor Bay realized that they had screwed up the original intent for the look of the movie. But no one really knows why the restored version become preferred once again.
So, which is better? I’m going to step back and punt and suggest that both transfers are essential for any Halloween fan. I prefer the 1999 restored version simply because I am somewhat of a purist and I figure that Cundey has a pretty good idea what the film is supposed to look like. Plus, I’m a huge fan of the blue lighting and the Divimax just doesn’t have it to the same degree. However, the Divimax provides an exceptional picture with the kind of vividness to make Halloween fans say, “hey, I’ve never noticed that before!” As an aside, the 25th Anniversary, as you would expect, is superior in its bonus material, including a wonderful “On Location” documentary that takes you back to the classic filming locations 25 years later.
Finally, a brand new 35th Anniversary (has it already been 10 years since the 25th Anniversary?) Blu Ray HD transfer has been made and is due for release this month. Thankfully, this new transfer has been approved by Cundey. This promises to be the ultimate, once and for all version! A HD transfer in all it’s Blu Ray glory approved by Dean Cundey and never seen by Halloween fans. Yes, this means that once more I will be purchasing the movie Halloween, bringing the total copies I own of the film to ten. Silly that I own so many? Probably. But without them, you would never have been able to enjoy the breadth of information this article has provided for you – so I’m happy to make the sacrifice on your behalf.
Actually, I just love the movie.
3 Replies to “Halloween 1978 DVD Transfer – A Comparison”
Excellent review! It made me get out these old DVDs and do a visual comparison. Your observations all strike me as accurate. But I admit, after looking at both side by side, I like the 1999—Cundey’s supervised transfer is far more autumnal than the 2003 transfer. One shot in particular stunned me: On her way back home with her friends after school, when she turns and sees the car following them, that gorgeous medium closeup of her. Her skin and hair have an almost golden warmth. More important are the hedges and lawn behind her: In the ’03, they are vibrant, robust green. Far too lush for autumn; Laurie suffers a lack of warmth. Of course, you could argue she looks more “realistic” and that the ’99 is too warm, like it’s using a sepia or ocher filter. Of course, that’s just a single shot and composition, but it’s so beautiful, it is one of several images that haunt my mind from Halloween.
*When I said “her,” I meant Laurie. I should have said that.
Check out Laurie crying after Loomis has shot Michael, when she is leaning against the wall with her head in her hands and compare the ’99 to the ’03 transfer. Not only is there a difference of color, the two shots center the frame differently! Laurie is a bit to the right of the center of the frame in the ’99, and you can see more of the door behind her and, of course, there is more of her shadow which she casts on the wall. The ’03 is noticeably different, the frame further to the left, so Laurie is centered and there is far more wall space seen to her right and less of her shadow being cast behind her to the left. Then compare the short montage of empty stairs and living room. Those shots are centered differently too. Notice especially the show of the Doyle’s couch with that square of light cast over some of it (one of my favorite compositions in the movie). The ’03 is considerably more to the right, so much so that the jaguar or panther statue on that small table on the right is cut off.
It seems that not only did the ’03 transfer change the color grading, they altered the position of the frame changing the composition within the frame itself. Especially the shot with Laurie. Interesting.