Halloween Comes Early

I don’t want to be critical of the good people at Shout! Factory, but when it comes to their newest label, Scream Factory, all I can say is: it’s about damn time. While a number of superior start-up genre video labels have appeared over the past decade (Synapse, Code Red, Severin, etc.), few have the resources or the wherewithal to truly do right by the material. The first two titles from Scream Factory, Halloween II and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, are out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week and, from the look of things, it seems that Scream Factory could easily become the Criterion Collection of superior horror product.



1981’s Halloween II is a very — perhaps too — straightforward sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic. Directed by American Film Institute graduate Rick Rosenthal, the story picks up the exact moment the original film left off, with Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis having shot maniac Michael Myers off a balcony and (spoiler alert) him disappearing. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is rushed to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, but Michael Myers keeps after her, dispatching anyone and everyone who gets in his way. It’s a stylish and well-crafted piece, thanks in no small part to the compositional beauty of Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography, and the carryover music from Carpenter’s original (augmented by collaborator Alan Howarth) helps tie things together. But the movie is more about Michael Myers and the mythology developed around his character — a key reveal comes about through a groaner of a plot point involving a “missing file” — than Jamie Lee, who’s reduced to whimpering in her hospital bed and crawling down hallways.


The film was notoriously taken away from Rosenthal, who we learn was hired because he shared an agent with Carpenter; Carpenter added some shock gore sequences (including a teenager in the opening scenes who has nothing to do with the story) to try and goose things up and also cut nearly 15 minutes of scenes establishing the hospital and its crew of nurses and staff members. As Rosenthal says in the commentary over the eight minutes of deleted scenes, “maybe it was naïve of a first-time director to think that character was important.” Throughout the extras, we get a strong sense that Halloween copycats like the Friday The 13th series forced Carpenter’s hand to up the on-screen violence, which, while not as extreme as those films, still doesn’t work as well as the quiet, graceful menace of the first Halloween. But still, while not perfect, the film generates real suspense and — despite the resurrection of the series in Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers seven years later (and Rob Zombie’s awful “re-imagining” of the series in 2007) — provides real closure.


With Michael Myers no longer in the picture, John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill decided to use the Halloween title as a means to jump-start an annual horror series where the only threat would be that the stories involved the Halloween holiday. Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982) was the first (and last) of these films; audiences expecting another mayhem-filled Michael Myers story instead got a moody tale of Celtic witchcraft tied into Halloween through the use of a trio of booby-trapped Halloween masks. The film was a huge bust at the time, but is creepy and effective— the consensus is that, had it not been burdened by being classified as a Halloween sequel, it would have been able to stand on its own.


Directed by Halloween production designer and John Carpenter protégé Tommy Lee (It) Wallace, the film is all over the place, riddled with massive plot holes (the villain can make perfectly lifelike humanoid robots but his method to take over the world involves Halloween masks triggered to cause children to melt down and spew snakes and bugs?), but still maintains an eerie vibe throughout. Tom Atkins, of The Fog and Night Of The Creeps fame, makes a solid and stalwart lead, matched pound-for-pound by the great Dan (RoboCop) O’Herlihy as evil Irish novelty manufacturer Conal Cochran, who gives the piece much-needed gravitas. The notion of using the dark druid origins of Halloween (“Samhain” in the Celtic vernacular) is original and welcome and Wallace, to his credit, operating off a script largely written by an uncredited Nigel Kneale, who penned the British Quatermass series, keeps the material moving even when it doesn’t make much sense. The masks themselves are fantastic, by the way — they’ve been reissued via the Don Post Catalog here — and once you hear Alan Howarth’s “Silver Shamrock” theme, you’ll never get it out of your head.


Piggybacking on the same kind of quality seen in their “Roger Corman Cult Classics” line, these two initial Scream Factory titles — and three (The Funhouse, Terror Train and John Carpenter’s They Live) announced for October and November — are packed full of quality special features and showcase new hi-def transfers and, in the case of Halloween II, a terrific 5.1 audio mix. It may seem a little odd that we get a new version of Halloween II after Universal released a Blu-ray of it just last year, but that one lacked much in the way of extras — save for a hi-def appending of the 1982 horror-clip movie Terror In The Aisles, which isn’t duplicated here — and suffered from a speckly, dirty transfer. The image has been cleaned up considerably here and a title credit for late Halloween series producer Moustapha Akkad has been reinserted into the title credits (the credits on the previous release were inexplicably altered). 


Halloween II looks and sounds great; extras include one commentary by Rick Rosenthal and actor Leo Rossi (“Carl” the horny ambulance guy) and another by Dick Warlock, the veteran stunt coordinator who played Michael Myers in the film as well as the trailer, TV and radio spots, still galleries, deleted scenes and an upbeat alternate ending that reveals the fate of Lance (The Last Starfighter) Guest’s character. Best of all is Michael Felsher’s 45-minute documentary The Nightmare Isn’t Over! where Rosenthal very candidly speaks about his experiences on the film along with Dick Warlock, Dean Cundey, executive producer Irwin Yablans, editor Skip Schoolnik, composer Alan Howarth, and actors Lance Guest, Leo Rossi, Nancy Stephens, Ana Alicia, and Tawny Moyer.  Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is equally jam-packed, with commentaries by Tommy Lee Wallace and Tom Atkins; trailers, TV and radio spots; a still gallery and the great Stand Alone documentary, featuring Tommy Lee Wallace (who reveals that he was always down on himself about the film until he encountered an enthusiastic crowd at a retrospective screening at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Theater in 2010), Irwin Yablans, Dean Cundey, Alan Howarth,  and actors Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Brad Schacter and Dick Warlock, who appears as a robot in addition to handling the film’s many stunts. Also, thumbs up for the inclusion of two episodes of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds where wisecracking host Sean Clark tracks down the locations for both features. 


While you can’t help but wish Scream Factory would get the rights to the original Halloween (which is desperately in need of a better transfer), the label’s initial releases are as thorough and complete as you could ever imagine. With future films including Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm II, the hi-def future of horror appears to be in bloody good hands.


You can order Halloween II through Amazon or directly from Shout! Factory (you can get a limited edition Haddonfield Hospital nurse’s hat while supplies last). You can order Halloween III: Season Of The Witch through Amazon or directly through Shout! Factory (order now and get a limited-edition Halloween III poster).


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