The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, March 06, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Halloween

Originally published 9/13/07
Full review behind the jump


Halloween

Director
: Rob Zombie
Writers
: Rob Zombie, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Producers
: Malek Akkad, Andy Gould, Rob Zombie
Stars
: Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, William Forsythe, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, Brad Dourif, Hanna Hall, Skyler Gisondo, Jenny Gregg Stewart


And it occurred to me that if we did a movie about babysitters, it would work, because everybody had either been a babysitter, or been a baby…
-Producer Irwin Yablans, on the low-budget horror movie idea he pitched to a young filmmaker named John Carpenter


This sounds like the faintest of praise, but
Halloween, Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s landmark slasher picture, is quite competent when it’s not being unbearably silly. Zombie is well-versed in all the conventions of the modern blood-letting aesthetic: shaky camera work, screaming naked ingénues, filthy décor, extended death scenes that allow the victims to suffer and weep and beg and bleed out helplessly. Those seeking wounds that gush and breasts that bounce will get their money’s worth.

The trouble is, he’s co-opted the
Die Hard of stalk-and-slice, here, and the modern context of a thousand imitators means it’s no longer such a jolt to the darker sides of our imaginations to see a masked madman filleting the nubile. While a previous generation of teen couples might have watched the original and shrieked “don’t go up the stairs!”, conspicuously dateless teens in the row behind me were shouting “You’re dead, dumbass!” Since this genre began to depend on pushing the gruesome shock threshold, its core fans have long since started rooting for the boogeyman. On some level I think Zombie understands this, which is why he’s geared this edition to focus more on the history of the unflappably stab-happy Michael Myers (played as an adult by bulky former pro wrestler Tyler Mane). What I don’t think he understands is why this means he shouldn’t be re-making Halloween.

The original 1978 picture was made on a shoestring budget of $320,000, and as much as half of that went to Panavision cameras and the (then) new Panaglide rig, which allowed Carpenter to play with the weight and depth of empty space in a wide frame, and compose agonizingly long takes where the camera swooped and slid around rooms. The result was a picture that was visually-entrancing, that invited the audience to witness impotently what was lurking in the background unbeknownst to our endangered heroes. It is, in retrospect, amazingly light on gore, and plays instead like the kid brother to Hitchcock’s Psycho, elegantly tightening coils of suspense like bondage knots in between brief explosions of violence.

It also had a star-in-the-making in Jamie Lee Curtis, who built a cunningly complex character out of the smallest of details – a hint of resignation in the voice, her department store loafers, the way she clutched her textbooks. Curtis herself is radiant and outgoing, but what she was able to do as an actress suggested greater depths to the stew of anxiety, sexuality, innocence, and evil that Carpenter was cooking. And her balance of terror and resourcefulness in the film’s climax remains a sacred text for any actress hoping to use this genre to catapult to success.

Her character, Laurie Strode, is played in this version by Scout Taylor-Compton, about whom I have nothing particularly bad to say. She is ripely pretty, and looks fetching in the glasses that were given to her so we would know she is “smart”. She may well be talented, but I had no chance to find out because this remake is not particularly interested in her. It is at least 45 minutes in before we even see her. Instead we get essentially a half-length new movie as preamble, about the 10-year-old Michael Myers and the genesis of his murderous habits.

The best thing Zombie has done here is to find the actor Daeg Faerch to play the young Myers. With the pre-adolescent pudge around his face hardened into a sullen grimace, and those eyes that look through things rather than at them, he does come across like the kind of kid who shouldn’t be left alone with small animals.

If only he didn’t live with such a clownish family. What was spooky about the old Michael Myers was that nothing about his surroundings was unusual – he came from an average house on an average street in an average small town, but for reasons unknown was just born with something missing inside. It’s no coincidence that the unforgettable demons of movie horror – like Dr. Hannibal Lecter before all the sequels and prequels, John Doe from Se7en, like the original Myers, have a large blank space in their biographies; the lack of easy explanation for their existence makes them more unsettling to our sensibilities. Instead Zombie has decided to knock an iconic character off his pedestal and smother him with traumatic childhood clichés – my exact criticism of Ron Howard’s movie adaptation of The Grinch, strangely.

This Michael has an aging stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and drunken cripple stepfather (William Forsythe) who can scarcely stop screaming obscenities and hurling things at each other in their grimy kitchen long enough to shove Michael off to school to be picked on by bullies. Everyone hates everyone so deeply, and so loudly, it’s like a Harold Pinter play re-written by hobos with the DT’s. I kept waiting for Dr. Phil to appear, offer assistance, and be bludgeoned to death by stepdad’s bowling trophy.

It’s scarcely even a surprise that when Trick-or-Treat night comes along Michael picks up his trademark pale mask and carving knife, we only wonder what took him so long. And then we see an extended and totally pointless stretch of him in a mental institution, where the woolly Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, an appropriately melodramatic replacement for the late Donald Pleasance) tries in all sorts of incompetent ways to unlock Michael’s sociopath tendencies, and then writes a best-selling book about it while Michael makes masks in his cell and waits for the chance to strike again.

And I don’t see how any of that enhances what the heart of Halloween has always been – the stalking of teenagers by a menacing shape in the night, and the fear every female has that she might not be strong enough to fight off a big man who wants to stick something in her. What was once lean and elementally-potent enough for Carpenter to turn into a now-legendary exercise in cinephile style is what Rob Zombie takes for granted, an afterthought on his way to pick up more buckets of blood. When a filmmaker makes such an effort to leave nothing to your imagination, I must conclude it’s because he thinks his is sufficient for all of us. I disagree.

2 Comments:

  • I must confess I would have loved to have seen the entire film from the perspective of Loomis. I loved the moment when Loomis calls Michael his "best friend" and says, "which shows you how fucked-up my life is", with that Alex De Large smile. And I cannot bring myself to hate a film that presents Ken Foree as Bowie-knife wielding hipster with seventies sideburns.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 1:07 PM  

  • Big Joe Grizzly was by far the highlight of this one for me. I couldn't think of a way to mention that without spoiling the experience of it for anyone who does see the movie.

    By Blogger Nick, at 1:19 PM  

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