Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Completist Guide to Rob Zombie's Halloween series (2007-2009)
Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007)
Given that John Carpenter is one of my favourite filmmakers, the prospect of watching a remake of one of his movies should fill me with a mixture of dread and disgust. We've all heard the 'horror stories' of directors like Rupert Wainwright (The Fog, 2005) and Matthijs van Heijningen jr (The Thing, 2011) trying (and failing) to update Carpenter's movies with inappropriate cast teen stars and needless CGI. But the thing with Halloween is that, arguably, it's been remade countless times already. I mean when you think about it, all the Halloween films (bar number 3) were all pretty much the same basic story. On Halloween night, in a suburban neighbourhood, indestructible killer Michael Myers murders a bunch of people with a large kitchen knife. So the prospect of watching a fresh take on this particular movie made me more... curious than angry.
The plot is basically split into two separate parts. In the first part we see Myers as a 10 year old child (played by Daeg Faerch). His parents are dirt poor and he's constantly bullied at school. One day he finally snaps and kills not only the lead bully but also his abusive step father, his sister and her boyfriend. Myers ends up going into an asylum where a psychologist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) attempts to rehabilitate him. Myers spends his time making masks and though he initially shows signs of co-operation he ends up killing one of the nurses, which leads to his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) to commit suicide. The second part of the film is set fifteen years later. Loomis has long since left and Myers has grown into a huge hulking man (played by Tyler Mane) and hasn't spoken a word to anyone for years. He manages to escape the asylum and heads back to his home town of Haddonfield. He kills several people and ends up fixating on a seemingly innocent teenager, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), and her friends.
A lot of people hated Rob Zombie's Halloween when it was released but I actually quite liked it. The film, like DePalma's Scarface and Carpenter's The Thing before it, did what every good remake should do; it took the basic elements and gave them an entirely different spin. Whereas Carpenter's Halloween feels like a ghost story you tell around the camp fire, Zombie's Halloween feels like something you'd read about in the newspaper. Everything feels realistic and grounded (except maybe the part about Myers growing up to be a 7ft tall man mountain). I particularly enjoyed the first part which examined, in detail, the aftermath of Myers murders as a child. It was riveting to see Loomis' psychology sessions with him. I sat there kind of wishing Myers would get cured! It's a dangerous thing to do in films; to examine the villain's back story (just look at the horrible job George Lucas did explaining why Anakin became Darth Vader) but I thought Zombie did a decent job that didn't shy away from difficult answers.
The key element that held it all together was undoubtedly Daeg Faerch who, particularly considering his age, does a really compelling performance as the young Myers. And he's ably supported by Malcolm McDowell's reinterpretation of Dr Loomis. Donald Pleasance's portrayal in the original is so iconic, again, I'm glad Zombie steered away from trying to repeat the exact same character. McDowell plays him, initially, as a cocky, upbeat, slightly quirky psychologist before shifting in the latter half to a weary, broken, desperate man. I also enjoyed Scout Taylor-Compton's updated Laurie Strode who rather than a demure everygirl is now a slightly goth-y outcast. The only problem is that with the film being broken into two halves it feels odd to suddenly have Laurie introduced as our protagonist halfway through.
In fact, if I had to point out a problem it's that, while the first half is great, the second half is nothing more than a truncated, 'Platinum Dunes'-esque remake of the original. But, then again, I guess Zombie had to fit the original film's storyline at some point otherwise it wouldn't be a remake. In the actual murder scenes Zombie goes for viciousness and brutality rather than creepiness and tension. Again, he's trying something new here with the character of Myers, and that's to be applauded, but for me it didn't really work. It made the film shocking but not very scary, which isn't a good thing for a horror film. In fact, I'd almost go as far as saying that Rob Zombie's Halloween can (or should) be viewed as more of a thriller than a traditional slasher/horror.
I've got to admit I first saw the film in it's leaked 'workprint' form (that was floating around youtube a while back). I actually prefer this version to the theatrical cut for a few reasons. Firstly, there's a brilliant opening credits sequence with the young Myers running in slow motion through the school hallways while the classic theme tune plays in the background. And secondly there's a very bold alternate ending where actually Myers goes down in a hail of gunfire from the police. Again, this was a brilliant change from the original Carpenter film where the suggestion was that Myers was some indestructible boogeyman. Here he's a violent killer but ultimately just as mortal as everyone else. I liked this change. It felt like Zombie was sticking two fingers up at the greedy producers who clearly hoping he'd deliver some safe, sequel-ready movie.
Ultimately, I think Rob Zombie's Halloween isn't a better film than Carpenter's. It's just different. I think a lot of people thought that because Carpenter's film defined the 'slasher' craze of the 80s, Zombie's film should be as important. To justify its existence it should do nothing less than redefine the horror genre again. But let's face it, it was never going to do that. Zombie's Halloween is a good film, with some great ideas and great acting, let's just leave it at that.
Rob Zombie's Halloween II (2009)
I think it's important to note that Zombie never planned to make a sequel. It's very apparent in the original workprint that the film was meant to end with Myers being definitely dead but, of course, the producers wanted some sequels so he changed the theatrical cut's ending to be more ambiguous. Despite this compromise Zombie's Halloween II doesn't feel like too much of a shameless cash-in. Again, the film characterised by a ballsy script that seems to revel in messing with the established characters and atmosphere of both the earlier films and, strangely, its own predecessor. Once, again it's a film of two halves with the first half dealing with the aftermath of the Myers rampage.
The film picks up directly on from the previous film with Laurie having a nervous breakdown after she thinks she's shot Michael Myers in the face. The ambulance drives away with his body but he manages to escape and disappear into the night. After a quick fake-out dream sequence set in a hospital (a nod to the original Halloween II) we fast forward to two year later. Laurie is still suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder and lives a dysfunctional life with her adopted father Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter Annie. Meanwhile, Loomis has written a tell-all memoir and effectively sold out to become a celebrity. Before long Myers returns to Haddonfield, killing his everyone in his way to get to Laurie who it turns out is his long lost sister.
Zombie's Halloween II is a bit of difficult film to like but there's still a lot that I admired about it. The film feels quite loose and rushed (which I'm guessing it was given that Zombie only signed on to do it in 2008). One of the major points everyone criticises the film about is the 'visions'. In this film, we get introduced (in a rather hamfisted fashion) to the idea that Myers 'sees' visions of his dead mother and a white horse telling him what to do. I think I wouldn't have minded if this was shown (or hinted) at in Zombie's earlier film but it wasn't. Still it's a neat idea - the kind of thing you can imagine a serial killer admitting to - and something fresh for the series.
Another sticking point that I can kind of agree with Dr Loomis' sharp character shift in this film. In the remake he seems like a fairly decent man but in the sequel he's suddenly turned into a unrepentant asshole. I get the point that Zombie was trying to make - the viciousness of Myers' rampage has affected everyone involved in different ways - but I think he could have shown the shift more gradually or explained it to the audience a bit better. I feel that maybe both ideas were things that Zombie probably wanted to include in the original remake but got turned down by producers.
Despite these two points, I enjoyed most of the rest of the film. The idea of Laurie being permanently traumatised by her experiences felt in keeping with the realistic atmosphere of the previous film and Scout Taylor-Compton does a really good job portraying her depression. I also liked the idea of Myers becoming a creepy hobo with a long beard and torn up mask. Again, I think it was good for Zombie to make the film his own and show what Myers is really like behind the mask (both literally and figuratively) rather than make him some indestructible killer. Brad Dourif is an excellent addition too. Though he had a small role in the previous film, he gets a much larger one here playing Laurie's ersatz father figure Sheriff Brackett. His helplessness to protect his daughter is truly heartbreaking.
As the film winds towards its conclusion I was pleased to see Zombie give the film a really bold ending. The problem is that it felt far more contrived compared to the original. It didn't feel like the major characters had naturally gravitated towards each other throughout the story. More like they had been artificially put in the same place by the writer. All in all though, I enjoyed Rob Zombie's Halloween II despite its many, many flaws. By making so many bold choices and radically changing the characters Zombie delivered anything but a safe sequel. If only more remakes took this approach.