Damn this cordless phone age! What are you supposed to strangle people with anymore?
In 1978, I was 9 years old. I still remember my older brother and sister going to see John Carpenter’s Halloween and coming back with stories that scared the living holy crap out of me: the killer who wouldn’t die, the murder filmed through the eye holes of a clown mask, a victim trapped in the closet defending herself with a coat hanger, Michael Meyers in the back seat of the car. I had nightmares about all that stuff for weeks and everywhere I went, I was afraid the creepy dude in the white mask from the TV commercials was going to get me. One night I actually went out to our station wagon in the garage and I refused to get in because the windows were fogged up and I knew it was because Michael Meyers was waiting in the back seat to kill me just like in the movie.
The next year it would be stories of bloody aliens bursting through people’s chests and in 1980 it was two creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, a hedge maze and a dad with an axe running around a crazy haunted hotel. Sure, Alien and The Shining definitely made their marks on my young mind before I ever even saw them, but Halloween really stuck with me like no other. Finally, in 1981 I saw the object of my nightmares on NBC. Even heavily edited for broadcast television it scared me silly all over again. Here was my nightmare come to life and it was all set to that music. The stories I’d been told didn’t have that music. John Carpenter’s simple, creepy and suspenseful synthesizer theme has rightfully taken its place alongside Psycho and Jaws as one of the all time great horror themes. It gives me chills to this day.
I didn’t know it then, but by the time I finally saw that edited broadcast of Halloween, horror was already changing. Carpenter’s massive low-budget success in 1978 naturally spawned imitators, each one raising the body count and increasing the imagination of the kills over what had come before. The pure, basic, primal suspense of Halloween was being cluttered up with increasingly sillier and grosser ways to dispatch horny, stoned teenagers.
In a few years, when the Kennedy household was finally equipped with HBO and a VCR (it was a top-loading Sony Betamax machine. The sales douche at Sears had told my uncle it was the best machine around and maybe it was. Anyway it was good enough for my parents, but we know how Betamax turned out…yeah, I’m looking at you Sony Blu Ray), I caught the sequel Halloween II. It started promisingly and it still scared me, but it wasn’t the same. Eschewing simple knife attacks, the sequel treated us to hammer blows to the noggin and a death by hot tub among other horrors. The imitated had become the imitator.
I eventually saw Halloween a dozen times, but by high school when I was seeing horror movies in theaters, it was seemingly all about Nightmare on Elm Street and endless Friday the 13th sequels. Though these films were popular, they were horror with a smirk rather than a scare. Freddy Krueger was a comedian and despite its success, horror seemed to be running out of gas. In 1986 when they made a sequel to Alien, it turned out to be more of an action movie than a horror film; a classic to be sure, but not exactly horror. Horror didn’t go away of course. Scream and its sequels were very popular in the 90s but they were more interested in amusing audiences than scaring them. They were entertaining, but not consistently, deeply scary. They allowed the audience to hold an ironic distance to what was happening on the screen and in distance there was safety. Safety is not scary.
These days, safety and irony are out the window and terror is back in as a more brutal and visceral branch of horror has become popular. Movies like Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek and others have upped the ante on mainstream horror by bringing large budgets to movies that once would’ve been relegated to the drive-in and the grindhouse. Old fashioned movies like Halloween seem quaint by comparison. They’re not scary anymore.
But you didn’t come here for some kind of half-assed movie history lesson, nor do you care about my soft spot for Halloween. I swear to the cinema gods that I’m just about to get to my point.
Wait for it.
Here it comes.
Enter Rob Zombie. He’s kind of in the middle of this new wave of horror and his House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects are attempts to return to horror the sweat and the grime and the fear that had slowly been leached out since the 70s. Though I’m naturally skeptical of any remake, especially of a beloved childhood favorite, Zombie’s affection for and knowledge of traditional horror make him seem like the right guy to bring the genre full circle by taking one of the classic originals and making it scary again.
Well, sadly my optimism was pretty short lived. Halloween is a bit of a mess that I can’t imagine will be very pleasing to old-school Halloween fans nor to the newer generation of Rob Zombie fans. The movie wants to be Halloween and it wants to be a Rob Zombie movie and it doesn’t spend enough time being very good at either one. The two parts actually subtract from one another and the whole is finally less than the sum of the parts.
Where did it all go sour? Well, the story will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the original: little boy murders sister on Halloween night, boy grows up in an asylum, boy escapes 15 years later (though I think it’s only 9 in the remake…Michael begins the movie as an older boy) and returns to his home town to stalk and kill babysitters…on Halloween, naturally. Onto this framework, Zombie has added several flourishes of his own and this is where things start to go very wrong. Where Carpenter was content to create a faceless, unstoppable force of evil, Zombie wants a back story complete with psychological motivations. You see, it turns out poor little Michael (a pudgy, long-haired, creepy looking kid named Daeg Faerch) was bullied by the kids at school and abused mentally and physically by his white trash stripper-mother’s boyfriend at home. He takes to wearing masks around the house because he says he is ugly and wants to hide his face. Boo friggin’ hoo. Also, he likes to torture and kill small animals, because that’s what all budding serial killers do. It says so right in the Serial Killer Handbook.
It turns out Zombie is more interested in the killer than his victims and in attempting to get us to sympathize with the little bastard, he’s hoping the big finale will have an extra shot of pathos to it when it eventually rolls around. It’s a worthy idea that may have worked well in a movie that wasn’t called Halloween (maybe Zombie should’ve remade Frankenstein instead), but here he fails to get the sympathy and the ultimate gambit for pathos falls way short. Zombie also feels the need to borrow a motivation for Michael’s ultimate choice of victim that wasn’t originally revealed until the sequel and even then felt like an unneccesary, tacked on, sequel justifying twist. Carpenter didn’t need a back story and he didn’t need pathos and he didn’t need motivation. He wanted to scare the shit out of you and he did it without any psychological motivational mumbo jumbo. He did it by imperiling innocence with pure and simple evil. Why does Michael Meyers wear a mask and why is he killing these innocent people? Because it’s scary damnit. This isn’t Dr. Phil, it’s a friggin’ horror movie and if you spend too much time trying to analyze it, you’re liable to end up with a butcher knife in your eye socket, buster.
There’s an unintentionally funny scene in this opening sequence right before Michael finally snaps where mom is stripping to Nazareth’s cover of Love Hurts (no I’m not kidding and I think Zombie is dead serious) while little Michael is at home on Halloween moping around because mom’s boyfriend called him a pussy and sis would rather hang out upstairs having sex with her dopey boyfriend than take him out trick or treating. Awww…nobody loves the poor little future serial killer and he is sad! Come on. Quit yer cryin’ and go kill some teenagers for chrissakes.
The film does finally starts to get going here as Michael begins his first murderous rampage, but this is where Carpenter chose to begin his movie. There was no screwing around. He went right from the creepy opening credits with the creepy freakin’ music to someone stalking the sister and then BOOM, the sister is stabbed to death in the worst voyeuristic, audience implicatingly Peeping Tom kind of way. And then the big reveal: mom and dad arrive home to find little Michael standing on the front lawn in his cute little clown costume holding a giant bloody butcher knife. Zing!
In the Carpenter version, the story then jumps ahead 15 years as Dr. Sam Loomis (the great Donald Pleasence) and a nurse are driving up to the asylum where Michael has been kept all these years. The first sign of trouble is that the patients are wandering around the grounds at night in the rain in their hospital gowns. The nurse wonders what’s going on, but Dr. Loomis knows right away that evil has escaped and that the bodies are going to start piling up. Cue the music again. Everything is fucked. Dr. Loomis knows it. You know it. As soon as Michael jumps out of the shadows onto the top of the station wagon, the nurse knows it too.
Once again, Zombie opts for exposition here instead of economy. Prior to the escape, we’re treated to several scenes of Dr. Loomis (now played by Malcolm McDowell) trying to understand and help the boy. Ultimately Michael retreats into his shell never to speak again only to emerge years later as a full fledged monster. All of this is information Carpenter dispenses with a couple of sentences of dialogue, but Zombie wants to poke at it and examine it. This might be a great idea in another movie, but it doesn’t work here.
When the movie finally and mercifully jumps forward to the night Michael escapes from Smith’s Grove, Zombie wants to dick around in a protracted escape sequence. For all of its extra action and mayhem, it has half of the impact of Carpenter’s spare, creepy original with the nurse, the rain, the patients wandering the grounds and the killer on top of the car.
Over and over again Zombie proves that sometimes more is less. What Carpenter dispatched in 10 minutes of film, Zombie dwells on for 45. The result is a deeper, but longer, fatter and less intense movie. Despite the increased length, we’re actually given less time to get to know and sympathize with the group of teens who will turn out to be Michael’s next victims, especially the all important Laurie Strode. This proves to be the fatal blow to the film.
The Girls then: PJ Soles (left), Nancy Loomis (back), Jamie Lee Curtis (right)
and now: Kristina Klebe (left), Danielle Harris (back), Scout Taylor-Compton (right)
As played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the original film, Laurie Strode was a somewhat plain girl; bookish, innocent and awkward with boys. Her friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles) weren’t necessarily prettier, in fact they had a kind of plain Midwestern innocent quality to them, but they were more comfortable with themselves and more eager and aggressive with boys. Of course they’d be the first ones to get murdered. Looking back, the actresses were a little old to be playing teenagers (except possibly Curtis) and they weren’t the best actors (again except possibly Curtis), but they were all credible movie facsimiles of the real thing and in the case of Laurie, you actually rooted for them. In Zombie’s film, the girls are all nondescript hottie types. Scout Taylor-Compton’s Laurie is given glasses to make her bookish and plain but putting glasses on a hottie doesn’t make her mousy, it just makes her hotter. This is an established fact and I will gladly fight anyone who disputes me. Any takers? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No? Ok well we’ll save that topic for some kind of fetish blog. Anyway, all three girls in the new Halloween are cute and energetic enough, but they seem like post-WB Hollywood constructs and they’re not especially interesting. The problem is magnified by the fact we’re given so little time to get to know them.
Given considerably more screen time is Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Loomis, but like the girls, he is a step down from the original. Donald Pleasence was campy, but he took the role seriously and played it straight. McDowell delivers most of his lines with his trademark verbal smirk and it feels like he knows he’s just collecting a paycheck. Where Pleasence acted like he was playing Hamlet, McDowell seems to know the role is beneath him. That lack of conviction robs the character and the story of much of its power.
Though there are plenty of differences in this new Halloween, very much the same – for better and for worse. For the better, Carpenter’s score is used here wholesale. Not just the creepy main theme, but also all of the suspense cues and in many of the same places. Zombie is smart enough to know that the music remains the best part of the original and he doesn’t waste a note of it here. He even borrows a couple of musical references from the first two films. Blue Öyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper cleverly played on the car radio in the original when Laurie and Annie are unknowingly being tailed by the killer Michael. Zombie uses it twice in the new film. He also gives a version of Mr. Sandman an abbreviated run-through when the action finally returns to Haddonfield. Fans will remember it creepily used in the opening to Halloween II which picked up exactly where the first film was concluding. Consider them homage within a reimagining I suppose.
Had the similarities ended there, they would’ve been little more than a respectful nod to the original and that might’ve been perfect. However, in addition to the music, many patches of dialogue were cribbed from the original film verbatim (“Was that the boogey man?” “Yes, I believe it was”). Also, at least one of the killings borrows liberally from the original. Lynda’s boyfriend Bob gets the exact same pin-the-butcher-knife-on-the-boyfriend treatment as in the first film and Michael even pauses to admire his handiwork with a curious, childlike tilt of the head as Bob’s legs twitch for the last time just like in the original. I suppose it makes sense since this is one of the more memorable moments from Carpenter’s film, but is this homage or is it robbery?
Throughout the movie there is this uneasy tension between the old and the new. The two never really gel and this is the film’s ultimate undoing. The old is sapped of its power to frighten because you know what’s coming. The only suspense is whether there will be any new wrinkles or if the murders will hit the same tropes we’re familiar with. On the other hand, except for the unfortunately laughable Love Hurts bit, much of Zombie’s new material proves to be pretty interesting and the scariest parts are the new and unexpected kills. Saddled to the original story however, the attempt at a back story and character motivation for the killer merely weigh down what was originally a lean and spare horror movie. The effect is bloating rather than enriching.
It’s too bad because I think Zombie is a talented guy and the intention to make Halloween scary again was a noble one. Unfortunately, in this case I think he was tripped up by his own good intentions and his talent might be better served by sticking with original material. In the end, he’s crafted an unworthy update of the original that is unlikely to please either fans of the film or fans of Zombie himself.
Halloween. USA 2007. Written and Directed by Rob Zombie from the original film by John Carpenter. Cinematography by Phil Parmet. Edited by Glenn Garland. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Scout Taylor-Compton, Sheri Moon Zombie, Daeg Faerch, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, William Forsythe and Dee Wallace Stone. 1 hour 49 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language. 2 stars (out of 5).