Only time will tell. It’s been very helpful to other struggling scary movies. When it was first released in 1974, most critics considered Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the most disgusting, debased effort in the history of the shock genre. Today, a copy of the film sits in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. When Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hit the Cineplex, a positive blurb from horror master Stephen King couldn’t keep the splatter fest from ending up on many writer’s year end “Worst” lists. Now, it’s seen as a powerful and effective chiller. So there’s hope for Rob Zombie yet. Upon its arrival in theaters this past August, many despised his intriguing remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick, Halloween. Here’s hoping that a few years from now, when the controversy has passed and new eyes have viewed this exceptional effort, the film and its maker will get the respect and reevaluation they so richly deserve.
It wasn’t an easy choice for the rock star turned filmmaker to make, initially. After two very difficult and very different self-styled films (the average House of 1000 Corpses and the amazing exploitation update The Devil’s Rejects), taking on the myth of Michael Myers was bound to get more than a few geeks’ goats. After all, in a post-Internet world where everyone’s an expert of cinema, tampering with the genius of Carpenter’s creation seemed ludicrous. No matter that the Michael Bay produced Chainsaw update ended up being something to celebrate, there was a metaphysical quality about this seemingly unnecessary revamp that had webheads ready to tussle. And when early script reviews foamed over too much backstory and not enough slice and dice, the worst fears of the fans were apparently about to be realized.
So where, exactly, was the subterfuge? Maybe it was the release date. After all, who offers a blood-filled terror title in the middle of summer? It could also be the continued marginalization of Zombie. While a few support his work behind the camera, there are others who hate the very notion that he’s even allowed to make movies. There’s the standard anticipation to reality ratio, a slippery sliding scale that measures viewer expectation against the usually crashing facts of a film. And then there’s an odd “X” factor, a kind of mob mentality that works like the juvenile piling on from the days of the old school yard. It seemed like, once the negativity began, critics came out of the woodwork to belittle and demean this film. Even those who never sully their synapses with a genre effort took time out of their otherwise busy screening schedule to rip the remake.
If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant repetition – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive), and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.
In his full length audio commentary, Zombie addresses all the issues that gave purists pause. He defends his use of backstory, explains the way actors gravitate toward their own interpretations of events, and rallies around the archetypes that make up standard scary movie mythos. It’s the DVD equivalent of a mea culpa combined with an “I told you so.” One thing is clear in this conversation - Zombie completely understands what he’s done. He too is an addict to the genre he works in, and wants to be as faithful to the demands of the horror film as anyone working in the category. Unfortunately, the wavelength he’s vibrating on clashes with the mindset of minions who believe fright got its bearings during the direct to video variables of the 1980s…and it’s a volatile cocktail that just doesn’t mix.
There’s also a second disc loaded with deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a three part look at how the movie was made, interviews with the cast and crew, and a featurette focusing on Zombie’s decision to use and the movie’s obsession with masks. One of the main sticking points for critics was the notion that Michael Myers, as a famed spree killer, has a background seemingly torn from an FBI primer on behavioral dysfunction. Yet in this piece, we discover a much deeper psychological stance. In many ways, the masks represent the link between the character as an angry child and what he will become as a psychotic stalker adult.
All this context argues for a movie much more complicated than initial reviews indicated. While comedy is always gauged on its ability to make audiences laugh, horror suffers from a similar kneejerk acumen - that being, if it doesn’t make you shiver, it’s somehow worthless. However, in a post-millennial world, where everyday existence bears out a palpable level of terror, it’s hard to create genuine dread. Reverence to a film type can be just as important as delivering the mandatory mannerisms. In the case of Halloween, we get a dimensional character study where emotions battle the eerie for total shocker dominance. That both elements exist, side by side, remains one of Zombie’s - and his film’s - greatest assets.
With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this assassin. Not to apologize for him, but merely explain. By turning him into a flesh and blood person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death.
At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of elucidating and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.
At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. The addition of scenes in this “unrated director’s cut” adds more heft to his onscreen persona. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son that’s both horrifying and heartbreaking.
As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.
Still, upon reflection, it’s easy to see why people didn’t like this confrontational film, why one should feel sorry for Zombie. He was really lost in a no-win situation. On the one hand, anyone who believed Carpenter was something more than a joyful journeyman working out his Hitchcock fascinations with this 1978 low budget experiment obviously would detest the fact that his most famous early film received the crass commercial Tinsel Town treatment. They were destined to hate the results no matter how good or bad. On the other hand, there are the know-it-all members of fear nation whose endless hours in front of a VCR, absorbing every thriller from here to Helsinki, lend them the false credibility that only obsession can validate. Since they are superior in their informed (if insular) opinion, they have the implied right to ridicule this filmmaker and the man behind the mask.
In both cases, each group is missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, his reemergence was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. It’s the making of a murderer and the consequences of his descent into unfettered madness that certify its status as a classic. It also formed the foundation for one of the smartest, most shattering horror films ever. Unfortunately, few can see that now. It will take time for the truth to emerge - and when it does, Zombie’s efforts will finally be justified. Better late than never.