[31 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When Rob Zombie is good, he is very, very good. No one understands the obsessive geek nature of horror cinema better than this true fright fan. Long before he became a Beavis and Butthead punchline, or the most easily ridiculed filmmaker on the planet, he was memorizing macabre, indulging in any and all types of terror tales - the good, the bad, and the sublimely schlocky. It was this dedication and devotion that gave Universal the original idea of putting him behind the lens. And it is this psychotronic encyclopedia like knowledge that made movies like The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween such career defining delights.
But when Zombie is bad, he’s baffling. Not irredeemable or unwatchable, just completely unsound in his motives or intentions. Take his first film, House of 1000 Corpses. It’s like a blueprint for every b-movie ever made dragged through an adolescent’s pot-smoke soiled imagination. By the time we get to the anticlimactic reveal of Dr. Satan, we’ve been put through the unrealized ambitions ringer. No wonder then that he tossed the whole monster mythology to turn Rejects into a sequel in sadism only. By highlighting the Firefly family and their endearing exploitation ways, Zombie salvaged his already sinking credibility…
…only to turn around and tarnish it once again by announcing his decision to remake the John Carpenter classic from the late ‘70s. Seen by many as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Halloween didn’t appear ripe for reinvention. Indeed, the straightforward story - killer escapes from an asylum 20 years after a horrific crime to seek revenge on the town (and family) he left behind - and Hitchcockian precision in which Carpenter realized his dread seemed almost untouchable. If Zombie wanted to set himself up to fail, he couldn’t have picked a better project. Still, with Hollywood flush with horror reimagination fever, Michael Myers joined Leatherface as the latest Me Decade icon to get the post-millennial make-over.
And in this critic’s opinion, it worked. While others can complain about screwing with the original, Zombie got the basic idea of Halloween down pat. While Carpenter could only hint at how evil his ‘Shape’ really was, this new film turned him into an authentic and quite realistic human nightmare. In Zombie’s mind, Michael is nothing more than an unstoppable murder machine, a shark with a brutal appetite for suburban blood and destruction. There is no cat and mouse, no “now you see him, now you don’t” games with the audience. Zombie’s Halloween may have a hackneyed set-up (the trailer town FBI profile is a tad sketchy), but once our demon puts on his mask, no one will be left alive.
Said aggressive nastiness is also present in Halloween II, but it’s now buffered by what the ad campaign is calling the completion of Zombie’s “vision”. For the layman, or those too wary to plunk down $10 bucks to uncover the filmic facts, what that means is that this surreal sequel is going to play by its own oddball rules, and if you don’t like it, the man behind the camera could give a crap. This time around, it’s all about style. For every act of horrific violence, for every moment of mind-numbing gore, Zombie is going to counteract the carnage with sequences of outright insanity. Not craziness from a character stand-point, but stream of consciousness creativity that, as one reviewer put it, melds the “grindhouse with the arthouse.”
Halloween II is indeed a strange, frequently flabbergasting trip. Beginning with a description of the symbolism inherent in the white horse (suggesting power, focus, and an end-of-times destructiveness), our filmmaker follows his own muses, mixing moments of brilliantly effective terror (whenever Michael raises his knife, the results are truth repugnant) with elements lifted directly out of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks) and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killer, U-Turn). Indeed, while watching the events unfold onscreen, on gets the distinct impressive of experience JFK through the eyes of Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer - and that’s after his brain has been drilled for pencil end fodder.
This makes the movie hard to get a handle on, and that’s a death sentence in today’s “hurry up and hurt someone” ADD addled demographic. A lifetime of VCR vicariousness, fast forward button bringing the gruesome good stuff in perfect Pavlovian waves, has altered the perspective of the contemporary fright fan. They need simplicity in order to stoke their fires of their video game fried imaginations. They demand ample arterial spray when a few well placed deaths would do twice as much ambient damage. Even worse, they get antsy when someone suggests they view their favorite genre in a different or difficult manner. They’re not really interested in horror handled personal panache. They want Hostel, and if they can’t have that, it’s time to hit their prized collection of Faces of Death DVDs.
Naturally, this is a gross overgeneralization, as insensitive as any case of cinematic bigotry can be on both sides. But it’s also an attempt to get a handle on the K-2 sized slamming that Zombie is facing right now. Granted, Halloween II is not an outright masterpiece (it may indeed be one of the more original scary movies ever made, however), but it’s definitely not the worst movie ever made. Heck, if considered in that camp, it’s barely even the worst film of 2009. It has the guts that Michael Bay and his bravado belch known as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen only pretend to own, and it’s miles ahead of such tired hackwork as The Ugly Truth or Land of the Lost. Indeed, to consider Halloween II the bottom of the barrel, one needs to quantify said container. And in most cases, the view is just as biased.
Indeed, the reason for most of the anger aimed at Zombie is that he is free to do what he wants with what many considered to be a sacred serial killing cow. Michael Myers lives in the rarified realm of Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, the aforementioned Chainsaw champion, and various other members of the post-modern macabre clique. Sure, Stephen Sommers can crap all over the Universal classics with his nauseating Van Helsing, but more people are pissed as Zombie for “ruining” big Mike than ever came to Frankenstein or Dracula’s defense. It’s not like he’s destroying Carpenter’s original version. He’s just taking the material and riffing on it, reinterpreting it and ad-libbing like a jaded jazzman - or a know it all televangelist.
Maybe that’s what angering so many - Zombie’s ease at adapting Halloween to his own ideas of terror. His is definitely a design honed by endless hours sucking in all manner of filmmaking forms and approache. If one can wipe away the ire from their eyes, they could relish some incredibly powerful shots (the Brackett home, solemn in the sparseness of a Midwestern Fall backdrop) and a lot of visceral fear. There are times when actresses Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris do such a great job of selling the fear that it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. Purists also love to point out how useless Dr. Loomis has become, how the once heroic psychiatrist has turned into a money-grubbing media whore. Exactly. In Zombie’s world, no one who spent their life looking after Michael Myers wouldn’t try to capitalize on such a sensationalized status. This is the age of the tell-all and the tabloid.
Even the frequent visions work to remind us of what is (supposedly) going on in Michael’s head. There’s even a nod to some of the latter sequels when Laurie shows signs of “psychically linking” with her murderous brother. In fact, Halloween II shares a lot with the other great controversial title in the franchise - Part 3: Season of the Witch. If one remembers correctly, Carpenter never really expected the Shape to be the focus of each film. Instead, he hoped other filmmakers would take the name and the ideas forwarded in the films to invent their own take on the material. Seems like Zombie is doing just that - whether the vocal majority like it or not.
In the end, it all comes down to a sense of adventure. If you honestly went in to Halloween II with an open mind, uncluttered from the always fervent online arguments and self-aggrandized suppositions, free of the feelings you had from the first film and Zombie as a creative force in general, and still came out a miffed, at least your conclusion is sincere. It’s not based on the current zeitgeist or formed out of a desire to dump of your favorite dread dork whipping boy. But if Halloween II merely confirmed you already lagging impressions of this exceedingly unique filmmaker, if it offered up the same sense of dissatisfaction and disgust for what he previously did to Carpenter’s classic, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t make you right, either.
With the Weinsteins just announcing that the next Halloween would be in 3D and not feature a certain heavy metal musician in the director’s chair, the creepshow cosmic chaos can finally fall back in alignment. Whatever comes next, it won’t have his Something Weird Video sense of spectacle behind it. Rob Zombie is almost a genius. He’s also a bit of a joke. And in the current state of safe, sanitized shivers, such confusing complexity is more than welcome. One thing’s for certain - while perhaps not appreciated, his Halloween II will be remembered.