All Spelled Out
Rob Zombie told a television interviewer that he chose to open Halloween, a plainly October-holiday-themed film, at the end of August. Perhaps this is true. But the claim flies in the face of logic: first, filmmakers don’t generally decide when their films open; that would be the work of distributors and studios. Second, no one chooses to open at this time, whether or not Halloween costumes for pets are available in stores (Zombie’s stated rationale), because only the worst, least promising, most abandoned films open then. Still, the decision, whoever made it, was strategic. In the dreggiest days of summer, Halloween set a record at the box office.
Money is a primary motivator in this business, yes, so we might be happy for Zombie and company, as well as the fans who made a point of seeing and loving the movie. Still, we might also wonder about the need for a remake of a much-beloved film, one that has been so homaged and so celebrated for so many years, one that rather ingeniously rethought the boogeyman into a form simultaneously contemporary and abstract, immediate and unsettling. It’s not that Carpenter’s version is perfect or even timeless. But it is iconic.
The Zombie version is not. The filmmaker fashions a white trash background for his boogeyman, which fits into his own oeuvre, certainly, but also grounds Michael Meyers in unnecessarily specific abjection. Yes, the Illinois burbs he ravages in both films are generally recognizable, but that’s the cultural point of Carpenter’s film: evil shows up where you think you’d be safe. No one imagines he’s safe in whitetrashland—especially the section inhabited by a heavily inked up William Forsythe.
Here he plays Ronnie, bad-bad drunk-and-sleazy boyfriend of Michael’s mom, who is a stripper played by Sheri Moon-Zombie, more or less reprising her one-note performance from The Devil’s Rejects, with the addition of a pole dance set to that most unoriginal choice of sad anthem, “Love Hurts.” Ten-year-old Michael (Daeg Faerch) is suitably miserable living with these miscreants, in addition to his sister Judith (Hanna Hall), who leaves him alone on Halloween night so she can have sex with her scummy boyfriend. Watching the boy sit on the stoop, his clown costume so bright and his mask so bedraggled, you might almost feel sorry for him. Except that by this point in the remake, his evil is all spelled out already. You’ve seen evidence that Michael’s been killing puppies and keeping photos of the bloody corpses, and that he carries a dead cat in his backpack. Not to mention that school bully (Daryl Sabara) he murders with strangely deft glee.
The kid, in other words, is not scary. He’s part pathetic and part sociopathic, with too much motivation. When the school shrink, a convenient reinvention of Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), opines that the dead animals “are often an early warning sign of a much deeper and bigger problem,” s John Carpenter’s super-ooky piano motif as young Michael runs from the school to the woods. Then she might have been worried enough to stay home that Halloween night instead of going to work at the club and leaving her boy in the care of Judith and Ronnie. When they end up dead (he duct-taped to a chair with his throat cut, she a pulp of multiple stab wounds), mom is shocked, shocked, that she could have made such a monster. She wails in the night and the camera pulls out from the cop’s cruiser window, as pale Mikey stares listlessly.
Making Michael a plausible product of this nasty environment undermines Loomis’ blustering about empty-eyed evil. Still, even if McDowell can’t hope to match the fabulous Donald Pleasence, he does the best he can in a brief series of scenes that set up his failed efforts to “get through” to Michael. Unfathomably grown up—“15 years later”—to be a mammoth creature (played by former professional wrestler Taylor Mane), Michael stops speaking to the doctor after he grows tired of the inane line of questioning:” So, you don’t remember anything about the… killings?” I suppose the lack of communication explains how Loomis conjures his own version of the patient, going so far as to write an apparently profitable book about him and so deserving to have all kinds of bloody violence wreaked upon him.
Other victims are more and less deserving, and they’re also familiar. Once the explanatory backstory undoes Michael’s eeriness, he’s just another psycho, less exemplary or even cautionary than he is relentless. Seemingly the only inmate at the asylum, Michael lives in a cell, making masks and not washing his hair (he must work out somewhere though, judging by the grandiose physique). The janitor Ismael (the wasted and still excellent Danny Trejo) tries to cheer the kid up, whispering through the bars, “You can’t let these walls get you down, you gotta look beyond the walls. You gotta live inside your head.” Would that Michael—or the movie—had taken such advice. Instead, he and his story follow along inside the lines laid out for them: he escapes during an ill-advised transfer process, he leaves lots of bodies, and he heads to Haddonfield, where he means to find his baby sister, left alive during his 10-year-old spree and now grown up to be a babysitter.
But of course. Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) is still a good girl, still helps her less good friends Annie (Danielle Harris) and Lynda (Kristina Klebe) find time with their essentially faceless boyfriends, and still looks after some cute kids who are totally freaked out by the boogeyman in the white mask. For a moment you might imagine some campy fun is brewing when Annie’s sheriff dad turns out to be Brad Dourif, and Laurie’s own adoptive mom is none other than Dee Wallace Stone. But their alive time is brief, because the movie has to hurry on to more bloody mayhem and at last, a retread of the original’s basic final scenes sequencing: Laurie on the sidewalk, Laurie up the stairs, Laurie in the closet. Dark and gloomy, with less focus on poor Laurie’s ingenuity and small-sized escape artistry than on her agonized face (a shot of her in the foreground with her utterly menacing and uninteresting brother some distance off, looming, is well-composed, at least).
Given all the gore and hacking, you might imagine the remake would be chilling, or at least disturbing. But mostly it’s boring. When Loomis remakes his last minute reappearance, you know Laurie’s going to ask him about the boogeyman. You also know, even if you’re wishing it weren’t so, that his answer won’t be nearly so chilling as it was the first time you heard it.