Rob Zombie’s Halloween – Another Take

There’s been a sense of cognitive dissonance for me ever since I saw Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, and liked it. Critics and fans alike seemed to despise this movie – it seemed there just couldn’t be enough bad things to be said about it. And in my original review, I defended the film while still admitting its (serious) flaws. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve found myself wondering more often “why do I like this movie?” Is it because my level of anticipation was so high I didn’t want to admit to disappointment? Is it because I’m incapable of disliking any movie named Halloween? Was I preemptively reacting to the negative feedback it got prior to release?

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I’ve never reviewed a movie (or anything) twice, but I think this one warrants a more in-depth analysis. I still have positive feelings for the movie but my perspective on it has changed since I wrote the original review. Certain aspects I’ve become less forgiving of, while at the same time learning to appreciate other subtleties that prompt me to want to defend the movie from the silent critics.

First let us speak of the original Halloween – a movie I also reviewed. I’ve said before that Halloween shows its age, and I don’t think there’s any denying that. It’s a masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece firmly planted in the 70’s. Remember, this movie is what established so many of the now-familiar slasher movie tropes, which on one hand makes it revolutionary, and on the other, makes it seem crude, like a first generation piece of technology. In the same way the very first iPhone seems basic and unrefined compared to the legion of phones it inspired, not to mention its own later iterations.

The original Halloween has a deep, meaningful place in my heart for reasons that should be very obvious. I have the logo tattooed on my body. It’s a cornerstone of my entire Halloween ritual. This is what allowed me to see past the datedness and even the flaws that were apparent to 1970’s audiences. But after having done Summer of Horror for two years now, and seen many more old, classic horror films than I ever had before, my perspective on the original Halloween has changed, and this affects my interpretation of the remake.

I discovered that old movies in general are ALL dated to some degree. Some quite drastically, and this is all totally independent of their reputation of quality, and as pieces of film history. To wit, I’ve found myself feeling fairly bored and restless due to the slow pace of these old horror movies. Going back to the Universal classics of the 1930’s it almost seems unfathomable that people were even scared of such things. It’s impossible for somebody who never lived in that era to send their consciousness back in time and recreate the experience of those films being new.

The thrust of all this is that, my perception of what constitutes a movie that “holds up” in the modern age has been re-aligned. Everything is relative. Halloween, as it turns out, holds up pretty damn well. Which begs the question: Was there any good reason to do a remake?

That is always the question, particularly in today’s remake-crazed Hollywood. Unless you’re Gus Van Sant and think that a shot for shot remake of a classic movie is a good idea, most everyone would agree that the point of remaking anything is to offer up a new vision. Rob Zombie, at that point in time, was a bit of an unknown entity as a film director, but his horror fiend background was unassailable. Based on his previous work however, it was clear that “slow paced, restrained, and minimal” (adjectives that described John Carpenter’s film) was not Zombie’s style.

Sure enough, his take on Halloween was certainly extreme. Gruesome. Unpleasant. Unrelenting. Filled to the brim with gore, foul language, rednecks, rape (in the director’s cut), strippers, 70’s rock, all those Rob Zombie staples. But that wasn’t all he brought to the table. The entire first half of the film is essentially a look at Michael Myers’ childhood descent into madness. And that key decision, I think, is where he lost people. It isn’t so much that the idea itself is a bad one; after all the original movie doesn’t give us any explanation at all for Myers’ sudden snap and subsequent murder spree. And the relationship between Myers and Dr. Loomis was always one of the most classic adaptations of the Dracula/Van Helsing, Frankenstein/Monster trope, and it takes center stage throughout the first act.

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To understand what didn’t line up here, you need to look at Rob Zombie’s Halloween as two movies in one. Like a grindhouse double feature. First up, an examination into how an “ordinary” kid, raised in an unstable, abusive household and constantly bullied at school can turn into a monster. It would seem as if Zombie was trying to give his Halloween a more complex, real world context. Whereas the original Dr. Loomis was only ever seen regarding Michael Myers as “Evil! Eeeeeevillllll!!!”, in the remake we see how diligently he tries to get through to the boy. We get glimpses of his broken psychology – obsession with hiding behind masks, an urge to torture animals, and a seeming dissociative personality when he fails to remember anything about his first murder rampage.

But then, the second movie begins. Once Myers reaches full adulthood, it becomes a totally different entity. It becomes a much more straightforward remake, even down to mimicking many of the same camera shots and dialogue. It is Halloween, seen through the eyes of Rob Zombie. And this is where things get a little perplexing. Michael becomes the prototypical mute slasher we all know him to be, and Loomis reverts back to the crazed doctor chasing him around town, warning the sheriff about the emotionless psychopath on the loose.

If this was where we were headed all along, what was the point of showing so much footage of Michael in the mental institution? Why did we need to see his redneck stepfather abuse him, or the school bully harrass him, or his mother commit suicide? Would the lack of any of these events have “saved” Myers?

Zombie attempts to bridge the gap between these two very different visions in a single line of dialogue by Loomis: “Michael was created by a perfect storm of internal and external factors, gone horribly wrong.” He tries to have it both ways. He takes a good stab (pardon the pun) at showing us a realistic, nuanced version of the Michael Myers legend, then throws it all out in order to get to the gory, gratuitous murder rampage we all were waiting for.

A lot of people felt that the first half of his Halloween stripped Myers of his scariest feature – mystery. In the original Halloween Michael doesn’t utter a single word or show a single emotion as a child or as an adult. He was “The Shape”. Not a human the way we know them, but a blank entity that only kills, and cannot be reasoned with. Certainly that’s a more chilling concept. However, I do believe that in more capable hands, the psychological approach could have actually worked. The problem, as previously noted, is that Rob Zombie is clearly more comfortable when he’s filming raging psychopaths. He was not going to pass up the opportunity to show what a 7 foot tall, hulking behemoth version of a masked killer could do in a modern, desensitized world with few boundaries.

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And he definitely delivers on that promise, without a doubt. The second movie within Halloween is a non-stop, brutal barrage of vicious killin’. Forget the patient, silent killer emerging from the closet and killing with one stab of the knife – the new Michael crashes through the walls of the closet instead of emerging from it, and stabs not once, but so many times it becomes almost comical. Extreme, indeed. And the dialogue… oh, the dialogue. Rob Zombie writes teenagers like they will keel over and die if they don’t insert at least one “fuck” into every sentence. Behold this savory line of dialogue from the school bully: “Fuck, if my fucking dad finds out I got fucking suspended he’s gonna fucking beat my ass.” (Yes, I also called out this specific line in my original review, but rest assured there are plenty more like it.)

It’s worth saying again how much I love the ending. I like to call it his “Texas Chainsaw Massacre ending”. Entirely different from John Carpenter’s (unintentional) sequel setup cliffhanger, Rob Zombie’s Halloween has a bloody, beaten, adrenaline-drunk Laurie straddling the unconscious Michael Myers, a revolver pointed at his face, firing empty chamber after empty chamber until a round finally goes off, covering her in even more blood. The camera rack zooms into a close up of her face as she screams hysterically, police sirens getting closer. Cut to black. It’s shots like these that convince you Rob Zombie has at least one great horror movie in him, in spite of his various shortcomings as a director.

I feel bad using the word “shortcomings”. It seems overly critical and brusque, but really the problem with Rob Zombie the director is a lack of restraint. With every film he seems to start by thinking about the things he personally likes to see in horror movies (gore, grit, rednecks, boobs, screaming, brutality, etc.) and amps up all of those ingredients to the maximum level of which he’s capable. He seems to need a dissenting voice to pipe up from time to time and say “Do you really need THAT character to make THAT sexual threat? Do you really need him to stab that nurse THAT many times?” Extreme moments in horror movies are supposed to be momentary shocks, but Zombie’s movies are more like endurance tests (his second Halloween makes this one seem like a stroll in the park, but that’s for another review).

Rob Zombie was behind the 8 ball from the very beginning with this movie. There was no point at trying to best John Carpenter at his own game and make that same kind of movie. But going “full Rob Zombie”, as he sort of did, makes this just another example of a horror remake that traded in the original’s uniqueness and subtlety for ham-fisted, in your face intensity. At least, that’s how I think most critics and audiences saw it. I’m not sure how many people realized that “Rob Zombie’s Halloween” was well and truly Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

I haven’t even touched on any of the actors in this movie; how good or bad their performances are. Honestly, I don’t think it’s consequential. Rob Zombie definitely has his personal slate of actors that he loves to use, mainly genre character actors like Ken Foree, Sid Haig, William Forsythe, Dee Wallace, his wife…. Malcolm McDowell as Loomis was a great “get”, as was Brad Douriff as Sheriff Brackett. Both of them swing for the fences in their roles, never mailing it in. Casting Tyler Mane as Michael was obviously all about physicality, since he never, you know, speaks or shows his face. In a way, a seven foot tall monster of a man being cast in the role of an anonymous, unassuming figure is a perfect representation of the main philosophical difference between Carpenter and Zombie’s respective Halloweens.

In the same way the adult Michael Myers was cast for his look, see Daeg Faerch (quite a handle) as Young Michael. He had WAY more heavy lifting to do than the character did in the original film, and results are inconsistent. I later learned that he’s French Canadian and naturally has a thick accent which is not detectable in the movie, so I suppose that earns him some extra points. But it’s his odd appearance that makes him stand out. There’s undeniably something sinister in his watery, ratlike eyes and natural frown. Finally, Scout Compton does her due diligence in shrieking, panicking mode – she’s a worthy scream queen. But in the pre-bloodshed scenes Zombie’s profanity-peppered dialogue doesn’t do her any favors.

As a matter of fact, the three would-be babysitter victims are all fairly unlikeable due to the way they’re written. Not that the stab fodder in a slasher movie needs to be particularly relateable, but at the very least the final girl needs to be someone we DON’T want to see dead.

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Nevertheless, there’s a palpable intensity to this second half of the movie, which leads me to my strongest compliment – Rob Zombie made Michael Myers scary again. Given that before this, the most recent iteration of Halloween saw Michael Myers defeated by a karate kicking Busta Rhymes, that’s no lean feat. Generations of slasher movies “inspired” by Halloween had neutered the Michael Myers mystique so much that there was no other option than to change the game. I’ve never been particularly prone to the scares in slasher films, but I remember my fists involuntarily tightening during the final scenes when I first saw this Halloween. That says more than this whole lengthy review conveys, to be perfectly honest.

Speaking to horror fans today, seven years later, there are still as many people who defend the film as the best of the series (apart from the original, or even in the face of it), as there are people who contend that it added nothing of value. At the very least, if you’re one of the rare few who would identify as a horror fan, and have never seen this movie, you definitely need to give it a watch. For better or for worse, there’s more than meets the eye here.

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