Monday, November 1, 2010

In Defense Of Rob Zombie's Halloween

American horror directors are running out of ideas.  For every Drag Me to Hell or House of the Devil there are ten remakes of horror movies from the '70s and '80s.  In the last decade alone we've seen remakes of The Amityville Horror, The Crazies, Dawn of the DeadThe FogFriday the 13th, The Hills Have EyesLast House on the LeftMy Bloody ValentineA Nightmare on Elm Street, The Stepfather, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that's just naming the few that instantly come to mind.  None of these remakes were considered improvements on the originals, but that hasn't stopped movie studios from pumping them out regularly, or horror fans from flocking to theaters to see them., even if they inevitably wind up disappointed with the results.

One director who is not lacking for ideas is Rob Zombie.  If anything, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects suffer from an overabundance of ideas.  Densely packed set designs rub up against a dozen half-formed plot points, which add up less to a coherent story than a clearinghouse for the most lurid fantasies of Zombie's pop culture-saturated youth.  But even if those films don't ultimately cohere, there is still a palpable sense of joy to their making, and a feeling that Zombie is paying tribute to some of his favorite filmmakers without actually stealing from them.  For all of their gore and vulgarity, Rob Zombie's first two features feel like the work of a talented kid showing what he can do with his favorite toys.

So it was a bit disappointing to hear that his next project would be a remake of John Carpenter's seminal 1978 slasher Halloween.  After seven increasingly pointless sequels, it was hard to see what anyone could do with the Halloween franchise.  And although Zombie's take on the material made enough money for Dimension Films to finance a sequel two years later, it didn't take with critics.  Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a paltry 26% approval rating, and many critics predictably compared Zombie's version unfavorably to the Carpenter original.

But Rob Zombie's Halloween deserves better than being lumped in with the aforementioned crop of assembly-line remakes.  In many ways it rises above the disreputable slasher genre, and offers a fresh perspective on seemingly moribund material.  It isn't a flawless film by any means - some of the dialogue is embarrassingly juvenile, there are some pacing issues, and the film's second half is noticeably less interesting than the first.  And yet the 2007 Halloween is a visually stunning, surprisingly ambitious, and even occasionally emotionally resonant film that could hardly be further apart from the average horror film of the last decade.

Obstacles to Appreciation

The Reputation of the Original Film
John Carpenter's Halloween is often considered to be the landmark slasher film, an artistic high water mark that an army of sequels and imitators has consistently failed to live up to.  But it is not the best or the most interesting film of its genre.  It isn't as genuinely terrifying as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or as witty and imaginative as A Nightmare on Elm Street or Child's Play.  And the film is so basic and elemental that it won't reveal anything new with multiple viewings; much of its power comes from its stripped-down narrative and simple characterizations.  Halloween is to slasher films as Stagecoach is to westerns or The Maltese Falcon is to private eye movies, which is to say that it is perhaps the definitive example of its genre, the one that most clearly displays the traits of the genre by not deviating from them in any significant way.  Carpenter's film is essentially a girl being chased by an unstoppable maniac, with few embellishments other than his memorably creepy synth theme music and autumnal cinematography.

The Bias Against Remakes
Given that simplicity and minimalism are two key factors in the original Halloween's success, it does seem a bit odd that it would even occur to somebody to remake it.  Fleshing out the characters or providing motivations for Michael Myers' killing spree diminish the effectiveness of the material, as demonstrated in the seven Halloween sequels.  There is seemingly nothing to add to or subtract from the original experience, and who wants to see a more gory version of something they've already seen?  What could a director conceivably add to this tough little genre picture without disrupting its aesthetic?

The strength of Zombie's remake is that he essentially makes an entirely different film out of elements borrowed from Carpenter's original.  The first half of his film is devoted to a biographical study of the young Michael Myers (played as a ten year old by Daeg Faerch), and is therefore made up entirely of original material.  This part of the film is essentially a prequel to the events of Carpenter's original, documenting Myers'   troubled home life, his development into a killer, and his therapy sessions with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell).  There is a mournful tone to this half of the film that sets it apart from other works in the genre; in fact, it is hardly a slasher film at all, despite featuring a sequence where Myers murders his father, his sister, and her boyfriend.  Zombie successfully aims to methodically creep the viewer out with dreamy looks at nightmare images (the clown mask that Myers wears is seriously disturbing, and the image of the ten year old body wearing the classic Mike Myers mask for the first time is memorably fucked up).  The film uses elements of Carpenter's original (the famous mask, the theme song) but is otherwise telling a completely different story, demonstrating that remakes needn't be slavish recreations.

The Baggage of the Slasher Genre
Zombie's Halloween only really suffers when it becomes a slasher film in its second half.  It is nice that the filmmakers didn't feel a need to exactly copy Carpenter's plot, and I like that Zombie doesn't ask Scout Taylor-Compton to mimic Jamie Lee Curtis' performance as the original film's heroine in any way.  But it still feels as if Zombie has certain genre expectations that he feels he needs to fulfill, and when the film turns into one killing after another it turns somewhat dull.  The slasher film of the second half is fundamentally incompatible with the character study of the first half; it isn't possible to accept Myers as an unstoppable "boogie man" when the film's spent an hour humanizing him. If Zombie had stuck to his guns, he might have made one of the best horror films of recent years; as it is, the 2007 Halloween is simply the most interesting remake.  But it deserves credit for trying something new and ambitious in the mercenary world of slasher remakes, and largely succeeding beyond the standards of its genre.

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