Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A criticism/homage

I finally got around to watching Rob Zombie's Halloween "re-imagining" this weekend. Before I go further, I have two disclaimers...wait, three.

One is that I will watch nearly every horror movie, despite the fact that there are so few really good ones. I'm a fan of the genre, have been since I was 8 and I snuck out to the living room to watch Friday the 13th behind my babysitter's back.

The second is that I not only consider the original Halloween the best and most influential horror film of all time, but I believe it also belongs on any list of the best movies ever. C'mon, AFI, get on the ball.

The third is that I'm not sure it's possible to "spoil" a movie that's a remake, unless you haven't seen the original. If you haven't seen the first Halloween, then stop reading this column immediately and go rent it. Or don't. But I wouldn't read this without seeing it, because it will most likely bore you silly. At any rate, I don't think I'm going to give away anything that will "ruin" the new version for you, but I'm not going to go out of my way to omit details, either.

First, I did like a couple things about the Zombie version. It moved along quickly and was fairly entertaining, despite its two-hour running time. This was my first experience with Zombie direction, and I found it to be competent visually. Also, there was frequent use of the score from the original film, which is one of the most iconic arrangements ever, up there for me with all those awesome John Williams scores.

I also liked that Zombie didn't try to do what Gus Van Sant did with his remake of Psycho, which changed nothing but the actors. What was the point of that? Zombie made some changes and filled in some blanks. However, he did keep some of the exact same shots, like Michael Myers posing in the boyfriend's ghost costume with the glasses pulled over it, and the scene where Dr. Loomis goes to the cemetery and Judith Myers' gravestone is gone.

Zombie also predictably amps up the gore factor; the 70's Halloween is nearly bloodless. Let's just say this one is not.

He also gives his presumably young male core demographic what they want: lots and lots of female flesh. If you read my blog at all, you know this does not offend me. In fact, it's fair to say I encourage them. Boobies, that is. And I really liked the opening scene of a slutty-hot Judith Myers and her boyfriend, before Michael dices her up. And Linda's topless shot is longer and more revealing than in the original Halloween. Kudos there.

However, the third topless scene cancels out the other two and then some. You know Seinfeld's rap about "good naked" vs. "bad naked"? Well, Danielle Harris' scene as Annie starts off good and quickly veers into "cringe naked" territory. First of all, Harris is the actress who appeared as a child (and apparent Michael Myers protege') in Halloween IV and V. She was also Bruce Willis' daughter with braces in The Last Boy Scout. I couldn't decide if seeing her breasts was intriguing or sketchy. It quickly turns definitively to blasphemy when Myers grabs her still-topless, writhing, bloody, screaming body and drags her face down across the living room floor, bloody boobs scraping. She later lays face up, sobbing and moaning, with her plasma-smeared breasts bared for a long while.

I am no prude, but I've never been partial to the sex-mixed-with-violence mindset. I understand the purpose of something like that in a movie like The Accused or Casualties of War. But in a slasher flick that teens are going to see because it's a fun Friday night? That's sending some very dangerous messages.

But the part that disappointed me the most was Zombie's experimentation with "new" aspects of the story. He goes more into the "motivation" of Michael Myers as a young boy. We see young Mikey's home life in detail. He has an alcoholic, abusive, completely one-dimensional stepfather, a stripper for a mother (who keeps claiming right before Michael goes off on his killing spree that "tomorrow will be better," and we never find out what she meant by that), and an oversexed sister, which is the only connection to the original, as far as I can tell. We also see Michael's school life, where he's bullied for no good reason by an equally one-dimensional teen who later ends up on the wrong side of the tree branch Michael employs in his first homicide. Oh, and then there's the dead cat Michael brings to school in his backpack, and the pictures of dead dogs the principal finds in Michael's locker which he shows Mrs. Myers (remember, she's a stripper) during a parent-teacher conference.

It's all very subtle.

We also see plenty of Michael's face (although he has an affinity for masks) and hear him talk. They chose a petulant, pig-faced actor with long hair to play him. He comes off as a brat, but not especially terrifying. He engenders neither fear nor sympathy. He gradually becomes non-talkative and spends all his time in masks, before breaking out of his asylum in a Terminator 2-style scene. He continues to keep his hair long and unkempt, which Zombie evidently equates with scary, perhaps because that's how he wears his own, and he changed his name to "Zombie" because it's, you know...scary.

The problem is, it's not any more frightening than watching the nightly news, which I realize can be very frightening, but in a more pedestrian, soul-draining way. He gives us all these reasons why Michael became the way he did, and perhaps implies our society could be full of potential little Michaels. He also attempts to humanize Michael by showing a connection between he and his younger sister, Laurie. She's the only one he doesn't kill in the house that first Halloween night, and when he encounters her later as a young woman (after carving up all of her promiscuous friends), he holds up a childhood picture of the two together in some vague attempt at brotherly love.

All of this made me realize why I love the original so much, and why it's so frickin' scary. The kid in that one is from a "normal" family; his parents' only fault seems to be underestimating their daughter's sex drive when they leave Michael to her watch on Halloween night. For no apparent reason, other than the fact his sister opens her legs (a code that Halloween basically created), a six-year-old boy takes a large kitchen knife upstairs, walks into his sister's room, and stabs her over repeated protestations without saying a word. When his parents find him, bloody knife still in hand, and remove his mask, he's just standing there, staring blankly. They are astonished. What the hell happened here?

Cut to Dr. Loomis several years later, on Michael's 18th birthday. Unlike in the new version, Loomis doesn't want to be Michael's "friend." Get this chilling exchange:

[referring to a partially eaten dog]
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A man wouldn't do that.

Dr. Sam Loomis: This isn't a man.

Dr. Sam Loomis: I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes... the *devil's* eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... *evil*.

No reason. No logic. No long, straggly hair. Just evil.

He goes after his sister, who was an infant when he was sent away. Why? Doesn't matter. He does it with single-minded purpose. She's being stalked for reasons she (and we) don't comprehend. We just know she's terrified. And so are we.

After Loomis shoots Michael six times, driving him off a second floor balcony, a broken, petrified Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode tells Loomis (although it's delivered as a question, with a childlike need for assurance): "It was the boogeyman."

His response: "As a matter of fact, it was." His premise is confirmed when he looks to the lawn below and Michael is gone.

The last scene (and famous lines) is more or less repeated in the Zombie version, but it has much less resonance. After all, we know he's not the boogeyman. He's the product of a screwed-up home environment who wanted to reunite with his baby sister.

It occurs to me that Zombie's version could be seen as "liberal" while John Carpenter's represents a "conservative" outlook. If you've come this far, bear with me.

Liberals are known for trying to see the whole picture, grey areas and all. They want to figure out the "why" for actions, instead of just reacting. In real life, I agree with this philosophy.

But in horror movies, I want my good and evil clearly defined. I am much more disconcerted by the idea that a kid could come from a stable, upper-middle class environment in the suburbs and become a monster than that the superhuman beast is the son of white trash, a modern-day equivalent of Burris Ewell.

I want to think of Michael Myers the same way conservatives think of Osama Bin Laden- an malevolent force born to wreak havoc on average, hard-working people, not something created by societal deficiencies.

Wow. I had no idea I had this much to say or that we'd end up here (Osama Bin Laden...what the hell?). Thanks for reading, if you got this far. If anyone's seen the new movie or is a fan of the old one, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Lance Christian Johnson said...

I've seen the old one, a long time ago though. I remember liking it quite a bit. I had some curiosity about the new one, but after your review, I'm not interested.

I also have different standards for reality versus fiction, and I think that trying to humanize the killer takes away too much - at least, from this type of a story.

Explanations aren't necessarily a good thing. This is what I like about Romero's zombie movies - he never explains what's causing them. Just like with Michael Meyers, what explanation would actually be satisfying? None, I'd say.

Nolan said...

Exactly. Growing up trailer trash doesn't make you a superhuman killing machine. No explanation is better- he's bad just because. Do not fuck with him, because he feels no pity. Much scarier, like Montressor in "The Cask of Amontillado," who tells us Fortunato has injured and insulted him, but never backs that up with any specifics. That he takes so much glee in burying him in the wall and getting away with it is all the more troubling without a good explanation as to why he did it.

Peter said...

No time to go into as much detail as you did, but here goes...

I've never been a fan of the original. As a kid it scared me, which was reason enough to love it. But as an adult, it doesn't have the same effect. The music is great, but the movie relies too heavily on the music. If you still find that jingle scary the 153rd time its played, then you'll like the movie. If the music's not enough, then you won't be a fan of the film. Throw in Jamie Lee's boobs and I'm a fan for life, but in the absence of that...

And by the way, Halloween has the worst bunch of sequels ever produced with the worst being the 3rd installment, "Season of the Witch." It has almost no connection to the original and has sort of a St. Paddy's Day on acid feel to it (maybe that's only a bad thing to me).

The remake was alright, but prefer the original. I liked some of Zombie's other efforts more (in part, because his wife wasn't a mom, she was a psychopathic killer who couldn't keep her clothes on). But also because I think you're right...giving the audience an explanation (and not a particularly interesting one) makes it less scary.

I was happy to see that you caught that that was Danielle Harris (and I too was oddly conflicted about her topless scene), but there's one thing you missed. Michael's sister was played by another child star. Although I can only think of one role, it's a role you certainly know...she was Jenny in Forrest Gump, as in "Run, Forrest, Run" Jenny. As I was watching her nude scene, I knew she looked familiar, but couldn't place her. When I did...again...I was oddly conflicted about it.