Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) review

In 1978, I tried to see the original John Carpenter film, but I was only ten-years-old. Interestingly, the local theater played it again in 1980, as the word-of-mouth on the film had spread and it had become a major independent hit.

For a long time it was the most successful independent film ever made, though the lousy Blair Witch Project ended that record. What can I write about the original that hasn't already been written? It's incredible, and very atmospheric, a favorite, and still pretty plausible and creepy. It could happen. The same could be said for the new version.

Rob Zombie has given genuine horror fans a wonderful gift: we don't have to feel bad about missing the original when it came out anymore. This is equally good and pays incredible respect to the original, and Zombie discussed the project and his take on it with John Carpenter beforehand, something that wasn't done with the so-so 'Dawn of the Dead' remake.

Shot in the same widescreen Panavision (2.35:1), we get a familiar story with some significant changes: gone is the possible supernatural quality of Michael Myers, a phantasm who becomes something non-human, a part of the holiday itself. He's just 'the shape' emerging fully-formed in the 1978 version. In Zombie's recasting of the original screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill (RIP), the focus isn't on the mystery surrounding the killer, but offers some explanations as to why he is what he is.

This version makes the killer and his victims human, and this is where a number of so-called horror fans are going to be split. To make his point clear, the director begins the film before the prologue killings of the original, and paints a more contemporary and honest view of American family life, while setting it as a period piece in the late-1970s (the time of the original film's release).

It's a very vivid recreation of the decade that was my childhood, and it has an aspect of social realism to it, regardless of the stylization of the film itself. It's an awfully realistic depiction of squalid American working-class family life during that era, which I bore witness to in other families around my neighborhood. These are the people nobody cares about. Little has changed, as the movie makes clear, and the seeds are now bearing their fruit.

Rather than the brief glimpses of a straight-laced 1963 Myers family, we see a disaster of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. This wouldn't have been possible in 1978 to the degree it's depicted by Zombie and his collaborators (if you wanted an 'R-rating' then), and actor William Forsythe (Patty Hearst, Dick Tracy, The Devil's Rejects, and much more) does a fine job playing an abusive step-father to Sheri Moon's stripper mother. It's not a healthy home environment.

What I found mind-blowing, however, was just how well Rob Zombie remembers the cultural landscape of late-1970s America, it was jaw-dropping. From the expletive-laden, sexually humiliating slang of the kids bullying young Michael in a school bathroom, to the music, the kitsch (t-shirts and joke-stickers abound), and the attitudes, he's brought the 1970s to gasping, breathing life again. It's an incredible time-capsule, and it made for what is a great way to adapt the story to a contemporary culture and setting: NOW.

As one would expect, there is a lot of movie history and homage to be found in this film, and it's a real joy, but the director decided to take-up the aesthetic of Kubrick and Peckinpah in his depictions of violence and murder. What's that you say? Read on.

If you've ever watched a Sam Peckinpah film, you already know what I mean. If you've ever watched--truly watched--Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971-72--cut and re-released due to an early 'X-rating'), you understand what an anti-violence movie must do in order to get its message across: it has to show mayhem for what it is, which is drawn-out, ugly, and something that has consequences for the perpetrators and society. You're not supposed to get-off on the violence, you're supposed to be repulsed and fearful of it.

Insofar as violence and murder are concerned, it's well-established that once the door has been opened, it's rare that it ever gets shut until all the players are dead or neutralized in some fashion. Will gore hounds love Zombie's 'Halloween'? Yes and no. They'll enjoy the brutality and grimness--there's plenty of that on-offer here--but they're not going to find the violence entirely enjoyable or even tolerable...that is, if they're normal.

From "The Wild Bunch" (1969), to "Straw Dogs" (1971), and even to "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974) and his final film, "The Osterman Weekend" (1983), Sam Peckinpah wanted to show us that violence has consequences and that it is something ugly and to be feared. His message was cautionary, and that same message is apparent in Rob Zombie's take on Halloween. It's not meant to replace the original at all, but to compliment it.

The story-jump of fifteen-to-twenty-years is covered more here--the time that Michael Myers is locked-away in the mental institution, and his time with Dr. Sam Loomis.
As most fans of the original remember, it was the late Donald Pleasance who played this part, and exceptionally well. Cult legend Malcolm MacDowell lends the same authority to the role, we well as cementing the anti-violence message of the film by his mere presence, and his performance is of a more caring Loomis. He pities Michael Myers, and in a nice touch, his relationship with the killer is extended back further as a school counselor.

As in the last two Rob Zombie movies, we get a gaggle of b-movie legends: the great Ken Foree (1978's Dawn of the Dead, From Beyond, and much more), the incredible Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, House of 1,000 Corpses, etc.), Joe Pilato (The Matrix, and almost everything else), the great Udo Kier (Andy Warhol's Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire), Brad Dourif (Blue Velvet, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dune), Clint Howard (everything), Danny Trejo (Grindhouse, Maniac Cop 2, Whore, From Dusk Till Dawn, etc.), Richard Lynch (God Told Me To, The Sword & the Sorcerer, Deathsport, Vampire, and more), and several others who will please most movie buffs.

But what I found really smart was casting the Laurie Strode character (originally played by Jamie Lee Curtis) with someone with a low-profile as an actress--Scout Taylor-Compton. Little Daeg Faerch as '10-year-old Michael Myers' is the real eye opener here, and he makes the movie very unsettling. Imagine watching a child descend into insanity--I cannot think of anything more disturbing, but that's what Zombie depicts. It's like a slice of Poe, it's the essence of horror. We get to see the process unfold, even after the initial murders, and it's not exactly entertaining. It's truly horrifying to watch a little boy transform into a killer.

Very few films--to my knowledge--have ever depicted a child murdering another child in a drawn-out fashion (think Hitchcock's "Topaz"). The Loomis character adds to the 'whys' of how Michael Myers became a murderer--that he was a 'perfect storm' of 'internal and external influences,' someone with pre-existing tendencies who was pushed too-far by his environment. It might have went in another direction in another home, another community...another life. But it didn't. Rob Zombie's Halloween, then, can only be a classic tragedy that is almost mythic in its examinations of violence and the family.

Wisely utilizing an original score with the original Carpenter themes (albeit adapted) and a bulk of new musical-cues , as well as that same William Shatner Halloween mask, Zombie has scored a classic study in what makes a serial killer while retaining what made the original so good. One could find comparisons to Richard Speck or even Henry Lee Lucas and Ted Bundy. The parallels are there for the curious to examine. A must-see for those concerned about the roots of violence, and a solid addition to the canon of horror. Evil has a destiny alright--constructing its own demise. Rob Zombie has nothing to prove after this film, good job.