Sunday, November 6, 2011

I (Still) Really Hate Rob Zombie's 'Halloween' Remake

Believe me - I realize that criticizing Rob Zombie's Halloween remake is a lot like kicking someone when they're already down. It's already been four years since the film was released and it's endured a pretty savage beating from both fans and critics alike. So what's the point? Why drag the corpse of this movie over the same old minefield of complaints? I haven't seen it since it was first released and after revisiting the original Halloween and a few of its sequels over the past few weeks, I wanted to see if maybe Zombie's take on the material played a little bit better now than it did back in 2007.

I have to start by saying that I don't have anything against Zombie as a filmmaker. I actually really enjoyed The Devil's Rejects and thought it showed a lot of promise in terms of his future as a writer/director. It's still the most confident entry in his filmography and whether you like it or not, it also established him as something of an auteur. I firmly believe that he's going to make a genuinely great film at some point. Unfortunately, the combination of Rob Zombie and the Halloween property represents a horribly flawed mismatch of director and material.

The reason Halloween 2007 doesn't work is the same reason that the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake failed - there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the franchise's villain. The filmmakers behind both projects didn't seem to realize what made Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger so scary in the first place. However, the worst that can be said about Freddy in the Nightmare remake is that he's boring and somehow detached from all of the mayhem that he's causing. Michael, on the other hand, is a completely different character. I understand that Zombie wanted to bring something new to the table and he had every right to try and make it his own. The franchise had long since run out of steam and it certainly needed someone brave enough to come along and shake things up. The problem is that Zombie introduced completely uninspired changes to the mythos and didn't even have the courage to commit to them.

The easiest way to point out Zombie's mishandling of the character is to examine the way he was presented in John Carpenter's 1978 original. After the iconic opening shot, we learn that the murderer whose POV we've been following is actually a small child. Six-year-old Michael Myers is a normal looking kid from a normal upper middle-class family. He's locked up in an institution where he remains mute and completely unresponsive to treatment. We don't know why he snapped and we can't understand his compulsion to kill. There's no reason Myers should be so evil... he just is. That's what's so terrifying. His family, his neighborhood... they look just like yours. He could be living next door to you.

The script refers to him as 'The Shape' - a reference to the fact that although he has all the identifiable characteristics of a human being, he's something else entirely. He's The Boogeyman. Pure evil personified. Once he escapes the mental institution that he's been locked away in for all of his life, he returns to his hometown and starts stalking a group of babysitters on Halloween. That's all we ever know about him. He never speaks. Through the exposition of Dr. Loomis (the Captain Ahab to Myers' white whale), we learn the how of this character, but never the why. That's part of what makes that original film so successful - the complete absence of motive. Even the way Myers dispatches his victims is cold and perfunctory. He never even breaks a sweat.

In my opinion, it's Carpenter himself who did the most harm to the franchise with his script for Halloween II. Introducing the idea that Laurie Strode, the first film's heroine, is Michael's sister instantly demystifies him. Suddenly, there was a motive and a list of rules - rules that most of the sequels would be forced to adhere to. Regardless, the way Myers is presented in the original Halloween still makes for one of cinema's all-time scariest antagonists. We naturally fear what we don't understand and the vagueness of that character (perfectly echoed in that expressionless mask) is simultaneously frustrating and terrifying.

Now let's look at the way Zombie depicts Myers...

In Halloween 2007, Laurie Strode is no longer the main character - Michael is. Instead of appearing briefly in the opening scene, the entire first half of the film is dedicated to a young Michael Myers. This is clearly where Zombie felt he had the most room to make the film his own. This was the one chapter of the character's history that was was largely undocumented. I obviously can't be sure about this, but it seems like maybe fleshing out the back story was the only way he could justify this film's existence.

I do have a serious problem with becoming so intimate with Michael right from the get-go. Knowing too much about him erases the power of his character and it goes back to what I said at the beginning - it's a fundamental misunderstanding of why he worked so well in the first place. My biggest issue, however, is not that Zombie wants to explain why Michael is so evil - it's that he does so with a series of cringe-worthy cliches.

It's just bullet points from the Wikipedia page on serial killers. Abusive home environment? Check. Bullied at school? Check. Tortures small animals? Check. Mommy issues? Check.

This version of the Myers family is pure white trash and their depiction is so hilariously over-the-top that it borders on parody. These are no longer your friends and neighbors - they're a carnival freak show that we're meant to point and laugh at. The other problem is that there's no real progression when it comes to the evil growing inside Michael. From the moment we meet him, he's already as fucked up as he gets. Ten minutes in and we're watching him dispatch his first human victim. We don't see a change in him. We don't see the moment where the switch flips. He's already someone we can believe would take another person's life.

There's no drama or sense of tragedy because the film starts with all of the psychological damage firmly in place. In short, there's no reason we need to spend so much time with young Michael Myers because we barely learn anything new about him. Forget all the Psychology 101 bullshit - all we really get is a more detailed account of  the events that eventually result in Myers putting on a mask and picking up a knife. Carpenter effectively relayed all of that information in a few minutes. Zombie makes us sit through almost an hour of it.

The film half is seemingly designed to explain why Michael is so fucked up, but the film answers that question immediately. How does this do anything but detract from what comes later, though? Are we supposed to feel bad for him? Zombie certainly puts a lot of effort in humanizing Michael Myers and if that's not to generate some level of sympathy, what's the point of it? By putting a human face on him and such a detailed back story behind it, it completely destroys what Zombie attempts to construct in the second half of the film.

This is what I meant before about him not having the courage to completely follow through with his vision. After the adult Michael Myers breaks out of the institution, it stops being a character study and becomes a beat-for-beat retelling of Carpenter's original film. Myers is no longer the film's focal point. We suddenly switch to Laurie Strode and now experience the remainder of the movie from her POV. It's jarring and falls apart for several reasons - the biggest being that Zombie has already removed any sense of suspense or dread because we know exactly what's hiding around the corner.

In the original, we knew as much about Myers as the main characters did. In the remake, we know his entire history, motive, what he's going to do next, and why. It doesn't matter how creepy Zombie tries to make him look - he's already robbed the character of his mystery. If Seven began with John Doe's traumatic childhood and chronicled him planning all of his crimes, it would destroy the rest of the film. We'd be able to put a face on our villain and we'd be one step ahead of the detectives.

One of the biggest flaws with Zombie's film is that it evidently wants Myers to come off as some sort of antihero in the first half of the film and then a genuinely threatening bad guy in the second half. It's one or the other with Michael - but it can never be both. A more nuanced filmmaker may have been able to pull something like that off (Mary Harron's work in American Psycho comes to mind), but the subtlety that's required to achieve that is not one of Zombie's strengths.

That's why I don't agree with those who claim that if this were an original film and not a remake of Halloween, it would have fared better. It might have helped a little, but it's still an awkwardly paced film with conflicting aspirations. The bottom line is that Halloween is the wrong franchise for Zombie. He has an obvious love and admiration for the old Universal monsters and that's probably why his version of Myers has more in common with someone like Frankenstein's monster than The Shape. To be honest, I think Zombie would have been more at home making a Friday the 13th film.

I've always disliked the hulkier versions of Michael. The first two films and H20 had the right idea - a nondescript individual with an average build. It again reinforces the idea that it could be anyone under there. In Zombie's film, he's a brute who stomps around and actually growls when he makes his kills. That's the antithesis of Michael Myers. Again, I understand the need to put your own spin on things - but if you're going to sell your film using the Halloween monicker, there has to be some level of respect for the spirit of the core concept. If you stray that far off course, what's the point?

Tim Burton's Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight represent vastly different takes on the source material. Both take certain liberties with the characters and diverge from the established mythology in many significant ways - but both stay true to the essence of what Batman is all about.  So it's not that I expected or even wanted the exact same movie Carpenter made in 1978. I'm only arguing that if they absolutely had to remake Halloween, it deserved a filmmaker who had a more substantial connection to the original and an understanding of the elements that continue to make it resonate so strongly.

Aside from Brad Dourif as Sheriff Brackett and maybe Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Loomis (though to be honest, I'm not as enthusiastic about his work here as most people), the performances are terrible, the dialogue is embarrassingly awful, and the score is a disorganized mess (the main theme is introduced way too early and continues to be used somewhat improperly) - but none of those things actually sink this ship.

It's the complete mishandling of the Michael Myers character that makes Halloween 2007 such a crushing disappointment. So unfortunately, it didn't play any better this time than the first time I saw it. Luckily, the original isn't going anywhere and I can still revisit it whenever I choose.

I am looking forward to Zombie's next film The Lords of Salem as it's a return to his own original material. As for Halloween, I really have no idea where the franchise goes from here or if there actually is a way to make Michael Myers scary again. I only hope that if it does continue, they move forward instead of going back.


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