Friday, October 31, 2008

HALLOWEEN: From Carpenter To Zombie--A Not-So-Comparative Review

Well, gang, today is officially Halloween, and I'll quote my Creature-Grrl Frankie and say, Hello, everybody! I can tell you, this has been a ball and a half for all of us in the Monster Shop. Today for our last official post for The MonsterGrrls' 31 Days Of Halloween, I'm going to discuss one of the long-time favorites of this beloved holiday: the movie Halloween.

The horror movie, after being initially reviled in its early years, is now a perennial. From the German-Impressionist-influenced Grand Guignol theatre of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari to the celebrated and revered Gothic offerings of Universal Studios and England's Hammer Films, to the suspense, shock and terror of slasher films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to today's offerings such as
the Japanese-inspired The Ring and The Grudge and the intricate killing machines of the new Saw series, horror has become a driving force in the entertainment industry and the creative world. H. P. Lovecraft once stated that "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear," and it is possible that he was on to something.

Though many people watch them any time of the year, horror movies are most popular around Halloween. In 1978, horror fans got their own personal holiday film when John Carpenter released Halloween, a bogeyman story of a killer named Michael Myers who is described as "pure evil" by Dr. Sam Loomis, a psychiatrist who tracks the escaped Myers from the mental hospital where he has been incarcerated since 1963 to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois, where Myers, then six years old, first murdered his older sister Judith on Halloween night. Halloween went on to become one of Hollywood's most profitable independent films,
becoming enthusiastically accepted into horror canon and spawning a number of "slash-alikes" in addition to six sequels and two other films that supposedly "ended" the series, Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later (written specifically for the audience that had "rediscovered" teen horror films thanks to Wes Craven's Scream series) and Halloween: Resurrection. The sequel picked up directly after the events of Halloween, and began a retconning of the Michael Myers character to explain his disappearance--Michael was possessed, it seemed, by an evil cult's curse that drove him to kill his family as a sacrifice.

Last year, Halloween saw a new spawn enter the limelight. Director/musician Rob Zombie, who had made a name for himself in horror with his films House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, was responsible for bringing a new version of Halloween to the screen. The new film has been described as being more of a re-imagining of the Michael Myers legend than a direct sequel to any of the films that have preceded it.

For myself and the Grrls, Halloween is a rather personal film. It has the distinction of being the only film of the slasher genre to be fully approved by the Monster Shop (with the ardent disclaimer that young children should not be allowed to watch) and years after my initial viewing of it, I still find it a scary and excellently conceived film that outshines most of its peers. I was not pleased with the notion of there being a new version of Halloween, nor was I enthusiastic about Rob Zombie as a directorial choice. I had seen House Of 1000 Corpses (or, as I have referred to it, House Of 1000 Texas Chainsaw Massacres) and because of that film I was not moved to view Devil's Rejects at all. I could see that for the most part, Zombie paid more attention to whirlwind, heat and flash than such things as a decent story and discernible plot. By the same token, I was also aware that worse directorial choices existed, such as Eli Roth, whose complete garbage known as the Hostel movies is now part of the horror scene and jump-started the despicable "torture-porn" subgenre of horror. So I would have taken Zombie over Roth any day of the week--at least Zombie loved the original film...

With these things in mind, I have determined to present a look at both of these films and discuss them for our readers here at the Harbinger on this very special day. So let's drag them onto the slab and see what's sticky...

(Warning: there will be spoilers. If you have not seen either film, stop here.)

The Original

The original Halloween tells a simple, uncomplicated story, one that a group of teenage kids might actually have told each other on Halloween night at a get-together. The film opens by showing the murder of Judith Myers by her brother Michael, and we view this through a first-person perspective, which not only adds to the horror but traps us within it: we see what the killer sees. This becomes more clear when the killer dons a mask and we view his perspective through the eyeholes, all the way up to the murder (which, for its time, showed only slight nudity and very little blood, most of it on Michael's hands). We are not given a reason for this murder, and it becomes worse when in the final part of this scene, our mystery killer is revealed to be a six-year-old boy in a clown costume. The shot, of young Michael with bloody hands and bloody knife standing between his middle-class upwardly mobile parents, is not only horrifying but sad, which works well. Horror, at its heart, is a story of tragedy.

Cut to the same neighborhood, 1978, Halloween. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a "good girl" who is being stalked by the now-adult Michael Myers (Nick Castle) who has returned to Haddonfield after his escape from Smith's Grove Sanitarium. Myers, in turn, is being pursued by psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who has had Myers under his care for years, and now describes him as "evil." Because of this, Loomis had planned to have Myers committed indefinitely, but Myers has escaped and returned
to Haddonfield, presumably to begin killing again--which he does, in short order. The ghostlike Myers manages to kill Laurie's friends Annie (Nancy Kyes), Linda (P.J. Soles) and Linda's boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) before finally catching Laurie in the house she was babysitting in. Despite Laurie's efforts with a knitting needle, a clothes hanger and a knife, Myers is unstoppable, and Loomis is forced to shoot him six times with a gun. Myers falls out of the bedroom window, and Laurie is saved... but they discover afterward that the body is nowhere to be found...

This film, while very stylistic, is kept simple, and shows none of the excesses or machinations that would precede it or other films in the Halloween series. The film's ordinary settings and continuous first-person perspective contribute to the oppressive feel, trapping the audience within the story along with protagonist Laurie, whose "good-girl" attributes and responsible behavior are a sharp contrast to her peers Annie and Lynda. The murders, while shocking for their time, are relatively low on gore, and the nudity is understated as well (in a key scene, when Michael Myers has just killed Lynda's boyfriend Bob and is appearing before her in Bob's glasses and a sheet, the camera actually moves away from P.J. Soles' bared breasts). The score, written and performed by Carpenter himself, is now as familiar to us as Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist and contains many jarring electronic notes and effects. The elegance and quietness of this film would sadly suffer in later sequels, but despite the gimmickry and additional gore of these later films in the inevitable Halloween series, the original film still retains a status of mastery among horror fans and students of horror filmmaking.

The Remake

In June of 2006, it was announced that metal musician/horror auteur Rob Zombie would be directing a new Halloween film, a remake of the original 1978 film. Zombie announced that the film would not be a "remake" in the sense of Gus Van Sant's ill-fated shot-for-shot-recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, but instead would combine elements of prequel and remake, delving deeper into Myers' back story and revealing the reason why he wears the mask.

This all looked great on paper. The actual film itself comes across as a strange and sometimes wrongheaded hodgepodge of elements that in many ways seem vastly over-stylized when compared to the simplicity of the remake. Zombie's new film begins by revealing the home life of the young Michael Myers, played by newcomer child actor Daeg Faerch. Instead of the middle-class upbringing we see in the original film, Michael is the product of a white trash family, including Deborah, his
loving but helpless mother who works as a stripper in a bar (Sheri Moon Zombie), her disabled, abusive boyfriend/stepfather figure Ronnie (William Forsythe), and his slutty and equally abusive older sister Judith (Hanna R. Hall). The only person in the family that Michael loves, apart from his mother, is his little sister Boo, who (in this film) will eventually grow up to be Laurie Strode. Michael's emotional detachment from the world finally explodes into full-blown psychosis when he brutally murders a classmate who bullies him about his mother's occupation, then kills Ronnie, Judith, and Judith's boyfriend Steve on Halloween night. None of this pays any attention to the fact that the Michael Myers character has already been established in the original film as the product of rather straight-laced whitebread parents, and most of it seems to come from Zombie's apparent obsession with white trash (witness both House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, both of which prominently feature these character types as main characters).

From here, we see an attempted rehabilitation of Michael by Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who first appears as an oddly hippie-like figure, then gradually becomes... well, Malcolm McDowell. During this part of the film, Michael is taken to Smith's Grove Sanitarium, where he begins to internalize himself on a cue from a well-meaning orderly (Danny Trejo) who tries to help him survive his incarceration. Dr. Loomis and Deborah try desperately but unsuccessfully to reach Michael, and Deborah finally commits suicide after witnessing Michael's murder of a nurse who insults him.
Over the next fifteen years, Michael grows into an enormous hulk of a man (professional wrestler-turned-actor Tyler Mane) who constantly wears various homemade masks (some of which look like wrestling masks--if this is supposed to be an in-joke, it's not funny) and will not speak to anyone. Dr. Loomis gains some fame and notoriety off Michael's case, but eventually he throws up his hands and closes the case, as he cannot reach Michael. Everything goes south in a hurry when Michael, during preparations for a transfer to a maximum-security cell, explodes and kills the sanitarium guards, and later a truck driver to obtain his clothes (which is meant to be an exposition on how Michael got the now-famous coverall). Most of these victims are played by the cast of former '70's grindhouse stars that Zombie had utilized for his last two movies, among them Leslie Easterbrook and Ken Foree, who plays the trucker. On Halloween, Michael shows up in Haddonfield and breaks into his now-abandoned former home, recovering the knife and Halloween mask (you know, the mask) from the night he killed his sister.

After this
potentially promising but shaky exposition (I mean, c'mon, Rob, you've really got to get over this thing with white trash), it all becomes mainly the story of Halloween as ciphered through Zombie's viewpoint, which is unfortunately probably the same viewpoint he used when he was a teenage kid watching this movie. Laurie is shown to be without innocence, which ends up polluting the whole theme of good versus evil in the original and traps it in the same milieu as modern "torture-porn" horror, making all the characters reprehensible and leaving the audience with nobody to root for. Her friends Annie and Lynda are without individual personalities, which was also not true in the original, and all of Michael's victims, who were simply killed in the original, are not only killed but psychologically tortured, which is too complex a response from a psychopathic killer who is presented as being almost an automaton. Much of the elements that made the original so completely creepy and supernaturally tinged are screwed up because of Zombie's obsessions with grindhouse film and 1970's trash cinema; the missing tombstone from the graveyard, which added an eerieness to the original film, is marred by Zombie's decision to replace the missing tombstone (which had no replacement in the original) with a totem cross wrapped in the corpse of a dead dog. The scene where Michael kills Annie is a literal aping of the first murder scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all the way down to the sliding door. There is also a lot of what I refer to as Drunken-Monkey-Cam going on in the final third of the movie, which I suppose is meant to heighten the fear, but mostly causes nausea.

In the final scene where Laurie attempts to hide from Michael, she crawls into the wall of the house, and the first word which came to my lips was Saw. This was where the movie fell apart for me completely; there had been numerous and sundry cracks all along, but the whole thing just went belly-up right here. It's one thing when you take a favorite movie (not just your favorite, but one that's everyone else's too) and attempt to remake it into something of your own vision, but it's another thing entirely when you start quoting modern horror movies within it. Plus, Rob Zombie has this weird, weird thing about women crawling on their hands and knees. It happens all through this movie: in the first part where Michael kills his sister, in nearly all the murders of the other female characters, and in this last scene.

Final Conclusion

There's no question about it: the remake is pretty much as bad as the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which I haven't ever viewed, actively boycotted when it was released and still won't watch to this day. It is not worth your time, especially on Halloween, and I would either rent or buy the original or watch one of the hundreds of other, better movies out there, some of which the Grrls and I gave you to play with in our posts this month. But if you don't believe me, here's the opinion of a professional. I had an email communication with Southern mystery writer Carolyn Haines about this movie when it came out, and was given this personal review, which is probably the most damning statement of all:

"I went to see that movie, and my response is a big yawn and a roll of the eyes. Zombie has taken a scary movie about a young girl whose psychopathic brother becomes a killer with supernatural power and turned it into a sleazy, boring bloodfest with scenes of murder so repetitive that they are boring beyond belief. In the original, the audience cared about Jamie Lee Curtis. Not so with any of the characters in this re-make. And worst of all, I detected a blatant thread of misogyny in this re-make. Women, all bloody and some nude, crawl and grovel. Every female killed crawls and grovels. Lots of toe jiggling, too. Men's toes jiggle as they die; women crawl and grovel helplessly. Disgusting. Apparently the directors working in this genre today have a difficult time telling a simple horror story. Perhaps they should go back in time to movies like The Innocents or some of the Boris Karloff Thriller episodes. And if a director can't improve on a film, he/she shouldn't be allowed to copy it. You can post this and use my name if you want to--I'm tired of spending my hard-earned cash for a shoddy film."

And so, to quote Mike Mignola's Hellboy, there you go. Now go get the original and see a real scary movie.

Happy Halloween...