Widely disliked, even vehemently hated by most genre fans, Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” deserves more respect than most devotees of the original give it.
There are certain movies that you are required to not only watch, but absolutely love to be considered a horror fan. Everyone has their favorites, but there is an unofficial list of films you must ingest and thoroughly enjoy before being accepted into the ranks. And one title that is guaranteed to make this list every time until the sun explodes is Halloween.
John Carpenter’s immortal classic following the terrifying All Hallow’s Eve between an escaped madman and an unfortunate trio of babysitters is considered top-tier horror, the granddaddy of the slasher subgenre, the one that all others look up to. It’s one of the few horror films that even the snobbiest of critics cite as a masterpiece. It’s so good that even the worst of its several sequels cannot even touch what came before it.
So it may surprise you to learn that I am not a big fan of Halloween.
It wasn’t a movie I grew up with. And when I finally did get around to seeing it near the end of high school, I wasn’t exactly moved. Of course, I respect the hell out of it and appreciate the enormous influence it’s had on the horror genre, and if nothing else, the music is dope. I own it on Blu-Ray and I watch it at least once a year, if only to have it on in the background while baking pumpkin-flavored confections.
In truth, I certainly don’t see any problems with it, and it doesn’t annoy me or even strike me as overrated. It’s just not one of my favorites. And no matter how hard I’ve tried to sit down and actually enjoy it from start to finish, I always end up finding something better to do.
So perhaps I was the perfect audience for Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, that miniscule percentage of horror fans that noticed room for improvement in a cultural touchstone.
IN THE SHADOW OF A LEGEND
Remakes are generally met with criticism upon announcement. But for every garbage film with a familiar name, there’s at least one person saying, “It’s not that bad.” Remakes aren’t always a brazen attempt to “out do” the original, just as originals aren’t inherently superior by simply existing first.
The best remakes (The Thing, The Fly, Maniac, Suspiria) do more than put a new coat of gloss on an established piece of work for a new audience. They employ talented actors and visionary directors, they punch up the script with new pathos for characters and challenging new themes, and visual effects get their deserved glory with advancing technology.
The only unnecessary remakes are the ones that just use the original script and throw in CGI and cell phones. It’s all in execution, and I suppose, intent.
I don’t think anyone would argue that a Hollywood studio rebooting a beloved franchise is anything less than a cash grab. However, we can’t forget that the original Halloween was little more than a cash grab either.
The biggest risk anyone took with the movie was hiring a virtually unknown director, who just so happened to be the immensely talented and innovative legend we know today.
John Carpenter famously recalls being approached by investors to make a movie about a killer stalking babysitters, and the rest was up to him. Carpenter took that hollow concept and created a hollow killer — The Shape — not considering that this guy in a dime store Star Trek mask would become an icon not only of the genre, but cinema itself.
Studios may be shallow, but directors rarely are, and I believe in my heart of hearts that Rob Zombie signed onto the Halloween remake because he’s a fan. No matter your feelings on his work, you can’t say he doesn’t love horror — every grimy, exploitative, over-the-top bit of it — and his aesthetic tastes are brought to vivid simmering life in every movie he makes.
Rob Zombie fans, much like Stephen King fans, are a dedicated bunch, and we know quite well what we’re getting into with every new venture.
There’s sure to be gushy violence, grimy sex, and more than a few baffling lines of dialogue. But there’s also experimental cinematography, a carnival-funhouse aesthetic, a killer soundtrack, and compelling villains.
You can’t really have the good without enduring the bad, and often the bad makes the good all the more appealing. We learn to love the flaws as charming fragments in a beautiful, bloody mosaic…or at the very least, we accept them with a strained smile and a defeated shake of the head.
Is it particularly creative for young Michael to come from a broken home? Is writing Mrs. Myers as a stripper a thinly-veiled excuse to squeeze in that Zombie signature, the Sheri Moon butt shot? Is any of this first act necessary when the second act remains nearly beat-for-beat true to the original? Can Rob Zombie write tolerable dialogue for anyone that isn’t a psychotic redneck?
UNMASKING THE BOOGEYMAN
These are not unjust questions. But it appears Zombie’s greatest affront to the Halloween legacy was dare to ask the ultimate question: “Who is Michael Myers?”
Some of you may never have wanted that question answered, and that’s fine. Sometimes the idea of a soulless killing machine with little motivation and no humanity is much scarier than a recognizable human being. After all, Michael Myers was intentionally created as a blank slate for the audience to project their own boogeymen upon, and nothing is more frightening than the unknown.
On the other hand, when you get familiar with a monster, when his appearance is your favorite part of the film, when the fear factor is all but gone and a vicious killer begins to feel like an old friend, you can let your mind wander about the man behind the mask.
Forgive me, and forgive Rob Zombie, for being curious.
Instead of starting things off with the immortal piano theme and stabby-stab-stab, we travel back to how it all began, the morning of that fateful Halloween all those years ago. For the first act of the movie, we kick back and spend some time with the Myers family, and what a postcard they are.
If there is one thing Zombie does well, it’s sadistic hillbillies screaming at each other, and we get that in spades here.
The Meyers family is, for lack of a better word, busted. Deborah Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a put-upon single mom struggling to raise three kids on a stripper’s salary. Her boyfriend Ronnie (William Forsythe), out of work and confined to a wheelchair over some unspecified accident, contributes to the household by spewing abuse at everyone. Judith Myers (Hanna Hall, aka baby Jenny from Forrest Gump) is the snotty teenage sister, somehow meaner and trashier than most older sisters in horror movies. Add in a screaming baby, and it’s truly a living hell.
Young Michael (Daeg Faerch) is quiet and obviously troubled, given his affinity for KISS and killing his pet rats. Like any weird kid, he’s picked on by literally everyone around him aside from his ever-understanding mother. When he’s not getting harassed by Ronnie and Judith at home, he’s cornered by bullies at school.
But today is Halloween, and nothing is going to spoil Michael’s favorite holiday. Not even that kid from Spy Kids calling his mom a whore.
Michael’s walk home from school is one of the reasons why I think this movie is special.
It’s a brief but harrowing sequence that gives us a taste of what’s to come, with its own nods to the original. Michael stalks his bully (Spy Kids himself, Daryl Sabara) by appearing and disappearing behind trees lining the street, not seeming to move at all, all while that iconic score thuds away in the background.
The bully walks down a deserted path, supposedly alone with the rustling leaves, when suddenly — like Jack Torrence chopping down poor Dick Halloran — Michael jumps out from behind a tree and smashes his kneecaps with a fallen limb.
The bully is furious at first, recognizing Michael despite the clown mask, and threatens to throttle him. But when Michael hits him again, and again, with only that cold tilt of his head showing any sign of life, the bully quickly realizes he’s in serious trouble.
As he begs for his life and apologizes for everything he’s done, we see a masterpiece of realistic, stomach-churning makeup effects on his destroyed face: his nose is bleeding badly, his teeth are shattered, and his left eye is reduced to a cluster of blood. We see the bully’s point of view as Michael beats the life out of him. The camera jumps between his bloodied face wincing with every blow and reeling glimpses of the trees above against the autumn sky, until finally he crumples and dies, a slow, subtle deflation of the body.
It’s a gripping, powerful sequence, and seems horrifyingly true to life. Brutal, yes, even overly so — but it might be the most effective of the gory scenes in a film disparaged for its use of gore.
THE MAKING OF A MONSTER
Halloween night is same as it ever was, only with a slightly higher body count—a couple of deadbeat boyfriends on top of the inevitable Judith stabbing. The scene ends with paramedics wheeling bodies out of the Myers’ house, Deborah weeping over her daughter’s bloodied body, and Michael sitting quietly in the back of a police car.
What is essentially the same sequence of events we know so well is given decidedly more weight and drama in the new version, if only truly illustrated in the agony and horror on Sheri Moon’s face.
We spend the next half hour of the movie with Michael in the asylum, going through daily therapy sessions with Dr. Loomis, played by the incomparable Malcolm McDowell. No one could ever replace Donald Pleasence, but you could recast literally any role in film history with Malcolm McDowell and I would be thrilled.
His Loomis is a groovy psychiatrist who goes into the Meyers case with swaggering confidence, with his tinted aviators and modern methods to stay hip with the kids. But as Michael’s days in the asylum turn into years, Loomis realizes that what should have been his hottest case becomes his greatest failure, as the boy sinks deeper into the darkness of his own mind.
One of the better moments in this movie is Michael’s last glimpse of his own humanity.
In a session with Loomis, screaming behind his mask, he’s reduced to weeping. He strips off the mask, his face sweaty and streaked with tears, he says, “I just wanna go home.” Loomis sadly says that he can’t, and when Michael asks why, Loomis says, “Because you’ve done terrible things.”
The confusion on Michael’s face is gutting, and his defeat as he crumples into sobs is truly heartbreaking. It is this point that what was left of Michael’s childhood sweetness fades away forever, and there is no turning back.
The time we spend in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium is, admittedly, a little long-winded. I wouldn’t say the film grinds to a halt as much as it slows to a leisurely stroll. The rape scene is horrible, and it goes on too long. But to be fair, this is exactly how rapists should be dealt with — pants around their ankles, choke-slammed into a wall until their skull bursts.
Maybe what people truly hate about this movie (but can’t admit) is the way Danny Trejo goes out. The kindly old janitor, seemingly the only staff member who isn’t completely shitty, treats Michael like a human being even when all others abandon him, and he still gets murdered. I suppose this is to show us Michael’s complete lack of mercy, but it is truly heart wrenching watch poor Trejo getting beaten to a pulp while screaming, “I was good to you Mikey!”
After this bloodbath, we finally make our way back to Haddonfield, where things play out much the same as they did in 1978, with a little more swearing, gore, and bare breasts to spare. But it’s a cozy Haddonfield, a place I wish I lived around Halloween—crisp autumn leaves, a pumpkin on every porch, and candy passed out at every house.
A REASON TO GIVE A DAMN
I really cannot stress enough that the thing that makes Zombie’s Halloween work is its characters, more specifically its cast.
The man is not great at writing dialogue, at least not for anyone outside of the Firefly family. Normal people (that is, the non-murdering type) in Zombie’s universe are wholesome and goofy and speak fluent exposition. It’s not a bad thing, but it can be cringe-inducing at times.
What keeps this from being insufferable is his knack for hiring talented actors that are somehow able to make this nonsense work.
Horror icons like Dee Wallace and Brad Dourif, and even younger actors like Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris (who played Michael’s niece Jamie in the fourth and fifth installments of the original series) create likable characters out of hollow archetypes.
Their conversations are trite but the performances are layered with affection, sincerity, and real sweetness. These aren’t just vapid teenagers and stale suburbanites ripe for slashing. They’re sweet kids with nice families trying to live their lives and enjoy the holiday.
A particularly gutting scene is when Michael busts in on Laurie’s parents, quickly dispatching her dad while her mother is dragged around the room and silently interrogated about where her daughter is. Dee Wallace is amazing in this scene, and really brings the horror to life with her screams and refusal to give up any information about her baby.
It’s only made worse when a few minutes later, the sheriff calls their house and gets the answering machine. The Strodes’ goofy “Happy Halloween” outgoing message being played over images of their silent corpses in the living room. You really feel the loss of two sweet innocent people hanging heavy in a quiet house.
I believe that Laurie gets along great with her parents.
I believe that she loves her friends (even if they sort of take advantage of her). I believe that Annie and Lynda are pretty popular girls who will bail on all else to hang out with their boyfriends, but still care about the dateless best friend they leave behind.
And these kids. THESE KIDS. The babies being sat are sassy and cloyingly precocious on paper, but these little angels give my kids from Stranger Things a run for their money on charm and realism. You grow fond of these characters, so it makes it all the more harrowing and upsetting when their lives are shattered by a monster on the loose.
It’s easy to write off Zombie as an exploitative gorehound based on aesthetic alone, but to do that ignores his eye for striking imagery, his knack for killer casting, and his ability to write villains we love to hate and victims that transcend being lambs to slaughter.
Zombie’s Halloween has its flaws (especially in the interminable home stretch of chasing Laurie around the neighborhood). But overall, I personally find it to be more emotionally effective than its given credit for, or at least more than other slashers bother to attempt.
It’s a shame that he faced so much vitriol from the community — even all these years later — simply because he dared remake something as revered as Halloween.
That alone seemed to color most audience’s response to it, as if they were ready to hate it for every way it strayed from the original and every way it tried to stay the same. It’s especially hurtful when, ten years later, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s attempt to jumpstart the series was met with such enthusiastic praise, even though that movie is often annoyingly pandering to fans while having very little personality of its own.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween may never get the respect or even the tolerance it deserves, and it’s not even particularly his best work (that would be Lords of Salem, hands down). But it’s certainly owed a little more than to be mocked for existing at all, and Zombie himself is owed a little more than being “that guy who ruined Halloween” when —let’s be real here— the series was long past its era of prestige.