Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ROB ZOMBIE'S HALLOWEEN 2


We've seen many of the classic (and not so classic) horror films of the 70s and 80s remade, re-imagined and re-envisioned in the past ten years. Nearly all of them have been met with stark criticism from the horror faithful. That being said, none of those films have been as vehemently attacked as Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN. Ask the fanboys what they thought of his remake of HALLOWEEN and you're likely to get an earful of pure, unfiltered hate, a gargantuan stream of vitriol that could strip the paint off the side of a car. I thought that the amount of displeasure dumped on Zombie's HALLOWEEN was a bit unfair. Zombie is, in every way, the polar opposite of John Carpenter in respects to both screen writing and direction. Still, it seemed like many people were expecting to see something Carpenter-esque up there on the screen. The deluge of sloppy writing, horrible characters, copious nudity and buckets of blood pissed them off. This wasn’t the HALLOWEEN we loved so much. Well, no, it wasn’t and it wasn’t meant to be. This was Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN, after all. Not John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. There are many reasons to trash Zombie’s film. Claiming that it wasn’t enough like the original isn’t one of them.

But out they came, fanboy after fanboy, screaming for Mr. Zombie's head. I am myself a HALLOWEEN fanboy. I grew up with these films. I watched them repeatedly, sometimes two or three times each in the space of a week. I could understand the rage but I didn't necessarily agree with it. I was ready to allow Zombie his turn at bat. When the film was over, I stood up, walked out of the theater, said quietly to myself "well, that was different" and shrugged the whole thing off. It wasn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination but it was what it was. I respected Zombie for at least attempting something different, even if I didn’t like what he had done.

But now… Now I can understand that fanboy rage a whole lot better and boy, oh boy, do I feel it. Not only has Zombie completely disemboweled one of the few decent horror franchises still left kicking but he has pulled down his redneck drawers and shit all over the remains. But for now I will put my fanboy rage aside and look at HALLOWEEN 2 as simply a sequel to Zombie's own rendition of the 1978 classic.

HALLOWEEN 2 begins just a few minutes after the previous film. A blood-soaked and battered Laurie Strode is taken to the hospital for treatment. Her best friend, Annie, is recuperating just down the hall. Meanwhile, back at the Myers house, Michael's body is loaded into a van and driven away. Why they are seen driving down a lonely country road is beyond me; doesn't the local hospital have a morgue? While the driver and his passenger discuss necrophilia, the van hits a cow. The driver is killed in the collision but the passenger is not so lucky. As he sits there agony, unleashing a major string of "fucks", the van begins rocking. With a bang, the backdoors of the van swing open and out pops Michael Myers, no worse for wear (Zombie never explains how Myers survived a point-blank gunshot wound to the head). Myers quickly decapitates our would-be corpse rapist and walks off. It's here where we get our first glimpse of Deborah Myers, Michael's mother, and her white horse, the spectral entities that goad Myers into committing murder.

A year later, Laurie has been taken in by the Annie and her father, the town sheriff. Laurie has become a dark, moody girl who suffers from horrible nightmares (or are they visions?) of Myers. Life with the Bracketts is somewhat uneventful so Laurie blows off steam with her two trendy friends. Loomis has morphed into a huge media phenomenon, a tasteless sensationalist determined to reap the riches of his past and exploit the deaths of innocent people for all they're worth. His autobiographical account of his treatment of Myers and his involvement in the massacre of one year ago is scheduled to be released on Halloween which, naturally, is just a few days away.

In between killing hicks and eating dogs, Myers spends the year off recuperating from his wounds and slipping further and further into psychosis. Like a certain other masked killer who shall not be named, he begins receiving instructions from his dead mother. This year, Michael will finally reunite the family. That means finding Laurie. And just like clockwork, Halloween Eve comes around and Myers begins the long walk home.

What follows bears no resemblance to any of the other HALLOWEEN films. It does however resemble virtually every other slasher film you've ever seen. The game is played like this: character is introduced, character is killed gruesomely, another character is introduced, another character is killed gruesomely etc., over and over until the not-so-shocking finale. There is so little in the way of actual suspense and plot development on display here that you could stop watching the film for a full hour and still know exactly what's going on when you return to it. As terrible as many of his films are, Zombie can usually be counted on to keep things interesting in one way or another. Here, he wallows in Z-Grade slasher clichés for the majority of the running time. There are a few good touches and moments in HALLOWEEN 2 - Laurie's discovery of her true identity, Annie's inevitable death, Myers delivering the long overdue coup de grace to his nemesis Loomis - but they are few and far between.

And that's a damned shame because the first twenty minutes or so of the movie are quite good. The main opening sequence, Myers stalking Laurie through the hospital, is very well constructed and very well executed, achieving a level of tension missing from the rest of the film. But, as if spitting in our faces, Zombie decides for this all to be one long elaborate dream sequence. No other scene in this film approaches the level of professionalism found in the film's opening. That’s the second HALLOWEEN movie to tumble down the shitter after the opening set piece, the other being the horrible HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION.

I'll just come out and say it... I don't think Rob Zombie knows how to make a horror film. Now to be fair, that places him in the company of close to 90% of all the other filmmakers working in horror right now. To Zombie, a horror film is nothing but one long string of murders. He is firmly stuck in the 1980s (even though he would say the 1970s) where every other slasher film was nothing more than a dozen or so people being violently killed. He has no idea how to pace a story, no notion of a consistent narrative and little understanding of the art of subtlety. I also have to mention HALLOWEEN 2 is one of the worst looking films I've seen in years. The whole thing looks like it was shot on a crusty old Hi8 camera.

The fact of the matter is this: you could have a barely passable screenplay filled to bursting with clichés, stereotypes, fake scares and over-the-top murder scenes and still make it work through good direction and a keen sense of timing. Zombie’s direction here contains none of the energy he brought to the previous film. The timing and pacing of the narrative is too out of whack for it to work properly, highlighting an already obvious deficiency in his ability to write a decent screenplay. Zombie mistakes victims for characters and bursts of ultra violence for scares. Everything that people complained about in the previous film is present here and ramped up to unbelievable levels. It’s like Zombie made this film for no other reason than to spit in the faces of the people who openly trashed the previous film. Did you hate that one? Then you’ll hate this twice as much. There is no redeeming quality to this film. It is an empty, soulless slasher film.

ROB ZOMBIE'S HALLOWEEN


When THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was remade, it was a smash at the box office. It was a surprisingly good remake of a great, great film, keeping in both the tone and feel of the original. It was dark, gritty, and, most importantly, scary. Though bloodier, louder, and altogether slicker than its namesake, TEXAS CHAINSAW showed how a remake should be done. It helped to unleash a tidal wave of remakes into the theaters with classics like RINGU and DAWN OF THE DEAD being brought back to life with an eye on today’s horror audiences. Now opinions may vary but the majority of fans would agree that most of these remakes are not only lacking but also completely unnecessary. After all, if it ain’t broke, why bother spending 30-plus million dollars trying to fix it? It shouldn't have surprised anyone when a HALLOWEEN remake was announced. What was surprising was that Rob Zombie would be at the helm.

Rob Zombie does not make horror films for mainstream viewers. In many respects, he doesn't even make films for your average horror fan. His films (HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, a terrible film, and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a pseudo-sequel which starts terrible but morphs into something great about halfway through) are aimed squarely at the more sadistic horror fans. Populated with, I suppose you could call them, anti-heroes who maim and mutilate at will, Zombie's films are in my opinion the antithesis of the classical horror film. Where a horror film should aim to either frighten or disturb the viewer (if possible, both) Zombie's films are unusually sympathetic to their psychopaths at the expense of their victims. While this may work for the kind of viewer whose appetite is more for the Psycho Movie, that breed of slasher that concerns itself primarily with the killer, like Zito's MANIAC or Ellison's DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE, for the average horror fan, it creates a level of disconnect between audience and film that is hard to overcome. In the 1980s, the slasher film came under fire from many critics for supposedly allowing audiences (some would say force the audience) to align themselves with the killer. Viewing the film was akin to being an accomplice to murder.

Had Zombie been making his films during that decade, he would most certainly be first on the firing line. His killers systematically kill everything that moves, usually with a smile on their faces. The gross exaggeration in their characterizations and the total lack of personality Zombie gives to their victims removes the more disturbing elements inherent in the situations he creates for them and replaces it with a kind of gleeful malice. Whether or not you share in that malice determines whether or not you enjoy the film. And that's precisely the kind of style Zombie brought to HALLOWEEN. It's one of the many reasons his remake is so hated. This is a man who simply doesn't understand subtlety. Carpenter's film was cool, slick, and suspenseful. Zombie's film is loud, scattershot, and sadistic. And that's fine. This is after all a Rob Zombie film and not a John Carpenter film.

*A brief aside: With all the different terminology tossed around for these new versions - remake, re-imagining, re-envisioning - it's important address a couple of things. One is that a film based on an already existing screenplay constitutes a "remake". The second, perhaps more confusingly to some, is that a second film based on an existing literary work, like a novel or short story, cannot be constituted as a remake unless the screenwriters took the previous adaptation into regards during their adaptation. So while HALLOWEEN is a remake of a John Carpenter film, Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS is not. It is a new adaptation. Carpenter's THE THING is a strange breed, a film more closely based on John W. Campbell's story "Who Goes There?" but one that also contains enough references to the Christian Nyby / Howard Hawk's 1951 film to classify it as a remake. Now back to the review.*

Ask enough people why they disliked Zombie's film and you'll soon reach a popular consensus: it turned Michael Myers, the un-killable boogeyman, into a simple serial killer. I don't think that's the most pressing problem. After all, the Michael Myers that stalked Haddonfield in the Carpenter original was just a regular serial killer. It was the later films that turned him into a quasi-supernatural, unstoppable killing machine. The real problem with this film is that Myers is made into the absolute focal point of the narrative. Zombie's film starts out with Myers as a young boy, bullied in school and saddled with an abusive step-father and an equally nasty older sister. Typical of the serial killer story, he has taken to killing animals and is slowly reaching the point of breaking. When he is harassed by two bullies in the bathroom about his mother, a stripper at some local dive, he finally breaks. After school, he beats one of them to death with a very big stick, another misstep on Zombie's part as the killing does absolutely nothing for the film except turn this little kid from an unlikely killer to one of the more "Natural Born" variety. After a particularly disappointing Halloween evening, he cuts his step-father's throat, beats his sister's boyfriend to death with a baseball bat and finally cuts poor Judith to ribbons. In an unintentionally comedic twist, Michael kills Judith while wearing the trademark Myers mask, a creative choice that achieves nothing but making him look like a Michael Myers bobblehead.

The scenes that follow of Myers and Loomis in the mental hospital are interesting in that they present both of these characters in a completely different light than in Carpenter's film. Myers is a calm, friendly child, not a catatonic. Loomis is warm and caring, not a man who is at all convinced that the child that sits in front of him is "pure evil". Many years later, when Myers is a full-grown man (and I mean full-grown; they must have been feeding him steroids) Loomis realizes that he can't spend his life tied to a sinking ship. When he tells Myers that he won't be back to see him, Zombie's film again slips into the realm of unintentional comedy. This is a break-up scene. All it needed was an "it's not you, it's me" kind of moment. This Loomis isn't only determined to keep Myers locked up, he's heartbroken he couldn't help him enough. Strange as it sounds, even with this silly closing moment between Doctor and patient, the first half of the film is much better than the slasher film that follows. It's easy to see that the first half contains the material Zombie felt deserved care.

In short order, Myers breaks out (depending on which version of the film you see, it's either during an action star-style takedown of a handful of prison guards or after a particularly tasteless and unnecessary rape scene) and makes his way home to find his little sister. In an interview in Rue Morgue magazine, Zombie gave a short list of things that don't make sense in Carpenter's film. One of the points he mentioned was Myers driving a car to Haddonfield. In an attempt to be more realistic, Zombie has him walk over 100 miles in a short period of time while also giving him the opportunity to stab a man to death at a truck stop for his clothes. Hmm, more realistic was his goal? The issue of the mask is also taken care of. Myers stashed it after committing his murders. Strangely enough, Zombie doesn't even make an attempt to answer the question of how he recognizes his sister after fifteen years. She was just a baby when he saw her last. That is a flaw that easily tops all the logical gaffs of Carpenter’s original.

The last half of the film is essentially Carpenter's film told at breakneck speed. To say it loses some of the tension of the original is putting it lightly. In some ways, the end game of Zombie's film plays out more like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE than HALLOWEEN. There are at least three false endings. There is no ebb and flow in the action. It just starts then stops, starts then stops. Had it ended with Loomis shooting Myers in the empty swimming pool, it would have been much better. Instead, Zombie drags his film out well beyond its breaking point, giving us ten more minutes of cat-and-mouse and five solid minutes of a masked maniac shoving a board into the ceiling. When Laurie and Michael take a tumble off the balcony, I sat there hoping Zombie wasn't getting ready for another chase scene through the streets of Haddonfield. I was exhausted. I had had enough.

Another sticking point for those of us who don't appreciate Zombie's films is his incessant need to populate his films with the same group of actors. While the major players in his previous two films are kept to relatively small roles, their inclusion is something of a distraction at times. He also needs - desperately needs - to break his screenwriting habits. Zombie can, when he wants to, direct some pretty amazing sequences. It's his screenwriting that kills him every time. In Zombie's world, everyone is a redneck, everyone uses "fuck" in every other sentence, and proper narrative momentum doesn't apply. This film works in fits and starts, with no time for things to simply develop. Zombie forces his hand time and time again and it really works against him. One day, Rob Zombie will make a great film. But in order for that to happen, he needs to look beyond his first batch of films. There is promise of better things in HALLOWEEN.

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION


Two things are certain in the HALLOWEEN franchise. The first is simple: if you are a Sheriff's daughter or family dog, you're not going to live through the third act. The second: a profound disappointment always follows a success. After the semi-successful reunion between Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Myers opened big at the box office the guys at Dimension decided another installment was in order. This time, the Laurie Strode storyline would be permanently laid to rest, leaving Myers free to stalk whomever the hell he wanted and for whatever reason the new writers could come up with.

If I were to rank the HALLOWEEN films from best to worst, this would be jockeying for position at the bottom of the barrel with the dreadful HALLOWEEN 5. The comedic tone of HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION simply does not mesh with the suspense Rick Rosenthal, returning to the franchise after directing HALLOWEEN 2, tries to create. Every guffaw, every inside joke or painful pop culture works against what little tension there is, making HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION one of the limpest and most conflicted installments in the series. Is this a comedy? It most certainly seems to think it's funny. Pound for pound, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION contains more pathetic sight-gags and juvenile jokes than any other installment but every joke falls completely flat. Its barely adequate group of actors can't muster up a single chuckle. Is it a horror film? Well, technically, yes, but it sure as hell ain't scary. Every attempt at creating chills is defused by the comedy.

Its opening sequence, where Laurie Strode is finally killed by her brother, is effective but nothing else in the film comes close to those opening ten or so minutes. Apart from the standard explanation for Myers’ continued existence (the audience learns that Myers survived the film by crushing the larynx of an officer, knocking him unconscious, and slinking off after swapping clothes with him, during which not a single person notices a hulking man with a hideously scarred face carrying a knife wandering off into the woods) this opening sequence is strong, stylish and carried out with conviction. You can tell that Curtis wanted this to be a sequence to be the kind of thing franchise fans would talk about for years. It works. It really does. But when that opening sequence ends and the real film begins, it’s like watching a different film. None of the tone or seriousness of the opening is carried over.

From that point on, though, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION doesn't just go down the toilet, it completely shits the bed. We're introduced to our standard group of college nobodies who have just signed on to Dangertainment, an internet reality show, and will be spending the night exploring the Myers house. No one needs to be told what happens next. Its 90 minutes of predictable mayhem and aggravating gags. Watching Busta Rhymes kung-fu fighting Michael Myers is not only insulting but utterly disappointing. This is the true definition of a "Product", a movie made ostensibly for fans but actually made for anyone with ticket money. The film does want to make a statement of sorts, about how we neuter atrocity for the sake of marketable entertainment but there’s a way to go about making a statement like that. Here’s how you don’t do it: make your audience sit through 90 minutes of clichéd, pathetic mainstream horror and then have your lead character sum it all up in four sentences two minutes before the film ends. You work that statement into the film itself through visual metaphor and allegory. But what the hell, right? Who has time for that? We got shitty jokes to tell.

It’s incredibly difficult to write about this movie. I have absolutely nothing nice to say about it past the 10 minute mark. I really just want to rant about how poorly made this film is, how poor the writing is, how piss-poor the acting is and how stupid the concept is. This is just a brain-dead piece of shit that should be stricken from the public memory.

HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER


If you were a fan of HALLOWEEN, this was the film you were waiting for. After 20 long years, Jamie Lee Curtis would be returning to play Laurie Strode in a sequel which promised closure for a franchise that sorely needed it. Rumor had it John Carpenter would be returning (he didn't, having washed his hands of the franchise many moons ago) and that the series would be going back to the slow burn suspense of the original. The film received a good bit of press during its production, even being featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and fans were in a frenzy waiting for the release date to come. When the film was released, I was in the theater for the first showing opening day. I was genuinely excited as the lights went down and the first notes of "Mr. Sandman" began to tickle the air. When it was over, my excitement was gone and I was left wondering if it was really worth the wait.

Make no mistake, the extended chase sequence between brother and sister near the films end is a knock-out. This is what fans have been waiting years for and it doesn't disappoint. Everything else however is so routine and boring that it sort of negates any potential this film had. Starting with the casting choices, a mix of unknowns and teen TV faces, the film feels aimed squarely at the SCREAM audience. There are plenty of poorly written jokes and lame teen dialogue, with some soft, gooey Dawson's Creek romance thrown in for good measure. Add to that the curious decision to cast LL Cool J as the comic relief security guard who spends the majority of his screen time reading the romance novel he is writing to his screeching stereotypical wife and you have a cast custom made to appeal to anyone but HALLOWEENs core audience. The lesson that should have been learned from HALLOWEEN 5 is rather simple: stock characters in danger don't work. Realistic, sympathetic characters pull the audience into the situation and raise the effectiveness of the scares. Unfortunately, this is HALLOWEEN 5 all over again. Obnoxious teens don't make for good viewing, only good target practice.

As for Jamie Lee Curtis... She gives Laurie a real sense of fragility in her early scenes. A paranoid alcoholic living in near isolation, Laurie is trying to cope with the events of her past. She doesn't believe Myers to be dead and spends every day of her life in preparation for the day her brother comes to town. Her divorce was messy, her relationship with her son is failing and her social life is strangled by her post-traumatic stress syndrome. She is on countless medications. This is a wreck of a woman. When Myers finally tracks her down, her first instinct is to flee. Moments from safety, she hesitates, sends her young son and his girlfriend away and locks herself inside a deserted college campus with her demented brother. She has decided to stop running. The strong performance in the first half of the film makes her sudden turnaround all the more powerful. Grabbing an axe, she wanders back into the school. As Carpenter's iconic theme music begins to build on the soundtrack, she stands in the darkness and screams for her brother. The sense of finality is overwhelming. This will be the last stand, the final battle. It's one of the greatest moments in the history of the franchise and Curtis sells it with nothing more than the utter conviction and rage in her voice as she screams her brother’s name.

Choosing to simply drop the previous three installments (and hoping no one would notice) freed up the franchise. No more cults, no more curses, no more psychic connections. This brought a kind of purity back into the franchise. Despite the numerous false scares, cheap jump tactics, and random guffaws, director Steve Miner, no stranger to the slasher film having directed the second and third films of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, manages to work up some genuinely unnerving sequences without succumbing to the gross-out special effects that dominated HALLOWEEN 6. Basically a talent-for-hire director, Miner's strengths don't really lie in suspense, but he creates a look and feel that doesn't betray the original film even when the writing and performances do.

Much like HALLOWEEN 4, the overall film feels right for the franchise. It is however altogether less scary than it should be. This is the kind of film where the lights go out for no reason whenever someone wanders off on their own. It fits squarely into what I call a "Jumping Cat" film. Every fourth or fifth scare is for real, the rest are false scares or jump moments - all it is missing is a cat jumping out of a trash can or through a window. When the annoying, horny dork with the hot girlfriend wanders off alone into the kitchen looking for a cork screw and ends up sticking his hand down into the trash compactor, anyone would expect a few missing fingers in this kid's future. But this isn't that kind of film. Instead the kid survives with his hand intact only to turn around and run right into Myers. BOOM! goes the music, the audience jumps, cut to the next scene. That's not effective, just lazy. And it happens way too frequently here. These moments come fast and furious and clash with the more skilled moments Miner pulls off early in the film.

Another flaw is Michael Myers himself. He looks small and unthreatening. His hands are curiously clear of scar tissue even though the film does include the fiery explosion at the end of HALLOWEEN 2 into its timeline. The mask he's wearing constantly changes appearance. The reason for this is now well known. Due to creative differences between producers and director, different masks were brought in at different points in filming with no attempt to re-shoot existing scenes to, ahem, mask the change. Watch the film carefully and you'll catch a glimpse of each of the different masks, some are much more obvious than others, including a CGI mask most evident at the end of the aforementioned hand-in-the-compactor scene. The mask used during the final chase scene simply doesn't look right. Either the mask was too small or Chris Durand's head was too big but either way the look is off. The Michael Myers of this film is much less menacing than in the majority of the sequels.

Watching this film again recently, I was struck by how much I missed the town of Haddonfield. The California location of HALLOWEEN H20 naturally does not allow for the same autumn ambiance of a small town in Illinois and as a result, the film does not have the same kind of atmosphere that the previous installments have. The small town setting of HALLOWEEN, in my opinion, was rather crucial to the success of the original film. It felt like every town. It felt like home. Moving HALLOWEEN away from the small neighborhoods and recognizable streets to a secluded private school allows the privacy necessary for the actions of the film to take place, but it also creates a level of disconnect with its audience. For me, Haddonfield could have been my town and that scared me. When I watched FRIDAY THE 13TH, I didn't feel threatened afterwards because I didn't live near the woods. I wasn’t watching the film at summer camp. The threat existed out there somewhere instead of in my own backyard.

So does HALLOWEEN H20 succeed? Overall, I would say yes. It's a lazy film in its construction and technique, never really overwhelmingly scary or suspenseful, but what it does have is Jamie Lee Curtis and she gives it her all. No matter what her successes have been, Curtis has never turned her back on her experiences making HALLOWEEN. Her comeback in HALLOWEEN H20 shows her desire to create a film that finally offered a conclusion to the tale that launched her career. Because of her performance, HALLOWEEN H20 survives all its faults and flaws to become a franchise highlight. I said before that the HALLOWEEN franchise should have ended after HALLOWEEN 2 but it didn't. Now I'm going to say it again... the HALLOWEEN franchise should have ended here with Myers' severed head lying by Laurie's feet as she finally frees herself from her past.