Friday, October 05, 2007


Death takes a holiday – twice

By Brian
What's thematically most interesting about John Carpenter's Halloween are the mixed feelings it can provoke. On one hand, Michael Myers' unstoppable power is attractive; he efficiently destroys the venal hedonism of a group of thoughtless teens. A tiny, intolerant part of us roots for him to rid us of this aspect of ourselves and our society, at least until we recognize how terrible this impulse is — puritanism taken to its most horrifying extreme. In case we need it, the film guides us to this realization in several blatant ways, most notably through showing Myers' rage as inexplicable, his family as innocent victims, and his Jamie Lee Curtis-played nemesis Laurie Strode as tremendously sympathetic (in part by setting her apart from her shallow schoolmates).

In contrast, Rob Zombie's Halloween is completely nihilistic. Myers' sister and father-figure are unsympathetic to the point where we hardly care whether these caricatures live or die. Unfortunately, the same goes for the new Laurie Strode. Whether because of the script, her acting, her casting or a combination of these factors, she's hardly less superficial than any of the other victims in the film.

Her first act in the film is to make an unfunny, inappropriate sexual joke to her adoptive parents, and if she becomes more sympathetic toward the end of the film it's only because of her victimhood, not any kind of strength of character. Dr. Loomis fares no better, even if Malcolm McDowell plays him as more of a real human being than Donald Pleasance did. Though it was rather ingenious to pin the town's disbelief of the doctor's doomsaying on his capitalistic impulse, the stroke also greatly diminishes his heroic credibility. Narrative abhors a vacuum, which means that Michael Myers becomes the film's unqualified protagonist. There's nothing to do but cheer on his terrible acts.

The middle section of Zombie's Halloween provides a window into the philosophy behind the film. Michael Myers destroys everything in his path, everything that up until now had tried to control him or help him. Neither conservative institutions (the police) nor liberal ones (psychology and treatment) can survive his wrath. Even the helping hand of a compassionate individual (Danny Trejo) must be annihilated. What Zombie is proposing is a view that there is nothing to be done with the violent individuals in our society (unlike a character such as Freddy Krueger, who can be explained away as supernatural, Michael Myers is only fictional to a point). Evil is generated out of humanity's inherently selfish nature, and once unleashed we might as well just sit back and admire its power, since we can't possibly contain or diminish it.

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Rob Zombie has talent--more talent than Eli Roth and James Wan--which is why his lousy movies are so infuriating. He starts taking the viewer someplace interesting and then he seems to say, "aw, fuck this. Let me just give you what you came to see." I hope Zombie one day trusts his instincts and gives us more than the grue we supposedly came to see. The man does know how to craft a scene.
It's true, the man has real filmmaking skills. Which is one reason I suspect that my queasiness about the moral stance of this film is exactly the kind of reaction he was trying to provoke. That doesn't make me any likelier to recommend it.
I haven't seen the remake (since I tend not to see remakes of movies that were great to begin with), but I do want to defend Donald Pleasence a bit. I think one thing that raised even the crappy Halloween sequels from others in the slasher genre was that for a long time they had a single character (arguably as obsessed as the killer and nearly as indestructible) pursuing Michael Myers in the form of Pleasence's Dr. Loomis.
Absolutely, Edward. I didn't mean to mislead the reader into thinking I disapproved of his performance(s). Pleasence (whose name I spelled incorrectly in this piece but didn't notice until just now) as Dr. Loomis is key to the success of the original Halloween, and even to the lesser success of the first sequel (I must admit I haven't seen the fourth thru sixth installments in the series). He's as single-minded and obsessed as Myers himself, which makes him a strong match for the villain. McDowell may have performed Loomis with a somewhat more naturalistic acting style, and the character is written with a little more ethical nuance. But that doesn't make for a better-acted or better-written character. Sometimes there's a place for completely over-the-top acting, and Pleasence in the original Halloween is a textbook example.
This is a terrific review, Brian. It comes a lot closer to articulating the film's lack of emotional power than any review I've read.

I have a somewhat different take on the character of Michael, though -- I think Zombie was pretty clearly inclined to make the entire thing Michael's story, then for whatever reason (lack of nerve? orders from the franchise owner?) got cold feet and basically packed a remake of most of the original "Halloween" into the second and third acts.

I don't see anything inherently wrong with doing a movie about a monster, exclusively from the monster's POV. Done with conviction, and with a mix of revulsion and empathy, such a film could be intensely moving as well as disturbing, scary and all the other things you want from a horror picture. This wasn't that movie, though.
Thanks for the praise and the perspective, Matt! You're right that somebody could make a successful horror film from the monster's POV, but Zombie certainly didn't. The closest thing to that I can think of isn't even a horror film, but a film festival darling from Argentina: Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos.
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