Wednesday 23 November 2011

Slice 'n' dice

In Halloween, Rob Zombie boldly attempted to make the slasher franchise his own. Halloween II (2009) is absolutely not a mercenary sequel: the director's full of ideas, albeit thoroughly muddled ones; and since he doesn't know what to do with them, Halloween II ends up a rote slasher, distinguished only by its brutality.

The film opens with a short flashback in which Michael Myers's mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) gives her son (Chase Vanek), imprisoned at a mental institution, a statuette of a white horse. Paying attention? Good, because white horse symbolism is all over the film, and it would be a shame if you were to miss out on it.

Then we're in the present day, right where Halloween left off. En route to transporting grown-up, post-murder Michael Myers (still Tyler Mane) to the morgue, the police van suffers an accident, allowing Michael to behead the surviving cop and escape, before being drawn to a vision of a white horse and his mother, clad in white. Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) has been taken to the hospital. It isn't long before, true to the original Halloween II (1981), Michael returns, viciously murdering hospital employees in his pursuit of Laurie, who flees outside and is granted shelter in a security outpost by corpulent night watchman, Buddy (Richard Riehle). Michael murders Buddy with a fire axe, smashes his way through the wall, and Laurie wakes up.

It's a really nifty surprise. We are, perhaps, twenty minutes into the film, and the longer the hospital scene goes on for, the less likely it seems it could be a dream sequence, and there's nary a hint that what we're watching isn't real. Zombie obviously enjoys toying with fans' expectations by appearing to follow established continuity and then pulling the rug out from under our feet. A slasher film franchise is not where you expect clever intertextuality, but there it is, and let's rejoice in that. Unfortunately, it's the last good idea of the film.

Anyway, it's two years after the events of Halloween. Laurie now lives with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter, Laurie's scarred-but-alive friend Annie (Danielle Harris). Laurie, deeply traumatised by the murder of all her friends and her own near-death at the hands of a psychopath, is still in therapy and pops pills like there's no tomorrow. She's pretty much insufferable to live with, but at least she's got new friends, Mya (Brea Grant) and Harley (Angela Trimbur). Meanwhile, Dr Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) has written another cash-in book on Michael Myers, and is going on tour to Haddonfield to promote it. (In this instalment, Loomis is even more of an asshole than before: in universal lazy writer's shorthand, he's awful to his publicist.) Laurie, reading Loomis's book, discovers that she is in fact Angel Myers, Michael's baby sister, and consequently only wants to get drunk with her friends and forget. Michael, in the meantime, walks towards Haddonfield, guided by his mother's instruction to bring Angel home.

So we have three storylines (Laurie, Michael, Loomis) which don't properly converge until the end. Halloween II cannot help feeling disjointed and random, and more's the pity since Zombie clearly has plenty of ideas. The symbolism of Deborah Myers and the white horse is omnipresent (towards the end, Laurie sees it too), and Laurie increasingly hallucinates herself committing Michael's murders. It's all vaguely creepy, but I'm not at all sure what it's supposed to mean: there's something pseudo-Freudian going on, I guess, but apart from that I have no idea (neither, it seems, does Zombie). Now, of course muddled symbolism is bad, but considering that, say, any Friday the 13th film won't even aspire to symbolism I'll give Zombie the benefit of the doubt.

The stupendous padding, though, I can't forgive as easily. Michael's wanderings through the Illinois fields are the worst in this respect: he mostly just walks around murdering random people for no apparent reason. Mya and Harley are another part of the problem. They enjoy absolutely minimal characterisation (Harley is the slutty one. Er, that's it), existing only to inflate the already impressive body count. It is, in the best slasher tradition, at heart a boring, inert film: no forward movement, punctuated by brutal murder every five minutes.

Ah yes, the violence. I may have claimed that Rob Zombie's Halloween is pretty vicious, but it ain't a patch on its sequel. Halloween II has beheadings, throats being cut and, most of all, repeated brutal beatings to death. Zombie's vision for Michael Myers (big brute rather than androgynous everyman) is complemented by another element: unlike the original film's, this Michael is angry. He screams and growls when offing his victims, and he stabs and beats them with great force even after they're clearly dead. This rage contrasts with the original's silent inevitability (compare the curious head tilt in the 1978 film). The difference is telegraphed visually, too, as Michael's mask becomes ever more torn and filthy.

In keeping with Zombie's interests, Halloween II continues the previous film's trend of barely using Carpenter's Halloween theme at all (in this case, it plays over the credits): Tyler Bates's minimal score emphasises harsh dissonance. Still, Halloween II doesn't have much of a consistent style: it throws reds and bright white lights (mostly police torches) around far more readily than the previous film, but all that doesn't amount to much of an artistic vision. I can appreciate what Zombie is trying to do, but it just doesn't work here. Still, let's salute the most artistically ambitious remade franchise of the last decade.


Thus ends my exploration of the Halloween franchise. I've blogged my way through ten films, from 1978 to 2011, of varying quality: from the lone masterpiece (Halloween) to the tired cash-grab (Halloween II) and the failed experiment (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), from the successful attempt to bring Michael back (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) to a film that came close to interring him for good (Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers), from the ugly, tired mess of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers to the film that rounded off the franchise (Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later), and Resurrection, the franchise killer.

Then there's the Rob Zombie reboot of the series. Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009) were not successful films by any standard, but they were absolutely not the timid commercial fare we've come to expect of remakes: they were bold, crass and very, very bloody. It's for this reason that I'm an unashamed Zombie apologist. After the feeble, increasingly creatively bankrupt slasher fare Dimension Films had served up for years, Zombie's films were the work of an auteur, a wake-up call to a horror industry mired in repetition and slick, vapid gore.

What makes the Halloween series different? It's not marked by high body counts and creatively nasty tool murders like Friday the 13th, nor by the dreamscapes of A Nightmare on Elm Street. A good Halloween film relies on mood and the strength of its characters. Most Halloween films are not, in fact, good: with hindsight I consider only the original, 4, and the Zombie films worth anyone's time. (We are, as the Americans would say, grading on a curve.) But cash-grabs and the mercenary sequels have always fascinated me, too. There's something mesmerising about pathetic excuses for films, and it makes us appreciate the good bits all the more.

In this series: Halloween (1978) | Halloween II (1981) | Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1988) | Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) | Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) | Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) | Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) | Halloween: Resurrection (2002) | Halloween (2007) | Halloween II (2009)

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