Tuesday 22 November 2011

The Z word ain't so bad

'Re-imaginings' are commonly anything but: the word tends towards a desperate attempt to conceal the fact that your film is neither similar to the original nor particularly creative. 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street has no reason beyond the bottom line for existing: but dress it up as a 're-imagining', and oh! It sounds so much better than, 'Well, we like money'.

2007's Halloween, on the other hand, is a re-imagining all right. Director Rob Zombie actually has an artistic vision and a style, both totally different from John Carpenter's: and if Halloween still isn't a great or even a good film, it deserves to stand out among its soulless slasher-film remake brethren all the same.

As the film opens we're introduced to the awful lives of Deborah Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie), her worthless boyfriend Ronnie (William Forsythe), her teenage daughter Judith (Hanna Hall) and her favourite, ten-year-old Michael (Daeg Faerch). When Mrs Myers is called in by Michael's headmaster it emerges that the boy, ignored by his sister and bullied by Ronnie and assorted idiots at school, has been killing and dissecting animals. Soon after, Michael ambushes one of the bullies, beating him almost to death with a heavy branch. On Halloween night, he murders Ronnie, Judith and her horny boyfriend Steve (Adam Weisman) in a shockinly brutal sequence that remarkably pays almost no homage whatsoever to the iconic opening scene of Carpenter's 1978 film.

Michael is confined to a mental hospital, where he is treated by Dr Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). But the boy degenerates rapidly and takes to making elaborate masks which he wears at almost all times because 'it hides my ugliness', alternating between sullen silence and seemingly normal childhood behaviour in therapy. 'Seemingly', you see, because when he is left alone Michael assaults a nurse, stabbing her almost to death, and is confined to the institution for life. Mrs Myers eventually kills herself while Dr Loomis gets over his feeling of failure by publishing a cash-in book on Michael. And shortly before Halloween fifteen years after the original murders, a grown-up Michael (Tyler Mane) escapes, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake.

He's headed to Haddonfield, Illinois, in the part of the film that is actually a recreation of the original, albeit greatly compressed. We're introduced to Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), Michael's baby sister who is now living with adoptive parents (Pat Skipper and Dee Wallace). Laurie and her friends Annie (Danielle Harris) and Lynda (Kristina Klebe) notice they are being followed by a strange man, but shrug it off. On Halloween night, Lynda goes heels to Jesus with her boyfriend Bob (Nick Mennell) in the old Myers house while Annie and Laurie babysit Lindsey (Jenny Gregg Stewart) and Tommy (Skyler Gisondo) respectively, and Dr Loomis races to Haddonfield to liaise with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and stave off a massacre.

Zombie's style is wildly at odds with Carpenter's. Let's start with Michael Myers himself. The Shape of 1978, as played by Tony Moran and Nick Castle, was a totally anonymous person: of average height and build and, with a perfectly normal face when briefly unmasked. In the remake, by contrast, Michael is played by 6'8'' ex-wrestler Tyler Mane, and the move from Joe Bloggs to hulking strongman makes a massive difference. This Michael is physically far more similar to Jason Voorhees, and the move towards superhuman proportions is accentuated by his far more brutish and forceful attack style: he beats people to death with his bare hands more than once. (There's a gender dimension to this: the original's androgynous killer has been replaced by an aggressively masculine one.) Then there's the mask. The original's expressionless white turned the killer into a symbol. The remake's mask is greyish, torn and dusty, loose and ill-fitting.

That's Rob Zombie's aesthetic in a nutshell. Where Carpenter's film was artsy and clean, in the style of a giallo, this Halloween is visually almost impossibly gritty, filthy, stained. There's splinters, dust and dirt, and there's a whole lot of blood. This film's violence is not tasteful. It's not even brutal: it is, excuse my language, fucking vicious. Far more people die than in the original, and they're killed in nastier ways (none of them more imaginative, though: the most famous slayings of the original are largely reproduced). All that isn't usually my cup of tea, but I absolutely have to give Zombie points for making the film his own, for producing horror that really gets under your skin, as good horror should. It's an unsafe film, and all the better for it.

More points, I think, for the part of the picture that shows Michael's messed-up childhood, and how the boy took to hiding behind masks and preying on those weaker than himself as a defence mechanism. It's a bit trite, and the interpretation it implies is later contradicted by Dr Loomis's bestseller; but the masks Michael takes to lovingly making are childlike and creepy in equal measure, so power to the props team. Daeg Faerch is pretty terrific as a loner who learns that murder can be empowering, apparently (there's your lesson, kids!), and Sheri Moon Zombie is just as good as his mother, scared of what her little boy has become and loving him all the same.

Once they're gone, Halloween loses a lot of steam, although Malcolm McDowell's deliciously hammy performance makes up for some of this. All the same, the film's second half is clearly the weaker of the two. Zombie's style works, but precious little else does. For starters, Taylor-Compton's Laurie is fearfully weak, not a patch on Jamie Lee Curtis's portrayal of the character; and her whiny, annoying performance takes much out of her scenes (Laurie has been relegated to supporting character, thankfully). Tommy and Lindsey are also much less likeable than they were in the original, and neatly reflect the way in which the portrayal of young people in fiction has changed. The biggest problem is that it's all too rushed, allowing none of the slow tension-building Carpenter excelled at.

It's a strange film in some ways: resolutely Zombie's own, it nevertheless has a couple of near-exact recreations of Carpenter shots (Laurie walking past trees in Haddonfield, Laurie noticing Michael looking up at her). And there's a false ending that absolutely only works if the audience has seen the original: by subverting our expectation of when the evil is vanquished, Zombie achieves perhaps the best shock of the entire film. It's not a great work of art, disjointed and weighed down by bad performances in its latter half, but Halloween is brimming with potential. You wouldn't guess it from a man who named himself after an undead monster, but that Rob Zombie is a far better filmmaker than some of his world-weary, hackwork-prone peers.

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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