Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN, 2007

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


1.  It is impossible to talk about the Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN and not talk about John Carpenter. 

2.  It is impossible to talk about what makes great art and not talk about HALLOWEEN.

I mean it.

When I think about what makes movies great, I think about John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Great art can be elaborate and marvelously complex, like a J.S. Bach concerto or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I’d wager that adding more and more to an artwork is the easiest path because creativity breeds creativity.  Look at the embarrassment of riches that is CITIZEN KANE. 

While still adoring All Things Orsonic, I think that elegance is the greater challenge.  I’d also wager that it creates the most memorable results.  Imagine the pressure of making as few creative choices as possible.  Each one would have to be exactly, precisely right and harmonious.  Gershwin did it.  Hemingway did it.  John Carpenter did it.  Yes, I put them in the same company...proudly.

His HALLOWEEN is as clean, elegant, and linear as possible, putting pure terror in the fewest strokes.  At center, an incredibly straightforward plot about unstoppable doom.  An explanation for it? Pure evil.  That is the best that his brilliant nemesis can muster.  Music that contains the sparest horror theme since JAWS.  The mask’s evil comes from its totally neutral passivity.  All topped by a seemingly simple ending, the existential crescendo of which is one of the greatest unfinished melodies in all cinema.

A remake was and is an essential show of respect and adoration because of the original’s simplicity.  It is a brilliantly textured canvas... a work of art in itself and a natural template for iterations and improvisation.  It is the Rhapsody in Blue of horror, and a study of jazz will reveal no shortage of brilliant and beautiful riffs on Gershwin’s masterpiece.  A marvelous cover not only celebrates the original, but finds the implicated nuances and possibilities of that original without descending into parody.
Which is where Rob Zombie comes in. 

Kevin Williamson specializes in heckling tropes.  Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, while clever filmmakers, seem just as intent on showing off the genre films they’ve seen as they are telling a great story.  Sometimes, filmmakers can be so busy winking at the audience that I want to ask them if they need some visene. 

I vastly prefer Rob Zombie.  Yes, his films are inspired by other films.  Yes, he and the audience all share the same filmography.  But unlike the (less shining moments of the) aforementioned filmmakers, Zombie takes his characters and subjects seriously and with respect.  He uses the shared filmography as a foundation for storytelling more than genre commentary.  As a fan of the films that form his inspirations, I feel like I’m seeing the next evolution of something I love, and that gives me hope in an increasingly barren cinematic landscape.
The very fact that Rob Zombie inspires such controversy is a positive sign that he’s passionately engaged in his art.  The most controversial element in Zombie’s HALLOWEEN is the film’s first hour, detailing the evolution of Michael into The Shape.

We never really see this in the original, and it betters the film.  Carpenter’s (first) masterstroke was allowing Michael to be completely silent.  Ignoring the other films, why does a seemingly loved, normal boy of a clean, moneyed, seemingly affectionate household just start killing?  What does Loomis really see in an apparently catatonic boy to brand him as pure evil rather than a demented child?  Michael truly embodies the implications of Stanley Kubrick’s famous quote, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent.”

Michael’s murder spree is the definition of hostile, but his unexplained, gleeless indifference to his killings is what makes him truly scary.  Even the shark in JAWS is simply hungry.  Pazuzu shows great mirth in the possession of Reagan McNeil.  Hannibal Lecter clearly enjoys his diet and always seems as if he could be talked out of skipping a meal or two in the name of good conversation.  Michael is more of an answer from the universe that, yes, it really is out to get us...with an aggressive indifference.

Rob Zombie’s concerns are not so existential as they are psychological.  Learning of his youth and seeing Michael as quite conversational in his childhood is crucial to his cover.  There are many who want an exclusively silent Michael Myers.  Thank goodness they have a classic to which they can retreat any time they want.  While I can understand that kind of passion, I don’t share it.  I don’t want to see only one interpretation of Hamlet, Willie Loman, or Batman.  Why should I limit my horizons with a horror baddie?  To like Christopher Lee does not necessitate disliking Bela Lugosi...or even George Hamilton.

This childhood is very different from the one Carpenter depicted.  It’s not a quiet, suburban home; this is something out of a Harry Crews novel.  Michael has already started slipping over the edge, but he’s relegated his violence to animals.  While he has a fondness for masks, he can go without them.  Yes, the trampy older sister and the abusive stepfather are straight out of central casting, but Zombie’s actors and dialogue still have a unique shine.  Like Tarantino, he gives their interchanges more wit than earlier genre directors might have, but unlike Tarantino, Zombie knows when to have them zip it and move on.

For me, having Michael (as a child, anyway) speak is no worse than having the Creature speak in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, although the impact and mood are entirely different.  With Michael speaking, we can see that not speaking is a choice.  Something just snaps with Carpenter’s Michael.  Zombie’s is more profoundly disturbing because he can interact as a normal, lovable boy...and perhaps has moments as one.  But we see him choose to kill and choose to lie and choose to charm and choose to intimidate.  Seeing him make those choices implies that he is eliminating other options very conscientiously.  Yet why make those choices?  In the Carpenter film, he is a directed predator... a robot with only one prime directive.  In this film, he has complete autonomy.  That is just as scary to me because it suggests that everyone is constantly choosing not to be Michael Myers...which means that anyone can be. 

The first act of the film finds Zombie returning to the Poor White Trash world that’s his specialty.  Because that strata is not an ideal one for raising healthy children, Michael’s mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) makes every Dr. Spockian move to be patient and understanding with him, as if trying to prepare her son for a better world.  Unfortunately, she overindulges him.  So does Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), his touchy-feely and entirely unprofessional psychologist.  By this overindulgence, the evil side of Michael is ignored and begins to grow within him until it seemingly swells to gargantuan heights as an adult.  So, we think, this is Zombie’s time for fair play; he’s shown the evils of redneck family life, and now he’ll show the corrupting influence of 1980s permissive parenting.

He’s too smart a director for that.  By the time Michael escapes into adulthood, we find a Haddonfield where Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Thomas) enjoys parents who are loving, but are not pushovers.  Even the yahoo sheriff (Brad Douriff) is clearly a good and supportive, blue-collar, single parent of the lower middle class. It’s the most optimistic element in the movie...yes, it’s possible to raise good kids, with neither the abusive disdain of Michael’s grizzled stepfather (William Forsythe) or the ineffectually laissez-faire approach of Michael’s mom and doctor.  There are clear nature-vs-nurture messages that are very important to Zombie, and I feel he’s making his stance clear.  Yes, a balance is possible, and yes, it gives Laurie both the wit and grit to survive.

By the final act of the movie, Michael is clearly cutting a path to his sister, and I also appreciated that.  Movies and TV series change over time, finding the formula that works best.  Remakes often ignore those newer elements to their detriment.  Zombie seizes upon the sister plot twist from HALLOWEEN II and uses it as Michael’s driving force, reverse engineering Michael’s psychology as a result.  Laure is the one woman in Michael’s care.  As a child, he seems desperate for female approval.  He loses his mother to countless men every night -- an Oedipal nightmare on steroids.  His sister ignores him in favor of her boyfriend, and he kills both only to find his.  Michael’s killing begins to take on a pattern of punishing these women and their witnesses or eliminating anything between him and his sister.  He’s especially brutal with the adoptive mother (Dee Wallace Stone) who’s taken his own mother’s place in Laurie’s life.  He’s on a sad, purposeful, bloody quest for...absolution?  Punishment?  A hug? 

When he finally supplicates before a terrified and confused Laurie, he removes his own mask, a much deeper moment than we’re given in the original.  It’s a subtle touch, and going further, this great bear of a man appears to have shaved his face for her.  It’s his equivalent of putting on Sunday clothes, and it again shows that he’s very capable of making civilized choices. 

So are all the characters.  Loomis chooses to sellout with his experiences with Michael, captured in a tawdry paperback, and then chooses to atone.  There are times when healers must cauterize.  Laurie chooses to think with increasing strategy rather than give up.  At the film’s end, though, Michael appears to guide her hand to shoot him, and it’s the one choice that seems to drive her mad. 
In that madness, I see a strange hope. 

It proves that she’s human. 

It proves that movies are movies and that if someone were to experience this in real life, they would not wipe the moment away with a pun or quip of self-empowerment.  After trafficking in relentless violence -- which we view with almost the same scientific detachment as does Michael -- Zombie rounds out HALLOWEEN with a clear and sobering message about the decidedly unheroic aftereffects of real killing on real people.  Instead of leaving the film with a puffed up sense of vicarious triumph, coiled and ready for the next slasher to appear, I left Zombie’s HALLOWEEN in a state of mild shock.  It was purposefully rough hewn where Carpenter’s was smooth.  It’s ending of certainty was more disturbing than Carpenter’s mystery.  The film was many things, but among them all, it was a film with its own voice. 

But what voice?  The film was a ritual, just like the holiday for which it’s named.  Once it moves to the present day, I followed it almost mechanically because it was mechanical.  It was aloof.  It knew the procedure and followed it with no postmodern tomfoolery.  And Loomis wasn’t supposed to get his skull crushed.  Michael was supposed to be shot and vanish as Laurie and the brave doctor stand in shock, dread, and a reluctant readiness for the next appearance.  Not here.  In a film about consequence, the most human one cannot and will not be ignored.

That capacity to bring a new and distinctive voice of humanity to his genre is Zombie’s greatest strength.  Horror films have a bad reputation for turning its viewers  into monsters.  That’s an onus that Monster Kids have fought since the beginning.

Zombie shows us that horror may be the cultural voice most capable of preventing that.  In Laurie’s final scream, we know that we will implode from madness before we become beasts. 
Nietzsche said, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster.”

In HALLOWEEN, Rob Zombie disagrees.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

1 comment:

Dirk Bevlin said...

I'll be damned, you've talked me into watching this. Next year.

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