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Friday, October 31, 2008
  DVD Review: Halloween

Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween is one of the more polarizing horror flicks in recent years. Just about every critic on the Internet (that I’ve come across at least) absolutely loathes the film, and Rotten Tomatoes says it has a freshness rating of 26%. So it’s not a stretch to say the 2007 version of Halloween was not a critical success. It did make a nice c'Oh, hey. Didn't see you there.'hunk of cash at the box office however (setting a new record for a Labor Day opening), but it’s hard to know if that’s due to people genuinely responding to the film, or the usual bored teenagers flocking to the new slasher film on opening weekend for lack of anything better to do. Either way, the film has a bit of a mixed legacy, which I find odd, because I think it’s a great horror movie that’s scary in ways most slasher flicks aren’t.

When I was in high school, I was a pretty serious metalhead. I wasn’t into weird Scandinavian church-burning “black metal” stuff, but I was pretty into ‘90s metal bands like Pantera and Sepultura and Helmet, but my favourite band, hands down, was White Zombie (also my first concert, so they hold a very special place in my heart). They weren’t the heaviest band out there by any means, but singer/songwriter Rob Zombie injected the group with a very specific aesthetic that I guess appealed to my 16-year-old, comic book-reading brain. The music was great but there was so much else going on. The band dressed crazily, more like a harder-edged grunge band than a metal act (most metal bands at the time subscribed to Metallica’s stripped-down, no-frills sense of fashion, which was chiefly defined by a total lack of interest in it), and their CD jackets were filled with amazingly detailed illustrations of cartoon demons and monsters and ‘40s-style pinup girls with devil horns (which I later learned were drawn by Zombie himself). A huge movie geek, White Zombie’s oeuvre is filled with references to movies (the band takes its name from the title of a 1932 Bela Lugosi film), with references to classic black and white horror movies from the early days of cinema, as well as more modern ‘60s and ‘70s schlock like
Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill!, Night of the Living Dead, The Omega Man (the 1971 Charlton Heston sci-fi flick based on the same story as I Am Legend, which is also the title of another White Zombie song), and probably the band’s signature song, ‘More Human Than Human,’ takes its title, as well as a few lyrics, from Blade Runner (probably my favourite movie). So Rob Zombie was sort of like the heavy metal Quentin Tarantino, and it set my teenage brain on fire all those years ago.

But like most great bands (“great” being a particularly subjective term in this case), White Zombie broke up after releasing a tiny number of proper albums (two), and while Rob Zombie released some solo albums that, sonically were not all that different, for some reason it just wasn’t the same to me. This could be because I grew out of his stuff, but I still listen to White Zombie somewhat regularly on my iPod, and I’m always surprised at how well it holds up. But one way or another, I found myself growing apart from Rob Zombie the musician. So when I heard he was making the jump to feature film directing with 2003’s horror flick House of 1,000 Corpses, my interest was piqued. Zombie directed all his own videos, and he had a real visual aesthetic that he brought to every aspect of his work, from album design to concert stages to t-shirts. He was obviously much more than just a musician, and I think this more visual approach to his band was one of the things that most attracted the teenaged me to his work (I used to draw a lot, and in high school my goal was to be a comics artist).

Unfortunately, House of 1,000 Corpses was a pretty big letdown, even with my lowered expectations of the film being set in a genre I didn’t much care for. It’s basically just a half-assed rip-off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, about a group of road-tripping teens in the ‘70s who stumble across a psychotic family in Middle of Nowhere America. Zombie’s lack of interest in the actual plot is palpable, and the movie feels more like a collection of ideas and visual gimmicks (it’s also chockablock with annoying ‘MTV-syle’ editing and crazy lighting and colours and angles, etc.) than a proper film.

Zombie followed House of 1,000 Corpses with a sequel, and a ballsy one at that: 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects is the rare sequel that actually totally switches genres from the movie that preceded it. Devil’s Rejects is an outlaw/road movie, following three of the villains from Corpses on the run from a vengeful sheriff operating above the law (the murderous Firefly clan killed his brother in the first movie, and he’s determined to hunt them down at any cost). The Devil’s Rejects the work of a filmmaker just hitting his stride, and seems to reinforce the impression that he only made a horror movie first because it was expected of him. At any rate, I think The Devil’s Rejects is a brilliant little film (though it’s not without its flaws), and it also features my all-time favourite opening credits sequence, set to the Allman Brothers Band’s ‘Midnight Rider.’ It’s also very violent, not just physically by psychologically, with one scene in particular, set in a motel room as the trio of antiheroes (played by Bill Moseley, Sid Haig and Zombie’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie) terrorize a vacationing family, among the most disturbing and genuinely intense sequences I’ve seen in a movie. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

Which, finally, brings us to Halloween, Zombie’s third film. Zombie is interviewed on a really cool feature-length documentary about the Halloween franchise called Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (produced, I believe, before he was attached to the remake, so he’s speaking purely as a fan), and he’s one of the funnier and more articulate people featured in 'Don't worry, it's cool. I just want to talk.'the film. So I knew going in that Zombie truly “got” John Carpenter’s 1978 original, and it made the overwhelmingly negative response to the 2007 version seem ever stranger to me. But as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the original Halloween – I think it’s the best slasher film, period, and it’s basically the first one, unless you want to count Psycho – I don’t share the devotion to the series that many others do; that aforementioned documentary taught me that Halloween fans are apparently as devoted as any Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter fans. I can only assume that most fans couldn’t get past the idea that Zombie had the gall to actually explore Michael Myers as a character rather than simply as a killing machine.

And that’s the crucial difference between the Carpenter original and Rob Zombie’s remake. The original opens with six-year-old Michael Myers killing his teenage sister on Halloween for no apparent reason, before cutting to 15 years later as he breaks out of the sanitarium he’s been in ever since to go on a rampage in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. It’s scary precisely because the Michael Myers kills without any seeming motivation whatsoever. It’s never explained why he killed his sister, or why he’s stalking Jamie Lee Curtis and her babysitter friends (it’s revealed in the sequel that Laurie Strode is actually Michael’s younger sister who was put up for adoption as a baby, a plot point Zombie includes in his film as part of Michael's motivation). He’s pure evil, killing for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Zombie’s remake takes a totally different approach, with the first half of the movie exploring Michael’s home life before he kills for the first time. This time he’s 10 when he’s locked up, and instead of just killing his sister he also kills her boyfriend and his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Giving Michael Myers a dysfunctional family was a plot point many took issue with, but Zombie’s Halloween doesn’t actually try to use that as an explanation for why Michael kills, establishing instead that he's simply a messed-up kid. Even his stripper mom (Sherri Moon Zombie) eschews the stereotypes; her Debra Myers is actually a loving mother who works a demeaning job to provide for her family.
Zombie’s movie isn’t really so much remake (though it is that, obviously) as it is a companion piece to the 1978 original. You don’t have to have seen it to appreciate the 2007 version, but Zombie’s film fills in a lot of the gaps in Carpenter’s; whether or not those gaps should have been filled is a matter of opinion. Zombie says on one of the extras that he typically prefers working on original stuff, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remake Halloween, and his version is very much Rob Zombie’s take on that classic film. But it’s also not meant to replace it for younger audiences, the way, say, the 2003 Texas Chainsaw remake or the upcoming revamp of Friday the 13th are. A lot of Zombie’s Halloween takes place in the spaces between scenes in Carpenter’s version, and it was a filmmaking choice that really worked for me. Why bother with essentially a shot-for-shot remake when the original is as good as it is?

The other big difference is the style of the horror. The original Halloween is, as I mentioned, very much the proto-slasher film, but Zombie isn’t interested in the usual crew of pretty teenagers getting slaughtered in innovative, over-the-top ways while the audience cheers (though to be fair, neither was Carpenter). The murders in his Halloween aren’t the kind that make people cheer and whoop at the screen, as most slasher movies do these days. When his Michael Myers kills people, it’s brutal and violent and very unsexy. People scream in agony and cry and beg for their lives, crawling pathetically down bloodied hallways while Myers stares at them from behind his mask, and it’s pretty damn scary. Zombie has also thankfully ditched the flashy camerawork that made House of 1,000 Corpses a chore to sit through. Halloween has an almost documentary feel to it, though the shaky, Bourne-esque handheld camerawork in some scenes may irritate some.

The film’s not perfect, however. It feels like Zombie’s trying a bit too hard to make Myers a sympathetic character – thought it’s worth mentioning that former pro wrestler Tyler Mane, most recognizable as the hulking Sabretooth from the first X-Men movie, actually manages to convey things despite his never saying a word and the viewer never seeing his face. Also, the film is really brutal, even for a pretty desensitized guy like myself. There’s a pretty rough rape scene in the sanitarium there that I still don’t really see the point of; apparently this was cut out of the theatrical release (which I never did see) and is the main difference between that and the unrated version on the DVD, and it probably should have stayed on the cutting-room floor. Also, almost every actor in this movie wears a ridiculously obvious wig at some point, and it ends up being a surprisingly distracting detail in some scenes (Malcolm McDowell, filling Donald Pleasence’s shoes as Dr. Loomis, gets saddled with a dreadful hippie wig near the beginning, and it looks totally ridiculous and stupid). And in terms of pacing, hardcore slasher fans may be bored by the amount of time Zombie takes moving the action back to Haddonfield on Halloween night; we’re not introduced to Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her babysitter friends until halfway through the movie.

Overall I was surprised how much I enjoyed Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake. It does some cool things in a genre that’s become pretty by-the-numbers in a lot of ways, and he’s clearly attempting to make a “real” movie more than a gory slasher flick to scam money out of teens’ wallets. A lot of thought and care went into this film, and I’ve seen it three times now, and I dig it more each time. It’s definitely not your usual horror movie, and certainly doesn’t make for campy, light viewing the way, say, House of Wax or the later Friday the 13th movies do, but it’s a nicely dark, violent little flick that I think has gotten an unfairly bad rap.



Halloween was originally released on DVD as a two-disc special edition, and up until relatively recently, two-disc DVDs were pretty much as extravagant as special editions got. I assumed that edition was pretty comprehensive (I saw the movie but not the extras), so I was surprised when I learned of a three-disc set coming out. Turns out the first two discs are the same as the initial release, with a third disc bolted on. But that third disc has one of the most in-depth making-of documentaries I’ve ever seen. Clocking in at four-and-a-half hours (!), Michael Lives: The Making of Halloween was produced and directed by Rob Zombie himself. Initially I figured I’d just sort of skim through it – as much as I like the film, four-and-half-hours is a lot. But I watched it in pieces (it’s divided into 25-minute chunks, and those are in turn divided into shooting days), and it’s sort of half-documentary, half ultra-detailed video diary. It covers the entire production, from pre-production and casting through shooting, reshoots and even the score. It’s probably the most comprehensive making-of doc I’ve seen on a DVD. Whether or not Halloween deserves this level of detail is definitely debatable, but I found it surprisingly interesting. Granted, I’m a geek for this sort of stuff, but I felt like I actually came away from this thing with a better understanding of what it’s like to make a movie, having felt like I was actually on the set with Zombie and his cast and crew.

There’s also commentary on the film by Rob Zombie, and just like in the making-of documentary and the other extras, he’s far more thoughtful and articulate than one might think to look at him (or even read his name). At various points in the bonus features he mentions films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Blow-Up, so it’s not like he’s some dude raised exclusively on cheesy B- and C-grade genre movies. He’s smart and funny, and never once does the commentary drag, nor does he get too bogged down with boring minutiae about what day of the shoot they shot this scene.

Disc 2 is filled with more traditional extras, like a featurette on the props (particularly recreating Michael Myers’ iconic mask), the cast as well as the whole idea of remaking (excuse me, “reimagining”) Halloween. It’s all fine, and mostly better than the usual PR fluff. There’s also a ton of deleted scenes featuring whole characters cut from the movie, and one of the funniest blooper reels I’ve seen in a while, particularly the bits with McDowell and the wonderful Brad Dourif trying do complete a scene in a car.

The three-disc Halloween DVD is easily one of the most packed DVDs I’ve seen, and definitely the most loaded that I’ve reviewed for this blog. If anything there’s probably too much material here, but fans of this movie will be in heaven. Considering how often I’ve grumbled about a lack of decent features on some DVDs, I certainly can’t complain.

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