Facing a pandemic of remakes, do we really need another horror classic renewed, or does this ultraviolent version of Halloween cut deeper than the beloved franchise has in years?
Intro by Chris
Over the last few decades, the film market has become increasingly less creative. Last year alone, the nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards consisted mostly of remakes, sequels or adaptations. That has been the case for at least the last decade. This “creativity” (or lack thereof) sweeping through Hollywood right now is cause for concern – I’d go so far as to call it a pandemic threat to the creative machine of our cinema culture. If we continue to blandly recreate or rehash stories like we are, then a lack of creativity could become the status quo and forthcoming generations will be less and less creative, always borrowing or continuing.
With this in mind, we venture for the first time into the land of the remakes. Although sequels have always been a blessing and curse for our favorite genre, faithful remakes of classics are becoming increasingly popular. The goal is simple: Take everything we already know about a story and remake it with newer technology, smarter audiences and more gore, all while somehow making it fresh and personal. Halloween (2007), directed by Rob Zombie, is the quintessential remake.
With Halloween – Zombie’s first departure from pastiche films like House of 1,000 Corpses – the singer-turned-director came out swinging. He had all of the familiar elements: Lorie, Michael, creepy clown masks, brutal murders, three friends babysitting and fornicating on All Hallow’s Eve. [Phil: It even has brief cameo from Zombie favorite Sid Haig, adding a call-back to the director’s own body of work.] But he did so much more to the story then just give it fresh FX, more blood and new faces. If you don’t know the story behind John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and the threat of Michael Myers, stop now and read our discussion of the original.
What Zombie does – very well, I might add – is pay homage to a great film while giving the audience a little more. Zombie delves deep into Myers’ history: What led him to slay his older sister and her boyfriend; what happened to him immediately after; and what is arguably the biggest hole in the original, how Lorie Myers became Lorie Strode. Zombie then goes a little further and gives the audience a peek at what the search for Lorie means to Michael, all in about the same time as the original film. The 2007 film deserves a look almost solely for the pure beauty of HOW TO do a remake correctly. Wrap yourself in a snuggie, grab a beverage, and take a walk down remake lane with the Macabre Brothers to find out what Phil and Chris think of Zombie’s Halloween.
Wanna watch? Rob Zombie’s Halloween is available on Amazon Instant for $3. Cheap!
Phil: For most of my life, I’ve been violently opposed to remakes of classic, untouchable horror films. Sure, sequels can run roughshod over an original, adding convoluted backstories and defanging a once-frightening concept, but it’s easy enough to enjoy their campiness or, at the very least, ignore them completely. But there were so many toothless and humorless remakes in the past decade: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, with all the gore and none of the terror; The Omen in 2006, which removed the fun absurdity from an already ho-hum original; The Invasion in 2007, a butchering of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978) that completely skips the allegorical undertones; and don’t even get me started on the crapfest of 2010’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, directed by the indelible “talent” behind Blink 182’s “Stay Together for the Kids” video. Chris, I’m pretty sure you dragged me to that one, batch.
Anywho, my relationship with remakes was on the rocks, so I consciously avoided Zombie’s Halloween when it was first released. This wasn’t due to the director – he’s a sick, twisted fuck, and I respect that. I even enjoy it a little when paired with a surreally gruesome and darkly funny film like The Devil’s Rejects. But tackling Carpenter’s Halloween was something different. We’re not talking about a routine scream-fest here; this is the original slasher, a film that builds straightforward terror with careful pacing and suffocating dread. Zombie may be a superb director with his own material, but I had a bad feeling about taking on such a landmark film, especially one bearing Carpenter’s indelible signature.
Here’s a question: Before watching it, what did you expect from Zombie’s Halloween? Did you need an expanded story, or did you want a shot-by-shot remake in the mode of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games? We’ll definitely dig into how well Zombie’s chosen approach worked, but one of the most interesting things about remakes (and sequels) is whether or not they deliver on audience expectations. After all, we’re playing with a legacy here.
Chris: I expected a mix of the two and got more than I could have imagined. I did not want a shot-for-shot remake of the original – that would be like the Vince Vaughn version of Psycho (like half of his films, it should have never got the green light). I do have to say that Funny Games is a well-deserved shot-for-shot remake, as it is only making a gruesome and interesting movie more accessible. Might our audience be expecting a review of that soon? Eh, Phil?
Like the intro says, Halloween delivered the general premise of it’s predecessor, but it also contains so much more on the life and times of Michael Myers that it truly caught me off-guard. If this movie delivered on my expectations as an audience member, though, I’d almost say no, just for the fact that Halloween is larger than Carpenter’s masterpiece and I don’t know if I could have even known what to expect. What about you? Without digging too deep to start, what did you expect, and did Zombie deliver?
Phil: We’ll have to find a fresh angle for Funny Games, but I definitely think it’s on the horizon… so many films, so little time. But back to Halloween. To be honest, I only expected to be let down, and in that sense, Zombie straight-up ax-murdered my expectations in the best way possible. Was it an unequivocal success? Not quite, but we’ll get to that soon.
For starters, I feared that Zombie would get cold feet and swing to either end of the remake spectrum, releasing a film that was a) so faithful it became unnecessary, or b) so wildly different it should be its own entity (a bit like Halloween III: Season of the Witch – now that was a mindfuck). Now that I’m more familiar with his singularly bizarre style, I should’ve known better.
No matter the source material, all directors – all halfway decent ones, at least – imbue their work with pet themes. Even though they started with the “same” film, Carpenter and Zombie are no different. Carpenter works in two extremes, opting for either political allegory or straightforward atmosphere. In our review of his Halloween, I argued that the film could be seen through both lenses. Those themes are a sign of his times: The ‘70s were marred by a deflated ‘60s counterculture, and artistic types on the fringes of Hollywood managed to smuggle that disenfranchisement into their films. It resulted in brooding, outwardly simple tales that relied on reading between the lines as much as upfront narrative.
Fast forward a few decades to Zombie. Despite graphic violence just inches from snuff content, he’s a deeply personal director. Unnerving familial tension looms over all his films, and when he reworked Carpenter’s screenplay with minute details about Myers’ abusive, shitty childhood, it played to his strengths. He expands the Halloween universe by putting its iconic villain under a grimy microscope, almost making this young killer a sympathetic figure. It’s the same blackened sleight-of-hand he pulled with the murderous Firefly family in his two previous films. Who knew demented backwoods clowns could make you laugh and cry?
Now, if Zombie had spent too much time with pint-sized Michael, the film would’ve gone off the rails. But he wisely switches to reverent homage when Myers escapes the mental institution and returns home, replacing madhouse visuals with Carpenter’s muted, shadowy suburbia. His hulking killer has heavy-metal hair and radiates menace – it was all but lost during three decades of sequels – even if imposing size plays into the silly “unstoppable” mythology of so many slashers. The whole narrative mix-up works because Zombie has a clear vision for the Halloween legacy, and it’s never trite or boring. I think I dug deeper than you wanted, but it makes a good segue to the next topic: Michael’s backstory. Did it work for you?
Chris: Ah, Phil, you sure do take to digging trenches when asked for a poop hole. Anywho, I guess that’s what the Boy Scouts taught you when you were young Michael’s age, right? Speaking of that little devil, I really liked the backstory and the connection it creates between Michael and Lorie. The original film was so… dead when it came to why he’s a killer. Now, before all you horror Nazis balk at me for challenging traditional motive (or lack thereof) hear me out: Carpenter created this evil killer with no rhyme or reason to his acts. Awesome – that shit is terrifying. It is what happens in the real world, none of this “my camp counselors forgot to watch me and I drowned but my mom killed the next batch of camp counselors and then died in front of me so I must exact revenge on all who breathe near me,” or “I touched little kids and was burned to death so I will go after the kids of the parents who burned me but I’m dead so I’ll do it in their dreams.” Nope, none of that. Just “kill kill kill kill kill, find my sister after I escape an institution, kill kill kill, try and kill my sister…” yadda yadda, etcetera etcetera. You get the picture – what Carpenter created was as real as it gets. That is entirely the reason why the first one, especially when it was released, was so scary. Phil put it as such: “No bells or whistles, no meandering plot lines, no distracting mythologies, just ill-fated characters trying to bone and avoid a stab-happy killer.”
There you have it, folks: Stab-happy killer Michael Myers is on the loose. Scary as hell in the ‘70s and, as we discussed, still very relevant today. But onto the backstory that Zombie weaves: It gives us that extra “oomph” of creep. Dude has a picture of a baby to go by, heads home, finds her, tracks her down and – dare I give away a key plot point (dare, dare) – tries to make a connection with her. Wow. That’s the kind of insanity you don’t see everyday in modern movies, let alone slasher films, LET ALONE REMAKES! Zombie then adds a cherry on top in the exact moment when Lorie stabs Myers and he goes berserk, with nothing on his mind but ending his sister’s life. So long, happy family.
Now is when shit gets interesting. I don’t want to get too far ahead of you, Phil (sorry), but soon after, Zombie takes over and Carpenter bows out. Unbeknownst to the audience in 2007, Zombie’s Halloween II takes a sharp – and I do mean SHARP – left turn from tradition and enters a whole new world of evil. Wait a week, folks, and we’ll have that review up. But for now, what do you think of the amped-up gore in Halloween? Three bears that shit, brother: Not enough, just right, or too fucking much?
Phil: Boy Scouts also taught me to sharpen knives and craft masks… it’s like a little Michael Myers boot camp. Before I delve into the blood-n-guts question, a quick side note on Zombie’s expanded screenplay: I agree with you completely and think it works, even if it sets up an entirely different, more personal film than the original. Fleshing out the Myers brood is interesting and needed. A few of the details are overwrought – did his mom really have to be the stripper with a heart of gold? – but even mild interest is more than most of the sequels offer. It also lets Zombie stretch his legs, stylistically and emotionally, before delving into the traditional narrative Halloween fans know. Carpenter’s lack of detail has a certain allure to it, but making Michael more human doesn’t dampen the terror to come. If anything, it’s heightened through intrigue about his his sister and their uncertain future. Again, it’s more psychologically gripping than blandly sketching a bunch of pretty, over-sexed teens, just to kill them off as though going through a grocery list.
And now, onto that lovely ultraviolence. Zombie’s Halloween is the equivalent of baby bear’s porridge, if that cuddly critter ate porridge of blood and body parts. I’m a certified gore hound, and Zombie’s no-holds-barred aesthetic is right up my alley. I like when films push the limits of what can be shown – it’s the anti-censorship streak in me – and this is actually less graphic than Zombie’s previous work. Again, bravo, ya sick bastard. But what really hooks me is his modern and truthful approach to violence: physical camerawork, hyper-realistic gore, punishing makeup FX, cringe-inducing sound. There’s little of the viscera found in zombie movies and the like, but the final 30 minutes are absolutely unrelenting. If you aren’t prepared, it could possibly turn you off to the entire experience.
When it comes to gore, Zombie’s extended screenplay pulls double duty. Early scenes have the money-shots every genre fan loves – little Mikey’s ingenious way of dispatching his alcoholic stepfather is particularly fitting – and later scenes deliver the iconic, disturbing images associated with Carpenter’s Halloween. To further elevate the killing from vulgar indulgence to kinda-sorta-art, it’s also character driven (weird!) and tragically personal. It reminds me of old-shool creature features like Dracula and Frankenstein, in which misunderstood monsters kill and terrify to mask deep-seated pain. Zombie may be a brutal visualist, but he has a soft spot for misfits and fuckups. Chris, your thoughts on the violence? And when you’re done with that, dig into Dr. Loomis, played in this film by Malcolm McDowell of A Clockwork Orange fame. Along with Myers, we spend a good span of pre-rampage time with the psychiatrist.
Chris: Gore, gore gore… You and I both love ourselves some gore. And you’re right, this movie was not gory, almost at all. There was a bit of blood – definitely more than in Carpenter’s film (and more boobs). But it wasn’t a gore-fest a la Wrong Turn or Saw. What it did have was unending violence in a hyper-realistic fashion that kept the pacing fast and gut-turning. I think with Zombie’s past, he could have done a bit more with our favorite red fluid, but he succeeded in chilling me to the bone nonetheless.
As for the doc, I was much more impressed with McDowell than I was with Donald Pleasance. Pleasance was the biggest name from the first film, and caused a few headaches for the cast as they only had him for had days and filmed all of his shots on a super time-crunch. But he really didn’t convince me, ever, that Michael was Evil Incarnate. Malcolm McDowell, on the other hand, was true in his convictions. He was precise in his delivery and actually believable for why he thought Michael truly was the devil. He did a fantastic job in the snippets where he and Michael are mentor and pupil all at the same time. The relationship Zombie and McDowell create by between Loomis and Myers is unprecedented. Beautiful, charming and perhaps a bit weird, I thoroughly enjoyed Loomis of the remake. Your thoughts, my man?
Phil: I can’t help myself, dude… Your reference to “red fluid” is scarily appropriate. The 2009 Rob Zombie song “Never Gonna Stop” is filled with all sorts of stylized sexuality and imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And, as it just so happens, McDowell’s breakthrough role was as Alex in that film, the sick and suave gang leader with a fetish for the red, red kroovy and a bit of the old ultraviolence. Sounds a bit like Zombie himself.
But I digress. McDowell has defined his cinema career playing misanthropic madmen, which makes his turn as Dr. Loomis – the psychiatrist possibly driven a bit insane by his own patient – eerily fitting. I love your description of him as “beautiful, charming and a bit weird.” I’ve always distrusted older men with long, hippy-like hair, and it’s wonderfully creepy how McDowell nearly resembles the young Michael Myers. I think those tiny allusions cut to the core of why I prefer this Loomis to the original: McDowell grows over the course of the film, while Pleasence arrives fully-formed as that old horror film trope, the half-crazed expert no one believes until its too late. Thanks to early scenes between Loomis and Myers in the mental asylum, we see how Loomis began as a bright psychiatrist fascinated by a child murderer, only to lose faith in himself, psychiatry and, finally, Myers’ humanity. He wants the kid to be “cured” – or at least understood – and when he admits Myers is pure evil, it’s devastating to see the cold and ruthless way in which he denounces a man he spent a decade trying to help. Chilling, and filled with all sorts of fears about professional failure.
That said, Pleasence’s Loomis always struck me as a latent pedophile. Maybe he, too, was driven mad by years with Myers – the sequels definitely point in that direction – but he comes across as more unpleasantly icky than understandably skewed. One scene from the original always bothered me: While trying to spot Myers at his childhood home, Pleasence scares away a group of kids by whispering threats from a bush. When the kids flee, Loomis smirks in a nearly perverted manner. It’s disturbing, but not in a way that adds to or even fits with the rest of the film. I’m not saying his performance fails, per se, but compared to McDowell, it’s a bit baseless and unfocused.
So, there’s a lot to like in this remake, but did Zombie have any missteps? I’ll point to the most glaring one, also shared by Carpenter’s version: stiff dialogue. In our review of the original, I moaned a bit about the stilted and creaky teenage drama, like Carpenter was idly chewing through time before the killing starts. But given his slice-of-life approach, this wasn’t a major concern – teenagers are often boring and banal. In contrast, Zombie’s script occasionally tries for too much depth, coming across as cheesy and stereotypical. Oddly enough, this only happens in those early scenes we enjoyed so much, particularly the therapy sessions with Dr. Loomis and Myers I just lauded. Sample exchange: Mikey tells Loomis his favorite color is black, to which the doctor responds: “But black isn’t a color – it’s actually the absence of all color.” Way to hammer home a point, Zombie. Chris, what about you? What fell flat in this Halloween?
Chris: The color. Hands down, the thing I disliked most was the ambiguous color palette. There were several times when it changed dramatically and without reason. Don’t get me wrong – Zombie used the color in very distinct ways: in the beginning, at the asylum, in Haddonfield for the end. But every house featured a different color palette, slightly, and the lack of saturation in the Myers house seemed too fake, too much. Now that the colorist inside me has come out, I really didn’t enjoy the girls constantly dry humping and faking orgasms. I don’t know why, but every time they did it, it came off forced. Like you pointed out about the first one having forced dialogue, this one has forced lesbianism. Never liked that or thought it fit.
Something that does fit, unexpectedly, is this movie in the annals of horror history. It takes everything that we know and love about Halloween, refreshes it, gives us more, and delivers with leaps and bounds to spare. To reference Ripley again, this movie is like Aliens. James Cameron’s addition to that franchise takes what we know, expands on it, and then has a hayday with story and plot to the point where it is widely considered one of the best sequels ever. Zombie’s Halloween, I propose, is one of the best remakes the horror genre has or will ever see. Too far, Phil? What do you think?
Phil: I don’t know if I could deconstruct it the way you did, but the color also distracted me at times. It seemed too haphazard, and highlights Zombie’s occasional tendency to cram so many references, call-backs and horror tropes into a single space that he loses cohesion. Every once in a while, this also highlights a strange lack of tension, but I was typically more interested in everything else. My one counter to your qualm with the girls “forced lesbianism”: Would you claim “forced homosexuality” if talk of orgasms and humping came from the mouths of dudes? Just something to think about.
Like a lot of Zombie films, Halloween was notoriously divisive upon release, drawing praise from the New York Post and ire from nearly every other critic. It scored a dismal 24-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a barely-better 47 out of 100 on Metacritic. If you take the Internet’s word, this film blows major nuts. We’re obviously in the minority, but I stand by our praise of Zombie’s first attempt at a remaking a classic – it truly sets the bar high.
That said, I don’t know if it’s a classic in and of itself. Yes, it’s more detailed, rich, violent and personal than its predecessor (as well as nearly all the sequels), but that doesn’t necessarily put it on the same plane. I’m more willing to call this Halloween a “derivative classic.” It’s by far one of the marquee remakes currently flooding the market, and as we’ve said plenty of times, it carves a laudable template for how horror remakes can be smart and brutal, with just the right combination of fresh material and faithful homage. I think our annual Halloween night movie marathon just got a new addition.
Chris: 3 – One of the best remakes the horror genre has or will ever see.
Phil: 2.5 – A stellar film, but remember: It wouldn’t exist without the original.