Saturday, December 15, 2007

Movie Review: Halloween (2007)

There is an inherent distrust in the remake, with studio greed suspect and raised eyebrows at the directors who sign on to tackle them, their own artistry called into question. Indeed, remakes are a tricky business. Give fans a faithful redo and the inevitable question is: “Why bother?” Change up the original premise too much and risk the wrath of loyalists who scream betrayal of the source material. It’s seemingly a no-win situation, but director Rob Zombie is no fool – he takes on an iconic classic with his reimagined Halloween and straddles the fine line between the two.

Zombie’s modernized Halloween is a brutal, relentless retelling of John Carpenter’s 1978 film of the same name, itself a masterful exercise in which mood is used to create suspense. Wisely, Zombie doesn’t attempt to recreate the subtlety of Carpenter’s original here – instead using the escalating intensity of time and narrative to ratchet up the tension. The new and improved Halloween is told in three acts: Michael’s childhood that culminates in a murderous rampage against his family, his years incarcerated in the Smiths Grove Sanitarium that ends in his bloody escape, and his reign of terror over an unsuspecting suburbia on the titular holiday that took up most of the running time of the original – here condensed into the final 40 minutes.

In Act I, Zombie overreaches and his exercise in white trashiness nearly boils over the top. Understatement is an art form which the director has yet to master. Fortunately, actress Sheri Moon Zombie (in classic Hollywood casting nepotism) grounds these early scenes with her surprisingly sensitive and layered turn as Deborah Myers, Michael’s loving mother. Mrs. Zombie ably captures the essence of a young mother struggling against the hopelessness of her circumstances. Her performance is something of a revelation here (having overplayed it in both of her husband’s previous films) and helps to nicely counterbalance William Forsythe’s caricaturish performance as Michael’s lecherous, booze-guzzling stepfather. Hanna Hall, taking on the expanded role of ill-fated Judith Myers also shows promise – particularly in her grueling death scene.

Zombie does his best work in Act II, in which Dr. Samuel Loomis (Michael’s kindly psychiatrist who we meet briefly while trying to sound the future cuckoo alarm in the film’s early scenes) attempts to reach the deeply troubled boy during his 15-year-institutionalization. Zombie demonstrates that he has the directing chops to take a concept from Point A to Point B here with a nicely executed series of scenes in which we witness young Michael (played with genuine creepiness by vacant-faced newcomer Daeg Faerch) slowly descend deeper and deeper into his own twisted psychosis. Told against a backdrop of scenes in which the young Michael creates a succession of gruesome masks “to hide my ugliness”, this part of the film has an emotional depth missing from the original that makes it hard not to empathize with not only Michael’s tortured mother and his paternal psychiatrist but with the killer himself. The tragedy in these scenes comes out of the idea that love is not boundless – that both a mother’s love and the genuine altruistic desire to help another human being have their limits. And as Michael’s mother sinks deeper into despair, and the hopelessness of her life comes full circle, and as Dr. Loomis resigns himself to failure and cashes in instead on Michael’s story, there is no turning back from the monster Michael is about to become. Of noteworthiness in Act II is British actor Malcolm McDowell, who does an outstanding job fleshing out the iconic Donald Pleasance role and creating a decidedly more three-dimensional Loomis, and Zombie mainstay Danny Trejo as kindly hospital attendant Ismael Cruz whose own well-meaning, albeit untrained, attempts to reach out to Michael ultimately misfire. Both actors, along with Moon Zombie’s continuation from the earlier scenes, help infuse the film with a sense of humanity that drives home the idea that the story of Michael Myers is much more than bloodshed and carefully orchestrated scares – it’s a tragedy at its core.

While the idea of boiling down the events of the first film into a streamlined 40 minutes or so in the third act might give the impression that the audience is in for a rush job of epic proportion, Zombie actually pulls off the final frames well enough. We meet up again with baby sister Boo, now Laurie Strode, who we learn was plucked from the scene of their mother’s suicide and given a chance at normalcy via kindly parents (genre vet Dee Wallace and character actor Pat Skipper), a decidedly more middle class life in Haddonfield, and requisite gal pals Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris of Halloween 4 and 5 – all grown-up and the director’s only wink to franchise fans). The stalk-and-slash action that follows is formulaic slasher all the way and Zombie plays it straight here, actually creating more of an authentic homage to the genre than Scream and its string of self-referential knockoffs that followed. It’s in this final act that we most clearly see Zombie’s ability to line-straddle than anywhere else in the film, with meticulous re-creation of certain key scenes that worked in the original layered between the infusion of a few innovations and surprises along the way. The result is an experience that’s simultaneously familiar and fresh.

While Scout Taylor-Compton is agreeable enough in the heroine role (although her intrinsic blandness reminds us of why Jamie Lee Curtis became a star in the first place), the performances in Act III are largely forgettable with two notable exceptions. Dee Wallace makes the most of her glorified cameo and infuses her too-few scenes with such naturalness that we are reminded of why the woman is a bonafide horror veteran. She is able to so effectively establish her maternal bond with Taylor-Compton’s character in the space of two short scenes that when she comes to her inevitable celluloid crossroads, the audience actually mourns her fate. And it doesn’t hurt that the woman can out-scream every ingĂ©nue in the cast. Hulking Tyler Mane is also a standout here as the adult Michael Myers. While actors in non-verbal roles are often easy to dismiss, Mane impresses with his ability to communicate using body posturing – menacing at times, vulnerable at others as the child buried within the adult monster bubbles to the surface in one surprisingly effective scene.

At the heart of Halloween – both old and new alike – is the boogeyman in human form. But whereas Carpenter’s Michael Myers was more an indestructible monster whose motivation was nebulous evil, Zombie grounds his Myers incarnation in reality and fashions him as a killing machine who’s the product of human cruelty and indifference. It’s here that the two versions vary most – and the heart of the contentious debate between fans on both side of the slasher fence. In Carpenter’s original, Myers symbolized those leftover childhood fears of the boogeyman – that irrational fear of what’s under the bed or behind the closet door. There’s a nostalgic comfort in that kind of fear, one that’s steeped in innocence and largely unlikely. And while that idea echoed the time period and worked well in the ’78 film, the limitless boundaries of nebulous evil lent itself to exploitation in a string of unnecessary sequels during which the concept of evil crossed over into mythology and ultimately cannibalized itself. Zombie’s Michael Myers also plays upon childhood fears, but those fears are now well-grounded in the reality of a modern society in which the speculative terrors lurking under the bed have become an inescapable inundation of information about global terrorism, violent home invasions, and unspeakable crimes committed against children that taint the innocence of childhood. If the boogeyman appears different, Zombie tells us here, it’s because he is. What scared us in 1978 is very different from what scares us in 2007; Zombie acknowledges that and modernizes the boogeyman.

With this modernization of the boogeyman, Zombie takes artistic license to fill in the substantial blanks of Michael’s back story in Carpenter’s original. Here we see Michael Myers reimagined as the product of a white trash background, living amidst blue collar squalor with his stripper mother, abusive, alcoholic stepfather, and trampy teenaged sister. Only the presence of pure innocence in the form of a baby sister holds him from slipping permanently into the well of evil his surroundings have forced him into; when he is separated from her, his motivation is established. In essence, Michael Myers kills because he’s searching for his lost innocence, personified in the form of his younger sister. Bullied at home, bullied in school, Zombie paints a bleak and hopeless backdrop for young Michael’s descent into madness. These scenes are vulgar and harsh, even difficult to watch at times, but they’re integral in establishing the more fully-realized character of Michael Myers. The most effective cinematic villains are those the audience can simultaneously sympathize with and loathe – Norman Bates, Hannibal Lechter, and Annie Wilkes are a few who came to mind. Zombie admirably attempts to fashion a more three-dimensional Michael Myers, employing a well-scripted back story and relying on the acting chops of Faerch and Mane to bring the character to life. Like a skilled archer, Zombie stretches his bow and lines up his arrow with as much deft precision as he can muster three films into his career; ultimately, he misses the bullseye, but the arrow hits as near to the center of the mark as it’s gotten in any previous film in the franchise – save for the original.

Chances are that Zombie’s reimagined Halloween will follow the same long and laborious road to gaining respect that some of the best (and now most revered) remakes had to traverse - films like The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing (ironically, a Carpenter undertaking). These remakes were the scorn of an entire generation who grew up watching the originals, a generation whose cries of foul eerily echo those of the Carpenter loyalists now. But, like the decade or two that it took those films to gain the appreciation they deserved, only time will tell if Rob Zombie’s Halloween will age like fine wine or ferment like stinky cheese.

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