Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: Halloween II (2009)

(Caution: Falling spoilers ahead…)

If experience has taught Rob Zombie anything, it’s to never say never. After his much ballyhooed HALLOWEEN reimagining in 2007, the former White Zombie frontman-turned-filmmaker attested that he’d never touch the inevitable sequel. But – in our culture of decisional turnarounds – fans knew Zombie would be back from the first mention of his reboot’s opening weekend numbers.

Zombie’s sequel – like Rick Rosenthal’s original 1981 sequel – begins where the original left off and quickly moves to the local hospital where Laurie (and Annie in Zombie’s sequel) is taken following her first encounter with Michael Myers. But whereas Haddonfield Memorial was the backdrop for Rosenthal’s entire film, Zombie opts to condense the hospital aspect into a 15-minute bloodbath before moving into entirely original territory.

A year after the events of the first film, we meet up with Laurie Strode (again played by Scout Taylor-Compton), psychologically and physically scarred, prone to nightmares and reliant on psychotropic drugs to deal with her psychopathic problems. Now orphaned, Laurie lives with BFF and fellow Myers survivor Annie (the returning Danielle Harris) and her father, Sheriff Lee Brackett (Brad Dourif, also doing a second tour of duty here). Despite her enduring post-traumatic stress, Laurie goes through the motions of daily life, including a job at the local coffee shop run by Uncle Meat (WKRP IN CINCINNATI’S Howard Hesseman) and hanging with new friends Mya (Brea Grant) and Harley (Angela Trimbur).

We also meet up again with Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) – also a changed man following the events of the first film – now an egomaniacal opportunist trying to parlay the tragedies of Haddonfield into cold hard cash with a tell-all book about the Myers saga. Aided by an efficient publicist (played by Mary Birdsong of RENO 911! fame) who thinks his methods of self-promotion are crossing serious lines of decency, Loomis spends most of the film refuting any accountability for the mishandling of Myers’ case and letting loose on reporters eager to point out the exploitative aspects of his book. In one of the film’s best scenes, veteran character actor Robert Curtis Brown portrays Kyle Van Der Klok, the distraught father of Kristina Klebe’s strangled Linda from the first film, who approaches Loomis at a local book signing and lashes out at him before wielding a gun and being taken down by security. (For those tracking the “six degrees of Jamie Lee Curtis” moments, Brown played preppy Todd in TRADING PLACES.)

Meanwhile, in the third thread of the story, Michael Myers (Tyler Manes in a hulking reprisal of his role from the first film) makes his way back to Haddonfield in time for the titular calendar designation, cutting a wide and bloody swath across the landscape. Victims along the way include MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D’S full-frontal gal Betsy Rue, Red Rabbit strip club owner Big Lou (Daniel Roebuck), and a hapless stripper (Sylvia Jeffries), appropriately named Misty Dawn, among others.

The three threads of Zombie’s screenplay eventually come together. Laurie learns of her tainted lineage via Loomis’ book and, out of her mind over the implications, sets off on an alcohol-fueled binge with Mya and Harley at a Halloween costume party. Michael comes a-calling for little sis and takes down anyone (and everyone) in his path. In his luxuriously-appointed hotel suite, meanwhile, Loomis’ viewing of himself on a TV talk show with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (in a baffling and misguided cameo) is interrupted by a special news report claiming that notorious serial killer Michael Myers is back in town and taking hostages. The action converges in an abandoned barn where madness and mayhem play out and no one escapes unscathed.

Love him or hate him, Rob Zombie is an interesting filmmaker. He’s got a visual style – think 70’s exploitation grindhouse here – that gives his films a gritty realism missing from some of his slicker genre counterparts. Visually, HALLOWEEN II has some brilliant sequences, ranging from a gorgeously foreboding exterior shot of Myers making his way across an autumn-tinged field to Annie’s slow-motion turn-and-run. If it’s possible, Zombie ratchets up the sound levels even more than previous films with auditory accompaniment to the killings here sounding like bombs going off – it’s a device that works to almost discomfiting effect. Myers doesn’t just stab people here – he stabs them angrily. Props to Manes for imbuing the character with genuine rage without uttering a single word.

Visual styling aside for a moment, where Zombie falters is in his script work. Yes, there are clever extensions of logic at play here – particularly in the way Laurie comes to learn that she is Michael’s sister. But then there are areas of the film that seem intentionally blurred, enough to nag at the viewer long after the end credits roll. For example, while it’s (maddeningly) clear that the hospital massacre early in the film is a figment of Laurie’s nightmares, the disappearance of Michael’s body isn’t made as obvious. Is the sequence with the coroner’s van part of Laurie’s nightmare – or does that really happen? If it really happens, why isn’t anyone particularly concerned that Myers’ body vanished? The characters all seem resolved that Myers is dead – yet in the absence of his corpse, this seems illogical in light of the trauma they’ve endured. Ditto for the fact that it takes Myers a full year to make it back to Haddonfield – just how far did that coroner’s van get before it collided with the cow? (Yes, I said cow.) Same goes for the denouement – which muddily hints that at least part of Laurie’s encounter with her brother is a hallucination and makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and Laurie’s madness. And although the film’s final frames appear to give us clarification – and perhaps the ultimate truth that there’s not as much of a line separating reality from madness as we might think – it still leaves an ambiguous taste in the mouth, like a faint spice in an ingredient-laden soup.

Likewise, Zombie frustrates with his inconsistent ability to craft characters. While he ably demonstrates that he’s a writer capable of creating characters the audience can connect with, he also appears to suffer from bouts of laziness with others. For example, he’s able to develop very real, three-dimensional characters in Laurie and Annie, depicting – and even expanding upon – the authentic relationship between the two. You believe these two friends have been through hell and back and are closer because of it. When Annie is attacked, your stomach tightens and you actually feel for her. And when her luck finally runs out in the film, Laurie’s heartrending reaction is wrought with a genuine sense of grief that the audience shares. Conversely, he imbues the new characters – notably Laurie’s new friends Harley and Mya – with nothing resembling personality or distinguishing character traits. When they die, the audience feels nothing.

But my biggest criticism with the film is in Zombie’s overreliance on dream sequences, particularly those involving his younger self (now played by Chase Wright Vanek) and his late mother (played again by Zombie’s real-life wife Sherri Moon-Zombie). Listen, I’ve defended Zombie’s penchant for repeatedly choosing actors from the same casting pool as previous films – after all, directors like Woody Allen and others have done this for decades with great result. And you don’t mind seeing hardworking thespians like Danny Trejo or Daniel Roebuck rewarded with colorful roles after years of respectable, if lackluster, supporting parts. But when you have to come up with ridiculously superfluous dream sequences in order to cast your own wife (admittedly, surprisingly decent in the first HALLOWEEN outing), you lose a bit of artistic credibility in my book. Zombie goes so far here as to inject a flashback scene from Myers’ days at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium during which his mother gives him a white plastic horse with some gibberish about thinking of her whenever he looks at the horse. The whole idea of going back and inserting this into the chronology of the first film comes off as a cheap manipulation of the audience. The scenes themselves – filmed in garish whites with Moon-Zombie and Vanek in the company of a white steed – are completely unessential to the narrative and actually slow down the film’s pacing. It’s overindulgent nonsense masquerading as highbrow surrealism that gives Zombie’s detractors some concrete footing in their criticism.

Interestingly, the high points in HALLOWEEN II come from unexpected places for me – here in the form of three performances that surprised and delighted. Taylor-Compton, who I had pegged as a second-rate Jamie Lee Curtis in the first film, actually impresses here with her authentic portrayal of a trauma survivor. Like Curtis’ dead-on performance of a damaged older version of Laurie Strode in 1998’s HALLOWEEN: H2O, Taylor-Compton wears the scars of her horrifying past in all their ugly reality here. Her acting range takes her from frightened to frantic as the movie progresses, and her last scenes are nothing short of haunting. Ditto for the amazing Octavia Spencer, a brilliant character actress with dozens of supporting credits to her name, who gets to show some serious dramatic chops here in the noteworthy small role of Nurse Daniels. Despite Spencer’s far-too-brief screen time, she manages to pull off one of the most harrowing scenes in the film with such unrelenting emotional realism that she’s able to elicit one of the few moments of genuine empathy in the entire film. And for every cameo that Zombie misses the mark on (blink and you’ll miss TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s Caroline Williams), he scores a bull’s-eye with others – here with the all but unrecognizable Margot Kidder who turns in an excellent, understated performance as Laurie’s psychiatrist.

So where does Rob Zombie go from here? First, he stays away from the HALLOWEEN franchise; he’s brought all he can to the series, for better or worse, giving us his take on the source material in the first film and then bringing a bit more of his own vision to this sequel.

Done. Nothing more to see here, folks…move on.

It’s rumored that he’s now eyeing a remake of THE BLOB, which was already successfully tackled in 1988. Personally, I’m ambivalent. Part of me would like to see him bring us something wholly original, something entirely the vision of Rob Zombie. But part of me is intrigued by the idea of what he could bring to this science fiction classic, remembered less for the technical and artistic aspects of the film itself and more for its concept. Might just be safer territory than taking on a beloved slasher classic and risking the anger and wrath of the stalk-n-slash loyalists.


Pax Romano said...

Vince, great review - you "almost" make me want to see this film...maybe when it comes out on DVD.

I have watched all of RZ's work so far, and will admit that he does have small bursts of genius in his films (the slow-mo death ride scored to Freebird in Devil's Rejects for instance), but by the time his version of Halloween came to an end, I was pretty much over him and his tricks.

Anonymous said...

I am a very big Halloween fan and have been since the first one hit the movie screen. But this latest Halloween II sucks!!!!! Rob Zombie should be fired and never asked to do another one in my opinion. Maybe the directors of Texas Chainsaw can take on Halloween since they did such a good job with Friday the 13th. Going to see Halloween was such a waste of my money and time of my life that I will never get back

kindertrauma said...

I was looking forward to hearing your views on this one and as usual you did not disappoint. I had a feeling you would appreciate Zombie's handling of the Brackets (impressive considering their relative screen time) and I was right. Some criticize his way with characters or lack thereof but I'm beginning to suspect that the lack of momentum I felt in the final act was due to the fact that I was shellshocked by Annie's demise. With all its crazy faults this is one of those rare movies that has me thinking of visiting it a second time in the theater (for better or worse) Thanks for the review!-Unk

deadlydolls said...

Excellent and thorough review of an extremely flawed, if rife with buried potential, mess of a film. The biggest blunder for me was that lack of setting. We had no idea where Michael was as he trekked his way back(?) to Haddonfield (which is located 10 minutes from a late night talk show?).

I'm genuinely holding out hope that Zombie's director's cut at least cleans up some of the issues I had with the film. There's still a part of me that hopes ...

(SPOILERS!!! SPOILERS!!!) that my first instinct with the ending was right: that Laurie was the killer all along. Considering the early deaths have no connection with the rest of the action, it's possible they were all fantasies, right? Maybe? It would just give the film a reason to exist in my opinion.

I do agree that Sheri Moon was fine in the first film, but was so glaringly unneeded here. Sigh. Better luck next time, Zombies.