The Third in a 5 Part Look at the Career of Modern Cult Horror Icon Rob Zombie.
If there’s one point that I want to really hammer home during this marathon of mediocre horror flicks, it’s that Rob Zombie is not one for originality. Everything from his songs to his music videos to his films are all built upon decades of previous works. To call them pastiches would be too generous in most cases. As I’ve mentioned previously, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there’s certainly nothing wrong with pulling from what works. What isn’t so great, however, is when a creator decides to simply just rip-off an existing property without doing much in the way of making it their own. In short, there’s a difference between being inspired by something and flat-out stealing from it. And with Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses, it was definitely more of the latter. The film is essentially nothing more than a poor man’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, possessing too few elements to really make it stand on its own. So, naturally, the next logical step for the burgeoning horror “auteur” was to stop beating around the bush and just straight-up remake an existing film. Cut out the middle man, as it were. And out of all the possible franchises he could have chosen, of all the gritty, grimy 70s-era grindhouse films that fit his aesthetic like a blood-soaked glove, he somehow gets Halloween.
John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween is a slasher classic, and probably the closest thing to a perfect film in that particular era of the genre. It’s a slow, moody piece, with most of its scares coming from sheer tension rather than visceral, on-screen violence. It revels in a sort of subtlety that seems lost on nearly everything that came after it. Everything from the music to the lighting are positively dripping with atmosphere, imbuing nearly every scene with such an intense feeling of dread that it’s still just as effective today as it was 40 years ago. It’s not just a good horror film; It’s a good film, period. But by far the most effective element of the film is in its star antagonist, the now-iconic Michael Myers. Referred to only as “The Shape” in the film’s credits, Myers is one of the most enigmatically terrifying villains every put to screen, simply by virtue of his ghostly, emotionless mask and his silent, relentless predatory drive. He’s not a figure like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, characters whose backstories, motivations and personalities are known to the audience. No, he has much more in common with the shark from Jaws or the titular creature from Alien, driven purely by instinct. Much like these two classic movie monsters, Michael Myers can’t be reasoned with or understood. There’s no tragic origin, no grievous wrong done to him that transformed him into a cold-blooded murder. As Dr. Loomis, the Ahab-esque nemesis to villain, says in the film, Myers is “purely and simply evil.” But given what we learned from House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, it should be of no surprise to anyone that Rob Zombie absolutely did not take this approach to his version of the film.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween is born from two separate pitches, which will immediately become apparent to anyone watching it. The first was for a prequel film, an origin-story of sorts for Michael Myers, showing his childhood and how he came to be the embodiment of evil that we see him as in the original film. This was an inexplicably in-vogue idea at the time, with other franchises doing the same for their own iconic villains. The over-indulgently-titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning would notably beat Halloween to the punch by about a year. The second pitch was for a more straightforward remake, which was also all the rage in Hollywood in the early 2000s, as apparently everyone had completely run out of ideas for original properties. But rather than do the sensible thing and weigh their options, the studio evidently decided to tackle both pitches at the same time, and as a result, we have the 2007 version of Halloween in its current state: A weird, stitched-together oddity that fails to offer even one cohesive story.
Zombie’s Halloween has an incredibly bizarre pacing and structure, one that, because of the dual nature of its internal chronology, makes it feel like two distinct, shorter films rather than a single whole. The first hour of the film serves as a prequel to the second half, detailing the childhood of Michael in the days leading up to the murder of his sister and his subsequent incarceration. We see his troubled home life, his first acts of violence, and ultimately, the fateful night when he would commit his first grisly killing. Calling it a prologue doesn’t exactly do it justice, considering that it’s basically half of the film’s runtime. It’s essentially its own self-contained story, one that is designed to make the audience both understand and sympathize with Myers, something that the original film wastes absolutely no time on.
Frankly, this alone should have killed the film from the very earliest stages of production. Again, Michael Myers is supposed to be an enigma, a complete void in terms of humanity and motive. Hence being dubbed “The Shape.” By exploring his backstory and humanizing him, you completely strip him of any and all mystique the character has about him. Much like Ridley Scott with his two Alien prequels, the more you explain something terrifying, the less interesting it becomes. Especially when you try and make the audience empathize with your monster. There’s certainly a time and a place for a sympathetic villain, but this really isn’t one of them. And this film tries so incredibly hard to make you feel for Michael, by giving him the most cliché, trope-filled childhood that could have possibly been imagined. It’s like Zombie saw a documentary about serial killers and thought “I’m going to put literally all of that into this movie.” Michael doesn’t know his biological father, is abused by his stepfather, is bullied at school, and tortures small animals. His family is similarly written as a cookie-cutter assortment of bad influences, with his mother, Deborah, being employed as a stripper and his older sister being a promiscuous, pot-smoking loser. It’s the kind of backstory that someone whose only exposure to criminal psychology was trashy daytime TV would write.
And even after the young Myers starts murdering people, the film still can’t stop ruining his image. Rather than simply finding a mask later in life once he escapes the mental hospital he’s being kept in, this version of Myers is an arts-and-crafts fanatic, and spends nearly every waking hour making masks. His room in the mental institution is full of art supplies, which doesn’t exactly give off an air of menace. Of all the things that Zombie could have explored in terms of the psychology of the character, his choice to wear a mask in the original should not have been high on the list. He’s a murderer in a horror movie, it’s sort of a given.
The second half of the film, the actual remake portion, does manage to fare a little better, but still misses its mark by quite a bit. Picking up fifteen years after Michael is initially incarcerated (and his mother kills herself, because everything must be as awful as possible), we see the now-fully-grown psychopath still residing in the same care facility. He’s a towering, hulking figure, a far-cry from the small, fair-haired child we saw in the prologue. Yet he’s still absolutely obsessed with masks, having his room completely adorned from floor to ceiling with the handmade costume pieces. After an abusive, redneck orderly decides to rape another patient in his room (again, as awful as possible), Michael kills most of the staff and escapes, heading back to Haddonfield, Illinois to go on a wild killing spree. The events from this point forward largely mirror the original in broad strokes, with one key difference: While Michael’s fascination with the original film’s protagonist, Laurie Strode (played then by scream-queen icon and all-around badass Jamie Lee Curtis), is never really explained, the remake decides to go in another direction entirely. This time, Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister, only a baby when the young killer was taken away by the state, and given to foster parents in the wake of Deborah Myers’s suicide. Michael’s bloody rampage isn’t actually random; He’s just trying to reconnect with his long-lost family. Granted, he does this by systematically trying to murder all of her friends and adoptive family, but hey, no one’s perfect.
This particular plot point is a fairly drastic departure from the original, but didn’t exactly arise in a vacuum. The sequel to the original film also uses this reveal as a narrative device, but was widely regarded to be a terrible idea. Any retcon that retroactively links to existing characters tends to make the universe feel much smaller and less interesting, at least in my opinion. At least within the context of the original’s sequel, the revelation didn’t really hurt Michael’s character, or make him any less menacing. He’s hunting his sister, not trying to reconcile with her. By having this new, modern Michael Myers be reduced to nothing more than a homesick child at the film’s climax, it does a lot to undermine how threatening he seems to the audience.
This isn’t the only thing the film has working against it. By condensing the events of the original film into only half of the movie’s runtime, it loses a lot of the set-up and suspense that made its predecessor so effective. Michael is rampaging from pretty much the moment we meet him as an adult, and his carnage starts in Haddonfield just as quickly. There’s no build up, the atmosphere is never earned. It’s also extremely difficult to get attached to most of the characters when they’re either discarded only an hour into the film, or don’t even show up until the midway point. I can’t stress enough how harmful this structure is to the overall feel of the film.
Zombie’s signature style is suited to a very specific brand of horror, one that is aggressive, in-your-face, and unashamedly gratuitous. That just isn’t what Halloween is meant to be. So what we end up having is a nauseating clash of style and subject matter, one that can really take you out of the experience if you’re in any way a fan of the original. In stark contrast with John Carpenter’s slow, deliberate tempo in the original, Zombie’s version has the same kinetic, disjointed energy as his previous films, making it extremely chaotic and intense. It’s very up close and personal, with much of the violence being depicted from an uncomfortably intimate distance. Zombie carries on the visual progress he made from House of 1000 Corpses to The Devil’s Rejects, with slick, action-heavy camera movement and liberal use of close-ups over wide-shots, but everything is still bogged down by the same ugly green filter he previously used in his earlier films. He also shoots everything in dim, often illegible lighting, which is in stark contrast to the largely daytime setting of Rejects. I suppose this was done to give the film a certain dreary mood throughout the film, yet it fails to live up to the original’s tastefully oppressive look.
Yet despite trying so hard to visually and stylistically distance itself from its source material, the film can’t seem to stop making constant callbacks to it. There’s quite a bit of dialogue lifted directly from the original film, mostly in extremely forced circumstances. There’re a few scenes that are pretty much carbon-copy recreations of scenes from the 1978 version, even though Zombie was adamant that he wouldn’t be doing such a thing. The film is also far too quick to use Carpenter’s classic theme music from the original, dropping it barely ten minutes into the film over a fairly anticlimactic and lackluster shot of young Michael running down a hall. This bit of music is iconic, near legendary, and should have been something that was built up to, like a crescendo, rather than flatly dropped at the first available moment.
But all that isn’t to say that there aren’t some bright spots in the film. Zombie’s version of Laurie Strode marks the first (and I suspect, only) instance in Zombie film where the audience genuinely has someone to root for. She’s a little rougher around the edges than her ‘78 counterpart, as is to be expected, but is still largely the same, good person as in the original. She’s concerned for the safety of her friends and family, and goes out of her way to try and save them from her deranged, brutish older brother. She even tries to help Michael when he finally catches up with her, and attempts to reveal their relationship as brother and sister. I was honestly shocked at how pure a character she was, given the nature of Zombie’s previous films. This is a Laurie Strode that would have genuinely felt at home even in the original. Granted, she doesn’t show up until an hour in the movie, so we don’t really have an overwhelming amount of time to get to know her, but still. With Zombie, I’ll take what I can get.
Zombie’s take on Dr. Loomis is also extremely well executed, to the point where I would almost say that he’s an improvement over the original. While he doesn’t exactly carry the same gravitas as Donald Pleasence, Malcolm McDowell still has an exceptionally commanding screen presence. He’s a much more laid-back, caring version of the character than the previous incarnation, which is one of the only genuine highlights within the opening “origin” half of the film. While we’re told about the relationship, we never actually see Loomis with Michael in the original film, which does sort of weaken their assumed rivalry on screen. By actually showing his attempts to connect with and understand the troubled boy, we not only gain a newfound sympathy for the character, but also a greater understanding of why he’s so hellbent on stopping Michael in than in the original. Granted, because Rob Zombie can’t let us have nice things, he ultimately ruins the character in the sequel, but we’ll get into that a little later.
And, at the very least, the 2007 version of Halloween still has the same basic spirit of the original film, albeit with a generous helping of the director’s signature grit and grime slathered over it. Despite quite a few glaring tonal and character departures, it still feels, ultimately, like a Halloween film. A fairly lackluster Halloween film, but one nonetheless. The same cannot be said, however, for Zombie’s Halloween II, which, to differentiate it from the original Halloween II, and the 2018 Halloween, which is actually another Halloween II, I’m going to refer to as Michael, the Murder Hobo.
Michael, The Murder Hobo, unlike Zombie’s first Halloween film, actually starts off with a nugget of an interesting concept. The basic premise is this: Following the events of the first film, Laurie Strode and the other survivors attempt to move on from the horrific trauma they experienced at the hands of Michael Myers. It broaches several potentially fascinating psychological phenomena like survivor’s guilt and PTSD, and attempts to depict a grounded, realistic take on what the people affected by an actual incident of mass murder would experience in its aftermath. Now, notice that I said “attempts.” While those ideas are certainly present in the film, to a degree, they are absolutely overshadowed by one of the most insane, nonsensical plots I have ever seen in a movie, horror or otherwise.
(Note: The version I happened to see was the unrated Director’s cut, which I’ve been told differs slightly from the theatrical version. But after watching it all the way through, you couldn’t pay me to watch another cut of this, so we’re sticking with it.)
Apart from a few flashbacks (or possibly dream sequences?), the film takes place exactly a year after the night Michael returned to Haddonfield to wreak havoc. Laurie is now living with the town sheriff (played by the always-great Brad Dourif, who’s one of the few genuine highlights in either of these movies) and his daughter, a friend of Laurie’s who also miraculously survived the massacre. Laurie is a psychological wreck, plagued with nightmares of the incident, and on an entire pharmacy’s worth of medication. Michael is presumed dead after Laurie shot him in the face the previous year, but she still feels his presence due to a (sigh) psychic link the two share due to their shared parentage, which Laurie is still unaware of at the beginning of the film. Michael’s body is missing following a terrible car accident in which the two paramedics transporting his alleged corpse are killed after hitting a cow (they were, of course, distracted by a conversation about necrophilia, because Rob Zombie hates you). Michael has since spent the past year roaming the countryside, murdering rednecks and growing an impressive hobo beard.
Laurie learns that she is the long-lost Myers daughter after reading a new book published by Dr. Loomis, who is now an egotistical famewhore looking to capitalize off of the events of the previous film. She has a complete psychotic breakdown, exacerbated by the fact that Michael is returning to Haddonfield on Halloween night. You see, it turns out this whole time that Michael has been driven by either the ghost of his dead mother and a magical white horse, or a vivid hallucination of the same thing. He also takes mental orders from himself as a child (trust me, it’s better if you just don’t try to question it). The specters command him to both kill random people and to track down Laurie, so that the family can be reunited (or possibly so that Deborah Myers can be resurrected? Again, completely unclear). All of this culminates in a three-way showdown between Michael, Laurie, and Dr. Loomis, with the town’s entire police force standing by. Michael kills Loomis, is gunned down by the police, and then is joined by Laurie, who seems to have embraced her murderous heritage (apparently this goes down differently in the theatrical cut, but again, at this point, I genuinely could not care less). All three characters are dead, along with a sizable percentage of the town’s population. Happy ending, roll credits.
I honestly had no idea what was happening throughout what was probably about half of this movie. It’s so bizarre and surrealist at times that the whole thing feels like a particularly violent fever dream. It’s never made clear as to whether the visions both Michael and Laurie experience are real, or are just hallucinations caused by their shared psychosis. There’s ample evidence to support both in the film, so it’s left entirely up in the air. Regardless, these sequences feature some of the most incomprehensible nonsense I’ve seen in quite a while. Everything Deborah says is cryptic and as vague as humanly possible, and the greater significance of the white horse is never explained outside of a half-assed, throwaway line about Michael “remembering her every time he sees it.” There’s also a lot of weird, medieval iconography and figures present in the dreams as well, which, at some points in the film, suggest there may be some greater significance to Michael and the greater Myers clan, although, again, it’s never actually explored.
Again, there’s the seed of an interesting film here. The concept that the film at first presents to the audience, one where the killer is well and truly dead and the protagonist must cope with their own unhinged mental state, would have been a fresh and inventive direction to take the franchise in. It would have allowed Zombie the chance to explore a lot of the psychological elements he haphazardly threw into the first film in a much more controlled, deliberate manner, and could have made for an intelligent, thoughtful look at mental health and trauma. Unfortunately, being the man that he is, Zombie instead opted to give us a murder hobo and a ghost mom.
If Zombie’s first Halloween did damage to Michael’s character and image, then this film absolutely destroyed them entirely. It’s like Zombie was trying to be as antithetical as possible towards the character, throwing away everything that makes him function as a pop-culture and genre icon. Michael is famous for never removing his mask? Well, here’s a film where be barely wears it at all, and the audience gets to see his scruffy, vagabond face the entire time (he actually looks a lot like Zombie himself, which opens up all sorts of issues I really don’t want to think about). Michael never speaks or makes a sound? Instead, let’s have him grunt and roar like a lunatic, before finally screaming “Die!” at Loomis as he kills him. Michael is supposed to be a remorseless killing machine, devoid of human emotion, motivated only by his own bloodlust? Nope, he’s being commanded by the visage of his dead mother (which has already been frankly overdone with everything from Norman Bates in Psycho to Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise). Everything that makes the character unique and interesting has been completely done away with here, for seemingly no real reason. It also tragically continues the trend from the previous film in which Michael is relieved of any agency or ingenuity that the original version of the character possessed. The original film has Michael escape the sanatorium by unknown means, but we’re led to believe that he orchestrated it himself, even managing to steal a car and make a clean getaway. In the sequel, he also escapes the morgue van of his own volition. With Zombie’s version of the character, all of that is largely done away with. His escapes from both the institution and the ambulance are all happenstance occurrences due to the negligence of others. He’s not a criminal mastermind, he’s a lucky idiot who stumbles into victory.
This just goes to show, once again, that Zombie doesn’t really understand what works with a property and what doesn’t. The addition of supernatural elements in the original series’ later installments is something that both fans and critics alike bemoaned as being too far-fetched for what had previously been established as franchise lore, so to bring it back this go-around, only worse, is an extremely puzzling move. Michael isn’t supposed to be an undead monster like Jason Voorhees, or a demon like Freddy Krueger. What makes the character so terrifying is that he’s human, just an ordinary person with absolutely no conscious, no remorse, and no emotion. By introducing spirits and psychic visions, Myers becomes far less grounded as a character, and therefore less believably scary as a result.
The most unfortunate thing about this movie is the fact that it essentially ruins everything that worked in the first film. All of the characters are worse off than when we last saw them. Some of the changes in behavior are understandable, driven by logical developments that arose because of the events of the first film. But others seem to have no real source. Loomis, for example, showed no real signs of possessing an ego anywhere close to what he has in Michael, The Murder Hobo in the first film. When we last saw him, he seemed genuinely concerned about the people of Haddonfield, and felt a sincere and deeply ingrained responsibility to stop Michael’s rampage, whatever the cost. He even risked his own life to save Laurie, and was almost killed for his trouble. The sequel suddenly paints him as a selfish jerk who would rather do literally anything else than help his fellow man in any way whatsoever. He spends most of the movie trying to sell copies of his book and sleep with reporters, and when he does eventually have a change of heart and rushes to confront Michael, it’s too little, too late. Laurie is also insufferable, with her trauma manifesting itself as an aggressive near-psychosis, rather than as anything that would garner sympathy from the audience.
It’s not just how these characters are written that’s changed for the worse, either. The acting seems to have taken a nosedive as well, with Scout Taylor-Compton’s portrayal of Laurie being wildly inconsistent and oftentimes borderline amateurish. Malcolm McDowell is far more cartoonish and over the top, and all of the supporting characters are much more exaggerated and stereotypical than those in the first film. Michael, The Murder Hobo also brings back that most annoying of Rob Zombie tropes, his wife. She was used in a fairly limited capacity in the first film, her character having committed suicide halfway in, but here she’s a constant presence, like a twisted fairy godmother guiding Michael to the site of his next set of unlucky victims. Everything she says is so devoid of character and emotion that it honestly sounds like she’s reading from cue cards half the time. Either that or she downed a fistful of Xanax before every scene.
And to top it all off, the movie is just plain hard to watch. I don’t mean that it’s visually difficult to see, although with Zombie’s now trademark dislike of actual lighting, I’d be lying if I said I could track what was happening all the time. No, what really mean is that this film is so needlessly gruesome that it starts to get near-unwatchable pretty quickly. I’m a bit of a horror fanatic, so I’ve seen my share of gore. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s torture porn, which is what this movie approaches at times. Michael saws people’s heads off, violently kills, dismembers, and eats a dog, and paints an entire room in a girl’s blood. Not to mention the fact that the film opens with a detailed, graphic sequence of Laurie in surgery for her injuries from the first film. Much like with as with his first Halloween, Zombie seems to mistake gore for scares and suspense, when in reality, it actually undermines the film’s effectiveness as a thriller.
I suppose I shouldn’t be overly surprised at how much I disliked both of these films. After all, I can’t really say that I’ve enjoyed anything in Zombie’s library thus far. I just had a small amount of hope that, with an entire franchise to pull from, and a framework already in place for both the narrative and the characters, that he could potentially pull together something a little less grungy and a little more polished. Unfortunately, that seems to have been asking too much. That being said, fans of the ‘78 classic should still give the remake a go if they’re curious. It’s certainly not up to the caliber of the original, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s still slightly better than one or two of the later sequels (looking at you, Curse of Michael Myers). Just avoid Michael, The Murder Hobo. There’s honestly nothing redeeming there, and you’re better off just pretending it doesn’t exist, like I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
Next week, something completely different: Rob Zombie does an animated movie! I cannot describe to you in words how low my expectations are. Stay tuned, and share in my misery.