John Carpenter's Halloween may be the best film that could ever be made with that title. Like many influential horrors, it had little budget and, while it doesn't look cheap, it boasts a merciful lack of elaborate special effects and overproduced sets. Its cinematic style pays tribute to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but its enigmatic killer nods to other, more supernatural terrors. It also looks forward, and created the next wave of Gothic cinema, the slasher movie. That said, Carpenter (though he shares blame for Halloween's vastly inferior sequels) bears no responsibility for how awful that genre turned out. Halloween has a simple yet memorable plot. It presents bizarre situations to which the audience can relate—- a little too well. It also features the best scary movie theme song since The Exorcist. Better horror movies may exist, but this one has stood the test of time, and has become a part of the season.
In the twenty-first century, Rob Zombie decided to remake Halloween. The resulting 2007 film bears out how entirely boneheaded his decision was.
The remake's first half concerns Michael Myers before, during, and after the Haddonfield Massacre. By giving Michael a backstory, Zombie's remake takes Halloween into new territory. The approach has potential—though the results aren't especially scary. Little Michael, already disturbed (he kills little animals), faces the pressures of his over-the-top trashy family and abusive stepfather. His stripper mother and overtly sexual big sister help explain the character's repressed sexuality, I guess. It's hardly subtle and nuanced, but it manages to bring a fresh take to the story. The first half also puts us in Michael's mind as the point-of-view character. His initial victims are entirely unlikeable, and it is only after he escapes that he begins killing people we’re supposed to find sympathetic.
This very backstory, the film's most original aspect, creates problems for the second half.
In the original, we never learn much about Michael beyond the events of the Haddonfield Massacre. That's the point. He's a disturbing puzzle, bred in a comfortable, middle-class, mid-century family. After killing people for no apparent reason, he grows up into the boogeyman, a sinister shape, something no longer human. His seemingly supernatural resilience presents a mystery, but one the film doesn't need to answer.
In the remake, Michael Myers is human— twisted, evil, disturbed, psychopathic, whatever— but human. As a consequence, his abilities in the second half raise real questions that deserve answers. How does he know where to find his sister? How does someone who spent the better part of fifteen years sitting in a near-catatonic state develop a bodybuilder's physique and a superhero's strength? Why can he survive multiple point-blank bullet shots and what should be a fatal stab-wound?
His invulnerability (I'm imagining yet another bit of backstory, wherein the white-trash Myers find baby Michael in a rocket launched from Krypton—except that this Myers resembles more the Incredible Hulk) also prevents the multiple false endings from holding any suspense. What does it matter if Laurie reaches the discarded gun in time? We learn early on that her target is bullet-proof.
If the first half introduces some new elements to the story, the second repeats the best bits of the source material and its numerous hellish spawn. Zombie even shot in the same neighbourhood as Carpenter. We get more of an explanation for events. The remake, for example, connects the killer and the Last Girl in a memorable fashion (though one derived from the original's first and most pointless sequel). What it lacks is the emotional context provided by the original. We have no reason to care about any of these people.
The actors put in passable performances, given the limitations of the script. It's difficult to know how much, if any, of the Myers family has been intended as satire. The cast of Jersey Shore seems more believably human.
Malcolm McDowell tries as Loomis, but I expect more from McDowell. In his defense, he faces a challenge: the premise of the character has been changed and, as a result, Loomis is not as compelling as he should be.
Scout Taylor-Compton looks more convincingly like a teenager than Jamie Lee Curtis, and not just because she actually was a teen when she made the film. Her interactions with the little kids she babysits feel believable. Unfortunately, this Laurie is neither as interesting a character nor Taylor-Compton as good an actor, and this is what really matters. Many people will find her more difficult to root for than Jamie Lee's Laurie. In focusing on the predator, Rob Zombie forgot what made the original frightening: it put us in the position of the prey.
The original Laurie, of course, represented a bit of history. Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who appeared in Psycho, the film to which Halloween owes its greatest debt. Zombie can't match that legacy, so he gives us numerous, often pointless cameos. If you like looking for cameo appearances by cult actors, this film should entertain you.
Zombie's Halloween also creates several conundrums that beg for explanation. How does this version of the Myers family afford to live in a large house in an expensive neighbourhood? She's a stripper and he's unemployed. The film also leaves us wondering when it takes place. The era remains unclear—though I suppose this could have been a weird stylistic flourish. Halloween gives no dates, but the music, styles, dialogue, vehicles, and properties clearly indicate that the first half takes place in the late 1970s. Rob Zombie has said in interviews it occurs in 1978, the year Carpenter unleashed his original on the world. The second half takes place seventeen years later—which would be the mid 1990s. However, the visual elements—most notably, the cars and cell phones—suggest we’re in 2007.
You know what I feel? Bored.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Increasing the number of killings, the amount of nudity, and the degree of gore doesn't make the movie scarier. It merely removes the opportunity to build atmosphere and suspense, elements which contributed considerably to the original's success. This Halloween features some memorably twisted drama and a couple of good performances, but never once did I feel fear or suspense.
As a bonus, the unrated edition also features a graphic rape scene that adds nothing to the film, except for a graphic rape scene. Hollywood seriously has to stop confusing "crude and explicit" with "suspenseful and scary." In the end, Rob Zombie has given us one more remake that has no reason to exist.
It's been a couple years. This Halloween, I'll be watching the original again.
Directed by Rob Zombie
Written by Rob Zombie, John Carpenter, and Debra Hill
Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Samuel Loomis
Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie Strode
Tyler Mane as Michael Myers
Doug Faerch as Young Michael Myers
Danielle Harris as Annie Brackett
Brad Dourif as Sheriff Brackett
Kristina Klebe as Lynda
Sheri Moon Zombie as Deborah Myers
Skyler Gisondo as Tommy Doyle
William Forsythe as Ronnie White
Danny Trejo as Ishmael Cruz
Hanna Hall as Judith Myers