by GEOFF GEIB
Rob Zombie burst onto the movie scene in 2003 with the electric House of a 1000 Corpses, a punishing, brutal homage to 70’s horror films like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a gonzo left turn sans turn signal for a third act. It was a bravura debut, and with his latest effort, a remake of the John Carpenter masterpiece Halloween, Zombie cements his place amongst the contemporary elite of the genre.
I love John Carpenter. His body of work ranks him as one of the great American directors, and outside of crass commercial appeal, it baffled me walking into the theater why anyone would want to remake Halloween, already an acknowledged classic. It was especially mystifying why Zombie would want to do so, since his first two movies were as innovative and outside the Hollywood mainstream as any wide release in recent memory. My expectations were further dimmed with the knowledge that the last couple Carpenter movies that got the treatment (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog) were, charitably speaking, less than the original.
What a pleasant surprise to find that Zombie has created the strongest slasher film since A Nightmare on Elm Street. His Halloween mimics but never copies Carpenter’s work, save for excellent use of the original score. The plot runs parallel to the original, but rather than operate from the perspective of the scream-queen heroine, ably played by Scout Taylor-Thompson, the emphasis this time is on Michael Myers.
Carpenter’s boogeyman is never really human. He is a construct, a parent’s warning to eat your vegetables, a scary campfire story. The relentless nature of the character, and the film, operates in the realm of fantasy, and because it didn’t exist in either cinematic history or realism, the mind was allowed to wander, to create it’s own sense of what is and is not possible.
Zombie’s boogeyman is given a very human face and a working knowledge of serial killer pop-culture, and while I think this actually lessens the scare factor, it ups the horror, and it unquestionably gives his version a radically different feel. The 2007 edition also amps up the body count and the gore tenfold from the original, but not for one moment does Zombie succumb to the recent fad of campy self-referential jokiness (Scream, Slither) nor does it resemble the far more odious trend towards torture porn (Hostel, Saw III).
It is a grim, violent horror film. It is the story of a monster, and we get to see, in vivid detail, every one of his victims, oftentimes to their last breath. It is bloody and difficult to watch, but it is not done in a callous, careless manner. When a character dies, you feel it in a visceral, gut wrenching way. The camera, wielded in a very clever fashion during the disparate sections of the film, occasionally lingers, smartly avoids and sadistically relishes the actions of its monstrous central figure. While it’s not easy to watch, when considering the subject matter, it shouldn’t be. This is violence with both recklessness and purpose, used for maximum effect to further the characters and subject material and that makes all the difference.
In the sharpest contrast to Carpenter’s Halloween, Zombie spends at least a third of the film with Michael Myers as a child. Zombie takes time to show Michael’s charming home life. He shows us the animals Michael tortures and kills. We see the first person he murders and come to understand, at least a little, the nature of the mask he wears. We see Michael’s therapy sessions and we come to see the driving force Michael’s family has on his behavior. It is a careful balance struck that we get a glimpse of the monster, but we never get any concrete answers. We know his sister is the grail at the end of the tunnel, but we can’t be sure why. Is he after something intangible from the past? Does he want absolution? Vengeance? Perhaps Michael himself is unsure, and I like the ambiguity. It works well.
The length of the film and the increasingly repetitive onslaught of Michael Myers hacking and choking his way to an ending works less well. It seems unlikely the intensity and power of the film would have been lessened by four fewer bodies and ten fewer minutes, but it’s hard to complain too much when the film burns with such clarity and conviction. When the movie does stumble, it’s more often than not a result of its overly ambitious nature, a flaw every movie should suffer from.
Zombie’s films, while just as bloody as the recent glut of torture porn nonsense, bear little similarity to such C-list nonsense. They are bold, adventurous, challenging films filled with consistently excellent performances. They are marked by skillful, but never overly intrusive use of the camera, and that most elusive of horror movie characteristics, meaning. Though not always successful (The Devil’s Rejects never quite got on track) Zombie’s movies clearly mean something, and that is the greatest pleasure of watching his films. This is a man who has something to say and we should all be listening.
3 1/2 stars