Review: “Halloween”

To give Rob Zombie some credit, his remake of the 1978 John Carpenter horror classic “Halloween” tries to bring something new to the table. Unfortunately for him, all it does is solidify the original status as a modern classic, and nakedly show this pale imitation for what it truly is.

With creativity so dead in Hollywood, the idea of a remake of “Halloween” isn’t that far fetched. In recent years we’ve seen not only 70’s horror films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror,” but much of John Carpenter’s early oeuvre such as “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Fog” all getting their own modern re-interpretations (albeit with ‘mixed at best’ success). Thus revisiting the work that many consider the pinnacle of both his career and the slasher genre in general seemed inevitable, especially considering the original franchise had been worn down to nothing thanks to seven mostly terrible sequels.

What shocked everyone was the involvement of Rob Zombie, the former musician turned film director. Zombie’s work so far has yielded two of the worst reviewed films of recent times – “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” Whereas directors like Eli Roth or James Wan are often unfairly labeled as promoters of torture porn, the less publicised work of Zombie is far more accurately fitting of the phrase – gruesome, gory, sadistic stories featuring foul-mouthed trailer trash “Jerry Springer”-esque caricatures torturing innocent victims in brutal ways.

How would Zombie’s grisly and blunt style mix with Carpenter’s far more understated and classic feel of suspense, atmosphere, misdirection and shock? Not well unfortunately. The biggest change here is that the story of young Michael, a five-minute prologue in the original, has been expanded to a full 30-40 minutes – making up almost the entire first half of the film. Rather than being an eerie portent of the doom to come, much of this section is just white trash family histrionics meets a cliched origin story.

That approach is a key reason many of the inevitable sequels in any horror franchise fails. Fear of the unknown is the most potent fear of all, and Carpenter’s original made it the driving central force. Myers was a boogeyman, a ghostly shape that would be there one second and gone the next, and the lack of motivation and back story made him into an almost supernatural enigma. Zombie’s version aims to give us a more human and three-dimensional Michael, but in the end simply paints him as a disgruntled kid with an abusive family who one night snaps. He later grows up to be a seven-foot tall mute with a mask fetish who is more like a tank than a spectre when it comes to killing.

The origin material is obvious and tired, even down to the school bully getting a brutal comeuppance and torture of small animals off screen, whilst trademark Zombie filmmaking is in evidence throughout – lots of blood and hicks shouting profanity obviously meant to shock, but simply sounding crude. Yet this is where the originality of the film is mostly on display, and in fact if the “Halloween” elements of it were to be removed (namely the Myers name and the music), it would work better rather. Certainly Sheri Moon Zombie as the sole sympathetic character of the young Michael scenes does a surprisingly good job, and her ultimately tragic arc is the one new thing the remake brings to the table that’s worthwhile.

At the forty minute mark though, what was a relatively tedious serial killer origin film changes into a rushed remake of the first film that ultimately feels like simply another grotesque sequel in the franchise’s long line of bad entries. There’s a few key homages, notably strong use of the original score throughout and some shots recreating some of the more famous scenes – albeit in more brutal and bloody ways. Yet the tone is completely off – scares and a creepy atmosphere have been replaced with more of a modern action film vibe complete with fast paced editing, a lack of any credibility, and more gratuitous sex and violence (almost every actress bares her breasts and inevitably dies after sex with their very average-looking boyfriends).

In many ways this feels far more “Friday the 13th” in tone than “Halloween”, complete with some horrendous acting. The aforementioned Sheri Moon, a small role by Danny Trejo as a friendly guard, and kid actor Daeg Faerch as the young Michael acquit themselves fine. The modern day teenagers on the other hand are literally interchangeable, Taylor-Compton’s annoying but loud screams the only thing separating her from her friends (well that and one friend’s dark hair colour). None of them in this display any promise, the way the narrative has been rushed ensures that, whilst most of the adults are simply short cameos from horror veterans. The one key adult role, Malcolm McDowell, is awful. Donald Pleasance’s over the top avenging angel routine in the original was almost campy, but full of fire. McDowell, an always solid actor, tries to mix that with something quieter and more naturalistic – it doesn’t gel.

By the time the unsatisfying end comes around, the remake has inevitably cancelled itself out. Despite obvious growth as a filmmaker (it’s his best work yet by far), Zombie shows no real reason as to why in the world this project needed to be made. The prequel aspect gives us no new insight, whilst the remake section simply lifts whole scenes from the original and replaces its haunting sense of unease with crass gore effects and tit shots. It’s faster paced and has more energy, but there’s no sense of flow through or craft to it and often it feels decidedly rushed, amateur and dull. If films like “Dawn of the Dead” and to a lesser extent the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have shown how to do modern remakes right, this will serve as a great example of what to avoid.