Thursday, September 13, 2007

Halloween a la Zombie

Of course there's spoilers.

I finally made it to Rob Zombie's Halloween 'reimagining' this week, and I'm going to have to be that guy: I loved it. This is a great horror film. It beats most any of the recent horror remake class with a big, ugly stick. To be honest, it's one of the better horror films of any variety that I've seen in a good few years. Is it better than the original? Of course not. But as has been said by every other horror fan and critic with a sense of the rational -- Zombie never intended to chase that impossible task. What he has done, however, is create a film that owes its lifeblood to its namesake, but isn't afraid to forge its own way.

Much has been made of the two-part structure of the film, but in case you're still unfamiliar, the film has a two-part structure. Part One: Little Mikey. Part Two: Halloween Redux

Part One: Little Mikey

The first part is a vast expansion of the opening scene of the original and lays a little groundwork for the Michael Myers to come. Young Michael (played by an intense little fucker in Daeg Faerch) lives smack in the middle of dysfunction central -- hell, William Forsythe is his live-in father figure; that's enough to mess a kid up right there. Bullied at school, life in hell at home, Michael is one disturbed little fella, already slicing up pets and collecting roadkill at age 10. Of course, as the story goes, slicing up pets is only a gateway to slicing up William Forsythe (among others), and Michael gets sent away to be psychiatrically observed and reobserved for life or until he breaks out in 15 years, whichever comes first.

Zombie's taking a lot of flack for Part One for giving an explanation as to why Michael is as Michael does and thus taking away a lot of what makes him so frightening. Michael has been humanized in a manner that the original never attempts or concerns itself with. But to say that Michael becomes a cold-blooded killer because of his dysfunctional upbringing alone is to say that Zombie is ascribing this sort of psycho/sociopathic behavior to nurture rather than nature. I don't buy it. Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist who studies Michael for 15 years has a line towards the end of the first half where he says that Michael was the perfect combination of interior and exterior forces required to create this sort of behavior. It seems to me this line is the key to the entire first half of the film.

Zombie has humanized Michael only in the manner of taking away the supernatural element of the original film. None of the killing in the first half is done in a quick, bloodless manner, making it really hard to continue the sympathy intially set up for this kid once he snaps. The violence has an insistent and graphic nature that goes beyond revenge and straight through to instinct. (The gore is a fascinating part of the film -- Zombie doesn't shy away from it, but at the same time, he is very careful as to when it is used. The level of bloodshed and the moment and style in which it is shown has a very specific emotional effect. Zombie seems to have a keen understanding of this -- this may be an entire discussion for another day... or the comments section.) This Michael isn't the shadowed enigma of the original; we know why he kills, even as we don't understand it. Does that make him more or less frightening? No, not necessarily. But it does root him further in reality, and that's a very different kind of frightening.

Part Two: Halloween Redux

And.... gear shift! If there is a 'remake' hiding in this film, it's part two, which is (more or less) the events of the original played out. And it's good! It's good because it's a no-nonsense return to form slasher film. Tension and surprise, jump scares and atmosphere and a (somewhat) omnipotent audience: it's all here and in a good blend. As a horror film standing alone from the original, it works and works well. The meager Tuesday night crowd I saw it with were definitely audible from time to time, and most of it was reaction that had little to do with the original.

The thing that really impressed me, though, was Zombie's ability to make an entertaining and suspenseful experience for those who are familiar with the original. This came from a fearlessness of playing with the source material. Very early on in the second half, the film closely mimics a few shots from the original, settling the horror hounds in for a comfortable ride. And then all hell breaks loose, as Zombie starts to stray farther and farther from the context of the original while still playing from a very visible guideline. We know what's supposed to happen next, but we start to realize that we might not necessarily get it.

The first shift (which seems minor at the time) is the ghost costume scene. We see a figure walking down the hall in a ghost costume with glasses and anyone remotely familiar with the original makes the mental leap to Michael under the sheet. Just as we're hunkering down for a little teenage death and destruction, the ghost is attacked... by Michael Myers! It's ten seconds more information than we were expecting, but it sets the attitude for the rest of the film: "Yes, you might know where this is headed, but don't think for a second you're ahead of the game." This continues to grow until it culminates in the revisionist version of the infamous closet scene -- which now takes place within a stone's throw of Dr. Loomis' dead body. One repetition, to allow that to sink in -- Dr. Loomis' dead freaking body! By this point newcomers and old fans alike are on a level playing field. Zombie is still playing within the basic structure of the original, but by this point we not only expect him to stray, he's made it blatantly impossible to do anything but stray. And, which I'm sure Zombie was acutely aware, the fear an audience feels when thrown from what they assumed was a safe place is much more terrifying that that of an audience who is wary from the start.

But all in all this is Zombie's film and as a director (in general, I'm even going to traverse the horror qualifier), he's a very promising face on the horizon. Zombie's exploitation influence perfectly rides that line where cheesy becomes deadly serious. Using "Love Hurts" as a featured music cue should have left me groaning -- it was perfect. The Zombie perfected nudge-and-a-wink casting: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Brad Dourif, Forsythe, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Danny Trejo, the list goes on and on -- is great fun played straight as an arrow, effectively avoiding derailing the tone of the film. And to stay specific to the horror genre -- in an age of "how disgusting can we get?" horror, Zombie maintains a balance. Blood, guts, and violence as is necessary (because sometimes it is, but rarely is it always.)

The post-caveat is that, despite the glowing, glowing review, it wasn't a perfect film by any means and Zombie did lose my interest from time to time, especially right towards the end (albeit gaining it right back in the last minute or so). But nevertheless, it was a great film that is being unfairly treated by both sides; the anti-horrror regulars and the purists. Were this film made without the original having ever existed, the reaction would be more positive by tenfold. And to a certain degree that's how it should be viewed -- alongside the original, not against it.



Bil said...

Here's the great irony of it: I am not a horror film kind of guy, so I wasn't going to go see it. But this review has actually made me want to go and see it. Except you've spoiled it all for me.

Cheeky set-up ahead:

Say, Paul Rekk, what's going on tomorrow night?

Your turn.

Paul Rekk said...

Well, Bil, funny you should ask -- why don't you pop on back to the main bloggy page and check out the new post!