A critical look at Rob Zombie’s Halloween films
Imagine a hard, shock rock cover of a Carpenters song such as ‘Close to You‘ or ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, turning something sweetly soft into a thrashing, cacophonous sonic assault. It would be a jarring experience – disturbing, shocking, possibly provocative, maybe even enriching if produced with sufficient thought, sense of purpose and respect for the original. It would play with your sense of perception, emotion and meaning, which is what all art should do.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween is that cover. The original Carpenter song, if you’ll excuse the pun, is so pure, so sublime, so sweetly indicative of a bygone era in its beautifully composed moments of fright and its soft depictions of sex and violence that it exists in our romantic minds like a timeless love song. The great sense of familiarity and fondness that grows over the years is of course nourished by the sheer aesthetic delight that we derive from the iconic imagery but you know what? Delight can sometimes diminish the sense of danger. We can appreciate the poetry, but do we still get the full power? We can thrill to the violence, but does it still really give us a visceral kick? Maybe we need to be reminded that what gleams at the heart of this cherished classic is a butcher’s knife, wielded by our basest instincts, showing us the reflections of our laughing and screaming faces as it slices into naked flesh.
Zombie’s cover version is a noisy, messy, sleazy, swearing, grunting, crushing piece of slasher porn filth. And it’s marvelously compelling. Zombie is like that psychotic child in Toy Story who makes grotesque new hybrid beings out of his toys. Characters, lines and situations from the original are bent, twisted and re-assembled in wickedly entertaining and darkly revealing ways. And two of the fundamental elements, the theme and the mask, are given back a truly demonic force. Oh, and it’s funny. Perversely, shockingly, hilariously funny.
The comedy is established right at the outset. Plenty of people have complained that the long introduction to Michael Myers as a boy reduces his sense of power as a force of evil by giving him too much ‘real world’ context and suggesting that he is the angry product of an extremely dysfunctional family. I think they miss the point. The characters around Michael are pretty vile but they are deliberate stereotypes. There is an intentionally-cliched ring to their profane dialogue and aggressive behavior. I was reminded of the fantastic presentation of Mallory’s family in ‘Natural Born Killers’ as an extreme TV sitcom with Rodney Dangerfield’s magnificently monstrous patriarch groping his daughter to the sound of canned laughter. That was satirizing the media’s tendency towards cheap sensationalism and Zombie is making a similar point here. He knows that any attempt to explain or contextualize Michael’s behavior would be cheap. Instead he is setting up a long joke; Michael is as out of place here as he would be anywhere. The best and funniest expression of this idea comes in a witty montage set to a cheesily-mournful rendition of ‘Love Hurts’ with Michael sitting disconsolately outside the family house in his Halloween costume, his hopes of being taken out trick or treating with his sister having been dashed, while his mother pole dances in a seedy club bathed entirely in red light and looking like a tacky idea of Hell. We’re not expected to take any of this seriously. At one point in the song there is a burst of guitar that is mockingly reminiscent of the Joe Cocker version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ which succeeds in making this whole sequence seem like a f*cked up version of ‘The Wonder Years.’ And of course we are aware that whatever hell the mother might imagine herself to be in as she dances for the town’s assorted sleaze balls is NOTHING compared to what exists inside her little boy’s head!
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Meanwhile, of course, sister Judith is having sex with her boyfriend, and Zombie’s best trick in the movie is to give the boyfriend the iconic mask, which he intends to wear as he nails her – a neat, knowing wink at the pseudo-intellectual idea of the symbolism of slasher film stabbings. By the time Michael attacks Judith it is he who is wearing the mask. The sight of it attached to his little body is wonderfully jarring and genuinely effective, as well of course as being another dark joke. He looks like one of those collectors’ horror figures with oversized heads and the whole scene plays out like a fevered fan boy’s perverse dream.
So far so funny. We are already half an hour into the film by the time Michael is committed to the asylum. And now we take an emotional turn in a new direction. The relationship between Michael and Loomis is genuinely touching. For a while, Michael is genuinely responsive and is clearly confused by the darkness inside him. These moments have something of the pathos of the teenage Damien’s struggle with his inner antichrist. There is something genuinely tragic about Michael’s gradual descent into silence.
At this point we must address Malcolm McDowell’s interpretation of Sam Loomis. Many have hated it. Again, they miss the point. For a start, one doesn’t cast an actor of McDowell’s caliber and expect him to deliver a carbon copy of someone else’s performance. Far from that, we should expect to see this one time hero of British anti establishment cinema shaking things up, shattering conventions, being rebellious. The new take on Loomis that he and Zombie give us touches on genius. The original Loomis was a figure of troubled authority, a man staring with genuine terror into an abyss that reached far beyond the limits of his medical and psychological expertise. A man whose rational world had been blown apart by a demonic force, which he was determined to try and thwart, even though he was tortured by the suspicion that his quest was futile. McDowell’s Loomis has no such authority, expertise, conscience or commitment. We first see him as a shabby counselor at Michael’s school, an out of date figure slumming it on the fringes of psychiatry. The effective irony of this new figure, because he is little more than a counselor and because he becomes involved with Michael before Michael actually becomes a killer, is that he sees Michael as an ordinary boy and does actually care for him for a while in his own instinctive way but ultimately his own sense of limitation and his irresponsibility lead him to give up on the boy, an abandonment that seems to add to Michael’s demonic rage. Not only does he abandon him, he exploits him, spotting an opportunity to turn himself into a minor celebrity by delivering simplistic and sensationalist lectures about this disturbed and disturbing killer. When he comes to Haddonfield on the night of Michael’s new killing spree, we get the sense that he is only really interested in the new events as an extension of his own story. As he tells the sheriff what he knows about Michael he is clearly in performance mode, relishing his turn of phrase and the sound of his voice. Interestingly, one is reminded at this point of the smug psychiatrist at the end of Psycho, playing to the gallery as he declaims his profile of Norman Bates. You have to admire the way Zombie takes a character whose very name is a tribute to Psycho and uses him to find a new way of paying homage to that film. Ultimately though, the cleverest expression of the new Loomis’ appalling cynicism comes in his delivery of the classic response to Laurie’s terrified, desperate question, ‘Was it the boogeyman?’ Zombie lifts this exchange directly from Carpenter’s original dialogue but gives it a delicious new twist. As Loomis listens to himself uttering the words, ‘As a matter of fact, it was the boogeyman’ we sense him seeing a whole new world of media opportunities opening up for him. When Donald Pleasance speaks that line he speaks it as a man who has looked into hell and knows he is beaten. When McDowell speaks it he is savoring the words, looking into the future and knowing it will be the making of him. Cynical? Hell, yeah!
But is the film itself cynical, as so many seem to think? Well, it’s certainly exploitative. The mix of nakedness and violence pushes the limits of mainstream cinema just about as far as it can. But hey, it’s a slasher film. The original may be enshrined as a work of pure aesthetic perfection, but that doesn’t mean that its instincts are pure. Zombie is paying a snarling, snapping tribute to that masterpiece by jolting us into thinking afresh about what lurks in the darkness behind the eyes of that pumpkin in those famous opening credits. Aren’t all slasher films cynical? What do we want them to show us, after all? Beautiful creatures, male or female, being brutally murdered. An elegant dance of cruelty. The original Halloween reigns supreme as the most elegant work of this most cynical of genres. Zombie knows that and he has come to worship at its shrine in his own way. And he certainly invests its most sacred symbol, the mask, with even greater power. He practically fetishizes it, frequently lingering on it in close up as the true expression of Michael’s face, scarred, strangely beautiful, exquisitely frightening and somehow sad.
Ultimately the greatest raison d’être for Zombie’s grimy cover version is that it paved the way for his own Halloween II. No defense is needed here; it’s a masterpiece, a work that extends the vision of the series into something genuinely mythical.
Zombie opens again with an extended joke. We are led to believe that, as in the original Halloween II, we are picking up directly after the ‘death’ of Michael during the night of horror and following Laurie to hospital. A wonderfully surreal sense of absurdity soon settles in. The ambulance transporting Michael’s body to the morgue crashes into a cow(!) and we watch in a mix of amusement, revulsion, pity and bizarre fascination as time seems to stop and one of the drivers, twisted in his seat, gazes at the reordered nocturnal world around him, including the massive but shattered and bleeding form of the cow in the moonlight and contemplates the gradual ebbing of his life before the back of the ambulance bursts open and the hulking figure of Michael emerges. The driver barely has time to comprehend what is happening before Michael rips a sharp piece from the front of the broken vehicle and uses it to hack and tear the head off the helpless figure. This weird scene stands at the heart of the film. It leads us to wonder if Michael has some sort of primal, spiritual connection with animals. Did he will that cow into the path of the ambulance? The very form of the beast seems to mirror the giant, heavy form of Michael himself and its sudden lethally destructive appearance from out of nowhere anticipates the various ways in which Michael will appear throughout the film. And crucially it is an animal associated with food and farming, the two central concerns of the time of harvest, the end of which is marked by the festival of Samhain, which of course gave rise to Halloween.
The sense of the surreal surrounds Laurie in hospital. She is troubled by dreams of Michael’s mother, dressed in white robes, standing with a white horse in moonlight. She wakes up understandably confused. On the television in her room there is old footage of the Moody Blues performing ‘Nights in White Satin’ in black and white. The face of the singer looks eerily like a white mask. The phrase ‘never reaching the end’ seems somehow significant. Even the title of the song seems to carry meaning, especially when associated with the vision of the white horse in the dream. Now we’re thinking not of nights but of knights, strong, questing figures emerging from the mists of time, faces hidden, sharp weapons in their hands, searching for a maiden…
We soon realize that we are being teased and toyed with in all sorts of ways. Just as Michael catches up with Laurie at the hospital, having already committed a string of horrifically violent killings, she wakes again from a dream and we realise that the real action of the film is actually beginning a year later. Of course we are aware that the dream device is hackneyed, but that is part of the joke. Elements of what we had been seeing were so bizarre that the dream ‘revelation’ hardly comes as a surprise. We remain disorientated, however, because some of the things that we have experienced in that dream passage appear to have taken place and also because we begin to suspect that the ghostly presence of Michael’s mother actually indicates a connection to a spiritual alternative dimension.
Our sense of time and reality in this film is constantly weighted with a sense of the dream-like and the mythical. The film is all about questioning what is real. Malcolm McDowell’s magnificent portrait of Loomis continues, and here, while promoting his appalling book about the killings, he is constantly being questioned about his motives, his knowledge, and the real level of his involvement. It is through that book that Laurie learns the apparent truth of her real identity, leading her to question everything. And as Michael closes in on her the dreams of the ghostly mother intensify. Which world is she now inhabiting?
Is Michael’s mother merely a spirit figure or is she a Samhain witch, celebrating the death of the Sun and the coming of the night, calling forth fairies and sprites and honoring the memory of her loved ones? And while we are dealing with homophones such as ‘night’ and ‘knight’ what about ‘sun’ and ‘son’? Can we see Michael as the ‘son’ god, walking through the underworld of the night, ready to be reunited with his goddess, Mother Earth, and exerting a dark and total power over all? There are several wonderful shots of Michael emerging from the wilderness, the forests in which we assume he has been living like an animal for this past year, and there is something truly suggestive about this great being, at one with Nature, not just emerging from it but embodying it, harnessing it, controlling it. All the powerful forces of the night seem to exist within him.
So ultimately with this film, Zombie presents Michael Myers not just as the magnificently mysterious force of darkness that Carpenter originally imagined but as a complex and imaginative version of one of the central figures of Samhain, which places him not just in the temple of the great horror idols but in a temple far more ancient and even more awe inspiring. Oh, and along the way he makes him an even more thrillingly-brutal killer than ever before, a savagely bestial, growling, head pulping, bone snapping, throat tearing Titan of terror. Visceral? Hell, yeah. But like the mask, strangely beautiful, exquisitely frightening and somehow sad.