The Night He Rode Home on a Dragula

The 2010s were a very fundamental time for my movie-going in a lot of ways, the most relevant to this review being that there was a handful of, shall we say, vulgar auteurists whom I had disliked in the fashion of the conventional reception that I began to re-evaluate after releases they had dropped in my early 20s that I responded hugely towards. That in turn begin my development into out-and-out apologists for them as artists by the time I turned 30. Such examples being Lana & Lilly Wachowski, Paul W.S. Anderson, Zack Snyder, and our current subject Robert Zombert Cummings who is a heavy metal musician and horror filmmaker better known by the name of Rob Zombie.

This is basically a roundabout way of acknowledging had I been writing about movies in 2007 and talked about my feelings for Zombie’s remake of Halloween that released this year, we would have probably gotten a different tone, a largely negative one. And to be real, regardless of director, the proposal of a remake in the late 2000s when remakes were fucking drowning genre fans to one of the most perfect works of horror cinema ever created is already a dubious in itself. As the follow-up to a sequel that all but threatened this franchise’s consigning to the direct-to-video purgatory of Dimension Studios’ Hellraiser and Children of the Corn editions, even less promising. And I think it’s fair to say that there are things on paper that Zombie’s screenplay basically goes firmly against the core of what made the original film such a perfect little fairy tale, but I also think it’s fundamental to understand those decisions as deliberate and the product of Rob Zombie’s Halloween trying to do an entirely different thing than John Carpenter’s.

Let’s address that thing straight on: Halloween ’07 looks to revisit the same kind of beats that occur in Halloween ’78 and makes its way through them all before the film is over but the rub is that the very first two beats – Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch when we first meet him) kills his sister Judith (Hanna Hall) and is institutionalized with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) examining him – is expanded to feature length for the entire first hour. Hell, Zombie starts even further back as we initially witness what sort of environment Michael grows up into a day before he decides to commit his act of violence and it’s really not surprising to see what the director of The Devil’s Rejects visualizes: a white trash realm of hostility with a venal stepfather who also meets young Michael’s knife (William Forsythe), a neglectful sister in Judith, and a caring but absent mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie, as is Rob’s habit to cast his wife in his films and frankly I think they get a lot more shit for this than they deserve) who also is the subject of a lot of high school bullying for Michael as a notorious stripper.

And so the unknowable shape in the shadows of the 1978 film is made flesh and blood and recognizably human, but to my great esteem he’s still largely unknowable in spite of where we find him: for one, it’s not particularly like there was a “last straw” written for the character since the first thing we witness is the implication that he murdered his latest pet, all of whom it seems he’s tortured to death. So it ends up being an inevitability when one particular bully (Daryl Sabara, who I am forever unable to disconnect with the Spy Kids franchise in spite of Sabara’s later niche of douchebags like this, The Green Inferno, and World’s Greatest Dad) meets his unpleasant end with Michael only hours before the fateful night where he murders his sisters, her boyfriend, and his step-dad all in one go.

But for another in that unknowability, once we are thrown into the aftermath sentenced processing of Michael, he seems to have virtually no memory of his actions: he states he has no clue why he’s there, asks of his family’s well-being, and Faerch performs these sequences with a sort of blank child-based naivete that feels like an unnerving mask for young innocence in the context it’s given (introduced already early on by a casual throwaway scene of him playing with candy just before he retrieves a knife). This is not helped by Michael’s insistence on interacting with everyone from behind his makeshift paper masks like an aspiring member of Slipknot, which Deborah and Dr. Loomis indulge with unease until Michael’s growing frustration with being forced into a box for possibly the rest of his life transforms into his slow insularity from speaking to either his mom or Loomis to a vicious murder of a nurse where everything between the three central characters in this half of the picture collapses. Deborah exits the picture in heartbreaking desperation unable to cope with what her son became, Loomis deems Michael a lost cause after 15 years pass and his ward has developed into an adult (Tyler Mane) without saying a single word since his mother left the picture.

At which point Michael eventually escapes from the institute in violent fashion and leaves to Haddonfield – killing the coolest truck driver in the world played by Ken Foree* – with Loomis racing after him so that Zombie can put into play the same beats of the 1978 original for the remaining hour and such. Zombie is basically performing a structural gambit that resembles his original pitch to the Weinsteins and Malek Akkad (Moustapha’s son who took over fully after his father’s tragic death, having been involved with the franchise since Curse): he wanted an entire movie dedicated to Loomie and Deborah trying to reach Michael that ended at this precise point of his disappearance into the night and then a sequel that went through the events that befell poor Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) as Michael fixates on her one Halloween in Haddonfield.

Frankly, it’s clear which of these halves is the one that most animated Zombie as a storyteller: Michael’s backstory gave license for Zombie to invoke all his hellbilly aesthetic honed in his first two Firefly pictures (including a very indulgent soundtrack of classic rock needledrops) with Michael’s upbringing, a perhaps obnoxious but effective way to fray out the mental state of any viewer who has to spend the little time we have with Forsythe’s disgusting and antagonistic performance and the cluttered mess of dinge that the Myers house is. But even outside of that house, there’s an uncomfortably intimate cruelty to Michael’s violent acts that makes it impossible to consider this as spectacle the way most slasher movies present their murders as. For example, the bully – Michael’s very first human kill – is shot almost exclusively in close-up with his crying bloodied face intercut with serene trees against the sun. We never see a single blow outside of the one to his knee that knocks him to the floor. And once we are stuck within those uncomfortable white walls with Michael, Faerch’s sudden shift from surly focus and unhinged lashing out to playing out the high-register boyishness is precisely what we’re not prepared with: actively rejecting remorse is one thing, but not even having remorse figured as a concept in a logic we can’t compute is just a knife wedged into us to align with Moon’s exhausted desperation at losing virtually all of her family with Michael’s psychological receding.

And there’s still room for sympathy with Michael himself, especially in the director’s cut where we are frequently hit back-and-forth with black-and-white footage and tape of Loomis’ observations that treat Michael like a bug under a microscope at times, in spite of the ostensible sincerity Loomis has with Michael’s well-being. In the end, Michael is a tragic figure certainly but he still remains a complete blank to not only us but to the people who ostensibly care about him in an entirely different way that Carpenter’s original boogeyman of the shadows: Michael is a human being but he just did not keep his humanity. When that was, who knows? It’s likely something that snapped before the movie even begins. Nevertheless, it lends itself to a presentation of movie violence and its aftermath in a way that’s fully distressing and makes our investment in this murderous child who is forced upon us as protagonist to be hopeless and futile, especially in the knowledge of what’s on the other side of this material. Punctuating this is a humane bit part performed by none other than Danny Trejo and used savagely as an indication of just how impossible it is to salvage Michael’s human quality.

Suffice it to say, I think this first half of Zombie’s Halloween is… near-perfect. What keeps the theatrical cut version for me from being perfect is the lack of that Loomis tape material, what keeps the director’s cut version from that is a remarkably awful and brutal rape scene ostensibly used to facilitate Michael’s escape but clearly the theatrical cut was able to circumvent around. It is horrible enough to undo the good-will of the added material and make the theatrical cut my preference (though I am kind of tempted to make a fan-cut of the director’s cut replacing that sequence maybe for my own watching). In any case, there is no doubt a drop of quality to come once the movie arrives back in Haddonfield and realigns itself to Laurie as a protagonist, a speed bump I feel the movie has trouble recovering from particularly because of Taylor-Compton is never more than adequate in the role. I think she’s relatively accurate to a high school girl in 2007 with her casual vulgarisms and affable sisterhood towards her friends, especially Danielle Harris triumphantly returning to the Halloween franchise now as Annie Brackett. But there’s nothing there that stands her out as the sort of girl who would believably be willing to babysit two kids over going to Halloween parties and it feels like our alignment is merely a formality to indicate we are now back to retracing the steps of Carpenter’s film. Much of its relevance feels like that pre-existing knowledge, particularly when it comes to Laurie’s true identity as Angel Myers… the baby sister of Michael who was the only person in that home who Michael showed kindness to and spared on that horrible night.

Zombie, I have to say, spent his remake duology (as we’ll see when we get to his Halloween II) making a boon out of that relationship rather than its twist ending treatment in Carpenter’s movies fucking up the complexity of the original. It’s not NOT treated as a twist here when Annie’s father Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif who reliably gives a competition for best in show the way that Dourif has done his whole career) reveals he was responsible for Laurie’s re-adoption by the Strodes (played by Pat Skipper and that patron saint of movie moms, Dee Wallace, with a particular scene in the DC between Wallace and Taylor-Compton that patches over my least favorite beat in the younger actor’s performance). But it feels like the eventual point we are going to get to considering how much screentime in the early few minutes is dedicated to establishing the presence of a baby in all of this madness and her reaction to Michael’s presence, especially given the cries of that baby are the very last thing we hear before that 15-year jump.

And that’s not the only “past fuck-up” that Zombie has made into a strength: after the past two movies specifically forcing us to keep looking at Michael’s eyes behind the mask when he’s best visually portrayed with empty shadows there, now we have reason to see them: an anchor to that young boy (which is interesting in that none of his paper masks give us a window to his eyes) and a recognition of the curdled soul within this large behemoth of a man that Mane is. It brings focus to the brutal source of these events.

But that knowledge of Laurie and Michael’s relation and the journey we took with Michael watching him curl into the shadows of unknowable thoughts behind his paper masks ends up all the movie needs (even though I think it would do better to just keep Michael as the single point of view for the second half) to act as auto-critique regarding what the original film depicts in the fashion of how that most dismissed of horror movie remakes Psycho acts as auto-critique of its own act of remaking a classic. The beats are familiar indeed, even with the notable diversions (biggest of all being a layover in Michael’s wrath towards the Strode parents themselves), but the differences are THE point of the movie and being tethered to the first half means we recognize these unpleasant and ferocious actions are not in a vaccuum at all. Michael is all too real and so is the irreversible sadism he delivers, consistent from first frame to last. None of which undoes the horror we feel when met with the carnage he’s causing, which is sustained in ways that uncharacteristically refrain from focusing on the (still present) blood that is discharge with every contact he makes or even twice over using the still nighttime exterior of a home disrupted by Michael’s malignant actions. It’s just a wholly distinct tone from Carpenter’s film with the same material and in its deliberate approach, it feels essential to recognize that however one lands with the film overall at the end.

I’m not entirely decided on that, to be clear. In the 15 years since its release, I’ve truly come to admire what it does and probably because I came to be more of a Rob Zombie fan* and I think writing these 2500+ words (way more than I aimed for) have come to make me realize that enough goes right in Zombie’s Halloween to accept it as a passing film. I don’t know that I’d call it great yet: even in the understanding that this is the result of having a lot of stuff to explore and being able to recognize the rhythms in the second half I couldn’t once, it feels quite long in its 2 hours and the fact that the movie bulldozes past the ending beat of the original to several more minutes of further aimless flailing in gray dustiness until this movie finally finds an emotionally harrowing closing note. The early introduction of our recognizable Michael Myers mask as a tool for sex-play feels like an arbitrary bit of contempt for the material. And I appreciate how certain moments late in the film bring a nugget to what Zombie would explore in his sequel, a single sequence of confusion between a horrified Taylor-Compton and a soulful and exhausted Mane, but it feels like it’s in the wrong Zombie Halloween movie. Keep in mind both of those irksome elements feel tied to elements that I think are brilliant which I think embodies how this movie feels like dealing with good and bad tied together.

But I now come to feel the good outweighs the bad: Zombie may have had his public struggles with the studio to make his Halloween films his way, but I think he succeeded in making something idiosyncratic by the time his first film landed and presented a view of a quintessential horror movie killer that interacts with the audience’s knowledge of what he will become to investigate how far back can you explore him psychologically before just giving up and recognizing that’s nothing there. That’s a proposal that I think is no less scary than just the idea that there’s a mysterious shape in the shadows that might just arrive and force you to the big sleep, simply because that is what evil does and some people just are.

*Justice for Joe Grizzly, I wanna see a Joe Grizzly trucker picture, bitch.
**as filmmaker, mind you; I’ve honestly been banging Hellbilly Deluxe, La Sexorcisto, and Astro-Creep as Halloween time replays since I became a metalhead in middle school so there was never room for revisionism there.

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