Selah March

October 31, 2007

Compare and Contrast: War of the HALLOWEENS

(Looking for the “Don’t be a Halloweenie” contest? Scroll down to the previous post.)

All righty, class. Today’s lesson is on the relative merits of remakes of classic horror movies. Would anyone like to address this topic?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

WatcherDon! Go for it, dude.

“About two and a half years ago, Halloween began to frighten me again. The very word was enough to fill me with dread, but it wasn’t a spooky type of fear. It was one borne of a certain amount of dismay and tinged with despair. Rob Zombie was going to remake…no, wait…reIMAGINE the original John Carpenter classic “Halloween.”

Carpenter’s film was one of the only movies that ever really scared me when I was growing up. It remains, in fact, the only film that has ever given me nightmares, and it gave me quite a few of them over the years, especially as a teenager. It was one of the only movies that touched on my own fears and awakened my own sense of mortality. After all, if you didn’t want Jason Voorhees to hack you up, you could just stay out of the campsite with the awful reputation. If you were concerned about getting attacked in the shower, don’t stay in the creepy off-highway motel with the lonely manager. Stay away from the big house on top of the hill, the creepy castle, the graveyard at midnight. All of these seemed fairly logical ways to avoid sudden and terrifying death, right?

But “Halloween” brought it right into a suburban/small town neighborhood. Right into the home. Carpenter’s Michael Myers…or The Shape, as he was called in the shooting script, was Evil on two legs and he was hunting in living rooms and bedrooms that looked a lot like your own, on sidewalks and streets that could be right outside your door.

The other thing that terrified me about Carpenter’s little low-budget movie was the fact that it wasn’t as simple a matter as it’s so often described. Veteran producer Moustapha Akkad, who financed the first film and kept the series going through the years often repeated the initial pitch for the movie – “The babysitter to be killed by the bogeyman.” True, but there was another whole side to it.

Unlike Jason or Freddy, who typically had only their teen victims to contend with, Michael Myers had the machinery of authority out to stop him. The police were looking for him. His psychiatrist, arguably the single man who knew him best, was out to stop him. To me, this added a weight of realism that the other slasher films just didn’t generally have. After all, if a mad killer was stalking my neighborhood, I would take some comfort in the fact that the local police were on the lookout for him. But…they were looking for Michael…and it didn’t help.

As I grew older, of course, the sequels came along, some of which did their very best to undermine the effectiveness of the original. More kills, more blood, more “inventiveness” served largely to put Halloween adrift in the same sea of gore where all the other slashers lurked.

And now they had turned it over to Rob Zombie. The thought alone was enough to make my blood run cold. What would he do to my cherished childhood nightmare?

For those of you who avoid such things, Zombie has built himself an interesting reputation as a filmmaker. Like Tarantino, his interest is firmly embedded in the schlock of the grindhouse cinema, and his previous films House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were monuments to B-movie excess. Profane, guttural, gory, but handled with a to-hell-with-it attitude that forces the viewer to play along for the ride. Subtle, he’s not – and the subtlety of Carpenter’s version was always one of the things that made it work.

Recently I was able to acquire a workprint copy of Zombie’s “Halloween.” Please do not contact me to ask where I got it, because I am not at liberty to say. The workprint is substantially different from the theatrical release, and there is some hope that it will be released on DVD with the theatrical cut in a bonus package, but the details are still under negotiation. That being said, the workprint appears to have been Zombie’s original intention for the film, and the changes made to the theatrical version seem to reflect studio involvement afterward.

Carpenter’s original and now classic opening takes us from the point of view of the killer as he stalks and murders a teenage girl. The reveal at the end of the sequence shows that the killer is a six year old boy with a perfectly normal, almost angelic appearance.

Zombie sets out to take on all comers with his own opening. Michael is now about 10 years old, a misfit in a heavy metal tee shirt with a predilection for harming small animals and a simmering rage that threatens to boil over at any moment. His mother (played by Zombie’s wife, the beautiful but earthy Sheri Moon) is called into the school to meet with child psychologist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell.)

McDowell’s portrayal of Loomis is markedly different from Donald Pleasance’s obsessive and almost campy take on the role. McDowell’s Loomis is pompous and phony, a Rasputin-like character who spends the opening third of the film attempting touchy-feely methods of reaching young Michael before giving up on the young man entirely and embarking on a speaking tour to promote his book on the “evil” that lives behind Michael Myers’ eyes.

Like almost every male character in the picture, the younger Dr. Loomis sports scraggly, shoulder-length hair that appears to be a Zombie trademark. Everyone has it – Michael’s abusive stepfather, Michael himself, his sister’s boyfriend, male victims, even the sheriff. Loomis, however, appears to be making a statement with his locks, perhaps because he wears a short cut later in the film. With Loomis, it feels inauthentic, as if it’s part of his schtick, another piece of fakery, this one designed to show how hip and non-conformist he is even as he dribbles pop-psych pablum from his lips.

Young Michael’s simmering rage boils over on Halloween, 1978 (a nod, no doubt, to the year of the original film’s release) with a rampage that sends him to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and destroys his entire family. Zombie once again diverges from Carpenter by putting so much emphasis on the backstory. For Carpenter, Michael is terrifying because he is so mysterious. Zombie makes an earnest effort to illustrate the care and feeding of a serial killer, including the known circumstances and warning signs that appear to be linked with real-life cases. Michael is an outcast at school, preyed on by bullies. He has conflicted and disturbing feelings of sexuality brought on by his mother and her career as a stripper. He is abused by an alcoholic stepfather, robbing him of a positive male role model. He abuses animals. He is filled with violent rages. He feels the need to conceal himself behind masks and locked doors. He is a ticking time bomb, and young Daeg Faerch delivers a powerful performance in the role.

Michael is then locked away in the sanitarium, but while Carpenter picks up the story immediately with Myers’ escape, Zombie takes his time. We see Loomis attempting to reach Michael. We see the effect his incarceration and madness have on his mother.

The escape sequence in the workprint is different from the theatrical release, and both are more violent and gruesome than the original. From here on, most of the film mirrors the original release, but it’s not unlike Frank Miller’s take on Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns” – everything is exactly the same, but it’s all completely different. Dr. Loomis trails Michael to Haddonfield. There is a sheriff, this time played by a woefully underused but still brilliant Brad Dourif. And there is a night of terror on Halloween. Along the way, Zombie takes time to offer alternatives to some of the plot gaps in the original – the iconic mask has an origin, for example, and this Michael does not somehow learn to drive during his incarceration.

The original trio of girls – Laurie, Annie, and Linda – are back, but they are rougher around the edges. While Annie and Linda were prone to drink some beer or smoke some weed and fool around with boyfriends, there was a teenaged innocence to them. Not so with their newer, more profane and outrageous counterparts. Linda is actually unlikable in this new version, and Annie is saved from being detestable only by the charisma of Danielle Harris (who returns to the series after two outings as young Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4 and 5.) Scout Taylor Compton is at first shrill and irritating as Laurie, but she eventually settles down into a somewhat dorky but endearing character who is miles away from Jamie Lee Curtis’s quiet, repressed take on the part.

In the end, however, the hairdos and the Tarantino-like profanity are merely window dressing to cover the real difference between Zombie’s and Carpenter’s treatments of the story. It all boils down to Michael, and Zombie’s conviction that making Myers more “realistic” in terms of what we understand about the psychology of the serial murderer can serve to make him even more terrifying.

I have to say that it doesn’t, although I give Zombie top marks for his effort. It is interesting and fresh to look harder at the psychology of such an iconic character, but in the end, Michael is less frightening when he’s easier to understand. Zombie’s Michael Myers is evil, yes, and brutal – but he is also somewhat tragic and human. There are reasons, however twisted, for his actions, and those reasons strip him of the essential randomness that made a 12 year old boy wake up in a cold sweat. This Michael never made me wonder if somehow I might be next, and while that makes him more complex in the long run, it makes him that much less scary.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween workprint gets three and a half pumpkins out of the original’s five. “

Thank you, WatcherDon. Very impressive. You get the extra cookie.

Give yourself a Halloween gift and check out Don’s fiction here.

And don’t be a Halloweenie! Enter the contest. – Romance of Dubious Virtue


  1. How can you watch that? I have to stand behind the door and peek around. Ask my kids they will confirm. Can’ I get nightmares.

    Comment by FerfeLaBat — October 31, 2007 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

  2. Wussy.

    There are things I can watch and things I can’t. The whole “torture porn” trend? Mystifies and sickens me. Couldn’t sit through HOSTEL or SAW for the reward of a six-figure, three-book contract.

    Okay. MAYBE. But I’d have to be pretty damned drunk.

    Comment by Selah — November 1, 2007 @ 6:28 pm | Reply

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