Tuesday, November 17, 2009

B-Movie Suburbs I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

Ok, so I was all set to talk about this year’s underdog horror film, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 then I realized I’d never covered Rob Zombie’s first Halloween (nor for that matter John Carpenter’s original or anything else by Zombie) so before we dive in, let’s go back two years to Rob Zombie’s major label debut, if you will. The odds were stacked against Rob Zombie and I can’t say that I was really expecting anything from his update of John Carpenter’s overrated groundbreaker, because I don’t really care for Halloween nor for that matter did I like either of Zombie’s previous films. Having seen Halloween and Halloween 2 I’m prepared to say that the biggest thing stimying Rob Zombie director is Rob Zombie screenwriter. He’s his own worst enemy and nothing illustrates this more than Halloween 2, but first, let’s, as Zombie himself does, go back to the beginning.

by Rob Zombie
Halloween begins by putting it’s unstoppable killer in context…sort of. Instead of seeing Michael Meyers killing his sister and her boyfriend for no discernable reason beyond their coupling when they should be watching him, Meyers gets something akin to A Christmas Carol type backstory (Future: Malcolm McDowell, Past: himself as a child, present: Sherri Moon or himself currently...or something...Ok, I was goin' out on the limb with that one, but any reference to A Christmas Carol can't possibly approach the corpse raping Dickens recieved in the form of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Robert Zemeckis's 3-D version....and I hasten to remind you that these were in the same year). But in reality it can be summed up by saying that he had a shitty homelife. His mom (Sherri Moon Zombie, the director’s spouse) is married to a loutish prick who splits his time tormenting young Michael and hitting on Michael’s sister Judith. It isn’t exactly a surprise when he stabs his stepdad and sister to death, we’ve seen him beat the shit out of a classmate and murder a bird a few scenes ago (shorthand for “serial killer childhood” in the pictures, don't you know), but what is surprising is that the scenes of Michael’s childhood don’t really do a much better job explaining why Michael snapped than do the opening scenes of Carpenter’s film. Seriously, who here didn't think "shitty childhood" when he pulls his mask off at the beginning of that movie? I had a fine childhood and I still consider stabbin' people and blaming it on my upbringing. We could have guessed "shitty childhood," really, but in the long run it doesn’t particularly matter other than to set up two things: Michael’s childhood was in a town called Haddonfield, Illinois and when his mother killed herself she left a baby girl behind to be shuffled into foster care.

Jump ahead a few years. Michael’s turned into Tyler Mane from X-Men, which is never a good thing. His psychiatrist, Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) has spent the better part of fifteen years trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with Michael, but has made no progress other than to see that he has no humanity. Again, I could have told you that. He’s completed a book on seeing to Michael all these years, which I can’t really imagine is all that long: he had a shitty childhood, stabbed some people to death, repressed it, now he’s 7 foot 2 and doesn’t talk. Sounds a page-turner. On the eve of the book’s release and Loomis’ tour to support Michael decides he has his own tour to embark on and breaks free from the asylum, killing a bunch of people along the way. On his way back to Haddonfield Michael stops at a truck stop and kills a guy (Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead) for his clothes and buck-knife. So, who’s due to be wrapped in plastic and priced by the pound? Practically everybody, but specifically Laurie Strode and everyone close to her. Who’s Laurie Strode you ask, other than the twenty-first century version of the Jamie Lee Curtis character from the ’79 film? Well Zombie gave her an extra layer missing from the original which does sort of explain Michael’s rampage but I’ll leave that secret aside for now on the off chance you haven’t seen it or care. But then I have to explain it in part 2 of this review, so…whatever. Anyway Laurie is Haddonfield’s most reputable babysitter and despite being weirdly inappropriate seems to be a good daughter and student. She’s certainly a model child in comparison to her friends Annie Brackett and Lynda, who seem to get off on shedding the oppressively boring and buttoned-down standards of Haddonfield. To get some idea of the difference between each girl, let’s compare their plans for Halloween night. Lynda’s going to Michael Meyer’s abandoned house with her nerdy boyfriend to have sex and drink beer all night whereas Laurie will be babysitting Tommy Doyle, the little boy down the block, while simultaneously covering for Annie, who is going to spending the night with her boyfriend as well. That means being saddled with two kids instead of just Tommy when the killings go down.
The one thing that can be said about Rob Zombie’s Halloween is that it’s a much more savage and cruel film than its namesake. Despite wanting to really understand both Meyers and his victim and presenting us with a number of genuinely likable people in the form of Laurie, her parents, McDowell (at least at first), Sheriff Brackett, Danny Trejo’s asylum guard, even Ken Foree who lives long enough to shit in a truck stop bathroom seems like a fairly likable guy. So while it’s to Zombie’s credit that he got realistic and watchable performances from almost everyone (William Forsythe kinda pushes it as Michael’s too-sadistic step-dad), most of whom happen to be Zombie repertory players or old character actors who did this stuff the first time around or both. For example all those fossils he unearthed for Devil’s Rejects are all here, except that they prove themselves in fairly straight rolls. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Tom Towles, Leslie Easterbrook, Foree, Trejo, Tyler Mane and Sherri Moon are all back alongside newcomers with old faces McDowell, Udo Kier, Dee Wallace Stone, Brad Dourif and Clint Howard, all in pretty amazingly ordinary roles. I’d say if he didn’t wind up killing most of these people that Zombie was trying to give happy endings to some of exploitation cinema’s forgotten heroes. To see Brad Dourif and Danny Trejo play not only sane but likable characters is quite a pleasant surprise indeed. In fact it got me thinking that I’d like to see Rob Zombie take on a dramatic film if only to see the likes of David Hess and Marilyn Chambers playing retired spouses shopping for gifts from antiques dealer Angus Scrimm and jeweler John Saxon for their daughter Linda Blair, recently remarried to English professor Giovanni Lombardi Radice. To see the moments that Dee Wallace gets as a parent are really quite heartwarming and at once a trifle sad because we never got to see her acquit herself in a dramatic role. She killed it as a new mother in Cujo and The Hills Have Eyes, but who doesn’t want to see their favorite character actors playing house? And furthermore, Zombie proves that many of them are actually quite good at it. I don’t know about you but I’d love to buy a summerhouse in Zombie’s vision of Haddonfield with frequent visits from Ken Foree, a friendly nod from sheriff Brad Dourif, a smile from gravedigger Sid Haig and the occasional lunch with Dee Wallace. I guess perhaps the point is that Hollywood can’t accept these people as anything other than the victims of a gigantic knife-wielding killer.

Halloween has problems but it also does enough right for me to brush those problems aside. The early scenes of a young Michael Meyers are well directed but don’t add up to enough to make themselves necessary beyond setting up the third act reveal. But he did do more with the ideas presented in the original Halloween than your average maker of remakes. Take the misleading Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning as a counterpoint. Do we go to the beginning? Sure, kinda. Do we learn anything. No, not really, other than that everyone at the Hewitt household is insane which we already knew. That’s not really exposition so much as it is what the rest of the world thinks of the American south. So, I give it to Rob Zombie for trying to get us to view a crazed killer as someone with a past and a family, even if ultimately we can’t side with him cause, well, he’s a crazed killer. Technically, though the film is quite well made and the performances are mostly great, especially those of the children at the film’s core. I rather like Doug Faersch as the young Michael Meyers, who does the steely gaze of the murderer quite well. I also really liked Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie. Now people have complained that she’s too irritating but guess what? So are a lot of teenagers and I liked rooting for someone I feel like I knew rather than the clichés that usually fill these sorts of films. Laurie and her friends remind me of girls I knew in High School who would embarrass each other as Lynda does when they first spy Michael on the streets. Laurie actually sort of looks and acts like an old girlfriend (who was also a babysitter, coincidentally) and if that doesn’t say something about her acting or Zombie’s direction I don’t know what does. Don’t tell me you don’t know someone who acts like this and who would behave this way in a crisis. So I guess if Zombie’s goal was to humanize the story and its characters in a way that Carpenter’s original and most other remakes didn’t, then he's succeeded. My problems are really that the things I like, the humanity of the performances, the capable direction, the sympathy in the characters and so forth are all mired in a film about an inexplicably indestructible guy who murders people with a big fucking knife. There is really only so much to a film like this, despite Zombie’s best efforts to fill it with likable characters, three-dimensional heroes and villains and his best subtle stylistic flares.
I think what everyone wanted after the combined effects of Halloween and The Devil’s Rejects was for their director to make a film completely outside the Rob Zombie universe. So I don’t think I was the only one who was a little miffed when I heard he’d be making a sequel to his overdressed and undercooked Halloween. Keith Phipps at The AV Club suggested that Rob Zombie is the greatest director who’s never made a great movie. I’m going to take that one step further and suggest that Halloween 2 is a great movie but it just happens to be full of and about very ungreat things. The composition and the pacing and the editing and the care and the whole feel of the movie is not at all unlike that of a really excellent movie. Indeed the whole time I was watching Halloween 2 I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching a really quite excellent, lovingly crafted, spooky horror movie with lots of arresting and dream-like imagery even as every line of dialogue, plot point and character made me simply furious at how ill-conceived they all were. It was a confusing night, but my point is this, despite the fact that Halloween 2 really won’t make you reconsider your opinion of Rob Zombie or remakes/sequels it is really well-done. It’s just that it feels like at the very last minute someone traded a good script for a bad one, so a good movie got made, but….not…

Halloween II
by Rob Zombie
Ok, so Halloween 2 does what mid-series Friday the 13th movies used to do, which is to pick-up from where the last one left off, no matter how improbable that may be. Jason’s stapled to the ground with a big metal pole? No problem. Lightning strikes the pole, zaps him to life and he’s on the prowl again. Well, Zombie apparently thinks more highly of us than most Friday the 13th sequel makers because rather than give us a reason, Michael Meyers, whom we last saw dead at the end of Halloween (spoiler...? I guess not...), simply gets up off his gurney, punches his way out of the truck to the morgue and then starts killin’ fokes again. He has a stint in the wilderness first, living off dogs and rabbits, growing a beard and shit, seeing his dead mother and a white horse in his dreams. But he’s not the only one with nightmares. Laurie Strode, livin at Brad Dourif and his bitchy daughter’s house across town, is having all manner of night terrors, what with seeing her friends and parents get killed by Michael Meyers and nearly dying herself two Halloweens ago. She’s got her coping mechanisms; she likes metal music, sees the mom from The Amityville Horror for psychiatric help, works with Daphne from Heroes at a coffee shop run by Howard Hesseman and also likes doing risky shit. Oh, and Malcolm McDowell’s back and he’s playing a whole new character; an edgy, Hollywood type who’s on posters and shit. He’s a new bestselling author which means going on On Demand Talk Shows alongside other relevant celebrities like Weird Al. Can anyone tell me where this came from? Since when do authors who aren’t already famous people sharing the credit with the guy they dictated their memoirs to get to go around being famous and plugging their books on anything but the Daily Show? Seriously, anyone ever see Stephen King or Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Letterman or even the Jimmy Kimmel show? That’s what I thought. Anyway, Halloween rolls around and Laurie finds out via McDowell’s book that she’s actually Michael Meyer’s sister who was put up for adoption which makes her run away from Brad Dourif’s house, get drunk with Daphne and then go back home to apologize but instead watches all her friends get killed…again. Will Brad Dourif save her in time? Will Malcolm McDowell come to his senses and stop being a fucking tool? And what about that topless carnival in the middle of the movie? Seriously, the fuck? Topless carnivals just roll into Haddonfield on Halloween? I've lived in college towns and I know that topless carnivals do not just appear on major holidays. I have some friends who would know about this sort of thing and believe me we’d have gone to the topless carnival if there was one to go to.

So as you may have gathered from my tone, I’m not really wild about what goes on in Halloween 2. This is a major bummer because Rob Zombie’s direction is really, really good. His use of location and composition are pretty excellent. The cinematography and editing are both superb (granted he didn’t actually do either of those, but still). The performances…well, I’ll get to them, but the whole pace, look and feel of Halloween 2 are quite excellent. I believe what this means is that it’s time for Rob Zombie to do a real movie. The script is problematic, to say the least, but the studio wanted a sequel, so what could he do? The ideas feel half-cocked and the performances mostly suffer for it. Let’s look at Malcolm McDowell’s character for a minute. In the first Halloween, he was kind of a nut, trying to get rich but still trying to do good. Here the urge to do good is buried under a terrible, overwrought stab at the ‘Hollywood’ type. He wears sunglasses, he talks about himself in the third person, he’s a completely different character than in the last film. I will say that McDowell appears to be having a ball, so I'll look the other way. In fact, the whole movie was perfunctory so once again I let it all go. Look at it this way, we nearly didn’t have this film, so why not just enjoy the good stuff. People attacked this movie from all sides and I don’t get it. Did you guys forget that in the mid 80s you were lucky to find something as good as My Bloody Valentine? Or how about fucking today? You’re better off with straight-to-DVD movies like Naked Fear than you are with any of those fucking torture porn movies. So why the tough love? I don’t know, I feel like the internet can be a big goddamned bandwagon sometimes and if someone says a film sucks, so does everyone else. Literally the nicest thing I read about the film was that quote from the AV Club. I just don’t see why Halloween 2 deserves all this hatred. It is in fact about people getting stabbed to death, many of them more than worthy candidates for a stabbing, but how many slasher filmmakers put so much care into the little things. The scene in the strip club is much more harrowing than anything in a Saw film. The dream sequences I thought were really well realized. And I’d like to point out that the scene in the coffee shop at the very beginning is actually as close to the real thing as it gets in a film with this much money behind it. Again, I know girls who act and talk exactly like Laurie and her friends and that Zombie either directed those performances out of the girls or simply let them drive the scene without interfering is really impressive.
On the whole I just think it could have been ten million times worse. While I was watching stuff like the scene where Annie Bracket is being chased through her house, I kept thinking “man, if something I cared about was happening, this would be awesome!” And I don’t mean to be facetious, I mean I truly enjoyed Zombie’s eye for things, the angles, the colours, the sound design, everything except what was actually happening on screen. And though that sounds frustrating I was able to enjoy the potential energy being built; this was a studio project, after all, and not something Zombie put all of himself into, yet it's his most technically and artistically proficient and satisfying work to date. I’m usually wrong about this kind of thing but I’ll say that I’m excited for whatever he does next because he has the ability to make whatever it is both scary and gorgeous. If his next film is terrible I’ll be the guy being ejected from bars and arthouses in Cambridge yelling “He was gonna make it! He was this close! I bet everything I had on that motherfucking Rob Zombie!” to passing cars. But in the meantime I’d like to make a request of you, Mr. Zombie, assuming you ever find this (you won’t, but that’s ok): so long as you’re unearthing unjustly overlooked character actors, I don’t guess you could find room for Michael Biehn in your next film? He’s due for a comeback and if Planet Terror was any indication, he’s rarin’ to go.


.Live.Love.Life. said...

Love this post. <3

Scøut said...

Ah, you're too kind! Thanks terribly!!! I got a kick out of the themed shot glasses on your blog!

Blogger said...

I've just downloaded iStripper, and now I enjoy having the hottest virtual strippers on my taskbar.