Monday, May 26, 2008

The Reimagined "Halloween," Part 1

The first of four posts looking at the cinematography and themes of Rob Zombie's "Halloween." Don't worry, the other three posts won't be as wordy as this one.

I finally got around to watching Rob Zombie's "Halloween," a re-imagining of John Carpenter's classic 1978 horror film. As a diehard, longtime fan of Carpenter's original vision, I was both excited and skeptical about Hollywood diving back into the "Halloween" mythology.

In one respect, I was happy that the producers were not diving into yet another sequel. The original film's seven sequels did nothing but advance a go-nowhere mythology surrounding the legend of Michael Myers. The sequels, with the possible minor exception of "Halloween 4," didn't get it. Michael is a deranged lunatic, a human being that is driven by evil. Of course, Carpenter's original was never intended to be a launching point for a franchise - the original film was a story that had an ambiguous ending, which was perfect for that particular film. It was a moment in time, and Michael's true nature and intentions was intended to be be left to the imagination, not needlessly over-explained in ridiculous sequels.


The theatrical trailer to Rob Zombie's "Halloween."

So the very concept of a remake of Carpenter's original left me skeptical. Could the simple, mysterious concepts of the 1978 original be translated into a modern horror film? Some of the pillars of suspense from the original film are planted in the time period in which it takes place. Could those ideas be translated successfully for a 21st century audience, whose taste in horror films has suffered greatly since the great horror films of the 1970's?

Michael Myers

The announcement that Rob Zombie would helm the remake filled me with optimism. His first two films, "House of 1000 Corpses" and its sorta sequel "The Devil's Rejects" showed audiences Zombie's horror aesthetic, which draws heavily on the great films from the 1970's. Zombie has been greatly influenced by the work of giants like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, as well as goretastic B-movies of the same time period.

Zombie has clearly shown his ability to create incredible images, as "Corpses" and "Rejects" clearly illustrated. As for his ability as a filmmaker in crafting a compelling story, one could see the clear progression of education between the promising-yet-sometimes-amateurishly-paced "Corpses" and the much-more-watchable-yet-still-deeply-flawed "Rejects." And as a professed fan of the core ideals of the original film, it wouldn't be hard to argue that if any modern filmmaker should get the chance to remake "Halloween," it should be Zombie.

top: Michael's mother watches old family films of young Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch). middle and below: young Michael Myers and his doctor, Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell).

I watched Zombie's unrated director's cut (which is longer and significantly different from the theatrical release), and was quite pleased to see his unique take on the Myers' origin story. There is a lot to praise in the film, and, unfortunately, still several holes in Zombie's filmmaking maturity. While his ability to craft compelling story arcs has improved, "Halloween" still suffers from the lack of a strong narrative that drives each scene. Much like his previous films, sequences feel placed together, rather than part of a longer story arc. And for a horror film, which relies heavily on a driving momentum of suspense, having disparate and detached scenes that don't flow together into a cohesive film can really wreck the experience.

That said, there is much to like in Zombie's re-imagining of the Myers story, particularly the extraordinary cinematography by Phil Parmet, who also shot Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects" and "Werewolf Women of the SS" (featured in "Grindhouse").

Stray and unorganized observations:

After looking at anamorphic images fairly intensely for the past few years (starting with "M:i:III," then "Transformers," then "Lions for Lambs," then "Indy 4," I've grown to love the abstract, unrealistic depiction of reality that these lenses create. The anamorphic look (combined with the otherworldly, dream-like feeling of extended steadicam sequences) was absolutely essential to Carpenter's original vision of "Halloween." Although Zombie and Parmet used spherical lenses (shooting Super35), their film is gorgeous - dirty, claustrophobic, and surreal. It most certainly is the most anamorphic-y non-anamorphic movie I've even seen. The filmmakers used the entire 2.35 frame to its fullest, sometimes biasing a character to the far reaches of the frame, sometimes filling the frame with characters, and sometimes leaving desolate negative space which, emotionally, creates tension. Plus, their sometimes subtle use of dutch angles certainly helps unsettle the audience.

Smith's Grove Sanitarium, just before Michael's escape.Michael Myers, with a victim at the Truck Wash.

Whereas Carpenter's vision included only a short (yet compelling) prologue of Michael's adolescent crime of murder, Zombie gives us a full view of the life of little Michael Myers before his first murderous rampage. Unfortunately, these early scenes (that take place during an unspecified time period) are the most cartoonish and amateurish in the film. The acting, rhythm, and characterizations are simplistic, and barely worthy of student work. William Forsythe and Sheri Moon Zombie's performances are buffoonish and broad, which makes Daeg Faerch's sutble, subdued performance as little Michael Myers look that much better.

Annie (Danielle Harris), Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Lynda (Kristina Klebe) walk home from school.

In Carpenter's film, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) spent most of the movie trying to persuade Haddonfield authorities that Michael posed a terrible threat to their little town. The little boy who killed his sister 15 years ago was loose, and only Loomis knew his true nature, which led to some of Pleasance's greatest lines:
I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes. The devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.

Carpenter's film gave us a brilliant performance by Pleasance, using all of his skills to convince the sleepy town of Haddonfield that they had a serious, potentially deadly problem on their hands. In contrast, Zombie's film shows us that Myers' adolescent crimes were much more severe. After beating up a bully to his near death, he murders his stepfather, sister, sister's boyfriend, and a sanitarium nurse, all while he was 11 years old, which was all heavily televised and publicized (including a long sequence of television reporters relaying the horrific scene to viewers). When he ultimately breaks out out of the sanitarium, he brutally killed several guards. Now, really, does Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) really need to persuade anyone that Myers is a serious danger? Wouldn't Myers' crimes be legendary and remain in Haddonfield's minds? Wouldn't Myers' escape make headline news in this day of 24/7 news networks? By beefing up Myers' adolescent crimes to such an extreme, Zombie ultimately undercut the drama in the second half of his film. The townspeople's ignorance of Myers' crimes is intellectually bogus.


One aspect of Zombie's film that worked really well was adult Michael's viciousness and intense physicality, in sharp contrast to Michael's sluggish, almost zombie-like movements in Carpenter's vision. As a result, Carpenter's Myers was surreal, almost nightmarish; Zombie's Myers was quick, grittier, and more real, stripping away the mystical side of him and making him appear more real, and in a way, more terrifying. Zombie's vision shows us that Michael is a human being, not a supernatural creature, which gives the film a gritty reality that is new to the story. I really enjoyed seeing Michael zip around and use his entire body (particularly in the truck stop restroom scene, and in the Myers' house as he tears out the ceiling).

One interesting aspect of Zombie's film that is presented is Dr. Loomis' dual nature concerning his relationship with Myers. In one respect, he truly loves him and wants him to get well. In another, he's clearly exploiting his relationship, as seen in his successful book about the Myers' case. Unfortunately, Zombie introduces this theme then tosses it away casually. This element of Loomis' character could have made his role much more interesting.


Only in the original films' sequels was a familial link between Michael and Laurie Strode. In Carpenter's film, there is no allusion to a familial link between the two. Only in "Halloween II" did the unnecessary brother-sister link get established. Unfortunately, the brother-sister link in Zombie's version begins from the very beginning of his film. Ultimately, their link adds very little to the story. The randomness of Laurie visiting the Myers house (which is what causes Myers to stalk Laurie) was enough motivation for me.

Laurie's point-of-view at the bottom of an empty pool.

Zombie carefully crafted his scenes within the Myers house with a lot of careful consideration, and this gave those scenes an extra layer of suspense. In several cases, he clearly showed the audience the geography of a certain room, a certain stairway, and how those areas relate to each other. When Myers begins his attack, and Laurie is struggling to get away, because we know about the geography of the scene, we feel the suspense that much more. I especially liked the nightmarish scenario that Zombie created outside the Myers' house, with Laurie falling into the drained backyard pool. I've never really seen a scenario like that in a horror film, and I thought it worked really well.


Zombie and cinematographer Parmet extended the cinematic style they created in "The Devil's Rejects" one step further. Their extraordinary compositions and lighting schemes worked amazingly well, and their style changed throughout the three acts of the film. The first act of the movie, Michael's childhood, is shot wild, with lots of handheld and creepy compositions, matching the strange metamorphosis of young Myers. The second act in the sanitarium is morose, static, and sad, matching the tone of that portion of the film, primarily set in the sanitarium. Finally, they return to their wild style from the first act for the third, except pushing the envelope much further, just as Myers does with his rampage. Their cinematography matches the narrative themes of the film perfectly.

And, finally, at long last, they actually got the mask right.

In our next post, we'll focus on some of the cinematic compositions from "Halloween." Click here for Part 2.