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Halloween   D+

MGM / Dimension Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Cast: Tyler Mane, Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Danny Trejo, Daeg Faerch, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, Hanna Hall, William Forsythe.

Review by Rob Vaux

The original is better. You know it. I know it. Rob Zombie knows it. Can we leave it at that and get on with our lives? No? We require further discussion? Oh, if we must.

I find Zombie interesting because though I have yet to enjoy a single one of his films, I have a lot of respect for the way he approaches them. He takes his material seriously while other horror directors treat theirs like an extended fraternity prank. You can see it in his refusal to sacrifice grim scares for a cheap laugh, his willingness to take concepts to their logical extreme, and most importantly, his understanding and admiration of the genre pictures that preceded him. Mention names like Dee Wallace or Sybil Danning to today's crop of directorial asshats, and they'll give you a look like a confused dog. Not only does Zombie know who those veteran scream queens are, he actually finds roles for them in his films -- and as something more than in-joke cameos to boot. Trash? Maybe. But at least it's trash he cares about, which is more than I can say for a lot of directors these days.

On the other hand... it's still trash. With the stated purpose of updating the 1978 John Carpenter classic from a more "realistic" perspective, Zombie finds little to justify the exercise. Granted, he rescues it from the silly plot twists that marked the ever-multiplying Halloween sequels, but the elegant simplicity that made the first film so brilliant is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we're treated to an extremely unpleasant backstory explaining how series maniac Michael Myers came to be. Zombie fails to realize that the more we know about such figures, the less frightening they become. Compensations may arise if the new material is interesting enough. This isn't: early years amid white-trash dysfunction, incessant bullying at school, the routine torture of small animals, eventual incarceration in a mental home after butchering most of his family one dark Halloween night... all tired pieces of serial killer shorthand.

We spend most of the first half watching it unfold, and despite the ostensible attention on Michael (played as a child by Daeg Faerch), much of it serves as a showcase for Zombie's wife Sheri Moon. She portrays Mother Myers with an admittedly decent mixture of foul-mouthed hostility and frustrated benevolence: a fragile guardian incapable of holding back the rampant abuse the world has in store for her son. Unfortunately, Zombie uses only the most arbitrary terms to link that abuse with Michael's behavior. At times, the boy comes across as a sympathetic victim of circumstance. Other times, he's simply evil: a perfunctory variation on Carpenter's brilliant "it was the boogeyman" motif. The film tries to pull those two halves together, but lacks the internal logic to make either one convincing. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), suffers from equally problematic development. At first, he seems to care about helping Michael, only to turn around and write a tell-all best-seller condemning him as the devil incarnate. Such hypocrisy has tremendous potential, but Halloween never properly develops it. Instead, Loomis appears in disjointed chunks during Michael's incarceration, giving us no signs of the gradual shift from compassion to fear that leads him to finally abandon the boy.

Michael apparently compensates by spending a lot of time in the asylum weight room: 15 years later, he's morphed into Tyler freakin' Mane. All the better to snap his chains, butcher his guards, and run back to his hometown for another All Hallows bloodbath. Fans of the original know what happens next. His little sister Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) -- now adopted by a nice couple and grown into a well-behaved high-school student -- spends the night babysitting, while her friends Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris) fool around with the local boys... all of them blissfully unaware of the white-masked lunatic stalking them from the shadows.

The similarities to the original are copious, but Zombie works hard to find something new to say. Unfortunately, nothing much comes up. With the first hour blown on the lengthy background, Halloween rushes through the details of Michael's new victims: rehashing basic notions from the Carpenter version while piling on excessive gore as quick as it possibly can. Zombie does a good job establishing the look of the piece -- with autumnal sunlight giving way to dark houses lit by isolated pools of white -- but his best moments are still cribbed from 1978 and the new material (mostly trailer-park nastiness of the sort that opens the film) does nothing to improve upon them. The three teenage girls are much more two-dimensional than their predecessors, with Laurie's demure innocence contrasting against her randy and duplicitous friends. Zombie simply doesn't know how to write for such characters (though he does better with Laurie's young babysitting charges), leaving them far too thinly developed for us to care when they start getting hacked up.

The film's violence is perhaps the most telling sign of Halloween's misguided ambition. There's a basic effectiveness to it -- signs that the director is giving it his all -- but its gruesome details grow tiresome after a while, and the increased number of victims (to say nothing of the god-awful "sex = death" cliché) lead to exasperating repetition. Carpenter didn't need a high body count to makes us shriek with fear; he'd ratchet the tension to unbearable levels and nary a drop of blood was spilled. Horror movies have always walked the line between suggestion and realization; the slaughterhouse here falls on the wrong side of that equation.

Mane's appearance further compounds the issue. Casting a former pro wrestler as the mute killer makes a certain amount of sense: Mane knows his own body and can convey emotion through physicality quite well. But his hulking form and colossal strength leave no doubt as to his character's intentions, eliminating a good deal of the suspense. He's going to mangle you and there's nothing you can do about it. The end. Contrast that with Nick Castle's original turn in the same role: silent and motionless, yet brimming with horrid possibilities. We had no idea what he was capable of, and whatever he did, it would come without warning. Where Mane merely brutalizes, Castle let our fevered imaginations fill in details that no mere onscreen assault could duplicate.

Copious bloodshed can work, of course, provided it contains enough creativity to justify our attention. And I credit Zombie for his enthusiasm, which shines through even in the film's worst scenes. But devotion without imagination amounts to very little, and few horror classics are in less need of a remake than this one. The basic framework here can fit a number of different molds; Zombie may have done better coming up with a new boogeyman rather than appropriating Carpenter's. As it stands, this new Halloween serves as nothing more than a signpost, pointing us to the video store where the real version sits waiting for us. Zombie loves what he does too much to settle for such meager results.

Review published 09.01.2007.

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