Friday, August 31, 2007

Halloween '78: R.I.P. ????

Today is August 31st, and that means Rob Zombie's Halloween is officially upon us. I haven't seen the new film yet, and I have no idea if it's a masterpiece or a disaster, but I do know one thing: from this day forward, a certain percentage of the movie-going populace will associate the title Halloween with this remake; not the classic John Carpenter original from 1978.

So, in light of that fact, I decided to devote a little space on the blog today to some of my feelings about the original film; and why it remains such a great horror film.

For me, Halloween is right up there with Hitchcock's Psycho, Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of the most important and influential titles in horror film history.

In terms of cinema history, Halloween almost single-handedly spawned the slasher trend that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s; a fad that included such films as Friday the 13th (1980), He Knows You're Alone (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Prom Night (1980), New Year's Evil (1980), Terror Train (1980), Graduation Day (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Prowler (1981), Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and on and on.

What most of these films "acquired" from Halloween was simply the notion of a masked, seemingly emotionless and inhuman (and unkillable...) knife-killer, as well as the organizing principle of setting a horror film on a holiday or at a special event (prom for example), and the nature of the victim pool -- usually teenagers.

What many of the films failed to understand, however, about Halloween is that it was legitimately and unceasingly scary, but not particularly gory. It gets a bum rap on that account. Like Chain Saw, there's very little blood on screen in this Carpenter film.

If you watch Halloween, you'll see it's both suspenseful and frightening, but not bloody. Director John Carpenter artfully stages much of the film's action so that Michael Myers remains in the shadows - watching - but not acting or doing. Often times, characters stumble upon the killer's aftermath (places he's been), like the old Myers place...where he's been eating a dog. This approach builds suspense rather then simply relying on gore. The audience doesn't know when Michael "The Shape" Myers will strike, and much of the film's considerable terror arises when that stark white mask emerges suddenly from black nighttime, from the corner of a particular composition, or is observed in the distant background of the frame.

Halloween also took the psychological aspects of the horror genre to a new and very different level from historical antecedents. Whereas Hitchcock's Psycho obsessed on the rational, medical and scientific reasons behind Norman Bates' psychosis in a famously talky coda, Carpenter and co-writer Hill in Halloween deliberately and systematically removed all attempts at rational analysis or psychological jargon. Michael Myers is the bogeyman and can't be diagnosed using the DSM-IV He is purely and simply evil, and even his highly-trained, highly-educated psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) cannot countenance him on a human, rational level. Michael boasts "the darkest eyes; the devil's eyes" and cannot be explained away by science. That's part of what makes this character so eternally scary. Again, I haven't seen Zombie's remake of Halloween, but I understand that his version delves into Myers' abusive childhood. For many reasons, I believe this approach radically mitigates the horror of Michael Myers, but I'm trying to be open to the fact that Zombie is giving us a "new" Halloween, perhaps with a different angle. I respect very much what the director accomplished with The Devil's Rejects. I'm just noting: if you delve into the Bogeyman's personal history - especially as a defenseless child - he can't really be the implacable, inscrutable Bogeyman anymore. His mystery will be gone, explained. Furthermore, sympathy for him will have been generated. That may be more effective in a straight drama, but it's death for a horror movie. You want your audience to be with the final girl to her last breath; not saying things like "'well, Michael was treated so badly, you can't blame him for becoming a monster."

The Michael Myers of the original Halloween is such a potent "force of nature" because he cannot be explained or appeased; he is shot six times at point-blank range in the film and survives. He can catch up with his victims at a brisk walk even though they are running from him. If a victim hits on the idea of closing a window to protect him or herself, Myers has already come through that very window and is waiting to catch the victim. He is forever patient. Simply stated, he is the perfect embodiment of primeval terror, a monster whom we cannot escape no matter how much "educated" man thinks he understands or knows about the universe. I hasten to add, nowhere is it stated in Halloween that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is actually Michael's younger sister. That's a contrivance added in Halloween II (1981) which diminishes much of the Shape's initial terror. It's an explanation for something that requires no explanation. Michael is scarier when the audience doesn't understand his motives. The sister sub-plot has been adopted as canon in the franchise and the same back-story is being used by Rob Zombie, but frankly, I believe that's a fatal mistake too. If a remake or a re-imagination is a sincere attempt to improve on qualities of an original film and fix mistakes, it doesn't bode well (at least to me), that Zombie didn't eliminate this clumsy explanation for Michael Myers' killing spree. This is a prime example of something that should have been broached and fixed in a re-boot.

The original Halloween is an influential horror film not merely because its precepts and ideas were adopted by a whole school of slasher films but because, first and foremost, it is terrifying. It's also a well-made film that depends on the canny use of film grammar, and an understanding of how to utilize the wide screen. The opening sequence, a sustained point-of-view subjective shot, is a stylistic tour de force, for example. One can also study here how Carpenter manipulates foreground and background components to generate chills and revulsion. At the end of the opening scene (young Michael's murder of his eldest sister in 1963), the camera swoops up and away from Michael with horror and revulsion, his parents frozen in a kind of horror. It's almost as though Michael's butchery is so horrible, so grotesque that the camera itself backs away and then crawls to a stop. This is the kind of theatrical, trenchant film technique that a neo-stylist like Carpenter can create in a heartbeat. I like Zombie, but I will be looking here to see that he understands Halloween's visual tradition too. It's not enough for his remake to re-tell Michael's story; the director must demonstrate that he is a virtuoso in the (now) rare art of screen form and technique reinforcing on-screen content.

For example, one of the all-time great horror movie compositions occurs near the end of the film when Laurie Strode (in focus in the frame's foreground), leans against a door frame and relaxes, believing Myers is dead. Behind her, in the blurry background, Myers bolts upright into a sitting position and turns towards her...on the hunt yet again. The shot is brilliant for the use of depth of field, but also for generating suspense: the audience sees Myers, but Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) does not. We in the audience are suddenly privy to knowledge that our heroine isn't, and so tension is built. This shot has been copied probably a hundred times in horror films since Halloween.

All great art reflects or mirrors the age in which it was created, and Halloween is no exception. The film came out in 1978, not long after Watergate, the Energy Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War. Even a change of political parties and Presidents (from Ford to Carter) didn't seem to be solving the nation's mounting problems. The economy was slipping into recession. Crime rates were high.

I believe Halloween reflects these "malaise days", the then-slowly-dawning idea that our "safe" and "modern" and "rational" society is just an illusion and that we don't truly control our environment, our criminals, or even our economy. Medicine, science, education, and law - even parental protection - are merely comforting (but empty) security blankets and in Halloween these protections are proven inadequate. Nothing can stop Michael Myers. The suburban teen characters in the film are unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes this irrational, inexplicable monster. Despite all the infrastructure bureaucracy designed to make people secure, Michael Myers still kills. He is what we all fear deep down, a new "predator" for a breed of comfortable, pampered, modern Americans; one who can't be reasoned with, dissuaded or ultimately even comprehended.

The suburb of Haddonfield is described in the film as essentially a "slaughterhouse," meaning that Michael will have no problem hunting and killing his prey, who are basically sheep. Why should he have difficulty? We lived (in the 1970s) and also today with the belief that police, the government and the legal system protect us from harm. More than that, we believe we understand the universe and human behavior and psychology. We think we have "conquered" our world.

Michael Myers is terrifying evidence to the contrary. In his original incarnation, he is one of the great movie monsters. He is such a powerful specter, such a terrifying creation that the mere presence of The Shape (and his accompanying theme song, from John Carpenter) electrifies many of the less-than-worthy sequels to the original film. Even the bad sequels possess some sense of energy and terror because we gaze upon that blank white mask and our darkest fears get reflected back. However, for the new Halloween to be a great film, to live up to the heritage of John Carpenter's original, this will not be enough. The re-imagined Halloween must also speak powerfully to a context beyond "killing babysitters." This must be a film not just about Michael Myers, but about how "The Shape" represents our fears today. This is certainly something that is do-able in an age which has seen Americans trade liberty for security on a regular basis, but I don't know yet if Zombie has taken this into account. Hopefully - being a student of horror films - he realizes that a good horror film is scary because of technique; and a great horror movie is scary because it tells us something relevant about ourselves and our culture.

So, the time has come. The Shatner Mask today passes to Rob Zombie. Michael has been a durable movie monster for nearly thirty years. If he remains so for the next thirty depends now on Zombie's interpretation and reading of the Halloween myths.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: District B13 (2004)

The first time I heard about this Euro-Fu action movie was at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. While I was returning to the airport by bus with Kathryn, the person in the seat ahead of us, a producer, got on her cell phone and telephoned another producer (one who works on the new Battlestar Galactica) and began raving about a low-budget action film she had just seen. Apparently, she had staked out the festival to look for properties either to buy or to emulate, and she was gaga over the French genre film, District B13. It's a movie with no American stars which lasts a scant 85 minutes, and - I can happily now report - it is one hell of an action movie.

A friend of mine (The House Between's Arlo, Jim Blanton) gave me a copy of the DVD recently, and I had the opportunity to watch the film just last night. District B13 is the story of a Parisian ghetto in the near-future year 2010. Barrio B13 is a dangerous place, with no communication or in or out, and heavily-fortified checkpoints at exits and entrances. Armed thugs guard some buildings, and the police are corrupt and getting ready to withdraw all together. The schools and post offices are closed - permanently. "This ain't Monaco, it's Baghdad" reports one gangster. Ruling Barrio 13 is the crime lord Taha (Bibi Naceri), who maintains an army of tattooed, bald strong-men, led by the menacing K-2. He also has a giant, monstrous subordinate he calls "Yeti." Taha keeps much of the populace strung out on drugs and rules with an iron fist.

Then, one day, the French government manages *ahem* to lose a neutron bomb in Barrio 13, one that could wipe out all two million residents, even while conveniently leaving the Barrio's structures (meaning buildings and homes) intact. Even more frightening, the bomb has been activated and is now on a 24-hour countdown to detonation. The government decides to send in one of their best men: a one-man-army named Damien (Cyril Rafaells) who is a "by-the-book" kind of good soldier and who, just recently, took out an entire criminal stronghold (an underground casino) single-handedly. Damien is teamed with a prisoner named Leito (David Belle), a man who grew up in Barrio 13 and knows the lay of the land. Leito's sister, the beautiful Lola (Dany Verissimo) is Taha's prisoner inside the district. Unlikely allies, Damien and Leito have just hours to stop the bomb from destroying the Barrio...

The first shot of District B13 is a great one that lets us know we're in for a good time here, and safely ensconced in the hands of a clever director (Pierre Morel). We see a rat squeak through a hole in the isolation wall of this "shithouse of a city" (even the rats are leaving...) and then the view pans up and up. The camera sweeps over the wall and - to a pulsing soundtrack that reminded me of John Carpenter's glory days - proceeds to a fast-motion, hyperactive tour of the district. We see abandoned cars on the streets; homeless people asleep outside; citizens doing drugs, etc. It's a vision of unremitting urban blight, brought on, the dialogue tells us, by economic woes. Some six million people in the country are unemployed.

Before long, the roving camera has found Leito's apartment, where he is busily destroying a shipment of Taha's drugs. K-2 and other minions arrive and before long, there's an insane, absolutely exhilarating, beautifully choreographed chase scene across the rooftops. This scene is incredibly kinetic, artfully cut and exciting as all hell. And it also made me wonder if the makers of last year's Casino Royale (2006) saw this film when they planned that film's first act construction site chase. As in that film, here there is a lot of running, jumping, swinging (falling...) and rolling. It's a splendid stunt sequence.

And it is promptly topped by the very next action scene: Damien's wholesale decimation of a criminal organization in a casino. It's a virtual ballet of ridiculous (but beautiful) violence and I must confess, this is the scene that really got to me. I started cackling because I realized just how long it had been since I'd seen unpretentious, straight-up action flick.

Which isn't to say that this "near future" epic doesn't boast some deeper meaning between the fight scenes. The film implicitly involves France's not so great economy, and the aforementioned unemployment rate. There's also a line of dialogue about the country's angry youth "burning cars," which recalled for me images we saw here (on TV) of civil unrest in France late in October of 2005, when there was a week of rioting (Oct. 27 - November 2). Of course, this film was made before those particular events, but the idea underlying this dystopian future world is that France has some "issues" with gangs, vandals, youth violence, etc.

The other point the film makes is not one exclusive to France. In case you didn't figure it out from the plot synopsis above, the neutron bomb that ends up in Barrio 13 doesn't really get there by accident. There's a conspiracy by the government to destroy the ghetto, because it is easier to kill two million people than actually solve the problems of bureaucracy, failing infrastructure and creating good jobs. At least according to one official. Yep, it will SAVE THE TAXPAYERS money to kill all the inhabitants, one of our heroes is told directly. My immediate thought on hearing this strangely amoral (and guiltless) explanation was of Hurricane Katrina here in the States, (again, 2005 - after this movie came out), when Republican Representative Richard H. Baker of Baton Rouge (allegedly) told lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." That's sort of the French Government's policy in District B13, only with a more "hands on" approach.

At eighty-five minutes, District B13 is truly short and sweet. It doesn't wear out its welcome or strike any false notes. It's a near-perfect mix of everything in just the right proportions. It's exciting, it's cheesy, it's got some social commentary, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something very eighties about this film. It's a cheesy "future city" movie and it got me thinking about eighties flicks like Future Kill, Blade Runner and Escape from New York.