Saturday, September 08, 2007

Tricks and Treats: A Tale of Two Halloweens

I went to see Rob Zombie's Halloween yesterday. My parents babysat Joel, and Kathryn and I had our first date night together since February or March. This is the first movie I've seen in the theater since 300, so it was a special event. I'm fortunate I have a spouse who went along in my choice of movie selections when she would have rather seen The Simpsons Movie.

I had been girding myself for Zombie's interpretation of Halloween. I felt conflicted between my critical responsibility to judge the film objectively and my own personal belief that Carpenter's film couldn't really be improved upon; much less improved in today's corporate film environment. Plus, most of the alterations in the franchise that had been reported in the press simply reinforced my bias that Zombie's alterations would significantly diminish the terror of "The Shape." Michael Myers as an abused child? As far as I was concerned, that was about as appealing a notion as seeing Darth Vader as a "yippee!"-spouting muppet baby (oh, wait...). Thus I was deeply ambivalent as Kathryn and I settled into our seats to watch the film.

My thoughts after seeing Zombie's Halloween? Don't Fear The Reaper. Although I vehemently dislike many aspects of the new film, Zombie has clearly and unarguably accomplished one very important thing: he's made the material his own; he's personalized the material to such a degree that that it doesn't feel (until the disappointing third act) like a by-the-numbers remake. That alone is a relief. In creatively revamping the material, Zombie has made a Halloween that is no way the equal of Carpenter's original, but which nonetheless certainly shoots to the top of the heap as far as the other franchise installments. I'd say this is probably the second or third best film in the franchise at this point; and that's saying a lot considering there are nine films in that particular queue.

Let's face facts: the last sequel, Resurrection was pretty miserable: neither terrifying nor even particularly interesting. Ditto for Curse of Michael Myers back in 1996. H20 I think was marginally passable, if only because Jamie Lee Curtis was back to play Laurie Strode and the confusing back-story of Curse of Michael Myers had been eliminated, putting the series (mostly) back on track for at least one installment.

But Rob Zombie's Halloween is such an uncompromising, brutal, sleazy, lurid and nihilistic take on the Michael Myers story - such a shotgun blast to the face at point-blank range - it absolutely demands to be considered seriously. It's no hack job, even if it fails more often than it succeeds. The film is fascinating, even if it isn't particularly good. For instance, the murders in the film (especially those early on, involving the Myers clan), are violent and ugly to such a high degree that Zombie creates an overwhelming atmosphere of mortification and dread, if not authentic terror (like the original). Now, I always state that horror movies must transgress - they need to push the envelope in terms of shattering taboos. In some way, I do believe Zombie accomplishes that task here: but he doesn't do so through suspense, film composition or technique, but simply through his relentless baseball-bat approach in showing EVERYTHING. The upside of this blunt, graphic approach is that the film feels deeply unsettling, especially in a scene involving a child bludgeoning another child to death. The downside to this tactless approach is a) it isn't particularly artful, and b.) suspense ages better than shock and gore, and so in five years, a film more brutal even than Rob Zombie's Halloween will supersede this film's achievements and it will probably look like old hat; whereas the original will continue to shine for its elegant simplicity and minimalism (much as Psycho still shines because of the technique underlying it).

John Carpenter has crafted a few remakes (some good, like The Thing, and some bad like Village of the Damned), but he always makes those remade films a statement about his individual film style. In honesty, Zombie has done the same thing here and it would be ridiculous to assert otherwise. And as far as Carpenter remakes go, Zombie's Halloween is better than either previous remake of the director's material, specifically meaning re-dos of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog. Of course, I can't say that's high praise. It's sort of like being voted the nicest inmate in prison.

Yet, in the final analysis - as a critic and as a viewer - I must ask myself this question: what is worse for the Halloween mythos at this point, another ridiculous sequel like Resurrection or a remake that goes in a new direction and is overseen by a director with his own personal and consistent aesthetic? In this light, I arrive at the inevitable conclusion that if there *has* to be another Halloween film, if there has to be a remake, then Zombie has made the right decision to do "his' version. And it isn't a "corporate" version, that's for certain. It's the work of an individual with his own film ethos - for good and bad. But as I've said in regards to Carpenter, I'd rather take one man's vision - flaws and all - then the vision of a studio committee.

So let's get to specifics here. How are the two Halloween films different? The only way I can state this, and perhaps it is overly generalized, but the first Halloween has religion and the remake is agnostic, or more accurately, secular.

In Carpenter's film, society is punctured by the presence of The Shape, a monster who by all rights should not exist and who refutes all attempts by society to explain or stop him. He can't be diagnosed, much less stopped. Psychology (like law enforcement) does not stop Michael Myers. Dr. Loomis in the first film might as well be a knight riding in on a white horse to slay a dragon. He talks not in terms of psychology, but in terms of good and evil. Michael Myers here is "pure evil," an evil arising out of the gene pool for no sensible, logical reason. There is no motivation or explanation for The Shape's existence (and resilience). He is, as Loomis says directly, "purely and simply" evil. This approach is religious or spiritual in the sense that it requires the audience to believe in a force outside humanity but influencing humanity: "The Bogeyman" as a force of nature; a force of the Devil, what have you.

By contrast, Rob Zombie's Halloween does not concern the ways that "evil" slips in through society's safety nets and shatters our (false) sense of security, but rather how civilization itself is a monstrous construct and only breeds more monsters. The Myers House is a broken home in more ways than one. Young Michael's father figure is a white-trash monster named Ronnie who assails the boy's sexuality and makes fun of him. Michael's mother is simultaneously an overly-sexualized and absent figure, a stripper by vocation, and Michael can't deal with the jokes his peers at school make about her. He can't control his family, even Mum, so he kills small animals because they are the only creatures he can control. With the cats and rats he murders, Michael doesn't feel helpless or powerless.

But this is critical: it isn't just Michael's family that is corrupt in the remake -- it is the whole of society. There is precisely one figure in the film who is decent and kind, a janitor at Smith's Grove who attempts to respect Michael's "space" (and whom Michael murders without a second glance). There is not another person in the film that we would find "decent" or "good" by any common understanding of those terms. The high school principal, played by Richard Lynch (of Bad Dreams fame) is a shriveled old prune unable to discern right from wrong in a clear-cut case of bathroom bullying. Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is part of the Rita Cosby/Nancy Grace pundit class/culture, more interested in selling a book about Michael (thus exploiting him...), than in healing him. And down the list we go, searching for any primary character who is somehow "good." The other prison guards - one played by Tom Towles - are mean and nasty. A callous nurse ignores Michael (and lives to regret it), and the Smith's Grove administrators - portrayed by Udo Kier and Clint Howard - are engaged in "CYA" behavior, not a concern for their fellow man. Even Laurie Strode, who was so kind and decent a person in the original is here portrayed as snarky, sarcastic and condescending. She isn't playful with her ward, Tommy Doyle. She's just mean.

This is Rob Zombie's personal world view (which I don't particularly care for...), that the world itself is a cold, mean horror show filled with ugly, self-satisfied, self-centered, monstrous people. Like I wrote above, I don't buy into this philosophy or appreciate this world view, but objectivity requires that I state a simple fact: Zombie handles it well and makes his case effectively. I don't have to like the philosophy to see how effectively Zombie presents the case that evil springs from evil; that evil comes not from "outside humanity" (the spiritual or religious view of the original), but that evil arises from human cruelty. Here, the monster is us. We - irresponsible adults - create The Beast, Michael.

In the film, Dr. Loomis states that Michael is the "perfect storm" of nature and nurture, and Zombie's screenplay explains that "white" (the color of Michael's mask) is actually "all colors of the spectrum," which could mean that Myers is a product of "all colors" (meaning both nurture and nature). However, unlike the character in the first film - a good man whom the audience could trust - this particular Dr. Loomis is not a figure of authority and decency whom the audience should trust. He might say Michael is the perfect storm of nature and nurture, but the film doesn't follow through with his point of view and I don't believe him. Oppositely, I believe the white mask - all colors of the spectrum - represents not nature and nurture, but rather "all" the evil faces of our society. Michael has seen evil everywhere - in every person - and now his choice of mask color reflects back all those various shades of evil. In the film we see him try on different "faces" (including an orange mask), but it is white - the multifaceted, inclusive "color" that best suits him.

If you take "The Bogeyman" aspect out of the Halloween equation - which this film does - one can see why Zombie makes all the other creative decisions he does. This Michael can survive gun shots not because he is "The Shape" but because he is literally a hulking, unstoppable giant. This Myers is physically huge...a colossus. Again, a "religious" decision (the monster is evil and unkillable) gets replaced by a secular one (Michael is just one pumped-up giant...). For this reason, whenever there are discussions of the Bogeyman in this Halloween, they ring 100% false. They're off-message. There is no symbolism to back up talk of the Boogeyman.

Which brings me to another point. Zombie is an auteur (right down to the use of his familiar repertory company), but he is badly hamstrung here by the very 'shape' of the original material. The first hour or so of the new Halloween is the strongest portion of the film -- it's a blast of originality and energy and horror that riffs on the idea of young Michael Myers' first killing spree and subsequent stay in a mental institution. This stuff is hardcore, tightly focused, well-shot, and ultimately rather compelling. The "session" scenes between Loomis and young Michael I found pretty fascinating. By contrast, the second hour of the film finds Zombie slavishly recreating the plot of the first film, with Michael returning to Haddonfield to stalk Laurie, Linda and Annie. Those teenage characters barely register here, and by re-staging events and incidents from the original, Zombie only reveals he doesn't possess a tenth of Carpenter's directorial chops. Which is not to say that he doesn't have any chops: the first half of the film proves conclusively Zombie can create a mood, develop characters and tell a story.

What Zombie can't do, however, is generate even a lick of suspense in the film. When he misguidedly tries to ape Carpenter's background-foreground "boo" moments (where the white mask emerges from darkness), the film is a total bust. Let me be clear: there is not a single (not one...) moment of actual suspense in the film; and no real stalking either. Michael simply arrives on the scene and kills people very, very brutally. The kills are well-staged and universally shocking, but not preceded by even the most rudimentary sense of suspense. This makes a compelling film turn oddly disjointed.

Also, Zombie is the master of creating unlikeable, mean, white-trash characters (think The Devil's Rejects), but that skill doesn't help him once he's left the Myers clan behind. It's clear that the teenage girl protagonists are like aliens to him. He is unable to make us sympathize with them; unable to make us care about them; unable to make them real in the way that Jamie Lee Curtis or Nancy Loomis or P.J. Soles registered as so very, very real. Scares in a horror film emerge from a sense of suspense, good staging, and the imperilment of characters that the audience cares for. Zombie fails on the first and third counts and only gets a marginal pass on the second.

Another egregious failure: Zombie is not able to craft even a basic sense of time's passage for the film. It seems to be 1978 at the beginning of the film (young Michael wears a KISS T-Shirt), but Linda uses a cell phone at the end of the film, right before she is murdered (17 years later). Assuming the 1978 figure, this would put Michael's latter killing spree at 1995 when cell-phones were still those huge box-things with long antennae. It thus seems more like thirty years and we're now in 2007 or 2008. If the Laurie scenes occur now, then the opening act of the film takes place in 1990?!!. Argh! I love how the film lamely skips over the issue too. The on-screen cards here omit the year, telling us only it is October 31st. That's vague, no? You know a film is in deep trouble when the something so simple as "setting" raises so many questions.

Yet I cannot claim that this film fails entirely, despite such a huge deficit in technique, protagonists and narrative clarity. What does Zombie replace the suspense with? Ferocity. Unfettered, slap-in-the-face ferocity. Sometimes in the film, this is almost actually a fair trade. There's a scene near the end of the film in which Laurie hides in an attic and Michael uses a two-by-four to literally pulp the ENTIRE attic floor, and it is nothing less-than-exhilarating. Again, please note however, that this is a "secular" reading of Michael Myers, even here. He is one strong dude and uses blunt force to destroy the attic. In the original film, we knew Michael was present because a window was open, but he was otherwise invisible (like a supernatural force). Then, when we least suspected it, he would pop out of one of those places we had thought was empty and thus had considered "safe". Still, the attic sequence is staged well in a shock-and-awe kind of way.

Ultimately, Rob Zombie has given us a Halloween for our day and age; one that reflects our times -- and isn't that what art is supposed to do? The film features several quick cuts and too many close-ups, a boxy byproduct of television's pervasive influence on cinema since Carpenter's bygone roving camera, long-shot days. Also, the film caters to the currently-in-vogue instinct to explain everything, leaving no sense of ambiguity whatsoever (and ambiguity is another factor in successfully generating fear.) I believe in my heart this is the reason that some Halloween fans will like the film a great deal. Ever wonder why Michael wears a mask? You'll learn the answer here. Ever wonder how Michael learned to sit in that cell and "see beyond" the walls of the cell to the night of his escape? You'll find the answer here. Ever wonder where baby Laurie was during and after the original Myers massacre? This film has an answer for that question too. The film offers a veritable orgy of such explanations, and that fact plays right into the obsessive fan's desire to know everything about Michael Myers, much as Star Wars fans want to know about the history of Obi-Wan or Star Trek fans want to know the details of how Spock first joined Starfleet. Again, I think this merely reflects the pervasive influence of television in our culture.

Sadly, the shifting of Halloween into the cinematic equivalent of fan fiction defuses the terror. Michael Myers isn't Spock and he isn't Obi-Wan Kenobi. We can learn all about them and they don't really lose anything; they are still potent archetypes. But the more you learn about Michael, the less scary he becomes. The more human he becomes, the less he is symbolic and thus larger-than-life. Michael also isn't a traditional screen monster like the Wolf Man or King Kong. What is gained by "humanizing" him? By making the audience sympathize with him?

I suppose if someone were to ask me do I want to know exactly why the Birds attack Bodega Bay in Hitchcock's The Birds, or what exactly the monoliths represented in 2001, or why Michael Myers became the way he is in Halloween, I'd probably say "thanks but no thanks." I prefer a little mystery. I don't need answers spoon-fed to me so I can sleep peacefully at night. But fans do like to put these things in boxes; to catalog; to label; to see a story from all angles. As a fan myself, I appreciate that impulse, but as a critic I believe it works against good horror (whereas in science fiction, not so much).

The new Halloween is a mean, ugly, violent and deeply distasteful film -- thus it is a perfect film for our day and age. Mean people hurt mean people, and the world is cruel to children, adults and small animals. Yet, I've got to be clear: Zombie's Halloween is not without potency or life force of its own. The first half of the film is positively gripping. It's only when Zombie returns to Haddonfield that this begins to feel like Halloween's "Greatest Hits" or The Cliff Notes version of the material. I credit Zombie for putting his own stamp on the material, as distasteful as it is, but I do wish that he had actually followed his own twisted muse more fully and followed through with his baser, meaner instincts. He's proven here that he has a shocking, mad, upsetting, grotesque, divisive vision of Michael Myers and Myers' world, so he plainly didn't need to rely on Carpenter and Hill's thirty year old outline to finish his tale. I guess that's why so much of Zombie's Halloween feels like an anti-climax. Zombie wants to shock us, he wants to slap us in the face with his film - and he does so , again and again. And then he cops out at the end by telling us the same old story. So the movie starts out ugly but strong and ends ugly but weak.

I would also like to add this remark: if the original Halloween was powerful enough to spark the slasher trend in horror, and stoke seven sequels and a remake, then Zombie's baseball-bat-bludgeon re-imagination should surely propel the franchise for at least another three or four movies before the old, empty Resurrection crapola starts pouring in. On that front, the film is plainly successful. It isn't a great horror film. It isn't a suspenseful horror film either. But Rob Zombie's Halloween is disturbing, upsetting and serious-minded. And the ninth time at bat, maybe that's the best we can hope for. At least this wasn't Brett Ratner's Halloween, you know?

Friday, September 07, 2007

What isn't Camp...

Not to sound like cranky old Andy Rooney, but I'm getting tired of every pop magazine and web site referring to old TV shows as "campy." Exhibit A is last week's People Magazine (the one with Owen Wilson on the cover). There's a brief article about the new Bionic Woman series that notes how the re-imagination won't be "campy" like the old show. This clumsy description recalls for me all the media buzz about the new Battlestar Galactica when it came out a few years back, and how the old (1978) Battlestar Galactica was "campy." Here's a campy reference; here's another; and here's one more. You see?

The Bionic Woman campy? Battlestar Galactica campy? Now, I might go along with the term "corny," given the age of both series and the manner in which audience sensibilities have changed in thirty years. But neither series is inherently or deliberately campy. "Camp" is a tongue-in-cheek attitude, a knowing (and purposeful) attitude of "so serious it's funny." Neither The Bionic Woman nor Battlestar Galactica is actually "campy" to any measurable degree. An example of a truly campy TV show is the original Adam West series, Batman; which played the Caped Crusader and his universe as "ultra-serious" to the degree it was amusing. Perhaps Kolchak: The Night Stalker occasionally was campy too; playing tongue-in-cheek moments over some of the rubber monster suits and other oddities (such as vampires running around on rooftops).

Yet The Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica are being called "campy" by writers whom - I suspect - never saw either original series at all; and simply (and lazily...) found an easy descriptor: "campy." I mean, it sounds good doesn't it? It's not true to history, however. In the 1970s - the age of Star Wars, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica and The Bionic Woman - entertainment on film and television was at a very different point than it is now. It was more theatrical; more artificial. Today we demand abundant grittiness and naturalism and so our entertainment is "dark" and brooding to more accurately reflect how vieewers apparently see "real life." However, just because a film or TV show is more artificial or theatrical than naturalistic does not mean it is by definition campy. If it does mean that, then add Star Wars to the list of campy entertainments, I guess.

Nobody's perfect. I've used the descriptor "campy" imprecisely in the past as well. But I don't like this epidemic of labeling everything made two or three decades ago "campy," so today I'm proposing a moratorium on the clumsy use of the term. At least here, I won't be using the word "campy" synonymously with "corny" or "old fashioned." Let's hope some other writers do the same...

Freddy's Revenge Reviewed with Images

You just never know what you'll find on the Internet. My review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (from Horror Films of the 1980s) gets featured in this Live Journal Entry ("Death Has An Aftertaste" is the blog title), accompanied by extensive photographs. I bring this up not to boast or anything, but because I think that the images from the movie selected by the author really augment the review and help make make my point (about a homosexual subtext) in the film.

Dig those eggs in the skillet..

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

McFarland New Releases - September 07

McFarland has another quartet of fascinating film/tv reference books out this month, and I wanted to bring the titles to your attention. The books are:

The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture
When the first season of Star Trek opened to American television viewers in 1966, the thematically insightful sci-fi story line presented audiences with the exciting vision of a bold voyage into the final frontiers of space and strange, new galactic worlds. Perpetuating this enchanting vision, the story has become one of the longest running and most multifaceted franchises in television history. Moreover, it has presented an inspiring message for the future, addressing everything from social, political, philosophical, and ethical issues to progressive and humanist representations of race, gender, and class.This book contends that Star Trek is not just a set of television series, but has become a pervasive part of the identity of the millions of people who watch, read and consume the films, television episodes, network specials, novelizations, and fan stories. Examining Star Trek from various critical angles, the essays in this collection provide vital new insights into the myriad ways that the franchise has affected the culture it represents, the people who watch the series, and the industry that created it.

Teachers in the Movies
The teaching profession has a long history in motion pictures. As early as the late 19th century, films have portrayed educators of young children—including teachers, tutors, day care workers, nannies, governesses, and other related occupations—in a variety of roles within the cinematic classroom. This work provides a broad index of over 800 films (both U.S. and foreign) which feature educators as primary characters. Organized alphabetically by title, each entry contains a short plot summary and many also include cast and crew details. A detailed subject index is also included.

Second City Television
This work offers a complete episode guide and comprehensive history of Second City Television. The influential Canadian sketch comedy series created dozens of memorable characters (i.e. station president Guy Caballero and showbiz mogul Johnny LaRue) and featured well-known performers such as John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Short, at the height of their comedic careers. Presenting a thorough summary and review for each of SCTV’s 135 episodes, the author traces the initial appearance and evolution of some of comedy’s best known television characters and sketches. Two appendices provide guides to the program’s compilation shows and recently released boxed sets on DVD.

Hollywood Horror from the Director’s Chair
Profitable, relatively inexpensive to produce, and with a faithful built-in audience, Hollywood horror franchise films have long dominated the market for generic feature film productions. This work examines the significant effects, good and bad, that the horror franchise genre has had on the careers of several American film directors, including Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street), Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), and Joe Berlinger (Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows). A comprehensive bibliography is included, along with an extensive alphabetical filmography of popular horror franchise films