Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Mask Makes The Monster

So I guess you’ve heard the news by now. In Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, Michael Myers will be wearing his trademark Shatner mask in only roughly 25% of the film. And John Carpenter’s Halloween theme – which has endured since 1978 – will not be utilized at all.

These creative decisions are Zombie’s to make, of course, and I suppose he’s got his own vision of Halloween that he is assiduously pursuing here. But his selections cause me some alarm. They make me ask an important and relevant question: when does so much get altered, so much get changed, so much get removed, that a familiar franchise just isn’t familiar anymore?

Michael’s mask – that white, expressionless, emotionless mask – transforms the long-lived character of Michael Myers into something more than a mere mortal. When wearing the mask, he is “The Shape,” or "The Boogeyman." Sans mask, those identities no longer carry significance, psychic weight or importance. And again, those ideas have been important to the franchise’s history: they push Michael across an important line; from being merely another bad "man" to being something more archetypal, something more iconic and more universally recognizable and menacing. Evil with an "E."

I had a movie poster of “The Shape” in my college dorm back in 1988, and I’ll never forget what my R.A. said about it. He had seen the Halloween films but wasn’t a horror movie fan, per se. But he noted this: “That white mask seems to reflect every fear back at you, doesn’t it?” Pretty deep for an R.A.. And pretty insightful too.

But he was right: we invest something of ourselves, of our subconscious in that ivory mask, in that cinematic mirror, and ultimately that’s what great art is all about. How we interpret it.

The very thing that separates Michael from the slasher pack is this sense of ambiguity about his humanity. The white mask ghoulishly represents how easy (and in some senses, cowardly…) it is to hide behind a cloak of anonymity . The white mask also symbolizes Michael’s blank stare, one cast on his victims with hidden indifference and contempt. The white mask furthermore allows Michael to cloak his true motives and give his enemies a bit of the "Trick or Treat." Remember how he cast sad puppy dog eyes at Laurie in the finale of H20, a trick to lure her, in no doubt? Now imagine that scene played out if you’d seen his entire face, not just the eyes. Would the moment have been as effective?

From a practical point of view, the famous white mask of Michael Myers is also efficacious for night time shooting: it is often the only object we see lurking in – or lunging from – those night time compositions that Roger Ebert famously (and accurately) termed impenetrable. Some truly great moments in lighting and mise-en-scene have occurred in the Halloween films as that white, blank face slowly emerges from shadows, or is illuminated hot red (Halloween 2), etc.

Over the decades, scholars, psychologists and critics have suggested many theories about Michael Myers and his unique nature. That he is supernatural; that he is Evil on Two Legs. That he is a sociopath. That he is Laurie’s repressed id. Or even just that he is but a misguided, maladapted adult child…playing a brutal trick-or-treat game without any sense of conscience, remorse or proportion.

Remove the mask from Michael and all that speculation is gone with the wind. A Michael without the mask no longer represents or symbolizes anything larger than himself. He is not the Shape of Fear. He is not the embodiment of terror. He is not id, ego or superego. He is no more and no less than what he appears: a drooling mad-dog killer with hygiene issues.

If Michael doesn’t wear his mask, horror fans, general audiences and franchise followers lose something vital: our sense of imagination and engagement with "The Shape" as an archetype; as a character that is more than the sum of his violent parts and acts. If Michael doesn’t wear his famous mask, we don’t have to guess, speculate or imagine what diabolical psychological and human secrets he boasts. He is just like one of us, except big and strong and mean.

The details of Michael's story won’t really make much sense anymore, either. If he is no longer The Shape, how does Michael survive being burned? Bullets? Beatings? A thick skin I guess…

And again, this is sad to me: something mythic is rendered mundane. Something highbrow has been made lowbrow. Something extraordinary has been rendered…average, "normal."

If Rob Zombie – an alleged fan of the Carpenter original -- can’t see this, fact can’t understand this complaint, can’t artistically make this distinction -- then he doesn’t understand an iota about the Halloween mythos. I don’t say that to be personal, to be mean or even negative, but because I believe it to be true. I’m not saying Zombie can’t tell a good story about a non-mask-wearing serial killer…only that it won’t deserve the title Halloween if that’s the path he chooses.

I also have to wonder about the reasons not to use the famous music, but I confess, I am in nostalgic, not aesthetic territory when I wage this debate. The John Carpenter theme, not unlike the James Bond theme, the Star Trek fanfare, or John Williams’ Star Wars music – is an instantly recognizable trademark of the franchise. The music reminds the viewer that the franchise has a long history, and more so that the emotional connection you forged with the franchise in the past remains.

By taking out the Halloween theme, Rob Zombie seems to be intimating that there’s no room in his interpretation of the mythos for the old guard. For me. I mean, how unimaginative do you have to be, that you can’t find a place to utilize the Carpenter theme song even once? It could be deployed ironically, nostalgically, or bombastically. As a brief fanfare over a title card; or in full-throated mode, fast over the end credits.

How would James Bond fans feel about a film that didn’t feature the 007 theme? Wouldn’t they feel a little ripped off? Like something had gone awry? Like someone behind-the-scenes was, maybe, on an ego trip? The James Bond theme…you don’t want to hear that old thing again do you? This is MY interpretation of James Bond and there’s no room for John Barry, Monty Norman or any “old” interpretation. Fuck those guys, this is the REAL James Bond.

For better or for worse, Rob Zombie has become temporary steward of the Halloween franchise. The films pre-date his presence and they will likely outlast his presence (unless he plans to make them for the rest of his life.) Bluntly put, one responsibility of a franchise director is to hold sacred for the next installment those things that the fans and viewers cherish. To leave those iconic situations, ideas and themes intact for the next guy; for the next film; and for the next generation of viewers.

By taking Michael out of the mask, by not using the long-lived John Carpenter theme, I fear that Zombie is abdicating his moral responsibilities as a franchise director. When he is done with Halloween, what will be left and will it be recognizable? As someone who’s been watching these movies since 1978, I care about the answer to that question.

I realize that some people will likely say this is just "a fanboy overachiever" making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, movies in today’s culture are disposable, and when Zombie is done with Halloween, maybe there will be another re-boot that puts to rights the things he’s done wrong.

But one of the reasons that I enjoy film series like Halloween (and Star Trek, and Star Wars, and James Bond…) is that I appreciate continuity. And make no mistake, continuity is something important: the viewer gets something valuable from it. Again, in some cases, we can begin to truly engage a work of art only when we gaze at the larger picture; at the larger narrative told across a multi-film tapestry. So we want to know that the Kirk of Star Trek IV remembers the events of Star Trek III, for instance. Or, in the case of James Bond, that his core characteristics -- sex, sadism and snobbery -- remain the same even as times and social mores change.

With Michael Myers, the same is true. He’s supposed to be a masked spree killer; but no ordinary man. No...he is “The Shape” or “The Boogeyman." His theme song goes along with that image.

So I wonder when Halloween stops being Halloween, and when it becomes HINO: Halloween In Name Only. To some degree, it’s the aura of hubris that concerns me here too. Zombie wants to keep the title Halloween (or rather, Halloween 2), but he also wants to do his own thing at the same time…even though his changes are radical. If Zombie wants to do a movie about a serial killer without a mask, he should craft an original franchise featuring that character. He’s smart enough and talented enough to do just that. (And listen, I love House of a 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, so I'm not just picking on Zombie to be a "hater.")

But Rob Zombie shouldn’t corrupt the character of Michael Myers and the character of the Halloween films to fit his particular tastes simply because it’s convenient. Because the well-known title offers him a built-in audience, and a guarantee of a good opening weekend. Zombie has a responsibility to be true to what's come before.

If, in Zombie’s version of Halloween 2, Laurie asks Loomis if Michael Myers was the Bogeyman, I expect Loomis to answer, honestly. “As a matter of fact….he wasn’t.”


He was just a big wrestler dude in overalls with a beard. If that's truly "The Shape" of Things to come for this franchise, it saddens me. Michael Myers is a great movie villain and I hate to see him brought down to the realm of the ordinary,

1 comment:

  1. When I interviewed Carpenter, I told him that I thought "No Country for Old Men" was a better re-imagination of "Halloween" than Rob Zombie's remake, because the killer had that mythological quality. He didn't comment, but appeared amused.