Friday, January 15, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Halloween 2 (2009)

Director Rob Zombie's latest horror film raises a question that nobody was dying to have answered. Is it possible to make an absolutely brilliant horror movie that everybody -- and I mean everybody -- despises?

His sequel to a remake, Halloween 2 (2009), is such a film. It has outraged horror enthusiasts, paying audiences, and critics around the globe, and it will likely be reviled, dismissed, and spit upon for decades to come.


Why? The movie is an absolutely unsparing and bleak, balls-to-the-wall expression of Zombie's personal vision of humanity as irredeemably corrupt and sleazy. It is the cinematic equivalent of a middle-finger directed at the audience. Zombie was essentially offered a blank check from Malek Akkad to pursue his personal vision on this Halloween sequel, and that's precisely what he does. Relentlessly.


To wit, there is only one even marginally likable human being in the entire film: Brad Dourif's Sheriff Brackett. Everyone else is literally scum-of-the-earth. Once a dogged hero, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is portrayed here as a horny, exploitative fame seeker, both a fraud and a suck-up.

Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) isn't a heroic final girl either. Rather, she is shrill, self-absorbed, mentally cracked, and teetering on the verge of violent psychosis. She is not noble, likable or heroic in any sense. She expresses every situation with the epithet "fuck this." It ought to be a bumper sticker.

Even lovely, long-suffering Annie (Danielle Harris) is impatient, crass, and utterly rude in the way she expresses herself. She has a moment in the film when she is being confrontational with a helpful police officer and is so mean and nasty that you begin to wonder: how has it come to this? Are we a nation of rage-a-holics, just ready to go off on anybody, at anytime?


It isn't just individuals that are corrupt and worthless. Zombie hates authority in general, and that comes through loud and clear too. The police (even as led by kindly Dourif) are portrayed as impotent...useless.

Psychotherapy (as represented by Laurie's psychologist, Margot Kidder), is ribbed as a touchy-feely waste of time. And journalists? They just want more grist for the mill.


I'm not saying any of this commentary is utterly untrue or always off-the-mark in terms of our world. Only that there is nothing to lighten the mood here; no character to really identify with, follow, or admire as an entrance point into Zombie's uncompromising vision.


The result is plain. There is not a sliver of happiness in Halloween 2; no light, and no hope. No joy exists in this white-trash world of pain, death, betrayal and murder. Ideas like grief, sadness, redemption, tragedy or fear are only things to be joked about on late night TV with Weird Al Yankovic. Nobody is going reach out and give someone else a helping hand.

The only place Laurie finds even the barest measure of relief or happiness in Halloween 2 is in the bottle; in alcohol consumption. When she gets falling-down drunk at a Halloween party, that is the only opportunity in which she can "let go" of the pain that dominates her existence. And even here, director Zombie doesn't grant the audience respite: he undercuts Laurie's moment of beer-induced cutting-loose by cross-cutting it with images of Michael Myers strangling one of her best friends in the back of the van. Even when pain is made numb by booze, suffering goes on elsewhere in the world.

So...did I mention the movie is bleak?

It goes even further. Zombie continues his systematic dismantling of the Halloween "brand" by removing Michael's mask from most of the action and revealing him to be simply....a psychotic giant with a Grizzly Adams beard. And then the screenplay firmly identifies the root causes of Michael's homicidal rage: He often hallucinates the ghost of his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), who tells him he must unleash a "river of blood" to bring her back to life. Michael accommodates this wish, but now we have a clear motivational window onto his homicidal soul: he's a Momma's Boy extraordinaire. Accordingly, Halloween 2 may just be the biggest paean to mother love in the horror genre since Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

It is perhaps strange to talk about violence being enjoyable or entertaining, or suspenseful, but the violence in previous Halloween films has always been depicted at a more removed, subtle, culturally decent level. Carpenter's initial film relied on suspense (and musical zingers), not blood shed, to achieve terror. And the most of the follow-up films didn't linger on the suffering of Michael's victims either. Zombie also turns this franchise convention upside down

Early in the film, we follow Annie -- wounded by Myers --to the hospital, and watch in nauseating, realistic close-up as the doctors wash, drain, sew-up and otherwise tend to her knife wounds. It is a document of misery. And it goes on for several minutes. Is it realistic? Yes. Is it pleasant to watch? No.

Similarly, Michael proves not merely violent in this film, but brutally sadistic: he literally turns one victim's face into unrecognizable pulp. And though, in Halloween, there was dialogue indicating that Michael Myers ate a dog, Zombie decides to show us that feast here. He cross-cuts between a scene of Dourif chowing down pizza, pretending to be a neanderthal man, with Michael Myers ripping apart the flesh of a dead dog...and eating it. Again, it's not scary...just kind of nauseating.

The grounds to which to dislike Halloween 2 are all here in abundance. The "fun" horror of Halloween has been replaced by a lingering, gruesome close-up view of pain, suffering and death. Who could possibly find "enjoyment" in that?

And the heroic characters we have lived with and grown up with for thirty years -- Loomis and Strode, particularly -- are made not just into more fallible, recognizable humans, but utterly despicable ones.

And sans his iconic mask -- and now given to primal grunts of effort during his kills -- Myers is no longer a mythic, larger-than-life threat. He's just a run of the mill Dahmer or Bundy.

The Shape no more. The Bogeyman no more. This Michael is mankind as the ultimate monster.

Given all this, it is difficult to imagine someone who has liked other Halloween films liking this one. Zombie's movie -- the tenth in the durable and now predictable horror franchise -- wilfully and determinedly undercuts every image, every character, every concept of the property as it has existed for three decades. Anyone expecting a fun, jolting horror experience will be disappointed. This film is a bucket of cold water in the face.

Yet at the same time, I found Halloween 2 absolutely absorbing. It is undeniably the unfettered vision of one committed, empowered artist. It is uncluttered by committee-thinking; unburdened by the desire to please the audience, and it is absolutely extraordinary in terms of the visuals, and especially the editing. As a critic, I often deride horror movies that take the safe route; the run-of-the-mill, conventional approach. You can't accuse Rob Zombie of that pitfall here. Nothing in Halloween 2 is run-of-the-mill. So while the whole movie feels like you've spent two hours circling a dirty toilet bowl, it's an exquisitely-filmed toilet bowl. Zombie has a great eye for every nauseating, degenerate detail. His world feels real, complete and powerful.

So yes, Halloween 2 is skanky, skeezy, corrupt, degenerate and excessive. But you know what? I really admired it once I accepted it. I couldn't let go of John Carpenter's Halloween while watching Zombie's 2007 remake, in part because Zombie re-staged much of the action from the classic 1978 picture in slavish -- and inferior -- detail. His original "vision" was corrupted by his need to pay homage to what Carpenter clearly did better.

Wisely, Zombie's Halloween 2 doesn't imitate Carpenter's work (or the 1981 sequel) in any substantive fashion after an early chase in a hospital. Instead, Zombie freely pursues his inner demons and does his own thing with a minimum of creative interference. Pleasence's Loomis and Curtis's Strode couldn't exist in this cinematic hell...but the beauty of that is that they don't have to. Zombie populates his Halloween 2 with the "people" he sees in that world, and while I would never, ever want to live in that world, it's all of a particular piece. It's unified ugliness, at least.

Furthermore, Zombie provides two pitch-perfect scenes that argue cogently for this franchise's right to exist in this dark, depressing realm. I didn't expect intellectual gamesmanship from Zombie, not when he so frequently prefers a bludgeon, but it's there in glorious detail.

In the first instance, Zombie stages a scene between Laurie and her psychologist in the office. Behind them,on the wall hangs a big Rorschach poster. It is white in the center, black around the edges. Laurie is asked what she sees in it, and she replies that she sees a white horse (a reflection of Michael's vision of his mother). Fine. But if you look closely at that Rorschach spot, there's something else the audience sees: a big white spot, with two black "eyes."

What we are looking at, no doubt, is a kind of Rorschach version of Michael Myers' famous Shatner mask. It is a ghostly white face...upon which our fear is reflected. Laurie's psychologist establishes the blot could be "whatever you think it is," and that is Zombie's specific "out" in choosing and executing this narrative, stylistic path. He has looked at the Rorschach-like mask of the Shape and then written this movie based on what he saw. In his head. This vision of Michael Myers is what Zombie imagined in the lines of that famous, Rorschach-like mask.

Later in Halloween 2, there's a scene in which Annie, Laurie and Sheriff Brackett share a pizza together for dinner. Brackett starts to discuss the great actor Lee Marvin, and the actor's fantastic, colorful, romantic films of the 1960s-1970s: Cat Ballou, The Professionals, Paint Your Wagon. Well, the two teenagers sharing this conversation with Brackett look as though he has just shit diarrhea on their dinner. They don't know who Lee Marvin is; and furthermore, they don't care. That artificial world of musicals, westerns and movie decorum is as distant to today's youth as is Ancient Latin. That's not the world they live in. That's not the world this movie lives in either.

Again, this is Zombie's studied and important comment upon the Halloween mythos. John Carpenter's Halloween -- with all its brilliant 1970s film values -- is the Lee Marvin in this particular comparison. It is something well-remembered by the older generation but something that -- Zombie suggests -- doesn't carry cultural currency or relevant meaning in the world of today's youth. Musicals are gone. Artifice is gone. Romance is gone. What we have today is ugly, naturalistic entertainment for an ugly world. Zombie seems to understand that fact, and this scene spells it out quite explicitly. In a sense, this Lee Marvin metaphor justifies Zombie's approach to Halloween 2.

In terms of his visuals and editing, Zombie is truly audacious. He intercuts Brackett's discovery of Annie's corpse with home movies of Annie as a happy little girl. It's a breathtaking, and enormously affecting conceit. Without a doubt, it makes you "feel" the impact of this death more than just about any other in the Halloween film cycle. You understand what loss feels like for Brackett. It's heart-rending.

At other times, Zombie ramps up the violence during Michael's rampages so that the very film stock itself seems to convulse and spasm with rage. It's like we're tied into Myer's pulse itself. Some scenes with Michael Myers traversing beautiful natural landscapes alone, or walking through town by moonlight are positively lyrical in presentation. Lastly, the film's final coda -- accompanied by the unexpected and ironic strains of "Love Hurts" -- synthesizes everything we need to understand about this Zombie universe: the pain, agony and psychosis of a life destroyed by violence; of violence brought on by love and hate for...family.

Let me be clear: I would never make a Halloween movie like this. I don't prefer my Halloween movies like this. But it's my job as a critic to give the devil his due: there's something enormously absorbing, immersing and impactful about this die-hard approach to the Halloween universe. There are, indeed, moments of pure genius in this movie. It's widely regarded as a fiasco, I realize, but the director's cut that I watched is a fascinating and bloody work of art.

Once more, my therapist wife Kathryn helped me clarify my thoughts about a movie. After Halloween 2 ended (and after a moment or two of stunned silence), I asked her what she thought. She said "It was absolutely amazing....and I never, ever, EVER want to see it again."

That's exactly how I feel. There are aspects of this one-of-a-kind film that should be lauded (the style; the editing, the unity of vision). But I never ever want to re-visit this hateful, corrupt, hopeless world.

In Carpenter's universe, the terror is iconic; Michael Myers is the Bogeyman and Dr. Loomis is St. George slaying the dragon. In Zombie's universe, hardcore, bitter reality has replaced such mythic touches to produce a grounded "real" Halloween for our times.

I worry for our times.

12 comments:

  1. I've only ever run across two interesting reviews of this film - and this is one of them. Thank you for the thoughtful look at a flick that threw most reviewers in hysterics of thoughtless hyperbole and absurd ad hominem slanders.

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  2. CRwM,

    Wow -- thank you for that compliment!

    After seeing the film I agree with you that -- sadly -- critics were out of line in their level of hostility.

    This is an artistic, valid way to do Halloween. It's just not the way that many fans, critics or enthusiasts approve of.

    It's not my cup of tea, either, but Rob Zombie's genius (and directing chops) are plainly evident.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. An excellent review! I watched the film two days ago and am still thinking about it a lot. You put my ambivalent thoughts into words. Thank you.

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  4. This is great review, JKM. I don't know if the film and material reaches this height, as I've yet to see it. Bleakness is something I choose to look away from, for the most part. However, your analysis does intrigue... enough, perhaps, that I'll take a look at this, despite my reservations.

    There are some films I still cannot get myself to watch: SALO, IRREVERSIBLE, INSIDE, and the like because of the despair and misery tied up with the gore. I'm curious, but not enough to overcome the thoughts of what I'd be left with to remember. But, your observations I trust, and your evaluations are keen.

    I need to ponder this a bit more, John. Thanks for this.

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  5. LeOpard13:

    Thank you for your comment. Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 is definitely not a happy movie; it's soooo bleak. But it is absorbing. I found the experience wortwhile, if not in any way joyful or fun. Again - not my Halloween; but a valid and unique Rorschach interpretation.

    best,
    JKM

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  6. Hey John,
    I think you pretty much nail it with this review. What I like about Zombie is that there is a clear style and way of thinking behind all of his films. It is so rare these days that you can actually identify a genre director as an auteur, but he certainly qualifies. There's no question with any of his work that you're watching a Rob Zombie film . . . and that's refreshing. It also helps that he has a pretty great eye when it comes to visuals - his movies are often striking in their imagery.

    So far the closest he's come for me to a consistent "masterpiece" level is The Devil's Rejects. It is also I believe the most pure expression of his interests and concerns. Halloween 2 may tread similar ground, but he's still working with someone else's material (even though this constitutes what I would classify as a worthy remake).

    All this being said, I rarely feel the need to revisit the worlds he creates more than once. It's too grim to be enjoyable as entertainment, but it is admirable (mostly) for making the violence uncomfortable to watch (as it should be). Don't get me wrong I like escapist horror as much as the next person, but every once in a while a cinematic reminder of the fact that violence is ugly is a good thing (especially since a lot of the younger multiplex folks who watch this might not tread often into more serious fare where such issues are explored).

    Bottom line you have to respect him for aggressively pursuing his vision, even if it's hard to stomach at times . . . and yes I'll probably not be rushing to see Halloween 2 again either.

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  7. Hey Jim --

    I couldn't agree more with your comment. Zombie's Halloween 2 is about the ugliness of violence; the reality of violence. That's a level of "truth" we don't necessarily want or see in our entertainments very frequently. I think that what muddies the waters for me is that Zombie sees all of life as ugly, and that somehow mitigates his message. He sees only the despair, the hopeless...and it's often too much.

    That said, he is indeed an auteur, and his films are often visually brilliant. Honestly: I would take Halloween 2 over last year's My Bloody Valentine or Friday the 13th any day. At least Halloween 2 MEANS something, even if it is deeply, irrevocably unpleasant.

    Thanks for the comment, buddy!

    best,
    JKM

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  8. I would certainly like to echo other people's comments that this is certainly the most thoughtful review I've read on this film. Zombie is a filmmaker that really polarizes not just critics but horror film fans especially. I really like many of his films and think that THE DEVIL'S REJECTS is most definitely his best film and one of the best horror films from the last decade. As you point out, whether you love or hate Zombie's film there's no denying that he is a skilled director and that his film's have his definite stamp on them.

    I actually quite liked Zombie's first HALLOWEEN film and have been curious to see this one. Your review has me even more intrigued.

    Thanks for this, JKM.

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  9. Hey J.D.:

    Thanks for the comment. You nailed it, both about The Devil's Rejects and the polarizing aspects of Zombie's approach to filmmaking.

    I'll tell you one thing: I can't stop thinking about Halloween 2. It is ugly...but brazen. It is vicious...but daring.

    The more I think back on it, the more I believe he's made some kind of masterpiece of our times. One that is simply to ugly for us to look at right now. One which we want to reject. But can't...

    best,
    JKM

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  10. Like CRwM said, I've only read two interesting reviews and this is one of them. I just recently engaged in a good conversation reading the other one over at Kindertrauma. And both of you had similar points to make. But there were different enough points you made that combined with the other review has now almost made me reverse my decision on seeing this. Yes...I haven't seen it. Nor have I seen the first one. Again I hold Carpenter's original in such high regard I could never bring myself to watch these. And it's not even a matter of a remake. There are plenty of remakes I've enjoyed. It's just a matter of Halloween. It's much easier to disregard a sequel. Yes the Halloween franchise overall is terrible. But I can always go back and know that the first one will always be there to stand tall. So to go back and take these characters I love and warp them into something ugly..I just couldn't deal. I mean why? Why not create his own universe and make them as f'd up as he wants? Why does he have to ruin poor Laurie and poor Loomis. But just like listening to a good band do an interesting cover of a good classic. It's nice to see what someone else can do once and a while. As painful as that may be.

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  11. Wow. Thanks for that fascinating post on a fascinating movie. I agree with everything you said except for the part about not watching it again!-Unk

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  12. Thanks Kindertrauma,

    And you know...after several weeks distance, I feel like I actually probably would watch it again; given the right frame of mind (or assignment...)

    H2 lingers in the mind...it's powerful stuff; and I'd rather my horror have teeth like this, then no teeth, like The Final Destination.

    Thanks for the comment,
    JKM

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