Slash and Burn: Failures of Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN (2007)

I’ve been anticipating the release of the latest installment of the Halloween franchise since I saw the first teaser trailer months ago. Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her breakout role as Laurie Strode (the grandma version) had me on board from the beginning. Now, the blessed day is almost upon us, so I thought I’d brush up on all things Halloween to, you know, prepare.

Turns out one of the gaps in my Halloweenucation was seeing the 2007 reboot, directed by horror rocker Rob Zombie. To be fair, I have a sort of ambivalent relationship with Zombie’s other film work, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). I do like his music, though, so hey: I’ll watch anything once. Turns out that’ll probably be it for this one.

Although I was initially excited to learn more about the backstory of famous slasher movie killer Michael Myers, one of the things that ended up disappointing me most about Rob Zombie’s Halloween was that the story now fully belongs to Michael, and not to Laurie Strode, who was the protagonist of the original version. This original film was so influential to the ‘slasher’ subgenre that there are literally entire critical theories based on Laurie’s character (most notably Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl) and copious amounts of film scholarship are dedicated to it. Carpenter’s cinematography in the original was similarly groundbreaking, and I know you can hum the shrieky theme music. The original Halloween redefined horror, significantly placing resourceful women at the center of the narrative, and literally hundreds of imitators (and, yes, sequels) followed its lead. Zombie’s film can never measure up, because it doesn’t really do anything new. In my mind, some kind of narrative or technical novelty would be the only good reason to even think about remaking such a classic. I get the idea that Zombie wants to communicate: Michael Myers wasn’t born a terrible person, he is a product of his terrible environment, implying (at least in this case) that killers are made, not grown. The film is certainly gorier than the original, but that’s a feature of better effects, not better storytelling. Acting was also sub-par, with the possible exception of the young boy tapped to portray Michael as a kid (Daeg Faerch). He was appropriately creepy, and made the portrayal of the disturbed, bullied, and indiscriminately vengeful kid convincing. Other cast was more well-known than I expected, but that didn’t mean they were good. The award for Most Flawed Performance went to one of the best-known of this lot: Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Loomis. Best Performance in a Not-Great Film I’m handing to Danny Trejo, but sadly he gets killed off. I got the impression these folks most likely got roped into the project because they thought it was going to be a WAY bigger deal than it ended up being.*

Part of giving this movie over to Michael means there’s nearly an hour of exposition rather than the few minutes of the original film (which were also some of the most innovative cinematically—watch a clip here ). Michael’s backstory comprises almost a third of the film, and I’m not sure it’s effective, though it’s mildly interesting. Instead of opening with Michael killing his sister Judith after a tryst with her boyfriend, this happens like 20 minutes in, after being prefaced by showing Michael’s terrible home life: verbally abusive dad-ish figure (a super-straggly William Forsythe), stripper mom (way to go Rob for casting your wife… again… ahem), snarky sister Judith (Hannah Hall), and precious baby Laurie—the only person in the house he cares about. By the time he kills Judith, we’ve seen how he’s abused not only at home, but at school by bullies, and we’re not surprised when he snaps. There’s a lot more bloodshed as the violence ramps up: a classmate, the father-figure, AND the sister, just for starters. Oh, and a pet rat, in the opening few minutes. Only one of these early deaths occurs in Carpenter’s film, and the result of making Judith a disobedient snot means not only is her death overshadowed by the rest of the carnage, but we don’t care about her enough to truly cringe at her drawn-out dispatch. Judith’s lack of characterization in the original— except for her typical teenage sexual transgression— led to much more shock value when she’s knifed by her little brother.

Michael kills a lot more people (and animals) in this version, but I guess that isn’t surprising given Zombie’s oeuvre. I’m not sure the film heaps enough tragedy and trauma on Michael to justify it, though that seems to be the point. Eventually, he even kills people who are nice to him (Danny Trejo’s underrated janitor). Of course, Dr. Loomis’s asserts that the kid is just irretrievably evil, but if Zombie’s goal was to show how Michael is made, Loomis’s one-note evaluation is even more off-base.

On the other end of things, Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends are underdeveloped, so it’s difficult in this Hallo-world to care about Laurie’s survival vs. Michael in the final third of the movie. So he comes back to find his sister… who of course has no idea she even has a brother, because she was an infant when he was incarcerated. Zombie seems to want to amp up our sympathy for Michael via his betrayal by the only person in the world he cares about. But how is she supposed to know that? Instead, Laurie’s motivation is just to survive the crazy psycho-killer who is after her, has killed one of her friends, and almost killed another one (Annie lives, for no reason I could figure out, and I actually felt sorry for her—and how does Michael botch that when he’s successfully killed everyone else????). Oh, yeah, and he also killed her sweet, adopted parents (Dee Wallace and Pat Skipper). Boy, Laurie’s going to be pissed she survives this narrative.

The film is literally very dark, and of course the effects are a lot more intense than the 1978 version. I found it to be so relentlessly visually depressing that it lacked the contrast of the earlier film; while there is a pervading sense of dread in Carpenter’s film due to the masterful camerawork in that movie, there’s also just a lot more DAYLIGHT. In a way, I feel like that’s scarier: a lot of the build up to the terror of Haddonfield’s Halloween night happens the afternoon before, when Laurie (maybe) imagines she sees the masked creeper several times in the sunshine. It’s part of her observant nature, since she’s not as distracted by boys and booze as her friends. But it also feeds the idea that bad things can happen anywhere, at any time, and therefore makes the paranoia of the earlier film that much more tangible.

In spite of all the extra exposition, extra tragedy, and extra violence, in the end I still don’t have much sympathy for Michael, and because I also don’t care about Laurie—she doesn’t seem developed enough—I end up not caring about the entire movie.

Maybe the thing I liked the most about this movie is the ending (yeah, because it was over, but there’s more to it than that). One of the aspects of Carpenter’s film that’s been controversial is that in the end Laurie needs the male savior to come to her rescue—Dr. Loomis appears and shoots Michael, even though (of course) Michael doesn’t die. Here, Loomis still shoots Michael before Michael crushes his skull, but Laurie is the one that (ostensibly) kills him. While I like this revision because it gives Laurie more agency and power over the narrative, it’s also made very clear that she is devastatingly traumatized by it—Laurie shoots Michael at close range in the last shot of the movie, and it’s a doozy. Both versions of Laurie can’t, in the end, escape her roots, but in Zombie’s version the violence she is forced to enact seems less a choice, more a trap, and one last opportunity taken to splash some blood onto the camera. While Zombie’s treatment of the story at the center of Halloween might seem more “realistic” to contemporary audiences, this film is sorely lacking the artistry of Carpenter’s slasher, the Film that Launched a Thousand Sequels. This imitation—misguided, schlocky, and depressing—isn’t the sincerest form of flattery, but a signal that the original should be left well enough alone.

*But that apparently wasn’t the case, because almost all of them came back for a poorly-received sequel to the reboot in 2009! I can’t pretend to know what actors are thinking sometimes. Paycheck?

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