I really wanted to like Rob Zombie’s remake—or rethinking or reimagining or rebooting or re-whatever-we’re-calling-rehashings this week—of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). And the more I witnessed the lockstep mentality that prompted nearly everyone to parrot the phrase “Carpenter’s classic” in hushed, reverential tones whenever the original was referenced, the more I wanted to like this new version. Unfortunately, Mr. Zombie’s film got in the way of my desire. It’s not worthless or awful or any of the things it’s being described as; there were several things in the film that I liked and more than a handful of good in-joke chuckles throughout. But I also found myself wondering just what the point of the whole enterprise was.
Going back to Carpenter’s original film, I’ve got to admit that I didn’t buy into its greatness when I first saw it at a drive-in in 1978, and nothing has changed my opinion of it in the intervening years. That said, I’d be willing to bet that Zombie does buy into the original’s greatness, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with his film. He can’t quite bring himself to actually reinvent Halloween. Instead, he’s cobbled together something that flops with all the agility of a landed fish in between a rethinking and an homage.
Zombie is a peculiarity in that he’s less a filmmaker than he’s a film fan making movies. His distinct—and distinctly unsettling—personal vision is there: a twisted sense of humor, a fascination with the dynamics of psychotics and dysfunctional “white trash” families, a flair for aggressively stylized visuals etc. The problem is it rarely comes together in anything like a unified whole. What he does can be fascinating and by turns outrageous, creepy, disturbing, incoherent and uncomfortably sadistic (though not in the Eli Roth “torture porn” manner). Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) is a riot of explosively creative bad taste. But his work is also at least 30-percent throwback references to other movies that Zombie presumably admires. His most coherent film and the direct sequel to Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), wisely eschews direct references in favor of attempting to capture the flat, threadbare feel of low-budget 1970s drive-in horror, but it’s constrained by the sense that Zombie is holding back on the visual flair in the process.
Incredibly, Halloween manages to combine the weaknesses of both of Zombie’s previous movies, while rarely tapping into the strengths of either. The attempt to give Carpenter’s killing machine, Michael Myers, a background in order to explain his extremely antisocial behavior smacks of adolescent fanboys sitting around ruminating, “Dude, whaddya suppose makes Michael Myers want to kill people?” Predictably, Zombie’s answer hinges on a cheesy white-trash home life combined with being bullied at school and a later cop-out reference to a murky gene pool. It’s not very persuasive, largely because little Mikey (played by the strangely androgynous Daeg Faerch) is already torturing animals to death when we first meet him.
Even so, this is the part of the film where Zombie is at his most assured—and personally quirky. Mikey’s family—sympathetic stripper mom (Sheri Moon Zombie in her least grating performance to date) to one side—is cut from the same cloth as the Firefly clan of his previous films. This is Zombie’s territory, as is the amazingly obscure in-joke of referencing his original rock band, White Zombie, by having the Bela Lugosi picture from which he drew the name, White Zombie (1932), playing in the background on the family’s TV. (What makes it so obscure is the fact that he shows nothing very identifiable from the Lugosi movie, only the canned Abe Meyer library music on its soundtrack can be made out.)
Zombie more or less keeps a handle on the film once the mayhem commences, but then he stalls when he gets to Mikey in the world’s emptiest insane asylum. The sessions with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell standing in for the late Donald Pleasence) aren’t very interesting, and the idea of Mikey feeling ugly and wanting to hide behind masks isn’t much better. Zombie then launches into the central remake part of his film, ignoring the unlikely development of young Mikey growing into six-feet-eight-inches worth of hulking killing machine (played by pro-wrestler Tyler Mane, The Devil’s Rejects)—but let’s face it, the original had the same problem.
The results feel like a pointless exercise in condensing the bulk of Carpenter’s film into 60 minutes of pretty standard Veg-O-Matic-slice-and-dice splatter movie—with all characterization removed. Any chance that we might have to take it seriously is undermined by Zombie throwing a who’s who of modern horror and exploitation icons at us in cameo roles. Yeah, it’s fun spotting Ken Foree, Brad Dourif, Danny Trejo and Dee Wallace Stone—to name the ones who actually get some screen time. But the bulk of the performers—Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Micky Dolenz, Sybil Danning, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley—are on-screen just about long enough for the audience to mutter recognition and nothing more. Plus, it’s just a “cool” gambit that’s as distracting as the gags Zombie uses to invoke the original film.
By the end of the movie, Zombie is simply tediously going through the motions—something that even the incoherent climax of House of 1000 Corpses never feels like, and a huge letdown from the gonzo “Free Bird” finale of The Devil’s Rejects. As an example of a wayward talent gone completely off the tracks, Halloween is interesting, but that’s hardly a recommendation. Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.