Sunday, 21 June 2009

Re/Made: Halloween

© 1978, Falcon International Productions

I first saw Halloween on TV in the 80s with my cousins amidst their yelps and shrieks. I wasn’t impressed. Too many cousins. The first time I watched it from title sequence to end credits was on TV in the 90s. Alex Cox presented the moviedrome series in widescreen.

I appreciate.

Much has been written on Halloween; there have been documentaries about it – Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror for example. It is a bona fide classic. It is without argument iconic. Halloween serves as template for the slasher film; Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, I Know What You Did Last Summer et cetera. In 2007 Rob Zombie directed the remake.

This review-comparison is the second in the TFi Re/Made series. Good stories can be retold however the question is begged: why remake? Does it add to the mythos of the story? Is it updated to the contemporary? Or is the motivation exploitation?

In 1982 the John Carpenter made The Thing which was a remake of The Thing from another World 1951. In 1978 Phillip Kaufman made Invasion of the Body Snatchers a remake of the eponymous 1956 film. In 1998 Gus Van Sant remade Psycho.

We are in the epicentre of a horror revival. For the first time in a 100 year history motion pictures are gold rushing remakes. Most especially horror movies: The Fog 2005, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003, The Hills Have Eyes 2006 The Left House on the Left 2009, Nightmare on Elm Street 2010.

Halloween 2 2009.

I love horror. Hence this series. Re/Made is a vehicle to contrast the modern with the origin. I will rest my case. The judgement is yours.

Halloween 1978

Written, directed, produced and scored by John Carpenter. He was 30 years old and a four film veteran. It shows.

Title cards on black screen are an indicator of a low budget. What makes the Halloween titles stand out is the music. Carpenter’s sparse keyboard score is immediate impact and ingenious in its simplicity. 30 years later it hasn’t dated. The coup de grace is the zoom-in on a flickering demonic-carved pumpkin. It transfixes as the music suggests imminent doom. The tone is set.

The most famous curtain raiser in horror is for the most part bereft of dialogue. Why does Michael Myers wear a mask? There’s no explanation but there is a reason - it’s Halloween. It went with the rest of his costume. Why does Michael let his sister’s defiler go? Is he too young to overpower the boyfriend? Or is it because this is mass murderer in chrysalis: Judith is after all his first kill.

One of the legacies of Halloween is that this sequence and it’s reveal have been turned into a number of movies; The Strangers 2008, King of the Hill 2007, Them 2006.

The next scene is a prime example of forward motion storytelling. Michael’s escape builds his mystique. A key factor in this is his sparing of Nurse Marion. He could have killed her.

Haddonfield looks wholesome in the fall. Dull but more green than grey. The community is built close knit and house proud. Their walk paths and roads are clean and unthreatening. This is a uniform haven of safe and ordinary. Suburbia is a fool’s beautiful paradise. Jamie Lee Curtis walks us through it.

Jamie Lee was 19 years old when her feature debut was released. Much has been made of the fact that her mother, Janet Leigh, is the Psycho starlet but Tippi Hedren was more Hitchcock’s muse than Leigh was. The Birds was not shot as a horror film (neither was Psycho) though a remake should be. Tippi was more beautiful than Janet and her daughter Melanie Griffith was more beautiful than Jamie Lee. Melanie was 21 when Halloween was released. What if?..

Jamie Lee played Laurie Strode as an ordinary gal. Her clothes, hair, makeup, her awkwardness and lack of glamour encapsulated the town and accentuated the threat. Audience identification is paramount with the final girl and Jamie Lee’s performance is a gem. Would the course of horror/slasher movie history have been different if Melanie Griffith had played the role? Jamie Lee Curtis is one of few scream queens who have escaped the ghetto of horror. Both she and Melanie have had wonderful careers.

In movies horror comes at night while daylight is a reprieve. Not so in Halloween. This film is equal parts stalker as it is slasher. Michael searches Haddonfield to find his target on her way home from school. Laurie is with Anne and Lynda. They become targets too. Carpenter uses this stalker device to keep Act 2 tension saturated. Of course there is also Dr Loomis.

There are no names above the title in horror films. Fear is the star. Ergo these movies can serve as a jump for young actors: Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Renee Zellweger in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and keep an eye on Tanedra Howard of the forthcoming Saw 6. By the same token many films employ an older experienced actor for gravity, quality if not for a familiar face: John Saxon in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Anne Heche in I Know What You Did Last Summer, Tony Goldwyn in The Last House on the Left 2009. The characters they play sometimes serve as seers – warning the unheeding of the evil to come: Tony Todd in Final Destination Donald Pleasance in Halloween.

A veteran of over 50 films prior to 1978 you’d seen him before even if you didn’t remember where. The Great Escape? James Bond? The Pleasance subplot is Dr Loomis as dragon slayer. He hunts the stalker. He is two steps behind but he is coming. The stalker turns into slasher and before it is too late Loomis does what the Final Girl couldn’t. It’s a better film for it.

Halloween was filmed in Panavision and the 2.35 ratio is glorious. Carpenter’s widescreen exteriors are lush foregrounds and detailed backgrounds. They paint a pretty picture of Haddonfield. His interiors are angular and compressing, darkness and shadows where a monster creeps in and out of. I remember my cousins shrieking.

I’m impressed now.

Artwork © 2007 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

Halloween 2007

The 2:35 aspect ratio is retained but that doesn’t mean it will be used. The opening shot is of the Myers house.

Is that the Myers house?

The Myers’ has been transformed into a white trash abode with a wink at step-incest. What happened to the handsome middle class family? Or is it only the unfortunates who become scum? Methinks the filmmaker missed the point.

Written, directed and produced (plus ‘musical supervisor’ – the closest to ‘composer’ he could get) by one Rob Zombie. The studio may have given him a budget to make a movie but those credits do not make him an auteur.

The Myers family war over breakfast with a baby in a pram as witness. Yes that baby is Laurie Strode. Zombie’s version is a look at the origins of the monster Michael Myers. In doing so he dispels the mystique. What is mysterious in ’78 is diluted in ’07 as stock characterization. Cramming swear words into a scene does not give it authenticity.

Mama Myers is a stripper and that’s how she dresses when summoned to Michael’s principal. He introduces Malcolm McDowell – in what looks like drag – as Dr Loomis, a child psychologist. Turns out Michael likes to torture and kill animals.

Typically the thrill of hurting or causing pain

to small creatures, it’s often an early

warning sign.” – Dr Loomis

Cause and effect. Writing by the illiterate. Michael tortures animals so he’s a serial killer in the making. I don’t care how many serial killers tortured animals and were bullied and had stripper moms – in fiction it’s a cliché. Write me something new.

Mom is looking good for a small town mother-of-three stripper though.

Michael likes to wear masks. He wears one when he ambushes his bully and wields a tree branch to beat him to death. It’s a good scene. The tension is ratcheted because it’s unclear whether he’ll finish bully boy off or spare him as he begs for his life.

Night becomes Halloween in Haddonfield. Mom goes off to work and Michael murders step dad, sister and her beau. He spares the baby.

Loomis has now been appointed by Judge Masterson

to oversee Myers’ care while incarcerated here

at Smith Grove (sanatorium).” – TV bulletin

Loomis’ tape recording equipment looks like it was dug up from a 1950s time capsule. I suppose if that’s what the director wants. Michael still likes his masks but is becoming more withdrawn. One day he stabs a nurse in the neck with a fork. She doesn’t survive (despite this Loomis is kept on the case for the next 15 years). Mom is so distraught she shoots her own head off.

If it aint broke don’t try to fix it – DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

15 years later and Michael still wears his hand made paper masks. Only now he’s grown into a hulk with his long greasy hair over his face. He looks like a WWE creation. Dr Loomis retires to flog his book on the lecture circuit. This is the single innovation Zombies infuses in his script but he doesn’t develop it mores the pity.

In 1978 Michael was already loose when he hijacked Nurse Marion’s vehicle. This worked in terms of story dynamics because how do you escape from a high security nuthouse? Rob Zombie’s ‘reimagining’ of this scene showcases the best part of his writing. Unfortunately it also showcases the worst.

The white trash family, the bullies in the boys room and the redneck janitors at Smith Grove are the best verbal scenes. The dialogue is dynamic and the characters interact with each other. The janitors especially are write constructed characters. The actors have chemistry and their exchanges are crisp and funny.

Inexplicably they assault a giant thereby committing suicide and allowing his escape.

Up until this point the film does have a momentum of its own. The material is original though predictable – it’s straight to video fare. There is neither subtlety nor mythology. Then it goes downhill from there.

There is a continuity logic problem. A janitor arrives in the morning to discover a slew of corpses. Michael kills him and escapes. It’s not until night time when Dr Loomis receives a call with the cops all over Smith Grove like they just arrived.

However there is another good scene. Why does Michael wear a jumpsuit? It’s incidental. In ’78 he killed a Phelps mechanic (off screen) for his clothes. In ’07 he kills Joe Grisly – another blue collar loudmouth - in full view. Clearly Zombie has a talent for working class speech and straight forward action. Horror and the middle classes are not his forte.

The next scene is of Haddonfield on Halloween day. The musical cue is Pat Ballard’s Mr Sandman - a nod to Halloween 2 (and H20). In 2007 the town has lost its sheen. Zombie shoots in brighter lighting and to his credit Haddonfield, Illinois is not green in the fall it’s bronze. To his detriment the Strodes interact like a sitcom family whilst making jokes about child molestation.

This all new Laurie is hip and glam. She and her friends talk like they’re auditioning for The Hills. Perhaps this is how American teens communicate with each other in the same way the mafia learnt how to dress by watching The Godfather. However these kids don’t just speak to each other, their speech is sing-song to each other. Is anyone reading this from Illinois? Did Mr Zombie capture the Mid Western teen?

Cue cell phone not working. Though in this case I think it’s a wink. The killing starts at night and there’s another 40 minutes to go in this 110 minute movie.

Zombie changes made are Michael killing Loomis and Laurie killing Michael. Why the changes? Malcolm McDowell is no Donald Pleasance. He is not earnest, he is not anxious, he is not frightened. Brad Dourif plays the sheriff but he should have played Loomis because McDowell plays him as a creep. This is not the kind of man to save the Final Girl. So Michael kills him.

Another notable change is the absence of the supernatural. In ’78 when Jamie Lee Curtis asks “Was that the boogieman?” no one laughed. In 2007 the politically correct Laurie Strode blows his monster head off (off camera).

Girl Power.

Don’t expect big things from the Laurie Strode 2007 actress. She’s dull, line-reciting, anonymous. The only lead to carry his weight is Daeg Faerch, the 10 year old Michael Myers. He stands out in this film but he aint Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

Halloween 2007 was shot in Super 35 with no depth or width. You could watch it on your ipod and it wouldn’t make a difference. As bad as Rob Zombie’s film is it won’t hurt the original. Halloween 1978 is firmly in the public consciousness, score and all. It will continue to be shown on TV worldwide in glorious Panavision. Zombie’s film did however score at the box office and the bottom line is a green light. It’s such a shame John Carpenter hasn’t made a good film in 23 years.

For fans of the franchise the Halloween 2 remake is released 28th August in America with no set date in the UK. With all due respect to films 3 and 4 if it hasn’t got Jamie Lee Curtis as lead then it may as well be directed by Rob Zombie.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Drag Me To Hell

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