When RKO dumped Orson Welles after “Citizen Kane” flopped, the studio announced that from then on it would be marked by “Showmanship Instead of Genius.” With Rob Zombie’s bloody but boring retooling of John Carpenter’s classic, the advertising might just read “Gore Instead of Brains,” and leave it at that.
Carpenter’s 1978 flick started the whole modern cycle of teen slasher movies, but it can’t be held culpable for that. On its own it’s a skillfully made—and remarkably subtle—horror picture, cannily rejecting graphic bloodletting while generating genuine suspense and an occasional great shock. It also had the good sense to keep the reasons for Michael Myers’ mayhem unstated, leaving the masked villain an enigmatically malevolent presence—“The Shape,” as he was sometimes billed. The coarse, clumsy sequels cheapened the franchise but didn’t dim the quality of the first movie.
Now the fellow who showed the approach that interests him in the appalling “House of 1,000 Corpses” and the cunning but deplorable “Devil’s Rejects” has chosen to remake “Halloween” in the image of his previous movies, insofar as the cut-and-slash, slice-and-dice stuff is concerned. (He’s especially big on victims crawling away from their killer after he’s begun carving them up. Those scenes are interminable.)
But he’s also made the same mistake that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” did, in trying to explain its iconic killer. So instead of Carpenter’s brief, nearly wordless prologue in which little Michael, a typical middle-class kid with a typical middle-class family, without warning slashes his big sister to death, Zombie offers a full half-hour of dysfunctional-family histrionics, with the ten-year old tyke (Daeg Faerch) stuck in a dump of a house with a slutty mother (Sheri Moon-Zombie), an alcoholic stepfather (William Forsythe) and an older sister (Hanna Hall) who torments him. And like Leatherface in the latest “Massacre,” he’s teased and bullied by his classmates, too. It’s no wonder he’s begun to torture animals; the discovery brings him even more mistreatment, and sends him on a Halloween murder spree, leaving only his mother and younger sister alive, though mom soon offs herself in shame.
And that’s not all: we’re then saddled with still more exposition as little Michael is treated—none too successfully—by shrink Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, standing in for the late, great Donald Pleasence and not nearly as adept at spouting nutty lines about “pure evil”), who watches in dismay as the lad grows into a mute monster and, after more than fifteen years in the booby hatch, escapes confinement during an ill-advised transfer attempt, leaving the hospital replete with bloody corpses. After laying waste to a truck wash along the way, he winds up back in his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he targets his surviving sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her pals, Annie (Danielle Harris) the sheriff’s daughter and hottie Lynda (Kristina Klebe), along with their boyfriends and pretty much anybody else who crosses his path.
In its basic outline this section of the picture follows the original pretty closely, but adds plenty of guts and red sauce to the mix in the modern style, as well as some poorly contrived twists and tweaks (like a brainless final confrontation between brother and sister). Where Carpenter employed elegant, slyly revealing widecreen compositions to unnerve us, Zombie offers jerky, claustrophobic camerawork (by Phil Parmet) that can barely be called workmanlike; and while the first “Halloween” was edited down to a taut ninety minutes, this one lumbers on for nearly two hours, growing more and more tedious along the way. The inferior nature of this new version is clearest in the occasional moments when Zombie actually apes shots from the original, in the process highlighting the difference between a talented filmmaker and a hack wannabe. The only element that works is Tyler Bates’s score, which wisely recycles Carpenter’s effectively repetitive themes.
As for the acting, just as McDowell pales beside Pleasence, so does Taylor-Compton come off as eminently forgettable in comparison to Jamie Lee Curtis; and none of the other teens approach their predecessors either. Faerch and later Tyler Mane turn Michael into a dull boy by trying to humanize him even as he goes about his bloody business. In a vain effort to give the movie some panache, Zombie has cast a small army of Ghosts of Horror Movies Past in small (sometimes infinitesimal) parts. The most notable are Forsythe as the brutal stepdad and Brad Dourif, whose mere presence in a shocker seems to be the kiss of death, as Annie’s dad; but there are numerous others (Danny Trejo, Udo Kier, Sid Haig, Dee Wallace Stone). They might make for an impromptu “Where’s Waldo” sort of game, but otherwise add little to the mix.
After “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Omen,” “The Hitcher” and numerous others, Zombie’s “Halloween” is just the latest misguided attempt to recycle an old horror classic, replacing suspense and a sense of mystery with splatter movie cliché and heavy-handed backstory. And given the quality of Carpenter’s original, it’s certainly one of the saddest and least necessary.