Sunday, November 4, 2012

Compare and Contrast: Halloween (1978 & 2007)

The Movie (1978): Haddonfield Illinois, Halloween night, 1963; six year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) inexplicably grabs a kitchen knife and stabs his teenage sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson), to death with it. Fifteen years later, the night before Halloween, Doctor Sam Loomis (the late Donald Pleasence) is driving to the hospital for the criminally insane to prepare Michael (now played alternately by Tony Moran and Nick Castle) for a court hearing. It’s clear that the good doctor doesn’t even consider Michael human; and as he explains to the nurse with him, he’s only doing this because it’s the law. If he had his way, Michael would remain behind bars with no chance of release.

Unfortunately, things are worse than he fears. When they arrive, they notice that some of the patients are out and wandering the grounds. Michael happens to be one of them, and in the confusion he steals the car and drives off. Knowing where Michael is headed, Dr. Loomis gets to Haddonfield as fast as he can; where he simultaneously works to find his runaway patient and convince the sheriff (Charles Cyphers) what kind of danger his town is in.

Meanwhile, teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first movie role) is preparing for her Halloween night babysitting gig. Unknown to her, Laurie has caught the attention of Michael Myers, who for unknown reasons fixates on her. All day Laurie notices that someone seems to be following her. However, it’s when the sun goes down that Michael will truly begin his rampage. Can Laurie survive the night?

The Movie (2007): Ten year-old Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) has a hellish home life. He loves his mother (Sherri Moon Zombie), but she works as a stripper to hold the rest of the family together. Her live-in boyfriend, Ronnie (William Forsyth) is a bullying asshole, and Michael is picked on mercilessly at school. Already unstable at our introduction to him, Michael goes on a rampage; killing Ronnie, as well as his older sister, Judith (Hannah R. Hall) and her boyfriend (Adam Weisman). Michael is sent to a facility; but despite the efforts of psychiatrist Doctor Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, who appeared on this blog earlier in Royal Flash and Class of 1999), he only grows worse, retreating inside himself, killing a nurse and becoming obsessed with masks.

Fifteen years later, Michael escapes and heads back to his home town. Dr. Loomis heads after him and tries to enlist Sheriff Brackett’s (Brad Dourif) help. Meanwhile, Michael begins his rampage. You see, Michael has a very specific goal in mind; aside from killing everyone he comes across, I mean. Unknown to her, teenaged Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) is actually Michael’s long lost baby sister. He is determined to find her; and gods help whoever gets in his way.

Compare and Contrast:

Happy Halloween, Samhain, All Souls Eve, or whatever holiday it is that you celebrate! Halloween is my favorite holiday; and this review is my own small way of recognizing it. Also, I feel I should probably point out that this is my 69th posting on this blog. Feel free to cut loose with the immature jokes; I know I will.

I never thought I’d be reviewing Halloween on this blog. This isn’t a knock against the movie; I’m fully with the large number of people who consider it a genre classic. My one criterion for the movies I review for this blog is that I have to feel that I have something legitimate to say about the movie in question, and that I’m not just parroting an observation or opinion that many others have made. Halloween came out a few years before I was born, and I didn’t get around to seeing it until late adolescence. During that time it was embraced as a classic by just about everyone, including some critics who normally wouldn’t piss on a horror or slasher flick if it was on fire. Considering that, and just how simple and basic a movie Halloween is, there is no way I am able to add anything original to the discussion.

Then a few years back, the musician Rob Zombie decided to film his own version of Halloween, and this provided the opportunity for me to approach the first film by comparing and contrasting it with its remake. I still don’t expect to produce anything truly original; but I hope to at least come up with something that doesn’t feel like it’s been premasticated by hundreds of individuals before me.

If I had to sum up Zombie’s remake in one word, that word would be ‘unfortunate.’ Said remake already had several strikes against it coming out of the gate. First of all, Halloween may have its flaws in parts, but ultimately the whole stands so well on its own merits that there’s no need for a remake. Secondly, even if you dispute my first reason, there’s really nothing to base a remake on. Halloween is such a simple, basic and bare-bones movie that there’s very little, if any, of it to remake. On top of that is the fact that when Friday the 13th (whose main inspiration, I might add, was Halloween) came out in 1980 and opened the door to that decade’s slasher boom, the subgenre it spawned pretty much strip-mined Halloween of whatever elements there might have been for a remake.

The end result is something I’ve seen in so many other unnecessary remakes; the director has one movie in mind that he wants to make, but considering that he’s remaking another film, he feels that he has to take a certain amount of plot detail out of the original material. The outcome is a bloated, schizophrenic merging of two different movies that can’t ever decide what it ultimately wants to be, and is constantly pulling itself in two very different directions at once. Now, lest anyone thinks this review is going to degenerate into Rob Zombie bashing; let me state for the record that I think Zombie has some real talent and promise as a director, he just hasn’t come into his own yet. Also, and I am not the first person to make this observation, he really needs to start shooting his own movies instead of just remaking his old favorites.

The place to start comparing Halloween with its remake is in the general tone and spirit of the two movies. The original film made by John Carpenter is, at its core, a classic campfire story played out on screen. It is a very simple, basic, bare-bones story with a single purpose. As such, it doesn’t have much in the way of character development or complex plot twists; but that’s not a problem. After all; you don’t tell a campfire ghost story for great character development, you tell it to scare the living hell out of your friends.

As for the movie’s world and the nature of its horror, Halloween is very much in the ‘outside evil invades the normal’ brand of horror. There is a place in this world for the horrors, which we will discuss shortly when I talk about Michael Myers; but ultimately Haddonfield is a nice, normal community filled with ordinary people. Also, it should be noted that the horror, when it does strike, is of the very impersonal sort. The movie presents it very dispassionately, and there’s no rhyme or reason given for why it’s happening; which is a large part of why it’s so effectively scary.

Whereas the original film is in the spirit of a classic campfire scary story, the remake is very much in the spirit of the glut of slashers Halloween helped spawn in the following decade, as well as the nihilistically brutal exploitation films of its own decade. Something I’ve noticed about Zombie’s movies is his tendency to wallow in gore, nudity and violence. Notice how in the original there is only the tiniest bit of nudity and nary a drop of blood, even in the scenes that should call for rivers of the stuff.

What’s more, Zombie revels in the carnage and brutality on screen. As opposed to Carpenter’s straightforward and dispassionate depictions of violence, Zombie piles it on and drags it out. To a certain extent, the violence and brutality is an intrinsic part of the world that Zombie creates. Related to this is his propensity to populate it with unlikeable characters. Now, I can understand the reasoning behind this; considering his celebratory attitude toward the carnage, it’s not fun to watch characters we like get slaughtered. However, I’ve noticed that the few truly likeable characters Zombie provides us with get eliminated so brutally and efficiently that the most hardnosed social-Darwinist would thoroughly approve. The end result is a world where you have to wonder why there aren’t more Michael Myers types rampaging about.

Carpenter’s Michael Myers is a total enigma; we are given no reason why he acts the way he does. The opening scene of the death of Judith Myers is shown to us entirely through a tracking shot from his point of view; and it is presented to us as a shock, a successful one, that the brutal crime we just witnessed was committed by a six year-old. When he goes on the spree that the movie centers around, his actions are no less cryptic. The only thing Laurie does for him to become so fixated on her is to walk onto the steps of his old house (which, unknown to her, he is hiding in) to put a key under the doorstep. There’s no indication of any emotion when he commits his crimes. Anger, revenge, even a love of cruelty; these are motives we all can identify with on some level. However, the completely emotionless way in which we see Michael kill; that’s alien. Even Doctor Loomis, the psychiatrist who worked Michael all his life can only describe him as “evil.”

And yet there are a few hints to Michael’s nature in some of the dialogue. “It was the boogeyman,” sobs Laurie to Doctor Loomis, who solemnly answers “as a matter of fact, it was.” “Every town has something like this,” the cemetery caretaker tells Doctor Loomis as he takes him to see Judith’s grave. Considering the nature of the story being told the characters work more as archetypes than people. And in that light Michael comes across, not as just one more pissed-off movie psycho, but as a kind of avatar for all the horrible things that are always going on just below the surface, but that society as a whole prefers not to acknowledge. The randomness and nonsensical nature of his actions, his lack of emotion, his seeming inability to be killed; all of it speaks to our subconscious fear of events we can’t understand or control. The blank mask he wears is actually his true nature on display; and it’s significant that Michael never kills unless he’s wearing it.

The Michael Myers of the remake is very different. When we are introduced to the ten year-old who becomes the movie’s villain, he’s already a broken human being and a ticking time-bomb ready to go off any moment. He loves his mother, but she constantly has to work; and the nature of her job ensures he gets a lot of scorn and harassment. Her live-in boyfriend is a useless bum and a cruel asshole who’s always tormenting and insulting Michael. Judith Myers fits every stereotype of the catty teenage slut. Even school isn’t an escape, because there the bullies wait for him. This Michael Myers is a natural offshoot of the kind of toxic world Rob Zombie creates that I discussed earlier. After the briefest of looks at his home life the question isn’t why Michael goes off the way he does, the question is why it took him this long.

Admittedly, some character development could have made for an interesting killer. Unfortunately, Zombie hasn’t quite gotten character development down. Ultimately, this Michael Myers is very much in the Jason Voorhies mold; a seemingly unstoppable killer who, for no good reason, randomly slaughters every single person within ten feet of him. Even the original Michael Myers didn’t try to kill everyone who caught his eye.

Laurie Strode, more than Dr. Loomis, or even Michael Myers himself, is the focus of the original’s story. There are some other characters, and some events that don’t directly involve her; but Halloween is primarily the story about her encounter with Michael Myers and how she deals with it. The result of this is that Laurie is the character who we get to know the most, and who is the most developed.

The Laurie Strode of the original is probably one of the most positive and convincing depictions of a teenager I have ever seen in popular media. She is intelligent, good natured, dependent, competent and responsible. In fact, the movie puts as much effort toward establishing these traits as it does the threat Michael Myers poses. Laurie is exactly the kind of babysitter you would want for your kids; and, judging from the scenes of her interacting with her charges, exactly the kind of babysitter most kids would want to have.

However, Laurie is a far cry from the unbearable, squeaky-clean ‘good girl’ caricature Hollywood has led us to expect. There is one scene where she shares a joint with a friend. Also, it’s made clear through her dialogue that she does think about boys and sex; she’s just too shy to do anything about it. Ultimately, Laurie comes across as a character nearly all of us could believe in, identify with, sympathize with, and enjoy associating with.

In fact, one of the movie’s better touches is that these same traits that make us want Laurie to survive are the exact things that allow her to do just that. The intelligence, competence and responsibility she displays earlier are what allow her to keep her head and do what’s necessary; even when she’s going through hell and freaking out. However, the emphasis on these traits does produce one of the movie’s major missteps; specifically in regard to her friends. While it’s clear that Laurie’s friends are supposed to present a contrast to her responsible nature, the end result is one-dimensional, sex-crazed caricatures of teenagers of the kind we normally see in slasher movies. Since Laurie is the focus of the movie it’s not as big a mistake as it could be, but it’s still noticeable.

The Laurie of Zombie’s remake is a much inferior character. Compton is cute, and she does every bit as well as could be asked of her with the available material, but I can’t think of her as Laurie Strode. Now, I have no problems with the actress, I could see Compton as a decent Laurie; my problem is with the script she was given. Part of the problem comes from the fact that we aren’t able to get to know her as well; the emphasis on misguided character development for Michael and Dr. Loomis insures that she gets sidelined.

The other problem is that this isn’t a very believable or sympathetic portrayal of a teenager, maybe a step or two above Laurie’s friends in the original Halloween. Zombie’s version of Laurie Strode isn’t too different from the catty, smart-assed, shallow teenage bimbos that are so prevalent in popular culture today. Perhaps the biggest misstep is in her interactions with the children she babysits. Instead of the easy rapport Curtis’ Laurie has with her charges, Compton’s interactions with them have a note of mild antagonism. I do understand babysitter burnout, all too well, but it detracts from making her a likeable character. You do feel sympathy for Compton’s Laurie Strode; considering what she goes through that’s inevitable if you have a heart at all. However, you feel no more for her than you would for any teenager in her situation.

The character of Pleasence’s Doctor Loomis, like the rest of the original move, is extremely simple; more archetype than flesh and blood human. All we are told about his past is that he is the psychiatrist who worked with Michael Myers for the last fifteen years. However, for the purpose of the story that’s all we really need to know.

In essence, Dr. Loomis is obsessive, fanatical devotion to a cause. His one and only motivation is to stop Michael from doing harm. Pleasence was a very talented actor with an extremely long list of film roles under his belt by this time, which shows in just how well he is able to believably sell this one-note character.

McDowell’s Dr. Loomis is very different. This is a man who has pretty much based his whole life on working with Michael Myers, and has lost everything else as a result. Watching him, I got the impression that this Loomis didn’t wasn’t trying to stop Michael out of any sense of duty, but because there was really nothing else left for him. Again, this could have made for some intriguing twists; and McDowell is a very talented and experienced actor. Unfortunately, this is another potentially good idea that falls to Zombie’s lack of talent in creating characters.

So in the end, the original Halloween is a true genre classic. It is a simple, bare-bones campfire scary story very effectively played on screen. The remake is yet one more in an unneeded line of remakes; a bloated and schizophrenic attempt to mix two very different movie concepts. Rob Zombie shows some talent as a director; but please Rob, try to make something original.