War of the Remake: Halloween(s)


I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… *evil*

— Dr. Sam Loomis

THE ORIGINAL

I’ve rather deliberately never written about Halloween because, as a horror fan, it’s the film. It didn’t actually create the slasher film, but it definitely codified the genre into what we now understand a slasher film to be. It’s the single most recognisable “horror film” of the entire genre (well, maybe The Exorcist) and it’s well-and-truly earned the right to be considered the classic it is.

It’s another case of a film that has since been robbed of a lot of value by countless sequels, imitations, derivatives, and all-out ripoffs, but it still holds a special place in my heart.

So, assuming you’ve lived under a rock for the past 40 years, here is the basic plot:

On Halloween night in the sleepy town of Haddonfield, young Judith Myers is murdered in her bedroom, which we see from the killer’s perspective. When he ventures outside, we see that it’s a 6-year-old boy, her brother Michael. Exactly 15 years later, Michael returns to Haddonfield after breaking out of a mental institution, and begins stalking teenager Laurie Strode as she babysits on Halloween, as well as her two friends Lynda and Annie, all the time pursued by his former psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis.

It was an enormous success when it first came out and solidified the popularity of slasher films (it was not, as some claim, the first slasher film, however it did solidify the genre and what it was capable of. Interestingly, John Carpenter has since stated he regrets letting the film appear to be “punishing teens who have sex” – now a staple of the genre, but unintentional in his film). It was soon followed up by a string of sequels that deteriorated in quality as they went on, and bastardised the good and golden scares of the original.

Despite being the progenitor of modern horror, the surprising thing about the first Halloween film, (which I’ll point out is still rated R18+ in Australia) is that it’s actually very light on the gore or jump scares. This is highlighted in Scream when one of the teens says, “the blood’s too pink!” – an inside-joke, given that there’s next to no blood in the film. The film is not a gorefest, nor is it an endless slew of jump-scares masquerading as tension and terror. Instead, the original plays on a perfectly calculated build-up of dread and tension, which culminates in payoffs that tap into everyone’s innate fear of the dark and/or the bogeyman.

The key to this comes to two things – firstly, and most significantly, we know nothing of Michael Myers beyond the prologue murder, and Dr. Loomis’ continuing assertions that he is pure evil incarnate. His iconic white mask serves to be creepy not only in the inherent creepiness of a blank white mask, but also because it robs him of any defining features – all we know of him is that he’s a murderer, and that Loomis is shit-scared of him – we have no face to consider, and no features that might betray any emotions to shatter the illusion of him being made of nothing but evil.

The second is the constant presence of Michael throughout the opening acts of the film – once we’re seeing things from Laurie’s point of view we notice him following her – always in the distance to the point where we-the-audience know he’s there, but also understand that Laurie’s not sure if she’s just seeing things. Significantly, in the script, he’s referred to as “The Shape” and not “Michael Myers” because he very rarely makes his presence entirely known, until it’s too late. This works well, because it means we understand Laurie’s unease throughout Halloween Night, because she’s unsettled – she’s not all-out terrified or anxious, but just a bit thrown the same way anyone is if they feel like they might be being watched.

The other success of the original is in creating believable-ish characters to kill off, in such a way that we don’t want them to be killed. Now, I say believable-ish only because this is yet another film hampered by the 70s-low-budget-acting style, although it’s less distracting here than it has been in other films. Jamie Lee Curtis is a standout as Laurie, and it’s easy to see why this movie made her career – she crafts an immensely likeable character out of Laurie, and imbues her with a genuine sense of shyness, without overdoing it – it’s perfectly believable that she would be friends with the outgoing Annie and Lynda, but also be too shy to approach the off-screen dreamboat Ben Tramer, apple of her eye.

As for Annie and Lynda – they come off as slightly annoying, but they’re also meant to be 17-year-old girls at their 17-year-old-girliest, so it works.  They aren’t horrible bitches, although they aren’t as caring as they could be and tend to slide into vapidity more often-than-not – so just like a fair majority of teenage girls. Point is – though they aren’t as sympathetic as Laurie – they’re characters we don’t want to see get killed. I can’t stress how much a difference this makes (to me, anyway) in watching a horror movie – I find it scarier to have a stake in the characters’ survival and see it get threatened, rather than seeing asshole victims being led to the slaughter – it frustrates me to no end that a vast slew of modern horror films go down the road of making everyone unlikeable.

Halloween succeeds where other horror films did not and have not since in creating a menacing threat that can’t be understood – keep in mind I’m talking of the original, and not its sequels – and Michael Myers is scary because he embodies the fear of “the thing that just might be out there in the dark, wanting to hurt me”. Other than his murderous intent, we know nothing about what motivates him, what pleasure or displeasure he takes in his murders. When he does finally kill people, it’s the moments of payoff to the long build-up of uncertainty as to what Michael might do next – his presence is the question to which the murders are the answer. Laurie is the rebuttal, and it’s in the final act of the film, where Michael makes the hardest effort to destroy her, that it comes closest to losing the plot – but after the masterfully worked sense of dread, as well as the warm-up murders of Annie and Lynda, the pursuit of Laurie is the final race, and it’s a surprising frenzy of terror, because Michael just will not quit.

And the now infamous and oft-repeated finale is the perfect culmination of the film’s factors – Michael disappears after being shot six times and falling off a balcony. What’s more, Loomis knew he would be gone, because Michael is nothing but evil, and cannot be killed.  He’s still out there, and though Laurie survives, she’s gone through hell to get there. It’s a perfect horror film, because it’s scary but smart and designed only with the terror in mind – and how best to create that for the audience. When Laurie fearfully asks, “was that the bogeyman?” Loomis is right to explain that, yes it was – he shows no humanity or reason, only the single-minded drive to kill and terrify. Michael Myers is everything we fear in the dark made real.

THE SEQUELS

The glut of sequels robbed Michael of a lot of this. Starting with the first sequels’ introduction of the sibling relationship between Laurie and Michael (thus removing his mystery and giving him a motive), the sequels (Number 3 not included) proceeded to imitate the imitators – jump-scares substituted for tension, the gore level was raised through the roof, the quality of acting plummeted and they made Dr Loomis into a bumbling, melodramatic fool.

On top of this, they also humanised Michael, albeit unintentionally. They made him do more, which robbed him of the otherworldly quality. For example, Halloween 4 ends with Michael being blown up and sunk into an old mineshaft. Halloween 5 begins with a retcon that he made it out of the mine and into a river, then floated down to a hermit’s cabin whereupon he recovered. In addition to a notion like “needing to escape” making him seem more human, we see Michael get hurt and have to heal – it robs him of the unstoppable-force aura that surrounds him in the original. The only good thing to come out of the sequels was Danielle Harris playing Jamie Lloyd. Even though it’s very distasteful to have a movie centre around the terrorising and threat-of-annihilation of an eight-year-old girl, she comes out of Halloweens 4 and 5 as a memorable character, even if she is starring in shitty, shitty movies.

In addition to the shuddering inferiority of parts 4 and 5, as well as the non-plot-following Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (John Carpenter envisaged the series becoming a sort of anthology saga, with new chapters covering new Halloween-centric stories – only for the first effort to be pretty underwhelming) we were treated to Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers which tried to explain Michael’s motives and superhuman abilities as a supernatural force that required him to murder his entire bloodline to save the world. Halloween: H20 ignored everything after the first sequel, and picked up with Laurie living a new life under an alias, only to be suddenly set-upon by Michael again, with the added complication of Michael coming after her son. H20 is probably the best of the sequels, but it’s still terrible – though not as bad as Halloween: Resurrection which is not only yet another shoddy sequel, but unceremoniously kills off Laurie – an absolute affront to the legacy of her character created in the original.

Halloween 9 was inevitably greenlit, and I remember Empire Australia’s scathing little diatribe in their horror issue:

“This has a cast of Oscar winners: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Sir Ian McKellan. The script is by David Mamet, while Aussie John Seale will contribute his widescreen compositions. Hans Zimmer is set to rework John Carpenter’s scary theme. Nah, just kidding. The only thing we know about this is that a website competition winner got to be an extra.”

— Empire, April 2004. Issue 38 pg 67.

That attitude encapsulates the lack of anticipation anybody really had for the project, but given that Halloween was still a money-maker, the 9th film was instead reworked to be a remake. Or rather, a “reimagining” – helmed by Rob Zombie.

THE REMAKE

Now, I’m aware that Rob Zombie has a certain audience as a filmmaker, and that I’m not a part of it. House of 1000 Corpses was a bizarre and hallucinogenic film, and I can see why it has a certain fan base, but I just didn’t enjoy it. The Devil’s Rejects was marginally better – and dare I say it, served well by being a bit more traditional, but again – just not the film for me.

So, some people may have thought it was a good decision to give him the job of updating Halloween but I was not one of them. And there is one huge, unavoidable and undeniably weak decision the film makes – well, there are many, but this stands out as the biggest.

Credit where credit is due, Zombie used the “reimagining” moniker to genuinely reimagine the movie – by not actually picking the plot of Carpenter’s original until 52 minutes into the film.

Instead, the first half of the movie is spent with Michael as a child, in an abusive household – everyone is horrible to him, save for his mother and baby sister. At school he is picked on, and when some bullies make lewd comments about his mother – who is a stripper – he starts a fight. When a teacher breaks it up, and young Michael mistakes his sympathy as patronising, he insults said teacher and gets hauled into the principal’s office. Mother Myers comes down to the school, and we learn that she’s supportive of Michael (although as one of those parents who would blame a teacher for their child’s bad grades, rather than the child’s lack of effort) but that she also doesn’t understand him. She is, however, outraged when the school suggests Michael sees a child psychologist – enter a miscast Malcolm McDowell as Sam Loomis.

After Young Michael kills the bullies who he fought earlier, and then kills his abusive step-father and horrible-bitch of a sister, he is institutionalised. Here, he becomes more and more withdrawn, eventually becoming a mute and hiding behind his self-made masks. His mother kills herself eventually, and Sam Loomis – getting nowhere with his patient – ends his treatments, leaving Michael abandoned and alone, though not before he kills a nurse at the institution.

This seems a logical point to time-skip towards the original plotline, but of course, in the modern climate of hateable characters filling horror movies, we’re treated to scenes of Michael’s mistreatment at the hands of two hillbilly orderlies who are ushered into the film to provide some arseholes to kill. In reality, their behaviour would be discovered and reported, but we apparently need something to look forward to, and in this case that’s apparently their deaths.

There is one nice guy, an elderly orderly (a phrase that’s fun to say 5 times fast) played by Danny Trejo who is kind and respectful to Michael, trying to get him to retain his humanity.

Michael escapes one night, after the hillbilly orderlies bring another patient into his room, so that they can rape her. This is a truly horrible scene, but not in the sense of horror movie horrible – it’s completely unnecessary to the story to have the girl raped, and it’s the pinnacle of exploiting the tropes of a horror movie. The orderlies are already established as truly reprehensible characters – they could just have easily been in his room to taunt and abuse him – but Zombie could fit a rape scene in, so why not?

Michael escapes the institution, but not before killing Danny Trejo’s orderly, which is a genuinely effective scene in establishing the indiscriminate nature in which Michael kills.

Finally – an hour in – we arrive in Haddonfield with Laurie, this time played by Scout Taylor-Compton. The film then very quickly hashes over the plot of the first, only with no intelligence, no tension, and no blood. Laurie has been “reimagined” as an utter brat – although depressingly believable as a 17-year-old girl in the noughties, but, frustratingly, there are points where I like her as a character. They only last a mere manner of seconds, but they do diffuse just how unlikeable she is. Danielle Harris returns to the franchise, this time playing Annie Brackett, as the inverse of the likeability scale, by which I mean she’s a largely likeable character with moments that I didn’t at all. She’s also a more likeable Annie than in the original. On the other hand, when Kristin Klebe’s Lynda arrived on screen, I couldn’t wait for her to die.

Now, whereas the girls in the original were likeable-if-a-little-airheaded, these girls are just awful. They’re entirely and completely vapid, although Annie somehow comes through looking decent enough. This not only due to the horrible writing of the new incarnations, but the complete lack of time the film allows to develop them as characters – wasting an hour on back-story robs any chance to let the characters serve as anything other than functions and landmarks, carried over from the original.

Suffice it to say, the remake, once it’s covering the original plot, offers little that’s new. Laurie’s parents get a bit more insight, and they’re the most likeable characters in the film, so their deaths are quite effective. Annie also survives to appear in the sequel, and this film incorporates the misguided notion of Michael being Laurie’s brother from the get-go. The film has an odd quiet moment where Michael, still mute, removes his mask and shows Laurie a photo of the two of them as children – Laurie, terrified as he’s killed her friends uses this time to try and get the upper hand, which reignites the killer within him. Laurie eventually shoots him in the face at the end, leaving her blood-soaked and screaming as the credits roll.

WHY DOESN’T IT WORK?

The film’s biggest problem is trying to give Michael Myers a back-story, which absolutely destroys the danger that came from having such an enigmatic, unknowable villain. In the original, we know nothing about who Michael is or why he’s killing. All we have to go on is Loomis’ quote at the top of this review – that Michael Myers is nothing but pure, 100% evil. In the remake, Michael had a crappy childhood. It’s an admittedly crappy one, but the film also makes another flaw here – Michael is already showing psychotic tendencies at the start of the film – he’s already killing animals and retreating behind masks. True, a cheap psychological reading of this would suggest that he’s responding to the harsh home life, but all in all it’s a pretty crappy motivator for one of the most evil and iconic horror villains of all time. It just doesn’t suffice that ultimately, Michael’s actions come down to a Freudian excuse. It also doesn’t help that Daeg Faerch’s performance as the younger Michael Myers is less than amazing and slips into one-note very quickly.

I don’t like the back story element of Michael Myers at all, but if it had to be done, I think it would have been best to start it with the grown Michael in the institution, already mute and showing his penchant for masks. It still keeps a sense of mystery about him, without completely oversimplifying his origin story. Showing him as a child at all instantly robs him of some of the inherent terror, because we shouldn’t be picturing Michael Myers as anything other than the fully-formed evil adult he is. Now, I know that sounds like I’m forgetting the opening of the original, but there the movie time-skipped to his adult years – the Zombie version of Halloween spends literally half of its running time with young Michael, and it’s all the more underwhelming because of it.

The thing that the original did best, other than creating such a force out of Michael Myers, was to capture a sleepy little town that would be rocked to its core by the proceedings. There’s a certain innocent quality to the original, without it being parochial, that makes you feel as though it’s a very real place. The characters of the original are, by and large, nice people, and you don’t want to see them get hurt. This is completely lost in the remake, where we spend an hour on a story we didn’t need and don’t care about, and then an hour on another story that we just can’t get involved in – or care about. Zombie’s film is a mish-mash of ideas that doesn’t work as a cohesive whole, and there’s no sense of immersion in the story. It also doesn’t help that the first section of the film seems like one big excuse to give his wife an acting role.

Also, the characters are all terrible. Malcolm McDowell’s Sam Loomis is just bizarre and completely dissonant with the tone of the film – imagine a man shouting every line with his eyes held wide open as though he was in a pantomime, and you’re somewhere close to the mark. Danielle Harris as Annie comes off best, although like her performances as Jamie Lloyd, she’s the best thing about a shitty film. And even though I did like Annie, one can’t help but feel this is largely serving as a project for Harris to be able to say, “Hey everyone! I’m not a child actor anymore!” She’s also much better served in Zombie’s sequel, where she’s literally the only thing to like about it. But fuck that movie. Also, the three girls are such idiots – they literally do not talk about anything other than sex, or the boys they’re going to have sex with. Zombie seems to think that the only thing teenage girls have to count as personality is the frankness with which they talk about sex. It gets very old very quickly. And that becomes even worse in the sequel, where their dialogue is the reason I wanted them all to die. But FUCK that movie, seriously.

Other than Annie Brackett, there is one thing that this movie does incredibly well. After Nick Castle in the original, Tyler Mane probably portrays the best Michael Myers of any of the films. It’s harmed a lot by the introductory origin-story, and he’s still no scratch on the original, but Mane’s Myers is a huge, hulking physical presence on the screen, and this alone is the sole source of threat in the movie. It also provides us with the occasional awesome shot like the one below:

Beyond that, I don’t think there’s too much more to say…Zombie’s film is an utter mess, but I can appreciate that some small amount of thought and effort went into it. Any remake of Halloween would struggle to even approach topping the original, so it’s no surprise that it’s not a great movie, but it still falls well short of the mark. Also, that rape scene is unforgivable.

The original was, and still is, one of my absolute favourite and cherished horror films. There’s so much to love in it, and it’s definitely the best of any of the Halloween films. It’s a shame it wasn’t remade with the same kind of intelligence as it was created in the first place, but if you’re a fan of the original, avoid the remake like the plague.

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