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Entries in Halloween 2 [2009] (1)

Saturday
Aug292009

Halloween 2 (2009)

Shape, Shifter

Director Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is a slasher film that hates slasher films, or at least hates the audiences that attend them. It is one of the ugliest movies I’ve seen; yet, for fans of cinema, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Those expecting easy exploitation or a cheap remake of a sequel may be disappointed by the writer/director’s giant “Fuck you” to teenyboppers and sick dementoids who get off on seeing people butchered on-screen. I was certainly challenged by the picture, and emerged from the theatre feeling as if I’d just been treated to art; art that made me want to take a shower and repent my sins.
Zombie’s 2007 re-imagining of Halloween was half Michael Myers back-story, half ill-conceived remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic—both infused with spook-rock hillbilly sensibilities. He certainly put his stamp on the material, giving Myers—a young, soulless psychopath who murders most of his family and spends his remaining years in a mental institution—a strong relationship with his attending psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcom McDowell). This portion of the movie worked well, particularly in the Director’s Cut, and was punctuated by frequent visits from Michaels’ mother (Sheri Moon Zombie); the two adults played the material with as much reality as they could, striving to counsel and nurture a cute little blonde boy that audience members know will grow up to become the Devil in a William Shatner mask. The fatal mistake of the first film was that shaky last half—when Michael, now an adult, escapes the asylum and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois to find his long-lost sister, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), and eviscerate anyone who crosses his path. These sequences felt like one, long studio exec “note”, an attempt to reign in Zombie’s vision in order to build a franchise. The heart and interest gushed out of the picture like a severed carotid artery.

Halloween 2 begins in the same way as the 1981 sequel, with the bloody aftermath of Myers’ rampage being mopped up and Laurie Strode being treated at a hospital. Thankfully, the new movie spends little time here and diverges into its own territory; in many ways it eschews the supernatural themes of the older films in favor of realism—even if it is only movie realism at times—which is what makes the rest of the picture so jarring. After a twenty-minute prologue, we get the “One Year Later” title card, and catch up with Laurie, now orphaned and living with best friend and fellow victim, Annie (Danielle Harris)—whose dad is Haddonfield’s sheriff. Laurie, once a mousy high school student, is now a party girl haunted by nightmares; Annie, the more outgoing girl in the first movie, clings to quiet and security after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers a year earlier. This is not new ground for horror movies, and the key to Halloween 2’s success is the fact that the survivors’ performances are taken seriously: Laurie doesn’t just put on black lipstick, drink and sulk to show that she’s damaged; she screams and cries and teeters on the edge of mental collapse in ways that are uncomfortable to watch.

Speaking of uncomfortable, how about that killing spree? After all, this is a slasher movie, and people aren’t paying good money to watch a two-hour treatise on PTSD. As I mentioned before, Rob Zombie doesn’t appear to like modern horror audiences—he goes out of his way to make each murder a drawn-out, graphic act of amoral rage. Whether someone is getting their head removed with a shard of glass, having their face pounded to hamburger with a heavy boot, or getting their brains smashed into a mirror—not to mention the multiple butcher knife stabbings—nearly every character that appears on-screen is dispatched in a visceral manner. The only reason many people attend these films is for the catharsis of the creative kill; it’s why there’s a fourth Final Destination coming out next week. Unlike other films of its ilk, Halloween 2 forces the audience to view the victims as actual victims, and not puppets at the end of some nihilistic Rube Goldberg contrivance. There are no “kills” in this movie, only murders.

In addition to the shrieking, mentally unbalanced protagonist, and the psychopath whose exploits could have been ripped from any police report, we have Dr. Loomis. His head was nearly crushed in the first movie, and that seems to have done something to his mind—or at least his motives. Malcom McDowell’s take on the character this time around couldn’t be more different than Donald Pleasance’s original role, which was that of the concerned doctor trying to warn and save a town from its own ignorance. The new Dr. Loomis is a fame-hungry cretin, who knows that Myers’ body has been missing for a year and refuses to do anything that would take him away from his book tour. Loomis takes part in an almost completely parallel tale, which I love because it illustrates another stage of post-traumatic disturbance, another coping mechanism that’s uglier and truer to the situation than the earlier films. Though no one can replace Pleasance in spirit or acting caliber, his Boy Scout routine always struck me as one-note—in the later sequels, it devolved into sickly parody. Many of McDowell's scenes are meant to parody the antics of TV shrinks and self-help gurus, but the actor plays the conflict in his face so brilliantly that the guilt can't help but show through the smarm.

I don’t want to make Halloween 2 out to be a perfect, revolutionary horror movie. It’s not. There are plenty of obvious “I’ll be right back” moments and killer-coming-at-ya scenes that have absolutely no suspenseful impact; not to mention the stock idiots who should know better than to do some of the things they do. But Rob Zombie incorporates these ridiculous genre tropes into his movie in a way that lets the audience know that he knows he’s making a slasher flick; just as you wouldn’t score a Benny Hill skit without a slide whistle, you don’t write a masked-killer movie without a kids-making-out-in-a-van/cabin/pool scene. Fortunately, Myers has been established as a shadowy drifter rather than an unstoppable killing force (known in previous incarnations as "The Shape"), which puts just subtle enough of a spin on these clichés to save them from being timewasters.

The film is also set apart by some truly haunting cinematography. Only rarely does Zombie regress to the rock-montage filler that marred his first effort, House of 1000 Corpses; instead, he peppers the movie with several surreal moments, all reflective of his characters' questionable mental states. Be it with a banquet attended by pumpkin-headed circus geeks or a vision of Michael Myers' mother walking a white horse, the movie breaks the visual narrative frequently; like Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, there are enough moments where the fantastic encroaches on the mundane that one might wonder if the main story is actually happening. But even without those elements, the compositions in this movie are grand, making moonlit woodscapes and a rain-drenched hospital parking lot look like the most important shots of the film; a less caring director may have insisted on brushing past these key bits of atmosphere.

It’s easy enough to dismiss this movie as loud, gruesome trash; but it would be wrong to do so—at least without viewing it with an open mind. Like Zombie’s 2005 masterpiece (you read that right) The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween 2 is a fantasy about rotten people hunting and killing good people. The key difference is genre—Rejects is a Western/road picture; Halloween 2 is a slasher movie. What unites them is an appreciation of the psychotic mind and the horrors that lie in real-life encounters with murderers; the Firefly family in Rejects took hostages, raped, and shot innocents indiscriminately, all the while carrying on witty family banter; in doing so, they came to represent every suburban parent’s worst nightmare: a wholly undeterred, unreasoning threat to safety. Michael Myers doesn’t speak, and in his silent, brutal acts he represents the collective fears of the modern age—the idea that we can be snuffed out cruelly and without warning by bus or by butcher knife. Zombie's take on the character shows us how horrifying that prospect can be.

I doubt the audience for this movie will get any of that—especially if there’s as much texting and talking going on as there was in my screening—but Rob Zombie has said his piece; he’s warned everyone who came out for the freak show that there’s nothing funny or amusing about watching someone bleed to death. Halloween 2 will by no means be the last slasher movie ever made, but it’s the last one we’ll ever need.