Revisiting Rob Zombie’s Halloween Films

Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween and its sequel have long been maligned by both audiences and critics. But do they deserve the hate they get?

Rob Zombie is a polarizing filmmaker. In fact, with the notable exception of the fairly well-received The Devil’s Rejects (2005), the metal vocalist/horror director’s films have routinely been torn to shreds by the vast majority of critics. As such, giving him the reins to a remake of one of the most seminal horror films of all time was a risky move that was bound to prove controversial. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is a masterpiece in the eyes of many, myself included, so a remake would have been decried as sacrilege on principle alone. So naturally, Halloween (2007) was bound to be a contentious film irrespective of who was behind the director’s chair. This, coupled with a director whose stylistic flourishes and sensibilities are offputting to many, has ensured that the film has regularly been on the receiving end of backlash from casual audiences, critics and hardcore fans of the Halloween franchise for years, despite being a box office success. Its sequel, Halloween II (2009), fared even worse, with some even declaring it Rob Zombie’s worst film as well as one of the worst in the franchise as a whole. With that said, I believe that the films at the very least ought to be engaged with on their own merit due to the amount of conscious effort Zombie clearly made in making them a wholly distinct take on Halloween, both on a narrative and formal level.

Rob Zombie’s films are characterized by a number of shared attributes. They commonly feature crass, expletive-laden dialogue, unflinching depictions of extreme violence, characters who can be best described as rednecks or “white trash”, carnivalesque imagery and dilapidated interiors. He’s also a director who clearly wears his influences on his sleeve, with him often drawing from early 70s exploitation films like I Drink Your Blood (1970), The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975). The fact that he was attached to a remake of Halloween is particularly odd for this reason. John Carpenter’s original film was largely successful because of how tidy, efficient and subdued it was. Its impact came from a sense of dread that hangs over almost every frame while the onscreen murders were all quick and quiet. Rob Zombie’s full-on, maximalist approach to horror, with its reliance on drawn out sequences of blood-drenched brutality and flair for the theatrical, seems heavily at odds with the core conceit of the original. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with Rob Zombie’s version. Its status as a remake is what holds it back and prevents it from being as cohesive as it would have otherwise been.

The first half of the film is entirely comprised of original material. It’s also arguably the most controversial portion of the film, since it provides a backstory for series antagonist Michael Myers, completely demystifying him. Part of what made him so chilling in the original film was that the film was scant with the information and details it gave the audience about him. He killed his sister as a child, was institutionalized and escaped as an adult. That’s all the information audiences were given about him, and that’s all they needed to know. He killed without rhyme or reason, making him feel more like a force of nature than a man. Rob Zombie’s film entirely eschews this approach, placing a great deal of emphasis on Myers’ humanity and psychology.

While this was anathema to many fans of the original, I felt that this was effective within the context of Zombie’s film. The Myers he creates is legitimately quite effective. He’s clearly disturbed and has violent tendencies, but is still a young boy nonetheless. He gets excited to go trick-or-treating, listens to rock music and loves his mother. The film therefore makes it clear that, under the right circumstances, he could have gotten the help he desperately needed, which may have helped him keep his darker impulses in check. Unfortunately, however, Michael wasn’t born into the right circumstances. He lives in a dysfunctional home with parental figures who appear more concerned with tearing into one another than raising him. His unemployed step-father is violent and verbally abusive, regularly pelting Michael with homophobic slurs due to his feminine appearance. His mother works as a stripper in order to make ends meet, a fact for which Michael is relentlessly bullied at school. The constant abuse and violence Michael is subjected to as a result of all of this therefore clearly exacerbates his violent tendencies. This culminates in the brutal murder of his step-father, his older sister as well as her boyfriend. While I do prefer the “less is more” approach of Carpenter’s version, this is nevertheless executed in a way that plays to Rob Zombie’s strengths as a director.

These strengths are even more strongly exemplified during scenes in which Michael is institutionalized, as the always reliable Malcolm MacDowell delivers a terrific performance as Michael’s psychologist and later nemesis Dr. Sam Loomis, while effectively and poignantly depicting the emotional and mental toll having to deal with a patient as elusive, unpredictable and violent as Michael takes on him. It also sees the film’s most brutal and shocking instances of bloodletting, as Michael’s escape sees him dispatching one of the few orderlies who showed him real kindness, played with warmth and sincerity by Danny Trejo, without a hint of hesitation or remorse. The first hour of the film functions as a solid character study in which Zombie effectively showcases his knack for creating visceral shocks and believably crafting unstable, amoral characters.

However, the second half of the film sees it take a sharp decline in quality. This is where the film begins to function in earnest as a retelling of the original 1978 masterwork’s story as Michael returns to his hometown of Haddonfield on a seemingly random, violent killing spree. As stated earlier, the original Halloween worked as brilliantly as it did because of its simplicity and straightforwardness, as well as the virtuosity with which its premise is executed. Rob Zombie’s approach doesn’t gel particularly well with this and, as such, attempts to recreate iconic story beats and scenes with Zombie’s signature sledgehammer approach fall flat. It feels misguided, though there are still elements that are worth commending nevertheless.

The film actively works to make its take on Laurie Strode, the protagonist, as distinct from her 1978 counterpart as possible. The original’s Laurie, played by a very young Jamie-Lee Curtis, is mature for her age. She’s incredibly responsible for a 17-year-old, and naturally slides into her role as a caregiver when tasked with babysitting her 10-year-old neighbour, Tommy Doyle, to the extent that she comes across as maternal. The remake’s take on Laurie, this time played by Scout-Taylor Compton, is loud, brash and has a sophomoric sense of humour. She regards Tommy as something of a nuisance, but still has a clear level of unspoken affection for him regardless, making them feel almost like siblings in how they bicker and joke with one another. Scout’s performance is highly convincing and nuanced enough to make Laurie feel human, and the same can be said of the rest of the cast. Danielle Harris, who played a pivotal role in both Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) as a child, returns to the franchise to play Laurie’s best friend Annie Brackett and approaches her role with a similar level of commitment. With that said, arguably the best performance in the film comes from Brad Dourif, who was the voice of Chucky in Child’s Play (1988) and its many sequels. He plays Leigh Brackett, Annie’s father and Haddonfield’s chief-of-police. He’s simultaneously world-weary and empathetic, traits conveyed effortlessly by the performance in question and, despite not having as much to do as the other characters, stands out nevertheless.

Its strong performances and first half aside, however, the film simply doesn’t work. It feels like two films at war with one another; one a grim, brutal exploration of a damaged psyche and the other a remake of a straightforward slasher classic that misunderstands what made its narrative so effective. It therefore lacks cohesion, and feels frustratingly inconsistent as a result. Its biggest problem is that it feels tethered by its status as a remake, with Zombie having to indulge in his strengths to a limited capacity with a story that ostensibly isn’t his own. This is made even more evident when learning about the film’s production, which Rob has frequently described as a draining experience, due in part from a substantial amount of interference from the studio producing the film, Dimension Films, who were owned by the now-disgraced Weinstein brothers. This made Zombie somewhat reluctant to work on a sequel, but became open to the idea of doing so when he was promised more in the way of creative freedom. And I’m glad he did.

Halloween II is, in my opinion, one of the most unfairly maligned and underappreciated horror films of the 21st century. In fact, I’d argue that it’s Rob Zombie’s best work as well as the second best film in the Halloween franchise as a whole, with the best obviously being John Carpenter’s original. Much like the first half of its predecessor, it plays to Zombie’s strengths as a director, albeit to an even greater extent and is surprisingly audacious in its general approach, especially for a major studio franchise film.

The film begins where its predecessor left off, with Laurie Strode having survived her encounter with Michael Myers who is presumed dead after their fateful encounter. Now living with Leigh and Annie Brackett, she struggles with the trauma brought about by her experience while Michael, who is obviously still alive since pretty much all slasher villains are immortal by virtue of the fact that they put money in the pockets of studio executives, embarks on a surreal, oneiric journey back to Haddonfield, leaving numerous brutalized corpses in his wake.

It’s highly unusual for a slasher sequel since, while there is a deranged killer on the loose killing innocent people at random, that’s not the main focus of the film. The narrative primarily focuses on Laurie’s struggles with post-traumatic stress, highlighting how the events of the prior film have damaged her and how she only spirals further and further downward as she comes to learn the shocking, tragic truth about her connection to Michael Myers and his similarly traumatic past. It’s more Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) than it is Friday the 13th Part II (1981), acting more as a character study as well as an examination of trauma and cycles of abuse than a formulaic horror sequel. And, much like Fire Walk with Me, it’s carried by a viscerally intense central performance.

Scout-Taylor Compton returns as Laurie Strode, and convincingly imbues her with a crushing level of emotional instability that frequently becomes difficult to watch as she cries, screams and lashes out at the people closest to her in ways she doesn’t mean. It’s such a poignantly unflinching and deeply tragic depiction of the lingering effects of trauma and, while other films in the franchise like Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and the more recent Halloween (2018) have attempted to similarly depict Laurie’s difficulty in dealing with the aftermath of her experience with Michael, none have matched Halloween II’s level of aching vulnerability.

That’s not to say the film entirely forgoes what the Halloween franchise and the slasher genre as a whole are known for. It’s an incredibly violent film, and Rob’s maximalist direction lends the kills a level of gut-wrenching brutality unmatched by any other instalment in the series. As Michael makes his way back to Haddonfield while being plagued by hallucinations of his late mother, he kills virtually anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. Their deaths aren’t elaborate like in most contemporary slasher films (like the original Halloween’s own sequels) and they aren’t quick and efficient like the ones seen in John Carpenter’s original film. They’re blunt and to-the-point, but also grisly and messy. This is emphasized in the way the camera lingers on the violence and its aftermath, but there’s never a sense that Zombie is revelling in the cruelty and brutality on display. This is due in no small part to the film’s dour albeit striking aesthetic, as the film opts for a desaturated look captured using grainy 16MM film, which not only lends a suitably level of dinginess to the morbid subject matter, but similarly imbues the town of Haddonfield and Zombie’s signature dilapidated interiors with a level of tangible verisimilitude as well as a surreal, ghostly atmosphere.

Unfortunately, audiences and critics weren’t particularly receptive to the film at the time, with most absolutely tearing it to shreds. In fairness, the theatrical cut is far inferior to the director’s cut, with it removing key scenes as well as having a substantially weaker ending. With that said, I doubt most audiences went into the film expecting it to be as freewheelingly experimental, emotionally intense and outright strange as it was, especially with every entry in the Halloween series being a straightforward slasher film (well, barring the similarly underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) of course, but that’s another story altogether). It confounded many and, like its predecessor, was seen by many fans as one of the weakest films in the franchise. It’s entirely understandable going into the film expecting it to be a fun studio horror film, and being disappointed when those expectations weren’t met, but I nevertheless feel as though films should be critiqued and examined on their own merit, and Halloween II has more than enough that’s worth at least engaging with in good faith and with an open mind.

Since his two Halloween films, Rob Zombie has enjoyed a fruitful career of making similarly divisive, unapologetically indulgent films, but none seem to elicit as strong a reaction among general audiences as those films. This, in part, has to do with the fact that they are a re-imagining of a franchise which began with a film that’s universally regarded as a classic and, as such, purists would no doubt be incensed. “Remake” is something of a dirty word among cinephiles after all, especially horror fans, due in no small part to the fact that the vast majority of them are cynical cashgrabs with little care or thought put into them. Whatever faults the Rob Zombie Halloween films may have, and they do definitely have their fair share, it’s simply undeniable that there is a clear vision and a wholly distinct creative approach behind them. It may not be an approach that will resonate with everyone, but it’s nevertheless commendable that Zombie managed to make two films which have a level of uncompromised rawness that’s hard to come by in an increasingly sanitized mainstream cinematic landscape.

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