It wasn’t until the end credits of Rob Zombie’s head-banging Halloween remake that I had the chance to chuckle. Buried in that pile of scrolling text was a credit for an Alice Cooper song that I missed during the actual movie: “Only Women Bleed.” Oh, indeed. I’d consider it a droll joke, bordering on self-deprecation, if only I felt confident that Zombie’s film had the presence of mind for reflexivity, or even a sense of humor. I’m still not sure what to think of Zombie’s (ironic? who can tell?) use of cheeseball power ballad “Love Hurts” to score a sad montage earlier in the film — if it’s meant to be hilarious, it’s the only thing that is.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about Halloween may be that it seems almost completely devoid of human feeling. Beyond the extended, surprisingly detailed prologue that sets up Michael’s general misanthropy — he’s the product of a broken home partly defined by a stripper mom and a promiscuous older sister, but mainly dominated by the casual, couch-bound cruelty of a stepdad who calls him a pussy because the animals he tortures are too easy to kill — Zombie has expressly foregone the niceties of character development. To complain about this perhaps misses the point. As surely as John Carpenter’s movie was about the babysitter Laurie Strode, Zombie’s is about the killer Michael Myers. And once the film moves out of prequel territory and sets to recreating the events seen in the original, Zombie’s approach to the material feels a lot less unique. Carpenter made savvy use of negative space inside the widescreen frame to isolate his prototypical final girl, building the audience’s identification with her while ratcheting up the tension, but Zombie stages rote little cardboard-diorama deathtraps, paying only a few moments’ attention to what the characters are doing before sending his masked killing machine into the frame to slash them. The results aren’t boring, exactly, but it almost feels like a deliberate withholding of cinematic pleasure — like Michael Haneke directing Halloween 9.
Barring a scarily effective sequence that has Laurie (a pleasantly nerdy Scout Taylor-Compton, who may well vault out of this film into much bigger things) slamming the door on a fast-lumbering Michael and then retreating to cower in the bathroom as a couple of ineffective cops race into the house and failing to rescue her, the film only perks up in the death scenes, as young and old Michael alike power their way through flesh and bone. And, specifically, it only comes to life as Michael is killing women. One moment of real feeling comes as genre veteran Dee Wallace Stone, a trooper as she approaches 60, crawls across the carpet on her hands and knees, sobbing, as Michael attacks. Many of the killings are erotically charged, as three out of four attractive young women featured strip for sex before their brutal murders. (Further, before 10-year-old Michael slashes his recently naked sister to death, he runs his fingers up the back of her thigh, suggesting some kind of connection between her blatant sexuality and his own murderous disquiet.) The original Halloween has been charged with bearing a moral lesson about promiscuity, making virginal “good girl” Strode the only teenager to survive Michael’s suburban rampage, although Carpenter denies it. But it’s hard to discern any authorial commentary within Zombie’s steely, bad-ass replication of that approach. It seems clear only that he’s aware of the assumed slasher-movie conflation of sex and bloody death, respects the grindhouse tradition of copious female nudity, and intends to deliver on both counts, in spades. (Danielle Harris, also a trooper, spends at least two minutes, most of them post-attack, topless on screen.)
It’s no surprise that women don’t fare too well in a classic slasher movie, but Zombie’s approach is so resolutely hard-boiled — so expert in its evocation of grindhouse scuzz — that it feels exploitative. And if you have a look at the unfinished workprint that leaked onto the Internet, it’s clear that test-screening audiences saw a film that was even more cynical and fundamentally unfriendly to their sensibilities. The first cut of Zombie’s Halloween featured a fairly graphic rape sequence, with two orderlies violating a female sanitarium inmate in Michael Myers’s cell. It’s easy to imagine how a test audience would react to that scene; it’s been replaced by less rape and more murder. But even if you believe that a rape scene in a Halloween movie is gratuitous, its inclusion served at least two purposes. It gave Zombie a chance to show the audience how he feels about rapists. (He’s against them.) And, by giving Michael Myers the opportunity to end the lives of a pair of particularly brutish and nasty characters, it also substantially humanized him as a kind of anti-hero.
The climax of the workprint version of the film is also very different from the one in release. In the workprint, about a dozen cops converge on the old Myers house as Michael holds Laurie hostage. Dr. Loomis appeals to whatever humanity remains latent behind the killer’s mask to convince him to let her go. Feeling some vestigial twinge of brotherly love, Michael relents — and, as Loomis leads the weeping girl away from him, the gathered police open fire. It’s a classic final-reel redemption of a very bad man, followed immediately by his death at the hands of uncaring authority — another indication of the twisted esteem in which Zombie, who has walked that extra mile after all to understand and dramatize an origin story for the character, holds Michael. (Like The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween renounces traditional movie morality as it applies to people who are clearly the bad guys.)
The released version of the film is arguably more compelling dramatically, and thus it automatically represents a compromise in Zombie’s vision. The modified version of Michael’s sanitarium escape shows him massacring a group of guards, including the one (Danny Trejo) who was always kind to him. Denied his role as unwitting avenger of a woman’s rape and made to cruelly murder the only man he could remotely think of as a friend, Michael loses some of the mythic stature Zombie clearly aimed to assign him. The very ending of the theatrical release is also fairly effective as drama. After a pistol-packing Loomis is removed from the action by Michael, who takes him on like Roy Batty confronting Eldon Tyrell near the end of Blade Runner, a sobbing Laurie is left to fend for herself. Straddling a stunned Michael on the front lawn of the abandoned Myers house (if you take her woman-on-top position as a sexual metaphor that harks back to young Michael’s attraction to his older sister, it’s a clever and subtle idea), she just keeps pulling the trigger of Loomis’ gun until she finds a bullet in one of the chambers and sends that fucker barreling into Michael’s forehead. Instead of expressing satisfaction or muttering a catch phrase, Laurie just looks up and screams bloody murder. Fade to black.
If the famous ending of Carpenter’s film, in which the apparently dead boogeyman disappears into the shadows, presumably to resurface again in the dark corners of someone else’s surburban paradise, is about the persistence of evil in the modern world, then the ending of this one is about damage — the way insanity moves, like a virus or a parasite, from host to host. Even if Laurie has triumphed, Zombie is sure she’ll never be the same. (In fact, she may never stop screaming.) I appreciated this, but this sudden concern for Laurie was out of step with the rest of the film. It wasn’t until I watched, and thought about the even more Michael-centric workprint version, that I realized why. Zombie just isn’t interested in nerdy babysitters, or even their saucier teenaged friends. It’s not that he hates women or that he takes any special pleasure in their degradation and murder — at least not beyond that of a horror aficionado driven to pay tribute to his formative influences. (He probably likes topless women; so sue him.) But he likes Michael Myers. He likes him, like he likes Rufus T. Firefly, a little more than he should. And it’s that kind of unwholesome but guileless sympathy for the devils that gives Zombie’s wholly unpretentious films their auteurist spark.
Halloween is far from being a good film. In fact, for some of the reasons I’ve detailed above along with others I haven’t, I think it’s a mess. It is not, however, boring. Where horror is concerned, I think Zombie is a big ol’ cinephile who lacks the chops to execute on the screen everything that’s going on emotionally and intellectually inside his head. The Devil’s Rejects, his best movie to date by a country mile, was more interesting as a western — inspired by movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Charly, Two-Lane Blacktop, and the entire Sam Peckinpah catalog — than it was as a horror movie. As an artist, Zombie has an interesting and unusual affinity for losers — characters that are uncharitably known as white trash. We know that he can do disturbing. With the help of his wife, Sheri Moon, he can figure out sexy. If he can free himself from the sense of nostalgia that has defined, and sometimes straitjacketed, his work to date, he could add emotionally affecting to his bag of tricks and come up with something truly bracing. Rejects came frustratingly close. And Halloween is, well, it’s kind of lousy. But he’ll have to do worse than this before I give up on him.