The era of the horror remake is upon us—they’re cheap, fast, and decidedly not out-of-control, and their cynicism as products is doubled in the amoral construction of their violence. The garbage pile at this point (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Fog, Black Christmas, Pulse, The Omen) is such a steaming, stinky mess that it’s perfectly understandable that one would greet the prospect of Rob Zombie’s updating of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween with, well, horror. Carpenter’s original isn’t simply iconic (a holy grail for slasher generics that many viewers return to over and over, thrilling to its elegant terrors year after year); it’s also a master class in filmic fear, along with, maybe The Innocents, the greatest example of how much anxiety and anticipation can be elicited simply through frame and composition. While Halloween’s necessity as a guidebook for Carol Clover-esque musings on sex and violence is debatable, its craft is unimpeachable and the lore created around it undeniable. Rob Zombie has publicly stated that he will never do another remake, presumably for both artistic and personal reasons (one can only imagine the headaches involved, with the Weinsteins as creative collaborators and the project’s instigators); yet despite his own misgivings, and regardless of the film’s slightly muddled, structural imbalance, Zombie’s Halloween is a force to be reckoned with, and definitive proof that Zombie’s risen above the others in his woebegone generation of gorehounds.
Where Halloween first goes right is in its refusal to try and restage the elements that made Carpenter’s original what it was; by acknowledging the impossibility of re-creating the experience of the first film, Zombie actually pays greater respect to Carpenter than if he had simply done a full-length homage. The 1978 Halloween remains its own discrete work, and the two films do not cancel each other out. Zombie’s fetid, grunge aesthetic is antithetical to Carpenter’s clean, unaffected symmetry, as is the film’s central conceit, which is to psychologize and therefore “humanize” the heretofore seemingly mindless “boogey man” Michael Myers. Carpenter normally forgoes this sort of sentimental editorializing (see also The Fog, The Thing, Prince of Darkness), instead letting evil simply exist among us. This Halloween is undeniably its own entity.
So, the big question, of course, and it’s a valid one, is why? Why doesn’t Rob Zombie just make his own serial killer movie, possibly even jumpstarting a franchise, in which we follow the making of a maniac, from abusive, outcast childhood to his destiny as an unstoppable killing machine? The fact that Zombie, who seems more interested in showing sympathy for his devils than in creating straightforward stalker narratives with clearly defined victims and monsters, projected onto Carpenter’s pre-existing material shows that he fits right in, for better or for worse, with other American filmmakers of his generation, weened on overmarketed imagery, often televised and videotaped, easily accessible and repeatable. To them, the instant iconicity is as important as the craft. Yet like Tarantino, who with the great Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Death Proof has been moving toward ever-more inventive ways of reappropriating pop culture, Zombie is smart about playing with audience’s expectations as well as emotions. Kill Bill seemed the ne plus ultra of epic pop collage (it created its own symphony of colors, sounds, and cinematic intuition); and Death Proof took seemingly familiar “trash” tropes and then stretched and pulled time like taffy, creating an entirely new experience, almost a visual essay, on the very films Tarantino only seemed to be aping. Halloween isn’t quite so heady an experience, but in subtly shifting perception, in making us identify with Michael Myers (a shocking, sickening prospect for the audience), we engage with the film’s mythology in new, invigorating ways.
Of course, the filmmaking itself helps, and Halloween helps further cultivate Zombie’s emerging horror aesthetic, less borrowed from music videos (leave that to the Tarsems and the Nispels) than from heavy-metal music itself: self-consciously “alternative,” punkish, prankish, fixated on its own outsider status, reliant on transformative costumes and punishing grotesquerie. As evidenced by House of 1,000 Corpses (just feeling out the territory, but undeniably scary) and The Devil’s Rejects (an obvious heart-on-its-sleeve auteur piece), Zombie likes getting his audiences trapped in claustrophobic, mentally deranged funhouses. This is why his Halloween has a stronger initial half: he extends Carpenter’s best, most horrific bits (one five-minute-or-so take, originally) into an entire first act. It’s uncharted territory, and it’s extremely upsetting to wait for the heavy-lidded, blonde-haired prepubescent Michael to finally exact revenge on his abusive father, teasing sister, and school bullies. The way Zombie stages these scenes may be crass (his parents, William Forsythe and, of course, Sheri Moon Zombie, scream and spittle and swear like actors in some hellish dinner theater production), but as it builds to gruesome violence it attains a certain dignified grandeur. By comparison, Michael’s Halloween night rampage decades later goes through the motions a bit too much; Zombie’s not as interested in staging stalker scenes as he is at thrusting us into depraved mindsets.
Yet if he doesn’t want to startle with cheap jumps or buzz his viewers’ seats, Zombie does scare us with the physical exertion of killing. Nobody in American horror today is as good at the labor and viscera of murder, and what the late scenes of Michael endlessly going after the babysitters and his sister Laurie (and yes, the no-nonsense Jamie Lee Curtis is sorely missed) lack in calibrated tension they more than make up for in frightening size and speed. When Halloween was over I felt fittingly terrorized, and not in any sort of hollow way; Zombie’s version is audacious (emotionally) in its simultaneous repackaging and refuting of Michael Myers as a symbol of evil. He may forgo the hallowed notion of ambiguity in horror (too many believe that grants instant artistic integrity), but in peeking behind the mask Zombie does manage to complicate and cultivate our relationship with a figure who’s been, for almost thirty years, a fixture. And as resolute as a gargoyle.