Yes, of course I’d much rather this wasn’t the case. Updated versions of those films which constitute the slasher canon are now a depressing, even faintly embarrassing box office staple, particularly around 31 October, as sure-fire a way to yield hefty dividends (and critical disapproval) as the Valentine’s Day rom-com or the family schmaltz-romp released just in time for Mother’s Day. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Evil Dead… it’s possibly harder to name a once infamous 70’s or 80’s horror flick which hasn’t been ‘reimagined’, typically with a manifest deficit in the amount of imagination on display. And yet such are the ticket sales that, bizarrely, even lesser-known cult favourites like Last House on the Left and The Town That Dreaded Sundown have found themselves glossily retooled by studio wonks.
As source material for a reboot, Halloween comes with more baggage than most. Not simply a much-loved genre piece, Carpenter’s original is a true motion picture cornerstone, arguably having had as much impact as Nosferatu and Psycho. That said, one could also claim that it’s a picture which has been sullied somewhat by its own legacy, particularly its sequels, with 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, the eighth iteration in the series, having a reasonably strong claim to be the worst chapter in any of the big horror franchises (a precis neatly summed up by this wee nugget of trivia: Busta Rhymes reputedly wrote much of his own dialogue). Similarly, many of the 1978 film’s pioneering components – a madman preying on precocious teens, breathy shots from the killer’s POV, slow tracking shots of his suburban victims – have been copied so routinely that they are now very much embedded in our cinematic lexicon, the startling originality which made the first Halloween movie such a hit on its release now a gauzy memory.
A tough job, then, for any director setting out to modernise the original. Not only are there these obstacles to overcome, but also the expectations of cineaste critics, the horror aficionada, the director’s own pre-existing audience and paying moviegoers simply looking to be entertained. So it’s something of a shock to discover Rob Zombie’s remake is, for the most part, conducted with a wayward confidence which, for me at least, is hard not to be charmed by.
It’s the film’s first third where this is most in evidence, reshaping as it does the original’s scrappy few minutes' prologue wherein a young Michael Myers is glimpsed stabbing his older sister. In Zombie’s film this one-shot scene is expanded into a semi-detached narrative lasting almost an hour: a ten year old Myers (Daeg Faerch) drifts between a chaotic home life and a school where he’s routinely belittled and bullied before he quietly snaps, clubbing a schoolyard tormentor to death and then returning home to slaughter his abusive stepfather, his sister and her boyfriend. Duly packed off to a sanatorium under the auspices of child psychologist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Myers continues to deteriorate as he grows into manhood, becoming withdrawn and uncommunicative, mutely obsessing over the creating and wearing of gernuinely creepy papier-mâché masks.
In original movie the viewer is given little room to find anything approaching compassion for Myers. The Shape, as he’s referred to in Carpenter’s closing credits, borders on inhuman, a butchery machine whose white Shatner-face functions as a blank screen, one on which audiences can project their own imagined motives and anxieties. Although the latter day film wisely retains the protagonist’s uncanny singlemindedness (along with original’s iconic mask and chilly score) it also goes out of its way to offer, if not necessarily a clinical explanation for his actions, at least a modicum of empathy with the younger Myers and an understanding of his mental disturbance.
Admittedly, all of this may not exactly constitute a bravura artistic deviation on Zombie’s part but, as slasher reboot filmmaking goes, it’s pretty ballsy. Zombie’s Halloween also has in its favour something the 1978 movie lacks: acting. Scout Taylor-Compton is a believable small-town teen, her Laurie Strode possibly gutsier than Jamie Lee Curtis’s; Daeg Faerch disquiets as the young Myers, a sweet and sad little boy one moment, a raging maniac the next; Sheri Moon Zombie – wife of the director, best known for much scuzzier outré roles in his other films – puts in a solid performance as Myers’ beleaguered yet devoted stripper mom; there are unshowy cameos from Dee Wallace, Danny Trejo, Brad Dourif and, rather unexpectedly, Micky Dolenz from The Monkees.
But if this film belongs to any one actor it’s Malcolm McDowell.
Now, I love McDowell. Simple as that. He’s one of a handful of actors who I’ll watch in pretty much anything, regardless of the overall quality of the film. And in truth, with McDowell, that quality is rather variable. After an initial flourish of critically esteemed releases – If..... and A Clockwork Orange, most notably – McDowell embarked on what has always looked like an enormously enjoyable (if artistically unsatisfying) career, utilising his magnetic screen presence, satanic good looks and plummy RP timbre in the time-honoured service of playing British villains in B movie thrillers. It’s this ease with coming across as unlikable which makes his interpretation of Dr Loomis so watchable, transforming Donald Pleasance’s quivering doomsayer into a caring professional who also happens to be a swaggering egoist, delivering the same woe-laden 1978 dialogue on the inviolable nature of evil, but with an eye to how it will figure in his next bestseller on the Haddonfield massacres. ‘You’ve created quite the masterpiece of a monster off the blood of this town,’ one character tells him in a moment of sly self-commentary, ‘because monsters sell.’
As it progresses the film grows more faithful to original and, sadly, loses some of this revisionist spark. The locals in leafy Haddonfield are established in abundance, often with delicate touches of characterisation, before being summarily despatched. Initially effective, the repeat bludgeonings, stabbings and stranglings – although inventively rendered – increasingly deplete the viewer’s capacity for shock, sympathy or even interest.
But things pick up again and it’s in the final act where it becomes evident that perhaps the most intriguing difference between the two pictures, Carpenter’s and Zombie’s, is that the latter has made an effort to remedy the questionable gender politics found in the former. The high moral tone which informed the original film (in which anyone promiscuous is killed) is much less evident the 2007 version (in which simply everyone is killed). Additionally, in the concluding section of the 1978 movie we see Laurie, as strong a female lead as one could hope for, being saved by – what else? – a man, when Pleasance rushes to the rescue with a handgun and puts a hasty end to things. A similar scene is played out in Zombie’s movie but here, cleverly, it’s a cock-up on Loomis’ part, one which does nothing to prevent a frenzied (and well executed) rooftop pursuit by Myers which Laurie is required resolve on her own.
Is the rebooted Halloween a piece of great cinema? No, it’s not. But I think it’s a decent film, certainly one which, at the very least, is better than its reputation – and one which if nothing else serves as a thought-provoking artefact on the shadowy mechanics of cinematic mythology, a gaudy billet-doux to John Carpenter’s original boogeyman and an interrogation of his shadowy lore. Despite its flaws as a piece of filmmaking it remains, I think, the yardstick by which the fruits of the ongoing slasher-remake production line should be judged and, in its finer it moments, demonstrates that amid the dismissible slew of pictures motivated seemingly by little more than an ersatz 1970s nostalgia there may be a touch more substance than is initially apparent.