How can a motion picture be both much better and slightly worse? That’s the question we face in this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown as John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween squares off against the 2007 version by Rob Zombie. The original is superior in almost every way, sometimes on a profound level, but if today’s viewer wanted to watch a decent horror movie, I’m not sure they wouldn’t enjoy the latter version a good deal more. It pains me to admit that. Partly because Rob Zombie is a walking cinematrocity. He parlayed his rock star status into the opportunity to make movies that are vile gibberish. It’s also partly because our culture has changed in some not very nice ways and Halloween (1978) likely bears some responsibility for that. And partly it’s because
I’m afraid I’ve let that culture make me jaded to the point where I’ve lost the ability to appreciate a masterful bit of filmmaking.
One cannot call the original Halloween the first modern horror film. It was preceded by quite a few landmarks like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Halloween isn’t even the first modern “slasher” flick, with Hitchcock’s Psycho beating it by an amazing 18 years. What Halloween did was burn its way out of its genre and into the mainstream, cementing a template that has been faithfully, if somewhat mindlessly, followed by generations of filmmakers. Masked killer? Carpenter did it. Young woman who survives to the end to battle the monster? Carpenter did it. Sexual promiscuity as a sign a character is going to die? Carpenter did it. The killer slowly walking after victims who can never quite seem to outrun him? Carpenter did it. Letting his quality film be whored out for a series of often astonishingly bad sequels? Carpenter did it.
I think the enormous success and overwhelming influence of Halloween (1978) is that it proved the horror genre could be made palatable to general audiences without being dumbed down or camped up. A lot of the new breed of horror that emerged in the 1960s and 70s remained on the margins of polite society because it was weird and unpleasant to most normal viewers. What kind of a freak would take a date to see I Spit on Your Grave? Carpenter’s genius, besides being an excellent writer and director, was to take that subversive appreciation of violence and depravity, strain it through the simplicity of a fairy tale and focus it through the lens of an old school suspense thriller.
The original Halloween begins in 1963 as a young boy named Michael Myers (Will Sandin) murders his sister with a butcher knife. Well, it actually begins with what may be the first time cinema ever acknowledged a common sexual dysfunction on screen. Young Michael sees his sister and her boyfriend fooling around on the couch. He sees them go upstairs. 59 seconds later he sees the boyfriend pulling on his shirt as he walks back down the stairs, making it pretty clear what was going on.
The boy and girl go upstairs.
They turn out the light.
They get undressed.
The do what comes naturally.
The boy gets dressed.
He goes downstairs.
Forget Michael Myers. I’m surprised his sister didn’t go on a murder rampage.
After stabbing his topless sister to death, Michael is confined to an insane asylum. 15 years later, he breaks out and heads back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, pursued by his Ahab-like psychologist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Donning a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a white mask that was molded after the face of William Shatner, of all things, Michael (Nick Castle) fixates on a teenager named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). While Loomis and the local sheriff wait at Michael’s old home for him to show up, the Prodigal Psychopath murders Laurie’s friends at a very measured pace and almost kills her, until Loomis shows up to shoot him repeatedly and leave us with an ending Carpenter meant to be unsettling but now comes off like an awful case of sequel-begging.
If you’ve heard about but never seen 1978’s Halloween, you may find this hard to believe but that’s legitimately it for the plot. There’s very little story here but not because Carpenter didn’t care. Much like he would be with The Fog, Carpenter is concentrating on mood and atmosphere and pacing. He draws the viewer into the utter normalcy of Haddonfield and slowly, carefully ratchets up the tension bit by bit until it explodes. And then when the audience thinks it’s seen the worst, Carpenter raises the stakes by giving us a killer who seemingly won’t die.
And I wonder if it’s that last bit which, besides great filmmaking, explains the power of the original film. It was one of the first to combine in Michael Myers the understandable and the unknown, brutal reality and the fantasy of the supernatural. The killer who keeps coming no matter how many times he’s shot, skewered or spindled has long since become cliché but, like most things that become cliché, it blows you away the first time you see it.
When Rob Zombie, after two of the worst movies you’ll ever see, decided to redo Halloween, I can’t imagine how anyone could have been excited. House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are nonsensical garbage. And not even pretty garbage. They’re deliberately ugly garbage that wallows in a cesspool of redneck vulgarity and puerile edginess. When I watched Zombie’s remake, I went into it with expectations lower than a slug at the center of the Earth. What I saw was a movie that, to my totally bewilderment, did not stink on ice. It was actually entertaining, if entirely disgusting on a philosophical level.
Halloween (2007) tells almost exactly the same story as its predecessor. The only differences are an almost exponentially greater amount of violence and gore, replacing cool and controlled camera movements designed to increase viewer anxiety with music video fast cuts and shaky camera jerks and vibrations designed to pummel the senses, and an extended digression where we see Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch as a kid and Tyler Mane as an adult) as a bullied child in a nightmare of a home who, after his initial slaughter fest, winds up in the loony bin being tended to by Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). Zombie manages to add in that stuff and keep almost every single plot point of the original by accelerating the story and its characters to warp speed. This film moves like it just had four coffee enemas topped off with a snort of PCP. But it all makes sense, no one is any dumber than your garden variety horror flick and Zombie does a good job of giving his characters strong personalities. Those personalities are almost all annoying and classless, but you can’t say Zombie has populated his movie with a bunch of cardboard cutouts just waiting around to be slain.
So, who wins this Throwdown? Halloween (1978) is the better motion picture. It is more visually unique, more genuinely imaginative and definitely has greater narrative power. But while it may have unnerved mainstream audiences in the late 70s who were unfamiliar with modern horror, the original Halloween was pretty tame compared to its peers and is positively sedate by today’s standards. The body count is puny and there are plenty of crime dramas on network TV now that are more graphically violent. Add in the fact that it’s been so relentlessly mimicked and the result is a movie that isn’t terribly engaging any more. No one is going to watch it and think Halloween (1978) sucks but you’d have to be really young or really sheltered to be all that scared by it. And the slow burn storytelling employed by Carpenter is the antithesis of our 21st century culture where we want what we want before we even know what we want.
As well made as it is and as much as I appreciate it, I can’t say the original Halloween holds up all that well.
Halloween (2007), while completely derivative in more than one way, is much more in tune with the tastes and expectations of the present times. It is energetic and features lots of nudity, profanity, violence and gore. The greatest influence on it isn’t John Carpenter but 2004’s Saw. Zombie’s work here is happily in that torture porn vein. Given its basic competency and that it’s much closer to the sort of thing people enjoy seeing nowadays, how can I not give it the edge? How could I criticize anyone who likes the remake more than the original? It’s not their fault. It’s the culture in which they were raised.
Which is, I suppose, exactly what can be learned from this comparison. It’s hard to wrap your head around how mean and ugly our pop culture, and our society at large, has become. We’re like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that doesn’t realize it’s being boiled alive because the temperature has been increased slowly over a long period of time. By all accounts, the Halloween remake should have been morally offensive. It shows a ridiculously large number of people being killed in truly awful ways but with little emotional or ethical context and is filled with various forms of socially objectionable behavior presented as normal. And while horror movies were originally about rooting for the victims to survive and strike back, then devolved into rooting for the victimizers as badass anti-heroes, Halloween (2007) is an example of a further degeneracy. You don’t watch them to care about people like Laurie Strode. You don’t watch them to care about monsters like Michael Myers. You watch them for the killings themselves. You’re supposed to be entertained by the creativity or excessiveness or the skillful execution of the scenes of suffering, terror and death. We used to have softcore porn. Now we have softcore snuff films.
And who is responsible for that? Sadly, at least some of the responsibility must go to John Carpenter and filmmakers like him. There’s nihilism in the movies they made and the stories they told. It may have been born in honest anger or frustration over the societal ills they saw around them but they expressed it in destructive and insidious ways. In 1978’s Halloween, there’s no particular reason why Michael Myers kills anyone. There’s no cause, no point, no lesson, no metaphor. And in struggling against him, there’s no puzzle to solve, no physical or emotional journey to complete and no material or intellectual obstacle to overcome. It’s nothing more than enduring his violence until enough violence can be inflicted up him. And that is presented to us as a form of entertainment? Where else could that have led than to where we are?
Before I sink any further into pretentiousness, let me sum things up.
John Carpenter = good.
Rob Zombie = bad.
1978’s Halloween = dated classic.
2007’s Halloween = contemporary diversion.
Our modern world = going to hell in a handbasket.
Written and by John Carpenter and Debra Hill.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring Donald Pleasence, Jaime Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes, P. J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards (yes, the one from that Housewives show), Brian Andrews, Tony Moran, Will Sandin and Nick Castle.
Written and directed by Rob Zombie.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Jenny Gregg Stewart, Kristina Klebe, Brad Dourif, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Skyler Gisondo, Dee Wallace and Pat Skipper.