October Horror: Halloween Marathon 7 – ‘Halloween’ (2007) + ‘Halloween II’ (2009)

halloween 2007I suppose we should at least be grateful that when the Halloween franchise was rebooted in 2007, the studio didn’t opt to go the PG-13 route, something I could totally see happening. Instead the series was handed over to Rob Zombie who was at the time coming off the patchy, brutal exploitation throwback The Devil’s Rejects. Like a more talented Eli Roth, Rob Zombie is someone who seems to be genuinely passionate about the horror genre, and he clearly has a few skills behind the camera but I’ve not especially liked any of his movies. I do think that he may well have a potentially great horror movie in him somewhere, but similarly it would be totally reasonable to dismiss such a notion if this Halloween remake was the only work of his you’d seen.

Zombie’s approach to rebooting this series is to make this one film simultaneously a prequel and a remake. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be entirely dismissive of the idea to give iconic villains a tragic back-story, but I can’t think of a single instance in which it didn’t turn out to be awful. Not that this only applies to horror villains, the well documented prequel problem expands all genres.

I’ll admit that some of the prequel material Zombie films might have been a little effective if used sparingly in flashbacks or something but that’s not at all what he wishes to do here. Instead he opts to make the entire first half of the movie a prequel in which we see Michael Myers as a greasy blonde-haired child living in a broken home with an abusive alcoholic stepfather, a dismissive older sister and a put-upon mother who spends her nights stripping. On top of this he suffers at the hands of merciless school bullies who torment him on a daily basis.

There’s nothing especially enlightening about these segments, the school and home-life stuff isn’t particularly original or interesting, plus it suffers from some of the standard prequel problems of trying to seed things the audience knows will be of later relevance, such as Michael’s famous mask.

The biggest problem is the way it takes all the power out of Michael’s eventual turn to killing. The still-stunning shock of John Carpenter’s original Halloween opening came from the revelation that a small child was committing these murders and having no idea why. Here they almost try to justify his actions by having his life be so miserable, yet also give him behavioural traits that suggest he was a killer in the making anyhow.

Zombie doesn’t even end it there though, when the film flashes forward in time to an adult Michael Myers, he’s still in a mental institution. We learn yet more about his youth there via some dialogue exchanges until he eventually escapes via an unnecessarily nasty scene involving a pair of guards raping a female patient, again, is Zombie trying to get us on Myers’ side?

By my count, the time the introduction is over and the actual Halloween night slasher portion of the movie arrives it was 54 minutes into the movie. Almost a whole hour spent on needless backstory, which contributes to this being by far the longest movie in the series.

Wasting so, so much time in the past inevitably leads to the new Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) getting side-lined. Once she enters the picture she becomes the protagonist but again, this isn’t until half way through the movie. It might have helped if she’d been played by an actress with a bit more presence than Taylor-Compton to be honest, as she’s just another completely forgettable final girl here. Malcolm McDowell also stars as the new Dr Loomis but he’s a far less sympathetic character.

Most of the slasher sequences in the latter half come across as Zombie trying to update John Carpenter, with a few being very close recreations of moments from the original. While more violent, it’s never scary or suspenseful at all. There are a couple of nice touches, a few decent visuals and appearances from Brad Dourif as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris as his daughter but on the whole it’s a dull, messy tiresome horror movie that wastes half its excessive running time.

halloween II 2009I mentioned in my first post of this Halloween marathon that Halloween 2007 was one of the only films in the series I’d already seen prior to starting this, a couple of years ago if I recall. Re-visiting it now I actually found it worse than I remembered, but even then it was bad enough that I never considered bothering to check out Zombie’s 2009 sequel Halloween II. I wasn’t much looking forward to it concluding this ten-movie marathon but what can I say, turns out it’s actually rather good. In fact I’d call it the biggest surprise in this whole franchise.

Initially, Halloween II appears to be doing the exact same thing that 1981’s Halloween II did in picking up right from where there first movie left off (after a mercifully brief flashback). The notion continues as after a confused Laurie is found by Sheriff Brackett, she’s taken to the hospital where Michael later shows up. So it all looks like we’re going to get a hospital-set killing spree of a movie, which we do for a scene or two (one of the victims is even played by Octavia Spencer), before Zombie pulls a fast one on the audience and reveals that this is actually a dream Laurie is having some time later. This is one of the few occasions when a dream reveal doesn’t feel like a cop-out but actually a fairly smart side-swipe of the audience’s expectations.

From then on Zombie essentially abandons the idea of trying to create another Halloween slasher movie, and is all the better for it. In its place we get a movie that seems to combine many of the horror themes Zombie’s interested in. Rather than just the same events happening to Laurie all over again, it attempts to explore what kind of an effect they would have had on her. As such she comes across as being far more hysterical than Laurie ever has been before, which may be a realistic reaction for a trauma victim, and Scout Taylor-Compton leaves far more of an impression here than she did in the first movie.

Zombie packs a great deal of memorable visual sequences in, these include recurring hallucinations that Laurie and Michael share of their ghostly mother, their relationship is something Laurie discovers in another notable moment. These bright spots serve most obviously as a counter-point to the dark griminess of the film in general but the cinematography and lighting choices enhance the mood throughout. This film is far more concerned with creating a strange, unnerving atmosphere than jump scares.

In fact pretty much every character is better this time around. Malcolm McDowell’s Dr Loomis goes even further in the opposite direction to Donald Pleasance’s take. Rather than being permanently disturbed by Michael’s killing spree he’s gleefully cashed in on it, writing a sensationalistic book that he’s promoting throughout the film. This even leads to a random comedy interlude when he appears on a talk show with Weird Al Yankovic. Without Loomis as the (initially) more sensible adult in frame, those duties fall to Brad Dourif’s Sherriff Brackett, who gets a good deal more screen time and makes the most of it. Danielle Harris also returns as his daughter, who Laurie is now living with.

While a far more fascinating horror movie than Zombie’s remake, Halloween II still shares a few of that film’s problems. It’s messy at times and not always entirely coherent. There are undoubted moments of self-indulgence that might look decent but serve little purpose and last too long, such as most of the scenes at a weird night-time carnival. It also ramps up the brutality to unremitting levels a few might find off-putting.

I can understand why this failed upon release, if you actually liked Zombie’s first movie then this quite different follow-up might disappoint, likewise if you didn’t you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to see this. Also I suppose those who hold the original in extremely high regard might hate the way the family dynamics are explored (Michael even takes his mask off at one point), but I don’t think this could hurt it any more than the lousier sequels did (or indeed Zombie’s Halloween).

However, this film is Rob Zombie taking the Halloween brand and truly doing what he wants with it. This is not a soulless re-hash, it’s the most unique Halloween movie after the unrelated Season of the Witch, and it doesn’t even use the theme music until the end credits. Full of distinctive visuals and with a lot more concern for character work, Halloween II builds to a surprisingly powerful and excellently sound-tracked ending scene that solidifies my original point about Rob Zombie; I think one of these days he might make an exceptional horror movie. Until then, this is his best effort yet.

Halloween II 2009 Laurie Strode

NOTE: This review refers to the ‘Unrated Director’s Cut’ of Halloween II, not the theatrical version. I didn’t actually realise there were two different cuts until doing some fact-checking for this piece but apparently there was some studio interference in the theatrical version. While I don’t think the film needed to be as long as it is, from what I’ve read online the more significant differences made for the director’s cut sound like then certainly improved it.

Halloween (2007) – 1.5/5

Halloween II (2009) – 3/5

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