Friday, August 28, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Michael Myers? A Nation of Horror Freaks Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

There's a new movie out this week called Halloween 2.

But it's actually the 10th, or maybe 11th, or maybe the 12th movie in the Halloween series.

A few years ago, director Rob Zombie decided to "reboot" the Halloween franchise. "Rebooting"--basically, starting it over with a bit of fresh spin--has become more and more popular in the last decade or so of Hollywood's collective creative bankruptcy, the primary idea being that it's easier to revisit a proven idea than it is to generate a new one. And so, a lot of once-profitable enterprises have been recently "rebooted" to mixed effect: Batman, Star Trek, & James Bond (yes!), Superman and Friday the 13th (meh), the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (who cares).

Michael Myers burst on the movie scene in 1978 as a quiet but bloodthirsty force of nature, a rare and brutal combination of power, endurance, and single-minded purpose: to kill a bunch of teenagers. He was the template for dozens of others that followed, a paragon of implacable psychosis. Young madmen wanted to be him. They probably put posters of him up on their insane asylum walls. He was the face of horror before horror got too silly and self-effacing. If slasher films were football, he'd be that bruising fullback that no one could bring down near the goal line. If they were basketball, Michael was the Michael Jordan of mad slashers: he let his game do all the talking, and he was absolutely merciless.

Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Important to the genre, yes, and certainly influential in his way, but more like Doctor J. - a different era, a different player. Jason from Friday the 13th? He's a Kobe Bryant - highly effective, occasionally transcendent, but never enough of his own killer to get fully out of Michael's shadow. A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Kruger? He had potential in the early going, but he just got too silly in the long run, cracking too many jokes. Call him Derrick Coleman -- highly talented, but he just didn't respect the slasher-movie game enough.

It feels a little silly to call John Carpenter's original Halloween one of the best movies ever made, but in its demented, low-budget way, it's certainly one of the most effective movies ever -- a sharklike engine of a movie with only a very few basic goals. Halloween didn't set out to enlighten anyone, except perhaps in how effective a film can be on a limited budget. It set out to scare people silly, and for decades it was one of the leading players in that field. I clearly remember the giddy terror of that first viewing, in an edited-for-TV format, no less - it scared me and I loved it. I don't have my own copy, but I should. Every October, I check the TV listings for a showing somewhere, and I can usually find one. Of course, it's never as good as that first time, but seeing it again always lets me recapture just a little of that original thrill. To this day, I can't think of five movies that have scared me more.

One of the best things about the original Halloween is that it didn't explain Michael. We never knew what drove him to kill, why he snapped one Halloween night and murdered his sister, and why he bided his time for fifteen years before escaping from the asylum at Smith's Grove to return to Haddonfield on Halloween night. We didn't know how he could survive getting stabbed and shot and keep coming. We didn't know and not knowing made him scarier, because the unknown is always more terrifying than the familiar.

It's understood that a "reboot," to be successful, needs to change the gameplan a bit. And some "reboots" are successful - Batman Begins proved there's still a lot of tread in the Caped Crusader's tires by taking a dead serious, noirish approach that hadn't been tried with the character onscreen. Casino Royale recast James Bond as tougher, more brutish than past screen incarnations, closer to how Ian Fleming originally intended - far more of a blunt instrument than we'd previously seen, and it worked in spades.

But Rob Zombie's Halloween made the critical mistake of explaining what should be left unexplained. Like the original, Zombie's version starts with Michael Myers as a child, on Halloween - but it took what was originally just a few quick strokes of prosaic, middle-class, middle-American upbringing that gave no apparent hint of shocking violence and madness and recast it into squalid, garish, grating white-trash hell, one of Zombie's favorite canvasses.

Michael's sister was still fooling around with her boyfriend on Halloween night, but his mom was suddenly a stripper who had to work instead of taking him Trick-or-Treating. His mother's boyfriend was a drunk, abusive lout who flung insults for sport and said fuck every other word. Michael was the target of bullies at school. His house was a rundown mess. And so on.

Zombie's Halloween is actually somewhat interesting for about ten minutes, while you're still getting acclimated to the landscape and before the trashiness of the characters descends into shrill parody. The scene where Michael stalks and kills (or at least savagely beats) a schoolroom tormentor is reasonably effective, if too long and needlessly graphic. Although scary as hell and Rated R, the original Halloween is largely a bloodless affair.

But by the time the drunken layabout boyfriend has uttered about his sixteenth f-bomb, it's painfully clear that all of the preamble that Zombie provides in his version has only the effect of neutering Michael, making him actually less interesting instead of more. Now, instead of a terrifyingly inexplicable force of nature, Michael's just a kid from a bad home.

The backstory of Michael Myers is far from the only mistake made by Zombie's version, but it's probably the most crippling one. Rob Zombie's Halloween, rather than provide any scares or thrills or relevant take on the material, enlightens us to the fact that some material doesn't need to be "rebooted," or at least that some directors aren't the right people for the job.

But this Halloween redux made enough money, apparently, at least with regard to cost, to demand a sequel, and now we have one -- Halloween in late summer, which is all kinds of wrong to begin with, and just shows how out of step this whole enterprise really is.

Now the first sequel to the first Halloween, Halloween 2.0, I guess you could say, wasn't any great shakes, tawdry and stupid and drawn out where the first was clean and lean and economical, so it's hard to see how this new Halloween 2 will be substantially worse. I'm sure it'll even make a nice little pile of money and there will soon be talk of a new Halloween 3, even though Zombie says this is his last foray with Michael Myers. Maybe someday we'll have a whole new set of 12 or 13 or 14 Michael Myers movies, but the kids today won't realize what Michael was like in his prime. Comparing Michael then to Michael now is like comparing 1990's Chicago Bulls Jordan with the Jordan who unretired a second time to go to the Washington Wizards. He looked pretty much the same, and had a lot of the same moves, but it just wasn't the same guy and we all knew it.

I'd rather watch the Halloween from 1978 again, even though I know every beat, even though every scare is telegraphed miles in advance.

Because the memory of what Michael Myers was is still miles better than who Rob Zombie says he is today.

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