Tuesday, 4 November 2008

"Halloween": the biopic (World of Remakes #1)


1/ Fear of the Remake.

Firstly, the original "Halloween" is scary. As a kid, it terrified me every time I watched it… for years… I have no idea how many times I have seen it, and even now I am happy to leave it on as wallpaper, because the direction alone is a pure treat. There’s a killer on the loose, and that’s all you need to know. You don’t need to know why.

Come the Twenty-First century and many previously scorned low-budget horrors had be reclaimed as cinematic classics, or at least worthy. And there seemed a greater and more cynical spate of old favourites being remade. Or "re-imagined". This isn’t anything new, and Horror has always been a highly, ahem, cannibalistic and incestuous genre. That and shamelessly derivative, of course. But to be a horror fan is, unlike proper critics, to find the gold in the trashy, and not to criticise the trash for not being shiny enough. Inevitably, a remake of "Halloween" was declared, and they said Rob Zombie was going to remake it. Well Zombie had earned a lot of fandom with his earlier features - "House of a 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil’s Rejects". They showed promise, but lacked discipline and erred on what I’ll call the "heavy metal" vision of horror. He was known for white trash sleaze. Then we heard Zombie was going to give Michael Myers a proper childhood back-story. A white-trash back-story. It didn’t sound promising. It sounded like blasphemy. A small corner reserving judgement because they believed in Zombie; the rest of us did that thing of snorting our derision at Hollywood defiling the greats.

My first reaction was fascination. I groaned at the un-sophistication of the opening set-up. Repulsive stepfather cussing everyone in sight and if he wasn’t an abuser, that‘s probably only because he didn‘t have enough screen-time to get around to it. Mother-stripper. Michael Myers sister making weak gags about his masturbating. Baby wailing in this maelstrom. On the other hand, we had young Michael starting the morning by cleaning up having murdered another pet, and during the bad white trash breakfast dialogue asking for a replacement furry victim. The shaky-cam began to reveal itself as cinematic, not just Hollywood YouTube. We had standard school bullies who, naturally, brought with them a load of smut-talk concerning Michael’s mother. And then there was the first killing… the bully gets it and it’s horrible. Truly horrible. Something chilling sets in. After the family murders, Malcolm McDowell dominates Act II, which is concerned with Michael’s institutional treatment. Act III, and Michael is a gigantic slab of heavy metal meat, on the rampage in all washed-out ugly colours. There’s a station rest room with a black guy offering a Tarantino-esque segment. There are a lot of bloody bear breasts, firmly staking this as exploitational and unprogressive, maybe even cynical. It’s too long. I was waiting for it to end shoddily, but it doesn’t: the end is straightforward, nothing fancy. And yet.

It finished and it stayed with me. I saw it again. The dialogue was still weak, and yet I found I had remembered, and still recall it mostly as a silent movie. The camerawork is impressive still, utilising a variation on the handheld prowl cam brilliantly used by Carpenter; it shakes around the scenes and glances around the killing, often falling still on framing as consummate as the original. Here, rather than stalking and prowling, it’s like a voyeur-bug, or a detached part of Myer’s psyche watching himself. The early killings are compelling and eschew fast-cutting shock-editing for a more elongated sense of dread. The resonance is of matter-of-fact brutality, rather than cheap thrills. The view shakes around the murder of the stepfather, then it pauses as the blood floods from the bottom of the frame, off screen. As the household slaughter unfolds, Michael takes a moment to look outside at the fake horrors, all those trick-or-treaters. The final rampage has none of the thrills and clutch of suspense of the original, but it does give Michael a moment of utter pleading and confusion when he falls to his knees before his non-comprehending sister; and it does have a finely executed and extended metaphor of the old Myers house being torn apart by Michael from the inside.

As trite as the expression "re-imagining" is (smacking of denial as to the actual nature of the carrion-like "remake" beast eating from the good name of the original), Zombie’s "Halloween" almost validates the term. Zombie has filtered Carpenter’s original through his own agenda, and ultimately that is as it should be. The alternative is the kind of serviceable but unremarkable horror remake in the vein of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". I didn’t care that "Halloween" was too long (I rarely do). I chuckled at Malcolm McDowell showing everyone else how to actually dispense a line. I was convinced by Daeg Faerch’s angel/devil delivery: one minute momma’s boy, next silently creating corpses around the house. I wallowed in the sleaze, the flipside of Carpenter’s clean suburbia (decades later and suburbia had devolved into "Gummo" and "Suburbia"). Damn if the very choices mostly dreaded - extended and coloured-in Myers origins - became that which elevated Zombie’s version and gave a parallel vision of the original. It’s more grungy than heavy-metal. With a more focused basis - using Carpenter’s original rather than Zombie’s own idea - Zombie arguably revealed more disciplined and mature aesthetic compared to, say, the "Natural Born Killers" style of throw-every-at-the-wall-hope-it-hits-on-a-statement of his earlier efforts. It was more "Martin" and "Henry" than "Friday the 13th" and "Black Christmas". There was meaning in this remake.

2/ The Ups and Downs of Michael Myers

In ‘Film Comment Magazine’ (March/April 2008), Nathan Lee lays out the proper way to watch Zombie’s "Halloween": not as a teen-titillating slasher, but as a biopic. Indeed, it sports all the obvious, clunky dialogue typical of biopics of even Oscar-fraternising repute such as "Walk the Line". It follows a linear childhood-to-adulthood timeline, but it also inverts the biopic genre. Whereas many biographies follow the Lazarus and martyrdom templates, Zombie offers up Myer’s life story as an unstoppable, scarcely explicable fall from barely held grace. There are two endings to "Halloween", one where Myers achieves some glint of redemption in sparing his sister, and the other in a faintly ambiguous showdown where she kills him. This latter is the version I saw theatrically, and the one I base my comments upon. The former offers some respite, some speck of humanity for Myers; the latter doesn’t, as he pursues his sister through the wreck of their childhood home only for her to pull a Final Girl turn-around. But even with the more positive ending, this isn’t a story of redemption like many biographies, but of complete psychological collapse. (For your comparison: "There Will Be Blood".)

Zombie is at pains to trace the line between internal and external psychological climates that drive Michael to his first kills - and a second viewing reveals the earliest murders as unforgettable and shocking as Carpenter’s original. Then to the failings and inability of institutions to help, indeed, they compound Myers’ psychosis. When the prison guards go on a despicable spree to abuse their inmates, it’s trashy enough, but also reminiscent of similar scenes in Lynch’s "The Elephant Man". But here, Myers is not salvaged by the kindness of civil society, but crushed in its wheels in a world where everything seems to be devolving, and the niceness of suburbia seems to barely compensate. The institutions, as represented by Malcolm McDowell’s psychologist, seem to be making stabs at humanitarianism, even towards someone like Michael Myers; but their smugness, self-congratulatory manner and inability to prevent their charge’s complete psychological collapse allow Myers the total monster to fester until he sees his chance to unleash himself. It is probably this middle section that bores those that come for the tits-and-blood that Zombie can’t help but wallow in and which, at first glance, appears to be his main conclusion to all that has gone before. But this second act shows the extent of Zombie’s ambition and dedication that he pushes the boundaries of the slasher form, by stopping the whole show to make sure we see the final environmental reasons for the evolution of this monster. Arguably, watching Michael’s psychological retreat from the world is just as distressing as his early murders. And also, Zombie is not interested in evolving Myers into a Myth. Myers is a pure meat-and-potatoes monster.

As a biopic, Zombie’s "Halloween" offers qualities that Carpenter’s peerless original did not: despair, pathos and a genuine slice of tragedy. It is not a delicate piece, but it is considered in its rendering and chilling in its detachment, a detachment that hides a surprisingly curious and humanitarian core. Why is Myers? it asks. The camera not only spies, it pries. It asks without pretensions to knowing. Although rampaging is all it ultimately concludes, this is only because "Halloween" knows we have no answers. For these reasons, it is a worthy remake, a genuine re-imagining, and, I expect over time, it will be revealed as a minor classic on its own merits.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Suburbia, Sex, Slashers

1: The Mystery of Michael Myers

It goes without saying that ‘faceless’, expressionless, silent killers terrify due to their apparent emotionless and impenetrable veneer. To this deliberate end, Michael Myers of John Carpenter’s "Halloween" has the gimmick of the mask - famously, a William Shatner mask. We see Myers’ face only twice: as a child, and as an adult in the frenzy of killing - and in the latter example he desperately pulls the mask back over his face. Once the mask becomes his true visage, he moves from Myers to the boogeyman, or The Shape, elevating to mythical and iconic status, before our eyes, within the film and across its fan-base. No definitive explanation is given as to why Michael murders his sister, and this too is deliberate ~ unlike "Nightmares in a Damaged Brain", it is not the confused witnessing of the sexual act that triggers him, the primal scene. Is it his suspicion of his sister’s sexual nature that activates him, perhaps? Prepubescent, incestuous jealousy? We assume it’s the deviant teenage sex, as we always do, but we really have little evidence. Or did he always intended to kill from the moment he approaches the house? Obviously this lack of motivation is essential to Myers: it matters not why he kills, only that he does, He’s the boogeyman.
Myers enters his own home like an intruder, by means of a definitive use of point-of-view hand-held camera, gliding and searching an unremarkable suburban home. And the camera goes out of focus at one point so we cannot identify the hand reaching for a knife, withholding the killer’s identity until the prologue’s shock revelation. (In fact, this is [producer] Debra Hill’s hand, which creates a far more mundane reason for this out-of-focus moment: to disguise the fact that it was not a child’s not for the sake of surprise revelation, but for purely practicality.) It is a seminal horror film opening: smooth, brilliantly executed, wry, chilling, thrilling and promising all the unspeakable terrors to come.

Far less politically charged than the new living dead, Texan cannibals and last houses on the left, "Halloween" nevertheless subversively laid bare the fragility of the post-Baby Boom suburban opulence. The old monster-on-the loose scenario was updated and rampant in your conservatively inclined leafy town, subtext relatively intact. Myers might just as well be a man in a rubber suit, so alien and inhuman is he. Just because you have a nice house, it won’t stop him, and he doesn’t roar and run so that you call the military in either. Nonetheless, Myers is a force of nature: that unleashed Id, dispatching sexually active young adults; a smalltown horror that doesn’t know to stay dead, finally transcending himself into a supernatural, mythical entity.

There is little realism to Myers: his sole redeeming feature is that he was once a child, but this is barely substantial: it is simply the first shock and twist. Even as a child, when his Halloween mask is first taken from his face by his parents, the face is equally blank and unreadable. His childness - I.e., his vulnerability and innocence - it’s an assumption he discards presumably as soon as he can. He suffers none of the detailed psychological disturbances of "Nightmares in a Damaged Brain"; he does not possess any knowing smirks like the variably human Damien Antichrist of "The Omen" series. There is no filling-in of Myers’ childhood; no distraught but insightful interviews with the parents; no concept that rehabilitation will redeem him, or that he even qualifies for it. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is almost there simply to run around refuting Myers’ ability to be human, to declare the blank concerning ‘The Blank’. Loomis is not so far from Kevin McCarthy at the end of "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers", trying to warn the impenetrable traffic of an alien invasion, bringing about the end of humanity. There is no attempt to endow Michael Myers with any sympathy or reasoning, and therefore he ends up forever the inhumane murderous child. Damaged children and mutant offspring have always been essential to the genre, as much as child abuse has created a large proportion of TV "tragedy" drama. Robin Wood has rightly identified childhood itself as a state of "Otherness"[1]. Myers is s parental, cultural and social nightmare. What is he the result of? Idealised but ineffectual Baby Boomer parents? The net result of repression in a Christian-Conservative-Capitalist society? The manifestation of virgin-babysitter Laurie’s fear of sexual punishment and the predatory male? Or is he just, you know, plain bad?

[1] The other states of Otherness is to be: other people; woman; the proletariat; other cultures; ethnic; alternative ideologies/politcal systems; sexually ‘deviant’ - & children. ~ Robin Wood, "An Introduction to the American Horror Film", in Movies and Method: volume II, ed. Bill Nicholls, (University of California Press, London, 1985) pg.199-200.


2: The Friends of Michael Myers

Sidestepping the slasher’s origins in giallo (like a disreputable pal to American thrillers, what with all that European explicitness), in its American horror context "Halloween" was released the same year [1978] as "Damien – Omen II" and "The Fury"; 1977 had offered "Audrey Rose", "The Exorcist II: the Heretic" and "The Island of Doctor Moreau". All these were mainstream expressions of the horror genre, all possessing monstrous offspring. Their subtexts were filtered through a middle-class, neo-Gothic setting and traditional Christian and conservative ethic, working on a vision that at once embraced and then rejected modernity in all its opulence, as well as contemporary science for solutions to spiritual questions and advancements. By contrast, the alternative low-budget scene offered the likes of "The Hills Have Eyes", "Night of the Living Dead" and "I Spit on Your Grave" alongside "Halloween". Unsurprisingly the big-budget horrors reaffirmed your basic status quo of Good and/vs. Evil, whereas the independents, in an post-Vietnam era, just weren’t so sure.

George Romero and Tobe Hooper had already clearly pointed out how horror had a natural affinity for documentary technique and aesthetic. Despite being low-budget and ostensibly modest, Carpenter’s "Halloween" helped point to how the new wave of horror could carry a modest but slick sheen too. Free from the demands of mainstream production, finding it increasing easier to at least get hold of a camera, the low-budget filmmakers were able to carve new paths through taboos, and their influences were permanent. Damien’s smirk in "The Omen" signifies the audience’s complicity in the enjoyment of such high-concept, absurd demonic shenanigans; but "Halloween’s" killer offspring is far too close to home, confirming our fears for our children left unsupervised there, confirming our worst fears about their promiscuity, about the realism of prowlers and murderers. Despite Myer’s supernatural evolution, it is his corroboration of our paranoia and worst fears that consolidates his mythic qualities. That’s no big secret, but nevertheless, despite its homage to the fun of fear, therein lies the poignancy of Carpenter’s film.

It is easy to see how Aurum concludes that "by sidestepping social or moral comment, [Halloween] offers a foolproof blueprint for bloody violence," [2] but Halloween offers very little blood and by-passes easy moralising in order to create a symbol of a very real and deep fear for a fresh-packed suburban generation. Myers is a moral void, ergo inhuman, ergo a killer. When he kills his sister, he watches himself stabbing her; later he will use the same gaze to study his victim as they hang dying upon the wall. It is as if he cannot understand or believe what he has done, his fascination very much like a child pouring acid upon a slug or smashing bottles. Y’know: just to see. And further to this, Carpenter, and his unsurpassed use of prowling Panavision camera toys with us and our nerves in the same way. And again it links the serial killer deeply with voyeurism, and therein cinema itself. What does it mean to watch someone being killed, even cinematically? In this way, Myers is the very passive-aggressive audience that simultaneously celebrates the fear he provokes in them. This alertness to voyeurism was always present in killer films, (e.g. "The Spiral Staircase") but Myers was a somewhat quieter and decidedly modern rendition of your Hitchcock killers or Peeping Toms. Pretty soon, serial killers were going to be a sub-genre all of their own.

Legend has it that from "Psycho" and "Halloween", a brand new batch of novelty murders were born. If "Psycho" was the sly entertainer, "Halloween" was the overachieving runt and "Peeping Tom" the despised black sheep, academically pointing to the phobias and perversions of his peers. "Psycho" leads to "Silence of the Lambs". "Halloween" led immediately to "Friday the 13th", whereupon the lineage immediately stunts itself, and to too many derivatives to speak of; latterly revived somewhat by post-modernism and post-MTV ‘cool’ of "Scream". "Peeping Tom" led to… "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", "Man Bits Dog" and "Funny Games", perhaps. Arguably it was going to be David Fincher's "Se7en" that distilled all these into one fin de siecle package, and then Fincher's "Zodiac" that denied all the showbiz of the genre by treating it purely as police procedural and puzzle. The urban-legend-come-super-naturally true would give the world Freddy Kruger (a despicable but safely fantastic horror) and Candyman (ditto)… And so on. Nevertheless "Halloween" remains a truly entertaining and influential piece, a recognised classic and, due to its staking a claim on a seasonal holiday, classic and eternal.

[2] Halloween review, the Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror, pg. 329.
3: Myers is a Bad Date

It is impossible to avoid reflecting upon serial killer flicks without mentioning Carol J. Clover’s concept of ‘The Final Girl’: a masculinised heroine who survives or destroys the serial killer [3]; she is a homoerotic stand-in for the male audience, and thereby denies feminist reading. But it seems short-sighted to assume that any violent female reaction to a male threat immediately endows her with unquestionably masculine traits [4], or even that her use of a knife immediately endows her with a substitute phallus ~ sometimes a weapon is just a weapon (it depends upon representation, context, etc.). ‘The Final Girl’ also more-or-less sidesteps the erotic appeal of the female in distress to the male audience. The female body is threatened and damaged in the scenario, it is stabbed and slashed and revealed, pierced and bloodied; often taking the form of a stab-and-strip show. The Final Girl is not the only surrogate upon which the male gaze can project his own vulnerability and fears, apparently ‘feminine’ qualities. There are those also played out through male surrogates, the erotic appeal of the female left intact: these apprehensions are played out in an archetype which might be termed the Male Protector.

In many horrors, the desire for the male to protect the female is stimulated and challenged, and almost always they fail. Defending one’s loved ones is deeply fixed in the traditional male gender role, and slasher flicks - unlike action films - spell out how fathers, husbands and boyfriends can/will fail as the Male Protector. The threat is often another, stronger, homicidal male who wants to deny other males their sex-lives and to punish the females for theirs. Films like "Halloween" renders the male fear of being unable to save and safeguard the female body and feminine objects of lust and affection from superior male predators. This arousal and failure of the Male Protector, who is often dispatched early, symbolises all kinds of impotency. Other times the dynamic might change and become more complex when the threat facing the Male Protector is a mother ~ "Psycho", "Friday the 13th", "Deep Red", etc. In "Black Christmas", the final twist rests upon the Male Protector’s failure to recognise the female threat. These latter films also show the perceived homoeroticism of The Final Girl as failing to address female violence.

The slasher film also services rape-revenge fantasies for women. The surviving and central/final girl may not actually be violated, but her fear and the threat of it alone is enough to validate extreme self defence. After all, she must dispatch the killer in a gratuitous, graphic and inventive manner to satisfy revenge for having been stalked and humiliated. Oh, and the slaughter of her pals. Evidently, this also co-insides with the need for a show-stopping, sweaty, exhausted end to the cinematic experience, and we are often left celebrating female endurance and resourcefulness. Faceless or excessive male sexuality, often seen as violent, warrants extermination, or at least a good castration. In Abel Ferrara’s "Ms. 45: Angel of Death", the mere ability of men to breathe heavily upon the disturbed woman Thana is enough to earn their deaths (and she goes one better than wearing virginal white: she dresses as a nun!). Laurie in "Halloween" avoids symbolic rape, but she must pay back Michael Myers for what he has done to her friends, as if they were but rehearsals for her potential fate. This is why she must witness her friend’s corpses, in a moment of amassed horrific revelation and plot assemblage. Through these films, female protagonists are allowed the power to survive and eliminate the sexual abuses suffered by all sisterhood, past and present.

[4] Another key qualification of the masculine "Final Girl" that Clover states is their given unisex name: Laurie in Halloween, Marti in Hell Night, but this is obviously highly limited and easily dismissed once past a handful of final girl candidates.


4: Michael Myers is a Monster

William Schoell finds Halloween endowed with tedium, repetitious music, a rip-off of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (they are, of course, two quite different beasts, but…). He says: "Bloodless and pedestrian, Halloween just sits there when it should be doing something," despite its "nice premise." [5] Alternatively, "Halloween" anticipates the mythologizing of the modern serial murderer; the repetition of the score may be seen as a motif for the killer’s relentlessness [6]; its bloodlessness may reflect only a "comparative tastefulness" [7]. He is correct on the mythologizing and the score, but also misses the film’s reliance upon build-up, menace and suspense rather than cheap gory pay-offs, as used by its many imitators. Further, it is often the lesser known Bob Clark film "Black Christmas" (1975) that is often credited with forerunning the youth-orientated slasher genre, and is a far more identifiable forerunner for "Halloween" than "Texas Chainsaw", if only in atmosphere and use of a national ‘holiday’. Or, as Kim Newman puts it, "'Halloween' was about as original as an Italian Western remake of a samurai epic" [8].

Nevertheless Myers was a culmination of his killing predecessors, and for better or worse pointed the way ahead. The originality of "Halloween" is obvious: in near-definitive and timeless use of its widescreen Panavision streetscapes and of subjective camera; in its non-Gothic unmannered acting reminiscent more of Seventies neo-realist thrillers (all the camp is neatly distilled into Pleasance‘s Loomis); in bringing giallo traits to American killer flicks; in the thick but modernised shadows and sudden shocks; in truly giving the girls centre stage and a fighting chance for a feminised age; in bringing the slaughter to suburbia. Both in technical execution and entertainment value, it rewards study and repeated viewing. It remains seminal as a purveyor and portrayal of contemporary fears.


NOTE: This article is a shorter version of a work-in-progress chapter for my intended book on horror/thriller cinema, "The Gory Id: essays on killer films".
[5] Schoell, Stay Out of the Shower: the shocker film phenomenon, (Robinson Publishing, London, 1988) pg. 133.
[6] Carpenter has often said how the film did not frighten preview audiences at all until the score was added.
[7] Schoell, pg. 134.
[8] Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 144.