Halloween II Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Halloween II Review

    “I'm a little confused. Are we talking about the "Austin Powers" Mike Myers or is this someone else?”

    Proving very popular with the new crowd, Rob Zombie's first stab at the Michael Myers franchise nevertheless courted supreme controversy with the die-hard fans. The fact that he then opted to carry on his “part unique, part derivative” slant on Haddonfield's Horror Titan in order to create his own sideline interpretation only compounded this polarisation and Halloween II stalked and stomped its belligerent way across cinema screens at the appropriate time of year much like its poster-boy's own trail of destruction. I actually found it weirdly reassuring to see The Shape in full knife-plunging fury on bus stops and billboards, even if it was in the hulking guise of Tyler Mane.

    But the film limped back out of vogue again with sub-par reviews and was largely dismissed by all but those who were either determined to see it crash and burn, or those who kind of harboured the notion that it would be both bloodier and more incident packed - just like the Halloween II that John Carpenter and Rick Rosenthal delivered way back in 1981.

    Crazily and somewhat craftily, the film is not even a proper retake upon the original hospital-set sequel, with Zombie only paying homage to it in a tense and horrific, and admittedly lengthy dream sequence very early on. In many ways this is actually the best part of the film because it does garner some real suspense and a few jolts along the way. But the rest of the story, dealing with the haunted aftermath for the survivors of the first film's events, and of Michael's reinvigorated quest to complete the family circle again, is, paradoxically, more soap than slaughter. The quaint afterlife visions of his mother, once again played by Sheri Moon Zombie, and now accompanied by a mythical-cum-psychological large white stallion - Zombie making a little pseudo-riff on Deckard's dreams of a unicorn in Blade Runner, perhaps - figure hugely in the narrative. Michael, completely unhinged and adrift from reality, takes solace and motivation from these hallucinations, the image of himself as that little boy on the verge of homicidal mania also urging him to commit more senseless killing in the relentless search to find Laurie Strode (played with startling new volatility by a returning Scout Taylor-Compton) who, traumatised by the ordeal she went through, is now under the roof and the protection of Brad Dourif's Sheriff Brackett. Travelling cross-country, having grown his hair and beard into something that Bigfoot would be proud of, Michael cuts through anyone and anything that stands between him and a big happy-slapping reunion with his sister.

    The focus partially shifted from ungodly and seemingly random carnage to obsessional Freudian angst, Halloween II is both remarkable and irritatingly malformed.

    Personally speaking, I find myself in a rather unorthodox position regarding these two films. My heart tells me that I should hate them and Rob Zombie for ever attempting to rework the immortal classic that John Carpenter unleashed back in 1978, but my head seeks to rationalise what he has done. And, somewhat bizarrely, I find myself coming down on Zombie's side because, against all the odds, I actually quite like what he has come up with. With some rather large reservations.

    In a piece of casting that actually pleased a lot of the core fans, Danielle Harris, from Halloweens 4 and 5, crops up again as Brackett's daughter, Annie, now facially scarred from her previous encounter with that Myers kid. We even have Stretch, Texas Chainsaw 2's own bogeyman-harassed DJ, Caroline Williams putting in an appearance as Dr. Maple. But the most shocking addition to the role-call is that of wayside celebrity and once cult-icon Margot Kidder, who appears here as Laurie's stress-counsellor. Looking staggering awful these days, her inclusion here is like some sort of nod towards her own psychotic turn in Brian De Palma's early suspenser Sisters, in which she played twins with a murderous impulse. Taylor-Compton segues from sympathetic victim to whining death-metal bitch all too easily, but the transition is a credible one for someone who has danced with the devil. Finding herself on the receiving end of a very grim revelation can only mess up her mojo even more, but the problem is that, by this stage, we actually care very little about her, or anyone else for that matter, due to Zombie's utterly unrepentant decision to make everyone so abhorrent. Even the lowest-rent, more haphazard characters are detestable, sleazy white-trash types that simply beg to be slaughtered. And the language, as you would expect, is ripe. But Zombie makes the mistake of pandering to his critics with a truly ludicrous spell of protracted “F-bombs” issuing from the bloodied lips of a paramedic, freshly skull-bounced off the dashboard of a crashing ambulance. The painful response is understandable, perhaps, but in the midst of a film this goes way beyond being funny and becomes mind-bogglingly tiresome and unending. Arguments and acidic barbs abound, to the point where even the lulls between killings are fraught and edgy. This is deliberate, of course, but the necessary peaks and troughs that should ease us in to the story are absent. Which is a definite mistake.

    Zombie had a chance to retaliate against his detractors with this entry. Now was the time that he could forcibly state that he was making a vastly different mythology and one that could, however originally misguided, stand on its own two feet. But after a promising first half and some reasonably left-field deviations from the traditional path with regards to his new characterisations, the film and the story that he has created dovetails into a final stretch that you know he thinks is powerful and poignant ... but is sadly just boring and very unsatisfying.

    I went through a bit of an epiphany with Zombie's reimagining of Carpenter's classic. Firstly I feel the same way towards almost all remakes, rebirths and updates of cult movies as many people out there. Why? Damn you, why? You have to have a valid reason for doing such a thing in the first place. When John Carpenter, himself, remade The Thing, he actually went back to the source novella that the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby original film ignored almost completely and came up with a story and a movie that was so far removed from its predecessor that it really can't be termed as a remake. When Spielberg updated War Of The Worlds, it was different kettle of apocalyptic fish to George Pal's and Byron Haskin's flamboyant Technicolor adaptation of Wells' novel altogether, a clever and often inspired allegory of Post 9/11 society and the inspiring spirit of devotion in the face of calamity. There is a vast difference between cashing-in on a much-loved title that practically guarantees commercial viability - the endless slew of Americanised Asian horror, for example, or Hollywood's predilection for regurgitating their own horror and thriller output from the seventies and eighties, such as Friday The 13th, Prom Night, The Taking Of Pelham 123, the forthcoming A Nightmare On Elm Street etc, etc - and the conscious, well-thought-out creative endeavor to break new ground and possibly re-energize something that may have some form of relevance to today's audience. The evolved Halloweens may not be quite such a societal revelation, but they do have a lot more recognition for the damage and the fall-out of a psychopathic rampage than anything Carpenter delivered. A different, and, I would say important approach to take.

    If you're gonna do it, do it differently.

    And Rob Zombie, at least, attempted to do something with the material that wasn't merely rehashing all the old stuff that we knew and loved so well. Controversial, certainly. Unwanted, you betcha. But he had the guts to try and celebrate his favourite horror film without slavishly reworking its original creator's vision, shot for shot and frame for frame. He twisted and tweaked the back-story. He removed the supernatural angle. He gave more flesh to the bones of once peripheral characters and, rightly or wrongly, he humanised Michael Myers in such a way that he resonated a little more disturbingly with a modern audience. Now, my opinion on the original film is well documented - you only have to read the comprehensive review that I wrote for its Blu-ray debut. Sufficed to say that it is one of my all-time favourites. So how could I stand Zombie's grungified modification? Well, it wasn't easy, I can tell you. But, over time, I learned to accept that what he was doing was re-interpreting the saga, not burying it. He wasn't debasing or desecrating what Carpenter did. His more earthy and intimidating version wasn't the sacrilege that many liked to claim. Like Carpenter's The Thing, this bogeyman was a different breed striking-out from the same central premise. Zombie wasn't interested in simply raking over the same narrative - he would hit the right notes but take the tack of supplying explanations, back-stories and basic motivations. On the surface, that seemed to dampen the classic nature of the original. In short, the magic and the mystery was gone, replaced with an imposing psychopath who could merely have wandered in from Camp Crystal Lake, except for the eerie and nagging feeling that this time around, we sort of sympathised with Michael. You could say that where Carpenter's killer was a warped kind of cool, Zombie's is like his imbecilic henchman, a Solomon Grundy to his more streamlined and refined Joker.

    Halloween II, then, is both the best and worst of Zombie's alternate Myers reality.

    This unrated Director's Cut changes things a bit. There's a touch more violence here and there, though still nothing quite as shocking as the Zombie brand-name would suggest, and some character beats are either extended or altered. However the biggest change from the theatrical version is the ending itself - of which I will say nothing for obvious reasons. But this version is definitely superior to the one that trundled around the cinemas. Zombie's left-field "family" motif is much more crucial now, more strongly defined and the desire for a circular and lyrical arc for all concerned much better developed even if, ultimately, he botches things with a climax that, paradoxically, feels both rushed and laboriously thought-out. Composer Tyler Bates returns to deliver a heavy, foreboding score that ties-in with what he produced for the first outing. What vague reminiscence there may be to the Carpenter/Alan Howarth original music is slight, and unobtrusive in this new vision. Zombie slots-in some swooping aerial shots of Michael trudging his way cross-country back to Haddonfield, and these are usually accompanied by ominous bass rumbles, symbolising that the brute is like a force of unstoppable nature, even if he is just blood and bone. The use of psycho-billy rock group Captain Clegg and The Night Creatures (named after the atmospheric Hammer period yarn from 1962) sadly adds little more than gothic decoration to the monstrously dull Halloween party that marks the start of the fateful final act, Zombie still revelling in his penchant for delirious source music. For me, the fancy-dress rave actually stalls the atmosphere, rather than adding to it, and this is the point at which the movie begins to fall apart, lose coherence and become piecemeal in tone.

    But what destroys this movie way before this for a good many people is the fact that we get to see Michael without his mask on and in broad daylight. Now this is something that devout purists probably cannot abide with even if they wanted to. But, having made my pact with this, I can accept such an, otherwise, unforgivable effrontery. This killer has a face - albeit one that looks like a Hell's Angel who takes time out to wrestle - and it doesn't make any sense that he would wear a mask all day long, every day of the week. Zombie wants to place his bogeyman in the realm of the real and the everyday. He wants us to believe that this guy can exist - horribly removed from society, of course ... but still exist in a natural, got to survive the elements, got to eat (a neat little reminder of The Shape's canine cuisine served-up at one point, alfresco-style), got to move through the world without the aid of old Celtic superpowers. Once again, this is Zombie trying to explore how this guy can get from place to place, can function as a real, living being.

    One of the most effective moments comes when a small kid, breaking off from his Trick-or-Treating chums, comes into direct contact with a Michael freshly returned to his hometown. Composed of eerie shadow and David and Goliath framing, this shot not only reveals a playful reminder of the instance that informed Michael's own shocking career-path (the boy is dressed as a clown and clutching a mask in his hand) but also serves as a magnificent, though subtle throwback image to the original Golem symbolism. I also like the hobo gear that Michael wraps around himself, layers and furs and hood. If you've ever looked at the great Wolverine graphic novel “Origins” you will have seen the terrifically imposing man-mountain assigned to track down Logan down and kill him - and might find that Michael, in his vagabond garb, is a very close live-action incarnation, and just as colossally violent. An excised scene, found here only in the Deleted collection, shows him rooting through somebody's garbage whilst a terrified observer phones the police - and it is touches such as this that provide an eerie third dimension to the character.

    The random slaughter he commits whilst “on-the-way” is gruesome and fun but, maddeningly, feels shoehorned-in. Michael's propensity for appalling brutality is thuggish and lacking in the kind of shock-value that you demand. A big bloke, he comes to rely far too easily on bullish bone-breaking, hurling his victims around and smacking them into very hard surfaces. Thus, despite some meaty take-downs and wicked knife-thunks into still-living carcasses, this is not as gory as you might have expected. In fact, it is true to say that a couple of the group slayings are actually a touch disappointing. Having said that, though, there is an early scene of wounds being stitched together in graphic close-up that is very gruesome and very convincing. The makeup effects are handled, once again, by Wayne Toth, who also had a hand in concocting some of the gags on Sam Raimi's excellent Drag Me To Hell.

    Enlarging Brad Dourif's role as the troubled Sheriff was something that seemed slightly perplexing at first but, in the context of this more emotionally shattering saga, it makes sense and becomes a rock that we can cling to. Thus, when we consider the staggeringly tragic course of events that befall him, it becomes readily apparent that Zombie wanted us to witness precisely the psychological devastation that such vicious deeds inevitably produce. It could be argued that, as a result of this, Dourif is then tasked with delivering a performance that is possibly much greater than the film that surrounds it. This is certainly true of one sequence which, through no fault of his own, sticks out as sentimental overkill when compared to the rest of the film.

    But the biggest departure from convention, apart from Michael that is, is that of Dr. Sam Loomis. With Malcolm McDowell returning to play the painfully motivated shrink, we now get a far more complete subversion of Donald Pleasance's valiant crusader with Loomis tuning-in to the pop-celebrity status that he has attained via his proximity to America 's latest and greatest serial killer. That he has now become a pure vulture, milking the story and the agony of others with a bestselling book on the ordeal is both clever and utterly contrived. Zombie is paying lip-service to our now-clichéd take on death culture being a media sensation. This isn't news any more, though. Even Wes Craven studied this sordid ethic long ago with the Scream series and, of course, the Halloween franchise, itself, has dallied with it too - that Big Brother episode, for example. McDowell's Loomis looks almost unnervingly like my old man and his condescending/egotistical nature can't hep but rile. A pivotal sequence - and I don't mean the one that sees him upstaged by Weird Al Yankovich on a TV chat-show - is ruined by him, somehow, getting to the scene of the crime just in time with almost exactly the same type of supernatural swiftness that the original Michael Myers had in spades. But Zombie wrestles with this and does, at least, come up with a moment that is guaranteed to stoke some righteous venom when a grieving parent of one of Michael's victims shows up at a book-signing with ideas of retribution. Here we have an example of the film's fantasy colliding with real-life in a mock media-crusade. The film wants to poke accusation over the very celebration of such heinous acts that it, itself, exploits. Irony? Or just plain overkill? Zombie, as ever, almost makes a point or two, but seems to lose impetus and direction and fall back into the very thing he pretends to rail against.

    In this way, Rob Zombie wants to have his cake and eat it too. But it just doesn't work that way when he then literally pitches-in random teen slaughter seemingly for the hell of it.

    So, as you can see, Halloween II is a film that contains strong images and allegories that often become frustratingly stalled in their master's mixed-up, schizophrenic exploration of shock values, obsession and violent cause and effect. It is a shame, as this new take on the filmic legend actually has a lot going for it. Zombie does have intelligence and a committed devotion to the story, but he still lacks the necessary skills to have his interpretation stand fully apart from its seed-bed and strike out into bold and unfazed new territory. He plays with the trademarks and twists expectations, but can't find the narrative strength to totally heave-ho with the more mundane elements of the past. As a slasher pic, this is much better than the majority of the other bodycount remakes, especially the naff Friday The 13th reboot, because it does attempt to drift, at least partially, away from the usual bloody gutter. But, sadly, this is not saying much, and the overwhelming majority of horror fans and Halloween disciples are only likely to groan with dismay all over again.

    Still, I would definitely recommend this instalment for those who know Zombie's style and appreciate his courage to take something so beloved and work his own dark cynicism through it. As they know, his films are often excommunicated for the very reasons that he makes them. He likes things brutal, grimy and tailor-made for trash. His Halloween II is, therefore, arrogant, bird-flipping, and chock-full of unpleasant, foul-mouthed hicks that we want to see die. Thus, this film is much more of a typical Rob Zombie production than his first Halloween which, ultimately, crept back into mainstream. This, at least, maintains his own identity ... which, in this era of half-assed, ten-a-penny rehashes can only be commendable.

    Well, sort of.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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