Thursday, October 11, 2007

31 Days of Halloween - Day 11 - Movie

I'm guessing this post is going to be seen as fighting words by many of you.

I recognize that this cheap little movie launched some careers, was widely imitated, and that many people consider it a classic. I also freely admit that I saw it when it first came out, and saw it numerous times in the first few years when it started showing up on cable and enjoyed it quite a lot. Personally, I never thought that "Halloween" (1978) was all that scary, and I never thought of it as a classic. Because of that, and because I was overfamiliar with it from all the times I watched it in junior high and high school, I'm guessing it's probably been about a decade since I last watched it.

In August I saw the Rob Zombie remake. I thought the first third was well done, the middle third was okay, and the last third--not so okay, mainly because the central character had no personality once he became an adult, and the babysitters he hunted down weren't given much personalities themselves, making it hard to empathize with their plight, when we should, given that the main character is nothing more than an efficient killing machine that we really can't relate to, and should not be rooting for.

From what I've read, reactions to the remake seemed to be similar to mine, on the kind end of things, to outright loathing of the film, which in the opinion of the majority of these detractors, did not hold a candle to the untouchable, classic, original.

I decided this Halloween, to watch John Carpenter's original, and to see if my opinion of it has changed given the long amount of time that's passed since last seeing it. Reevaluating it, would I find it to be a classic of horror cinema? Would I learn to outright loathe Rob Zombie's remake? I watched the movie on two levels. On the first level, I simply watched it as a piece of entertainment, losing myself to the experience. On another level in the back of my mind, I was watching for those moments that would signify it as a classic.

The plot to "Halloween" is familiar to everyone reading this, I'm guessing, so I won't give a summary beyond saying that 15 years after stabbing his older sister to death, Michael Myers, then a child, now a young adult, escapes from the mental institution where he was imprisoned, returns to his hometown, dons an unpainted William Shatner mask, and stalks and slashes a group of teenage girl babysitters and their boyfriends, while psychiatrist, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) hunts him down.

Did I find Carpenter's movie to be a classic? No. It's nicely shot. It's compact and simple. It's not really innovative though as a horror movie. Compositions that we take for granted now, where our protagonist is framed with their back to another part of the screen, unaware that the villain is suddenly there/sitting up/peering through the window/etc, even though the audience can see it, is done to great effect here a number of times, but it's a staple of horror movies going back at least until "Frankenstein" (1931). Was this the introduction of the annoying indestructable villain, who no matter how many times you stab him, burn him, shoot him, keeps getting up and lurching along with the intent to kill? No, while this feature would be used to tedious lengths in movies such as "The Terminator" (1984) and the "Friday the 13th" series, it was at the latest, introduced in "Westworld" (1973), though it could be argued that Universal's Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man were doing it decades earlier. It's not even the first horror movie where teens were the protagonists. "Carrie" (1976) was there first. Obviously, it's biggest legacy was being made for very little money and earning tons of it. What Carpenter and producer co-writer Debra Hill got right was the cypher as boogieman, a shape that we could project all of our fears onto. Loomis' dialogue was good, the locations were well chosen, and the end was pretty perfect. The musical score is the movie's best feature.

I'm now interested in rewatching "Halloween" (2007) because my initial assessment of it, actually turns out to be comparable to the original movie. Except for Laurie, I didn't find the teenage girls as likeable, dimensional characters (though Laurie isn't all that multi dimensional either, but she is likeable). In Carpenter's movie, it is pretty much the same, though I was far more annoyed by Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) here than in the remake. Their deaths didn't affect me one bit. Laurie as played by Jamie Lee Curtis is sympathetic, and you want her to survive and to save the kids under her care. She's also the prototype to the Ripley character in the "Alien" franchise. She's smart, responsible, reliable, looks out for others, and fights back. This is more evident here than in the remake. Loomis is a much better chaarcter as played by Donald Pleasance here than Malcolm McDowell in the remake. Pleasance comes off as something of a modern Van Helsing and has an authority and quiet strength to him. McDowell's Loomis is an ass. Something Zombie did that was an improvement, was to bring in the girls' parents. This move really upped the tragedy in having them deal with the loss of their offspring, and in some cases dying themselves to protect their daughters.

This movie has some wonky plot holes that Zombie wisely fixed in his version. First off, it's addressed as an aside in the Carpenter version, but not only does Michael Myers somehow learn to drive a car while being institutionalized since early childhood, but he drives pretty well all the time wearing a mask which severely limits his vision and hearing. We don't see any driving in the remake. In Carpenter's version it takes the police several hours to respond to the burglar alarm at the hardware store that Myers stole his mask, knives, and a rope that never appears in the rest of the movie. This scene is not in the remake. Loomis happens to stop at a payphone to call the police, just a few feet from where Myers shed his institution gown and switched to the coveralls. Not in the remake. Zombie does however give Myers some really good hearing with that mask on. As anyone who's ever worn an over the head latex mask knows, you can't hear anything through them.

As for the Michael Myers character himself. I'm sorry to say it, but the Rob Zombie version is better. Yes, Nick Castle does have an eerie presence just standing by a clothesline, or out on a porch, and even crossing he street. He also gives some nice, almost innocent touches to the character, such as the head tilt in admiration of one of his murders, but overall, he's not a very threatening, or imposing "shape." He battles with Jamie Lee Curtis seem much more even now, with Curtis' caharcter having just as good a chance of taking him out as he, her. In fact, the shape is pretty clumsy when he's trying to kill her. It must be that mask. He also seems kind of small. The whole stalking of Laurie, which in my memory was such a long part of the movie, turned out to be pretty short in actuality, and she beat him at every turn.

In contrast, Michael Myers as played by Tyler Mane in the remake is a huge, hulking threat. Carpenter saw the character as an elemental force of nature; evil incarnate. I understand his intention. It did not come off that way. Tyler Mane comes off as a force of nature. You believe he can overpower everyone, that bullets and knives won't stop him, that he can punch his way through a wall, because, look at him. Against that huge frame, those teenagers don't stand a chance. Of, course, this makes it difficult to root for Laurie in the remake. As I said, in the original, it was entirely believable that Laurie could beat him. In the remake--no way. Carpenter thought that giving Myers an origin story would be a mistake, defining Myers, rather than let the audience project their own ideas onto him. Rob Zombie felt otherwise, and in the remake, this was the strongest section of the film. Daeg Faerch, as the young Michael Myers was sympathetic when he was supposed to be, and alarming when he was supposed to be. The young Michael actually made the grown-up Michael more of a menace.

The big difference between the two was in the amount of onscreen violence, nudity and profanity. Carpenter's movie, like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is actually pretty bloodless. In fact, I think it was bloodless. While some of the teenagers were having sex, except for a couple of brief glimpses of Pj. Sole's nipples, there wasn't much nudity going on either. Swears? I don't recall any, though there may have been one or two mild ones. In Zombie's movie, the violence was hard and bloody, even when it was happening out of frame. There was tons of nudity, and seemingly every other word was of the four letter variety. The main difference in this movies is that they took place on the opposite side of the tracks. Carpenter's characters were priveleged, or at least middle-class. The teenagers even payed attention and took notes in class. Zombie's characters were a bunch of crude, lower class, "trailer trash"-types in the first third, and while more upscale in the final third, still a bit trashy. This may be a major factor in people feeling so much animosity to the remake, and such fondness for the original.

Though I'd have to rewatch it again to make an outright declaration, it looks like I'm leaning towards seeing the remake as a better movie. Is it a classic? No. But neither is the original.


Anonymous said...

You know, as far as slasher movies go, I've sort of felt like I was in the same boat considering Halloween. I watched it once when I was younger and it didn't really affect me all that much. A few years ago I re-watched it with a friend who had never seen any horror movies and though we both like aspects of the film it still didn't feel like the classic everyone was touting it as.

I think my biggest problem with the film is conceptually, and only because I read an interview with Carpenter about how he hated Friday the 13th, which he considered twisted and wrong (or some such nonsense.) I never really saw all that much of a difference between the two films. This past week I re-watched F13 with my wife (who had never seen it) and I think I understand where Carpenter is coming from (I think his complaint lies with the fact that in F13 there is no myth to the killer, who is portrayed for the most part in the p.o.v of the audience, and there fore it forces the audience into that role.)

I need to re-watch Halloween (as well as giving Zombie's version a shot), which the wife and I plan on doing in the next couple of weeks. I'm wondering if the difference in p.o.v., as well as the myth of Michael Meyers make a difference.

I really liked your review of the flick John.

Stephen said...

Thanks for the in-depth review of both films, John, and for your honest thoughts on both of them. The original is a favorite of mine, and I'm afraid time won't change my opinion of it. After all, it wouldn't be right to write off the 1931 Frankenstein because it's not "scary" or because it contains certain flaws. I have to watch these films with a certain context in mind, and take them for what they are. I haven't seen the new version, but I don't really have much of a desire to. I wish Hollywood would stop "reimagining" classic films and start coming up with some fresh ideas. But I guess television and the music industry do the same, and people still buy into it, so what can you do.

John Rozum said...

Shawn, I watched "Friday the 13th" for the first time since the late 80s about a year ago, and found it really crude and amateurish. It was soulless, with no other purpose than the violent slaughter of the teens. It wasn't actually about anything. Historically, for good or ill, it began the whole wave of super violent splatter effects, which oddly, were pretty restrained in "Friday the 13th" when you're not seeing them in still photos.

Stephen, I completely respect your opinion on the original and lack of interest in the remake. I don't think your feelings on the original are invalid at all. I actually expected very few people to feel the same way I do, but since part of posting about my daily movie viewings was to include my reactions, I felt I need to be honest about it. I was actually surprised that I was as underwhelmed by it as I was. The next time I watch it, I might love it.

As far as "Frankenstein" goes I can watch that and see how it influenced all of the horror movies that came after it, even ones made now by people who possibly have never seen it. So, even if I didn't like "Frankenstein' (which isn't the case. It's one of my favorites) I could appreciate it in the context of its historic significance and the influence it had.

I tried to watch "Halloween" in the same light, trying to discern why it had such a big impact, and I came up blank. All of the things that I thought might have been revolutionary in it, when I gave it further thought, had already been done. I was surprised since i was there when it came out, and felt like I was seeing something new at the time, but I was unable to recapture that moment. Maybe the newness to me was seeing a movie that I shouldn't have been seeing in 7th grade. Maybe it's biggest impact really was that a cheap indie film could make so much money.

I don't know.

Stephen said...

I think you're right, John. Other studios saw how much cash it made and a new slasher film industry was born. It's probably most significant in that respect.