Cruelty is a hallmark of Rob Zombie’s films. His antagonists revel in the infliction of pain, and Zombie revels in putting it on film. As a filmmaker, Zombie has embraced the current trend in horror films of making murder graphic and disturbing, bringing it visually closer to the real thing. This is no feather in his cap, nor is it a daring attempt to hold a mirror up to the violent society in which we live. There is no depth or complexity, no higher meaning that is being pursued, no redeeming quality that makes it worth the time and effort it takes to sit through one of his films.
After the box office successes of House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, the latter a sad attempt at portraying mass murderers as folk heroes, Zombie signed on to write and direct a remake of Halloween. After this proved a successful venture, Zombie agreed to make a follow-up.
Like the original film, Halloween tells the story of psychopathic killer Michael Myers as he cuts a bloody swath through the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, on Halloween night. The principal targets are teenagers, among them Laurie Strode, played to awkward perfection by Jamie Lee Curtis in the original, here reduced to 21st century generic teen perfection by Scout Taylor-Compton. Completing the triumvirate of franchise staples is Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell, a logical choice for the role as he is this era’s answer to Donald Pleasence, whom he replaces. Serious, English, competent, and willing to act in anything, just like Pleasence, once a viewer sees McDowell in the role, it’s hard to picture anyone else.
Zombie lifts a fair amount of material from John Carpenter’s original film, but also spends time exploring the nature of the beast that is Michael Myers, showing his youthful home life and the events leading to his murderous break, something Carpenter only touched on in a short introduction in the original. Early on, this establishes the film as Zombie’s own, but it doesn’t make it any better to have the ambiguity of Michael’s motivations explained.
The young Michael grew up in a house full of profanity and verbal abuse, loved only by his stripper mother. The audience is meant to believe that Michael is the product of this environment, that if only his mother’s boyfriend had not been a foul-mouthed, drunken sonofabitch, or his sister not a slut, that everything would have turned out differently. Nurture vs. nature. After this child Michael treats the audience to a grisly set of murders, he is locked away in a mental institution, safe to grow up and turn from a blonde haired pre-pubescent boy into a seven foot tall monster that is, ironically, far less of a fearsome figure than the character in youth. To look at the adult Michael Myers is to see a killer. Nothing about the way he carries himself or the way he has been outfitted in the film suggests otherwise. But the young Michael never betrayed just when he was going to snap. He just did. While Zombie couldn’t quite nail down the origin story in a satisfying manner, he did succeed in making the young Michael a creepy kid.
What Zombie missed is that in the original film the mystery surrounding Michael’s condition makes him that much more of a figure to be feared. He just kills, with no rhyme or reason, no way to talk him out of it, no way to stop him without putting oneself in harm’s way. In other words, when the audience knows just as little about Michael as the poor teenagers he’s hunting down, their helplessness is shared. Zombie’s Michael is just as efficient at the business of death, but when a viewer can make their own conclusions about how the birthing of such a homicidal machine could have been prevented, that helplessness, and the tension it brings with it, is lessened.
So, in adding complexity to the story, Zombie in fact removes it. The ambiguity was such a sustaining characteristic of the original film that it’s removal only serves to highlight its importance. The original franchise fell into this trap with its b-quality sequels, but Zombie chose to waste no time.
The origin story explained, the second film is just a pastiche of violence. It’s senseless nature becomes apparent when the viewer realizes that the main plot of the film is still being set up well over an hour in, but already Michael has racked up quite a body count. This is death as filler, something to keep the audience from having to wait for anything to happen. Zombie’s first film was bad, but at least it was a coherent tale told in three distinct acts, the first two leading up to climax and a definitive end. The second never seems to know where it is going, and tries a generic attempt at psychological depth with hallucinatory visions of a white horse. Yes, a white horse. Any meaning it carries is opaque, and that is not the viewer’s fault, it is Zombie’s.
All of this is not the worst about these films, however. It is the scale of violence that kills them. It is mean-spirited, at best, in its nicer moments. At other times, it is like watching torture. Logic would suggest that applying a scale to film murder makes no sense. How could a death in one film be more watchable, or even more enjoyable, than a death in another? We are not supposed to derive joy from watching people die. Normally, we don’t. After all, no one is dying in horror films, they are just acting like they are dying, a practice as old as drama itself. Indeed, there are many films that are more gory than Zombie’s Halloween films, and there are films that are less gory but more disturbing. Zombie eschews both cartoonish violence and subtlety while crafting deaths that are bloody, and a little bit too cruel to pass as entertainment. I watched both of these films the whole way through, and it was a mistake, especially after having had the miserable experience of seeing Zombie’s two earlier films. That’s four films in the can for Zombie now, four tedious explorations of human violence, and four reasons never to see another of his films. Shame on me for needing more than one reason. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than both Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II.
Addendum — Richard Brake makes a brief appearance in Halloween II. For those of you who don’t know him, he played a would-be rapist in Doom. In Halloween II, he plays an aide from the coroner’s office, who is also a would-be rapist, only this time the object of his perversions is a dead body. Richard, you have played two roles that are among the most disgusting I have ever seen in film. No rent check is worth the roles you have played. For your own sake, stop this madness.