Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Re-Evaluating A Re-Make

I was awfully hard on Rob Zombie’s re-whatevering of Halloween last year, freely using words like ugly and ill-conceived. And while I still think both of those adjectives apply, watching the picture again on Bluray left me with a more positive impression of the film. Dimension Films certainly isn’t giving fans any reason to complain with the new release (3 standard DVDs or 2 Blurays), an exhaustively comprehensive presentation that most films can only dream of. The second BD disc is reserved for a nearly 4½ hour documentary on the shooting of the film presented entirely in HD. Despite the length, it’s actually quite a watchable show, covering the pre-production, casting, and shooting, but disappointingly omits nearly all of the post-production period. The first disc contains the beautifully transferred feature (called an “unrated director’s cut”) in a near-flawless transfer, accurately reflecting the show’s rough-hewn cinematography. In the extras department, Zombie sits solo for an interesting commentary track, thoughtfully explaining his narrative choices, and commenting honestly on things he felt could have been done better. It’s a very pleasurable listen. There are also about 20min of deleted scenes and a superior (in this viewer’s opinion) alternate ending, in addition to the usual EPK filler.

So, a year later, what struck me differently?

The acting, with a notable exception, is unusually good. Scout Taylor-Compton is especially fine as Laurie, giving her both strength and a sense of humor. While no sane person would take anything away from Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance in the original, the purity aspect of the character was pressed hard, making it difficult to believe that girls like Linda and Annie would want to hang around with her. Scout (along with her director) manage the difficult feat of creating a genuine teenage character that resists stereotyping. This is particularly true of her scenes with on-screen mom, Dee Wallace. Their scenes together are very real and sweet and make you realize the work that Zombie is capable of when he drops the aggravating white trash pastiche. Pictures like House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were choc-a-block with so much of this ugliness that you weren’t able to even see the bottom, with each character seemingly trying to outdo the previous gutter-filthy exchange. In his first two films this was passable (though not really enjoyable) because Zombie built the films around that sort of behavior, where constant threats of “skull fucking” and “titty twisting” formed the fabric of the character’s lives. But Halloween seems to want to exist in something more closely resembling the real world – a welcome direction for this clearly talented filmmaker – but this has the effect of rendering scenes like the breakfast introduction to the Myers family into an ugly joke (William Forsyth deserves better than this, Rob). Zombie is an intelligent director, and I don’t know if he’s using this as a crutch to appeal to his imagined fanbase or if this is the way he thinks most people interact with each other – either way, I hope he thinks better of it, and soon.

Back when House of 1000 Corpses first came out, the performer that I expected the least from was the director’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. The mention of her name conjures the image of an aging hippie selling hash brownies at a Phish concert, and her shrill performance as a member of the murderous clan left only the impression of nepotism at work. But her role in The Devil’s Rejects was more fleshed out, and resulted in the actress holding he own against scene stealer Sid Haig, but it was still essentially the same role as before. In Halloween she manages some real pathos as a mother who comes home to find her family butchered and her blonde, cherubic-faced son holding the bloody knife. But she’s even better after Michael is put away under the care of Dr. Loomis (McDowell, wearing an utterly preposterous wig) as she watches her son slowly slip away. Her final scene at the hospital as she reacts to the monster her son has become is heartbreaking.

Strangely, it’s top-billed Malcolm McDowell that drops the ball with a phoned-in performance. Maybe he’s just done so much garbage in the last few decades that nothing really excites him anymore, but I suspect that many of the young filmmakers who seek him out for roles are too much in awe of him to actually give direction, and are willing to accept almost anything from their idol. I’m still a fan, but I’d dearly love to see a director really ride McDowell and whip the eyebrow arching and naughty-boy posturing out of him and get the kind of performance he’s capable of (either that, or just watch Time After Time with him and say “Please, just give me that!”) Also damaging the film are the myriad cameos by the Zombie stock company, with barely a minute going by without your eyes darting around to spot Bill Moseley or Sid Haig doing their usual walk through. Individually, certain choices (like Brad Dourif and Richard Lynch) are actually quite good, but when you jam them in scenes with Udo Keir, Clint Howard, and Micky Dolenz, it becomes a Chiller convention autograph floor instead of a movie.

Though I’m still hard-pressed to recommend it, Rob Zombie’s Halloween does provide a glance at a talented director going through some growing pains. There’s an assured, stylish hand with plenty of style at work here, and we as soon as he finds material that forces him to look forward instead of back, we’ll see what he’s really capable of.