"John Carpenter’s The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s – a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as – guess what? – more laboratory-concocted special effects.
There may be a metaphor in all this, but I doubt it."
Oh, that Vincent Canby, who fumed the above in 1982 for The New York Times, didn’t live to see days such as these.
Though recognized as a horrror/sci-fi classic today, it’s important to remember that John Carpenter’s gore-soaked remake of Christian Nyby’s (and Howard Hawks’s) The Thing from Another World was either loathed or dismissed by critics upon its initial release. To these viewers raised on Universal horror and Val Lewton, Carpenter’s film was a defilement, indicative of a cultural coarsening that had begun in the 70s with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and finally reached its nihilsitic nadir with the slasher movement – which, in 1982, was in full swing thanks largely to another picture directed by Carpenter called Halloween. The exploding heads, chests and mutating pooches were the end of subtlety, a deal breaker; anyone eager to abuse the audience with such ghastly sights surely wasn’t after bigger thematic game. And even if there was a metaphor lurking under the copious fake blood and latex, it was the product of a diseased and stunted mind; nothing subtle or thoughtful was kicking around in Carpenter’s head.
A lot has changed in twenty-five years; Carpenter is now universally recognized as a master (though his best days are sadly behind him), while horror movies are once again shredding the decency envelope. And, as the complete dismissal of Eli Roth’s first Hostel proved, critics are still prone to missing theme in movies that upset them. The difference this time is that a movie called Halloween is late to the orgy of ugliness; also, rather than launch a brilliant directorial career, it just might end a semi-promising one.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween isn’t just a misfire, but a bad-faith attempt at genre revision by an artist who has nothing interesting on his mind. There is a metaphor here, but it’s been chewed, swallowed, digested and evacuated, leaving the audience to endure the stink of its abject stupidity for 120 minutes. Broken homes warp minds. Thanks, Rob.
The problem with Zombie’s brand of horror is that he’s incapable of playing anything straight; there’s no menace in the material because he’s too busy winking at the audience with cameos and intentionally rotten dialogue (I can’t imagine the vitriol spewed by William Forsythe’s crippled, live-in boyfriend is meant to be anything but hilarious in its awfulness). You’re acutely aware that this is Zombie & Friends’ Halloween; he’s playing for his own amusement when he should be playing for keeps. This is evident in the parade of bad hairpieces (Malcolm McDowell and Ken Foree are big losers in this department) and imbecilic allusions to the previous movie (The Thing from Another World gets worn out here). He might as well have titled this Max Fischer’s Halloween. It’s stuffed to exhaustion with the same ostentation that ruined The Devil’s Rejects, and it feels like overcompensation; Zombie’s too well-adusted to go where his horror heroes went. He makes the tamest grindhouse movies ever.
So whence the "semi-promise"? There’s the slow-motion pullback in House of 1,000 Corpses, or the interrogation of the family in The Devil’s Rejects (personally, I thought the "Free Bird" finale was risible and poorly executed), and it briefly flashes in Halloween with Michael’s brutal first murder – which is the first time Zombie has ever intentionally unnerved me. The blood flowing from the nose and ears of Michael’s teenaged tormenter after being repeatedly walloped with an unforgivably sturdy branch feels real, and, oh, what an awful feeling it is; the camera swirling off into the barren treetops suggests a world unmoored from any semblance of goodness. Had this explosion of violence come out of nowhere, had Zombie not strained for unpleasantness from reel one, had he not shown Michael cutting up hamsters in the character’s introduction, the savagery of this moment might have scarred. It could’ve been the first walk-out moment prompted by Zombie’s talent rather than his creative futility.
This futility is most forgivable in Halloween‘s first half, which is Zombie’s attempt to explore the pathology of Michael’s evil. It’s awash in a stupid kind of literalness borne from a lack of purpose, but at least it’s Zombie’s movie and not an abbreviated runthrough of Carpenter’s classic undone by incoherent geography and suspense-free pursuits that feature Michael tearing apart a rickety old house like a pissed-off Bob Vila. Delving into the mind of a killer is cliche anymore; besides, it was done too well by John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which you should stay in and watch if you’re desperate for a creepy night out at the movies this weekend). And it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Michael such a terrifying monster in the first place; he was an unstoppable, hell-sent killing machine who ceased being human a long time ago. This is why Loomis wanted him dead if he could not keep him locked up.
Malcolm McDowell’s Loomis is too innocuous and too busy trying to be Michael’s best buddy in the early going to bring the requisite sense of immediacy to the second-half – which is so rushed and stylistically different from the first half that Zombie might as well have farmed it out to a director who knows how to generate a palpable sense of dread (Steve Miner could’ve done better). Malcolm McDowell’s been in a lot of stinkers over the years, but I’ve thankfully avoided most of them; I did not, however, dodge this spray of buckshot, so I’ll go ahead and declare this a career low (and, yes, I’ve seen Tank Girl).
The rest of the performances aren’t much better, and some, dear god, are worse. With three movies to her dubious credit, it’s safe to say Sheri Moon-Zombie has no discernible talent and should never be seen onscreen again. Fortunately for us, she’s only appeared in one non-Rob film, and that was a Tobe Hooper movie; I could live a contented life if I never see another film from either auteur again. The big news for Halloween fanboys is Danielle Harris doffing her top; that they’ve been lusting after her since Halloween 4, in which she was ten-years-old, is an issue they’ll someday take up with Chris Hansen. As for Tyler Mane as a ‘roided-out Michael Myers, it’s one of the film’s least egregious offenses, though his excessive presence is in keeping with the movie’s throttling obviousness.
I’m beginning to think that Zombie’s come this far as a director because we’re surprised that he didn’t stink outright. Well, he’s beginning to stink retroactively, and if this film enjoys a $20 million-plus opening weekend, it’s likely he’ll stink from here to Rob Zombie’s The Thing. And if you think he lacks the gumption to climb that mountain o’ hubris, you haven’t been paying attention.