Remakes are nothing new. From the silent era onward, filmmakers have returned again and again to the same stories, re-interpreting them and updating them either for the sake of modernization, to expose them to a broader audience or to just make more money. We modern film geeks tend to roll our eyes and groan cynically when a new remake comes down the pike, but the fact of the matter is that when done right there are few things as satisfying as a seeing a story we love get a good cinematic spit-shine. Remakes are a part of the grand tradition of storytelling and cinema history, and love them or hate them, they’re here to stay.
But in the last decade, the term “remake” has become something of a dirty word, and as a result Hollywood spin doctors and internet journalists have given us the new terms “reboot” and “re-imagining”. Do these terms actually have meaning, or are they just empty buzzwords? The mission statement of this ongoing column will be to answer that question by comparing an original film to a re-do and determining if the newer version fits one of the following definitions:
Remake: A straight re-telling of a story for the purpose of updating it for a contemporary audience, or making it accessible to a different culture or region.
Reboot: A course correction done with the purpose of restarting a franchise. A reset. Fealty to the original story or film is not a priority.
Re-Imagining: A re-telling of a story, but only in the broadest sense. Characters and some story elements may be retained, but mostly plot and story have been repurposed.
I also will make a judgment call on which version is superior. Some controversy may ensue.
HALLOWEEN (1978) VS. HALLOWEEN (2007)
The story: One fateful Halloween night a troubled young Michael Myers murders his teenage sister after witnessing her having sex. Fifteen years later, the now grown Michael escapes from the asylum in which he was under the care of an impassioned therapist, Dr. Loomis. Donning a featureless mask, Michael returns to his hometown of Haddonfield and continues the Halloween murder spree he began fifteen years earlier by targeting a group of teenage babysitters. One of the babysitters, Laurie Strode, isn’t content to be Michael’s victim, and while she fends off Michael’s ceaseless and nearly inhuman attacks, Loomis races against the clock to find Michael and bring him down once and for all.
So what’s the deal? : When it was announced that Robert Zombie would remake John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, horror fans freaked the fuck out, and not in a good way. Zombie had earned some horror cred with House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, but Carpenter’s Halloween was untouchable; a sacrosanct text that was not to be defiled. There was an inherent irony in this of course; the sanctity of Halloween had been violated over and over in the form of inarguably inferior sequels, some of which (Halloween 4 & 5 for instance) were little more than remakes of the original themselves. How much damage could Zombie possibly do?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Now before we dig in, my thesis here isn’t to condemn Zombie’s re-whatever. That has been done countless times already; you are one mouse click away from finding a scathing review to reconfirm your negative feelings about the film. But it has to be said that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the original concept at the core of Rob Zombie’s Halloween in that he tries (and fails) to give an explanation to why Michael Myers is a soulless killer. That runs antithetical to the point of Carpenter’s film; that Michael represents unexplainable evil and is an avatar for the faceless homogeny of suburban life. By making him the damaged spawn of a redneck family you’ve traded what makes Michael unique in the pantheon of slasher icons. In Halloween 2007 Michael is no longer then enigmatic “Shape”, he’s just Leatherface but less geographically isolated and without a penchant for long pig. On that level it cannot be argued that Rob Zombie’s take on the material is an unmitigated failure.
The film itself has script and structure problems; dividing the story into three distinct sections makes for a jarringly paced film, with the final third being the only part of the movie that could actually be called a “remake”. Michael’s stalking and killing of the teenagers follows the same basic structure as Carpenter’s only done at three times the speed and with three times the grunge. It isn’t an incompetent bit of stalk n’ slash filmmaking, but it isn’t particularly good either. Zombie knows how to stage a compellingly brutal scene, but he doesn’t seem to understand suspense, and suspense is the cornerstone on which the original Halloween was built. One cannot help but feel that Zombie was the wrong man for the job here, and in fact had he been tasked with either the Texas Chainsaw or Friday the 13th remakes, he would have fared much better. He at least would have come up with something more compelling than Marcus Nispel’s competent but uninspired hackwork of those tales.
As my plot summary illustrates, the broad strokes of these two films are the same. So, Zombie’s Halloween must be a remake, right? Well, not so fast. True, by many standards it can be seen as a straight remake, especially in that last third. The characters all have the same names, the basic story is the same – ergo, remake. But there are some things to consider here. First of all, though the character’s names remain the same, I would argue that none of them are really the same characters as in Carpenter’s original. We’ve discussed the difference in Michael himself, but everyone — from Laurie to Loomis to Sheriff Brackett –are completely different people. It goes beyond Zombie’s “rednecking” of Michael’s family (a family we know virtually nothing about in Carpenter’s film); he basically keeps only the names and throws anything recognizable in terms of characterization right out the window. The characters here serve the same basic plot function, but that is it. You are left wondering why Zombie chose to reference the original film at all.
To me, the reworking of these details is the real “tell” as far as where Zombie’s head was at when he made this movie. We horror fans understand that at their core, most slasher films are essentially the same. Every slasher film is a de-facto remake. So to take the title “Halloween” and make something that is so thematically far-removed from the original is to essentially make a completely different slasher film. In truth, Zombie’s Halloween owes just as much to films like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Texas Chainsaw and any handful of 70’s exploitation films as it does to the original Halloween. Aside from some basic iconographic bullet points, it is a total re-working, especially by slasher film standards.
It is this double-edged sword that forms the basic division as to where people generally stand with the 2007 version. Those who like it like it because it is different. Those who hate it hate it because it changes everything that makes the original work. I feel that this central conundrum is key in identifying Rob Zombie’s Halloween as a remake, reboot or re-imagining. Remake? Sure, but really only in basic concept and the structure of the final act. Reboot? Yeah, but I honestly don’t think Zombie saw it as a franchise re-starter, even if the producers did and even though he would return to direct the bat-shit sequel, which in my opinion is his true vision of a “Halloween” film. To me, this movie sits most comfortably with the label of re-imagining because it is so radically reworked. The intention may have been to remake Halloween, but in the end, for better or worse, what Zombie delivered was in the truest sense a re-imagining. And Michael Myers hasn’t been the same since.
Which is the superior version?: On a day that I’m feeling generous, I might call Zombie’s film a “noble failure”, but on a less generous day I’d call it a “piece of shit”. Certainly in comparison to Carpenter’s classic it’s a trifle, but I can see the pleasures it has to offer to those who enjoy Zombie’s particular brand of mayhem. But I mean, c’mon, Halloween 1978 all the way.
Up next: Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In