The horror, the horror

Summary: I look at certain slightly connected horror films on near-enough current release – Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Grind House and Black Sheep – and discuss where Hollywood has lost its way and how it could fix it. I also give reasons why I don’t like Rob Zombie’s Halloween. A lot of them. Very few spoilers – I try to keep it to a low amount – but the article is very long, and so there’s a page break coming up now.

  • Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007, USA)
  • Grind House (2007, USA)
  • Black Sheep (2006, New Zealand)

When was it that you last heard of an original – and, what’s more, successful – horror idea from the USA? It’s certainly been a few years. All that seems to be coming out of the American horror scene are remakes, sequels, sequels to remakes, tired old slasher films, some of it falling into that tiresome genre of unnecessary, titillating violence often referred to (probably incorrectly) as “torture porn”. You would have thought that the ability to get most of the 70s and 80s horror wave on DVD pretty much obliterates the need for remaking them, but apparently Hollywood doesn’t think that way.

So far this year, we’ve had Hannibal Rising (incredibly, even worse than Brett Ratner’s version of Red Dragon), The Hills Have Eyes 2, the greatly inferior Sean Bean version of The Hitcher, Turistas/Paradise Lost, Captivity, Resident Evil 3 and Hostel Part II. In the near future, we’re getting whether we like it or not Saw IV (despite the killer dying at the end of the last one, as given away in the trailer), Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Aliens vs. Predators would surely be more grammatically correct) and Daddy Day Camp, the sequel to Daddy Day Care, which promises to be much more horrifying than any of them.

And right now we have Rob Zombie’s Halloween, which is the sort of film that explains why the motion picture industry is so worried about piracy – because it singularly justifies it. It is a worthless remake of one of the true horror greats, a movie which defined nearly all the clichés used in every slasher movie made since. The only things in the film that are in any way successful are the aspects stolen straight from John Carpenter; the main theme, certain camera angles in certain scenes, the use of Don’t Fear The Reaper (which unfortunately has lost all its effectiveness now thanks to other horror writers ripping it off.)

In short, the problem with Rob Zombie’s Halloween is that it misses the original’s point completely. Carpenter and Hill’s Michael Myers, one of the most effective villains in the pantheon, is a representation of inexplicable evil; he comes from a generic suburban family and just suddenly snaps one Halloween night, killing his sister, getting locked up and then growing into what the film spot on describes as “the boogeyman” – frightening, lethal, unstoppable. Myers’ victims are normal teenage babysitters, the girls next door; it could be you. What’s more, the film is about the babysitters – time is spent developing their characters before Myers comes and wrecks their lives.

Zombie’s film is about his own version of Michael Myers and his exploits, with the victims a distant second, and that’s the most crucial mistake he makes. The biggest change in the movie is a long first act showing Myers as a child on the original Halloween. Myers shows every one of the diagnostic signs of the serial killer before he actually kills for the first time, and what’s more the film is actually dumb enough that it tells you this before he starts killing. He kills animals and takes Polaroids of their abused corpses. He has an abusive stepfather and a trailer trash home life. His sister talks down to him and is slutty on a very one-note level; the portrayal of almost all of the women in the film is just as misogynistic as you’d feared from a remake of a film that only just avoids that particular trap by the guy who gave the world House of 1000 Corpses.

(Admittedly, although Myers’ mother is a stripper, she’s actually the only sympathetic and well developed non-murdering character in the film – however a possible explanation for why is that she is played by Sheri Moon Zombie, wife of Rob. This character’s name is apparently Zombie’s tribute to the late Debra Hill, the co-creator of Halloween and Carpenter’s producer and co-writer during his golden years.)

Rob Zombie doesn’t do everything wrong, and that’s what makes the film worse – the first killing in the film, Michael beating to death a bully who humiliated him earlier in the morning, is an extremely effective piece of horror filmmaking. It’s shot mostly first person from the bully’s point of view, mostly gore free and better for it. This however wrecks Myers’ character. Having made Myers instead of a force of nature just another serial killer with a screwed up home life taking “revenge” for perceived slights, Zombie has, I assume unintentionally, removed his potency by giving him a reason to kill. And giving a reason lessens the fear.

Following on from this, he then seems to murder his sister, her boyfriend and his stepdad in a very long, drawn out and excruciatingly gory sequence because they won’t take him out trick-or-treating – again, that reason! – the equivalent to Myers killing just his sister out of nowhere in the original. The first murder sequence in this section alone is longer than the entire opening setup to Carpenter’s film, and yet it is Carpenter’s work that has the better story structure.

Because this film also uses Carpenter’s complete plotline, but condenses it into the last half of the film, destroying any chance of careful character development other than “they’re all sluts, so Michael’s going to have them.” Worse, he also pulls in the “Laurie Strode is connected to Myers” plotline from Halloween II without actually bothering to do the development of Strode’s character that is necessary for it to work in any way whatsoever; it didn’t even make complete sense in Halloween II and it’s absolutely hopeless here, because all it does is open up a dirty great plot hole the size of Malcolm McDowell’s overdraft (which I can only assume is so large that he had to take up every sardonic antagonist role he’s been offered for the last few years, including Loomis in this one).

Rob Zombie’s Halloween is a mess, part of the reason Hollywood should never be allowed to remake another film unless it gets talented directors in; which of course is why we’re getting a Friday the 13th remake from the Texas Chainsaw remake people next year and why a remake of Hellraiser is on the horizon. (I can’t even stand the original Texas Chainsaw – I do not find that kind of oppressive atmosphere fun in any way, and it’s amateurishly done too – but the remake is still worse.) But what should Hollywood be doing with horror?

It should be making movies that are fun. Rob Zombie’s Halloween is no fun. People watched Friday the 13th sequels and such, crap though they were, out of the spirit of “watch people get killed in inventive new ways with unrealistic gore and hoary old plotlines, see spunky young female almost kill Jason/Myers/Freddy at the end, job done, kiss your girlfriend” – at which only Part 6 is really successful, but hey. But every horror director right now seems only interested in pushing the genre to the “extreme” and I really don’t get it. The German film Antibodies, which shows up occasionally on Film4 if you want to enjoy it as much as I did, does this well; if you don’t do it well, however, all you end up creating is a film which disgusts, degrades or worse, bores rigid (like any Saw film).

Making films which are inspired by horror classics is a whole different matter, and Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez’s Grind House project is a whole lot better than the ideas suggested – although, of course, horror is just one of the genres encompassed by “grind house”, which is more of an aesthetic. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is a clever homage to the traditional zombie movie, unafraid to both parody and rip off in massive proportions, and which manages to pull off some breathtakingly nasty plot twists without alienating the viewer. Tarantino’s Death Proof isn’t actually a horror movie – it’s more inspired by Vanishing Point and a number of other road killer Z-movies and spends a lot of time developing character – which might have been the reason for its undeservedly poor reception in the project.

But the idea was to replicate the “grind house” theatre experience in a single lengthy programme (although everything together is still shorter than Return of the King.) This was done by a series of well done fake trailers – one of which is by the very same Rob Zombie, who in a spirit of self-parody provides a Nazi exploitation trailer called Werewolf Women of the SS; Rodriguez providing a hilarious piss-take of vigilante movies in Machete; the clever and amusing Don’t! by Edgar Wright and Eli Roth providing the kind of slasher movie he should be making in Thanksgiving – which capture the spirit of the “grind house” well, a spirit not served by overly glossy PG-13 pseudo-slashers or grimy stuff like Hostel Part II.

As we all know, however, Grind House failed. I think it failed because of poor promotion by the Weinsteins; it was always the sort of film that would only appeal to a cult audience and would do well on DVD. But of course we haven’t been allowed even to see it; after its US release, the Weinstein Company cut it up, removed the fake trailers and the Grind House branding and is going to release Death Proof and Planet Terror separately. And we probably won’t get a single DVD of the original setup for a long time (since it wasn’t released in the UK, you can guess how I ended up seeing it and it wasn’t the way I wanted to). This of course will hurt the films, because the package really was greater than its constituent parts – it was all about promoting the experience, an experience where you didn’t know what would happen next, how the film would go.

Black Sheep isn’t really one of these films, but it’s good all the same – another riff on the zombie movie, only the carriers are genetically mutated sheep. It’s also really funny, not taking itself remotely seriously and using copious unrealistic gore, the intrinsically funny idea of killer flesh-eating sheep and New Zealand farming country to great effect; following in the footsteps of fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s Braindead and Bad Taste. It’s the sort of movie Hollywood should be making; fun and light in tone, talented direction, originality in style, unafraid to exploit the clichés that work when they need to be used. It even gets one or two decent shocks in.

So of course it went straight to video in the States. And that’s what comes to the main link between these three films: in the US, they were all released by the Weinstein Company, through their Dimension division, and are a fantastic example of skewed priorities; original films and great experiences like Black Sheep or Grind House are ignored or fiddled with, while stuff like Rob Zombie’s Halloween is encouraged and nurtured. The Weinsteins always used their horror division to make money to release specialist films they actually liked, and are much more ruthlessly commercial when dealing with it; Guillermo del Toro still bears a massive grudge for what they did to Mimic, for example.

But what should we do about it?

I would like to see horror considered a legitimate genre, but with all the films that most people see being exploitative sequels and remakes and real attempts to explain the appeal of horror cinema being marginalised and neutered for studio profit it seems like a near impossibility at this stage. I’d like intellectually solid horror movies like those coming out of Europe right now to start coming out of the Hollywood machine, as movies like Alien were released amongst the first slasher wave but still managed to make money. I’d like to see Saw IV flopping at the box office and Lions Gate deciding never to make a horror film again. I’d like directors of horror material to take inspiration from Dario Argento’s or Ridley Scott’s style rather than Tobe Hooper’s lack of it. I’d like never to see a horror movie set in a redneck idiom ever again unless it’s parody. I’d even like sequels instead of remakes – why not make Friday the 13th Part 12: Let’s Face It, You Can’t Kill Him instead of making a remake that’s effectively one?

And, what’s more, I’d like Rob Zombie to stick to directing and to never remake a better film again. Can we at least get that?

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