The Choke?s on Her: Rob Zombie favors full-throttle violence in Halloween.
The Choke?s on Her: Rob Zombie favors full-throttle violence in Halloween.

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One imagines that the appeal of remaking a movie is the relative brainlessness involved. Grab a ready-made script and a DVD of an old fave, and the hard part is over.

The new Halloween, by that standard, is a surprise, then—though maybe not to fans of writer-director Rob Zombie’s earlier works, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Zombie’s claim to have “reimagined” John Carpenter’s overrated 1978 classic is, for once, true. The general timeline of the Michael Myers story remains largely the same—Mikey debuts as the Lil’ Murderer one Halloween night as a child and returns to his hometown after escaping a mental facility as an adult—but Zombie shifts the movie’s magnifying glass to the biggest mystery of the original: What set this kid off? (And less important but more infuriating: Why the hell couldn’t a teenage girl fight off a 6-year-old who was merely standing in front of her?)

Halloween opens in the Myers’ kitchen the morning of Oct. 31: Mom (Sheri Moon Zombie), no doubt tired after a night of stripping, is cooking breakfast for her three children while fighting with her wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Ronnie (William Forsythe), who pelts her with threats such as, “Bitch, I will crawl over there and skull-fuck the shit outta yeh!” The baby’s screeching, and her slutty teenage daughter, Judith (Hanna Hall), is mouthing off, but Michael (a Kurt Cobainncoiffed Daeg Faerch) merely kisses the baby hello and proceeds to eat. Of course, he had to wash his hands first—they had gotten quite bloody when he killed one of his pet rats.

After he’s forced to go trick-or-treating alone that night—a scene that’s set, camp-free, to “Love Hurts,” the movie’s sole ridiculous musical cue in a soundtrack filled with Kiss, Rush, and, naturally, the original’s haunting score—Michael decides to take care of the family turmoil by offing Ronnie, his big sis, and her boyfriend. (And Zombie takes giant steps toward realism by having him attack his victims when they’re distracted, say, or asleep.) At this point, Michael’s face is nearly constantly covered, mostly with a clown disguise but, in a touch that’s both spooky and a nice wink to the original, digging out the iconic Mike Myers mask to terrorize Judith. He’ll spend the bulk of his incarceration crafting and hiding behind such concealments, pointing out, perhaps a little too psychobabbly to his mother, “It hides my ugliness.”

The first half of Zombie’s Halloween is spent on Michael’s childhood crimes and his stint in the detention center, mainly his sessions with his frustrated therapist, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). Faerch’s performance is a little rough around the edges considering the young actor’s experience—he’d probably be in trouble if the masks didn’t help him project “evil”—but with his apple-cheeked face and the baby voice he uses when Michael’s around his mother and the baby, the kid is still creepy as hell. The best part of Zombie’s addition to the plot, though, is his stylistic flair, which makes the entire movie worthwhile despite a plodding second half. Nearly every shot feels carefully crafted, but as in The Devil’s Rejects, there are a handful that are mini-masterpieces of visuals and sound, particularly the aftermath of one of Michael’s detention-center murders: With the ambient noise silenced, a whooping siren accompanies the slow-motion reaction as the camera eyes a nurse’s bloody hand, Michael being restrained, and his mother silently screaming. It’s hypnotic.

When the film skips to Michael’s adulthood and his escape, however, it shifts into straightforward homage—and falters. The adult Michael, played by Tyler Mane, is gigantic and no doubt intimidating, but his quick succession of murders when he returns to his hometown feels gratuitous and, worse, illogical: One liberty Zombie took with the latter half of the story concerns the reason he’s hunting Laurie (an annoyingly cutesy Scout Taylor-Compton in the role Jamie Lee Curtis played in the original), and killing off all her friends doesn’t quite mesh with it. Zombie also eschews typical teen-slasher cheesiness, an asset that turns into a liability. Refusing to rely too heavily on the trendy whipped-around camera, Zombie often trains on each murder victim, always bloodied but never cartoonishly gory. The seriousness makes the mayhem feel realistic, yes, but also brutal and nearly voyeuristic, inching toward torture-porn territory. It’s hard to feel entertained. Yet when the new Halloween proceeds as a scene-by-scene re-creation, you can feel Zombie’s effort in each unique camera angle and dark-but-not-done-before atmospherics. For once, somebody’s filmed a remake, not a regurgitation.