By Jaime N. Christley
Seeing it during a holiday-themed re-release on October 30th, 2009 (as opposed to the day itself), I encountered Rob Zombie's Halloween II with the intention of burying the director, whose Devil's Rejects remains one of the few films out of which I didn't just walk but stormed. (I endured most of it, almost out of a kind of "can't let the terrorists win" spite, but left just prior to the Skynyrd-scored finale, which my date at the time told me was "awesome.") As remakes go—and I'm not confident that a shoestring-budgeted sequel to an estranged and equally bargain-basement "reboot" can properly qualify to be called "a remake"—I can't say that Halloween II tried any harder than Rejects to charm its way into my heart. Sure, it lacks the "let's hire some kick-ass film school grad to run this popsicle stand" braggadocio that earmarks certain of its kin; neither is it underpinned by J.J. Abrams' "Always Be Closing" school of event filmmaking.
Zombie is (or would have you take him for) a blue-collar, steak-and-potatoes-and-Heineken kinda guy, and he doesn't subscribe to Penthouse Letters but rather some garage-pressed Bible-belt titty rag of ill repute. He is (or would have you take him for) the trucker with the Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) caricature peeing into the distance emblazoned on his mudflaps. He is (or would have you take him for) the real Red State nightmare. He loves him some carnage and seems to view everything else either as a pause between meals or as a necessary appendage. Yet within Halloween II, among its cornerstones and arches, there exists compelling, even hypnotic imagery and cutting that suggest a film artist of formidable ability, either trapped or validated (who can say?) by his own leering, butcher-shop hedonism. This is not a new story, since it is practically one of the basic tenets of auteurism that the seeds of artistry often flourish in grounds that are ostensibly the least fertile.
Judging by Zombie's output since he turned to filmmaking in 1999 (the year he began production on House of 1000 Corpses) the 44-year-old musician-producer-director is a shrewd businessman, but, like a handful of his colleagues, he is also a film student. Movie references abound, casual and explicit. The Devil's Rejects stops dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity while a Gene Shalit lookalike jabbers poetic on the subject of Otto Preminger's underappreciated '60s output, including Skidoo and Exodus. In Halloween II, Malcolm McDowell's Professor Loomis quotes Malcolm McDowell's Alex DeLarge verbatim. The filmmaker himself has hosted a special series on Turner Classic Movies called "TCM Underground," in its inauguration serving up two battered and bruised classics by Ed Wood, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster.
All that aside, he also appears to expend considerable effort making his films look like he couldn't care less. About anything. Giving John Carpenter and Debra Hill's source material a wide, wide berth, Halloween II shares nothing with the original's sequel except a revelation about the heroine's family tree and a significant amount of screen time devoted to a post-traumatic stay at the hospital. Essentially a film about a monster who wanders around making work for the city morgue, it looks and feels fast and crude, as if shot for pocket change over the course of a busy weekend. (It may have actually helped that I saw it at New York's dingy City Cinemas Village East, with its wallet-sized projection, ever so delicately out of focus, instead of waiting—as is my preference—for tack-sharp, you-are-there, commodified Blu-ray.) While Zombie's budgets are modest, his revenue stream is always wider. He spends a nickel and earns a dime, like clockwork. (According to the publicly-maintained Internet Movie Database, the budget for his Halloween sequel was actually smaller than the 2007 original.)
Such is the age of the cinema of fast, cheap and out of control. Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project and, most recently, Paranormal Activity, headline the age when feature-length narratives of YouTube pedigree (by stylistic choice or by necessity) compete against multi-million dollar corporate franchises. Compete and, often as not, prevail. Halloween II is not a work of hi-def or standard-def video. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition, already a destabilizing move that resembles decomposition, but its overall aesthetic proves to be that of the YouTube era. It looks to have been shot on butcher paper, the dialogue is abysmal, and it is practically avant-garde in its slack efforts towards erecting character arcs with which to span the lengths between one elaborate setpiece and the next. (It has this in common with John Woo's Mission: Impossible II, but this is not an exclusive set by any means.) And given the treatment of the mustachioed film buff in Rejects—wasn't he pistol-whipped?—one is not merely reluctant to read anything artistically worthy in Zombie's calculatedly crude horror-sideshows, one is downright terrified. Begone, critics, you have no power here!
Preminger—with his supple, long pans and 3-D space—it ain't. Nor is it methodical, screw-tightening Carpenter: You could easily claim that Zombie rebels against his professor (I hesitate to say "master") whose fringe-to-rock star success with the 1978 Halloween easily ranks with Citizen Kane in the annals of "you can do it!" self-pep talks for indie filmmakers. Recall, however, that Carpenter's The Thing was a gravestone rubbing of the Hawks original that the uninformed deemed disrespectful, bordering on nihilistic. Kind of the same thing occurs with Zombie; if you can get past his crumpled cum-sock aesthetic (which is tonal as well as visual), you are likely to see that the manner of his homage goes the route of pagan vandalism and cannibalism, rather than strictly Judeo-Christian exaltation. Where Carpenter juiced the setup to the max, and used the blood & guts as relief, Zombie's film remains amped at all times, always occupying a space of severed bone, the screams of its owner, and the hands that got us there, if not always the mind. The same aesthetic dominates porn—any shots that aren't money shots are bullshit.
As he employs his editors, Zombie doesn't just fail to pay respect to narrative pacing, he obliterates the very concept of pacing. You get the sense that, if he had his druthers, everything in the movie would happen at once, rationalized by arguing: Let's face it, all this in-between shit is boring, and we're all here for the skull-stomping and the gut-spilling. In the cutting room, Zombie's style is closer to a good friend's characterization of John Cassavetes—that of a mad TV producer barking orders to switch to Camera B or C or whatnot during a live telecast. Yet even with an itchy trigger-finger, an aesthetic can bloom, sometimes counter to the brain's stated intentions. He's the only director I can think of, offhand, who so frequently cuts between swaths of coverage (i.e. scene-setting wide shots) without a hint of Soderberghian, temporal ellipses. The most striking cuts in the film are, in terms of serving a conventional narrative purpose, the most anonymous: My favorite example, early in the film, involves a basic, unadorned wide shot of the Brackett residence that cuts to an even wider shot (but not that wide) of the same subject. Zombie will also employ the same effect , giving practically no notice, in medium framing, eerily confident (and correct) that his audience will not be shaken out of the narrative by the risk of mismatched performances. These choices lack the busy-busy-busy affectation of Michael Bay and his progeny, nor do they lend themselves to the invisibility of "professional" editors. In his own way, Zombie finds a distinctive voice using devil-may-care editing and coverage that can otherwise blight the work of most self-taught writer-directors.
In fact, Zombie's editing within a sequence seems to elongate the action, or inaction, suggesting stasis rather than forward narrative motion. His characters seem merely to inhabit one waiting room or another while Myers' bearded, mountain man killer wanders from homicide to homicide, each one creatively different than the last. The poorest section of the film is the one where Zombie "tries" the hardest: an extended fantasy-hallucination sequence that requires the kind of Maddin-esque decision-making that doesn't really come naturally to him. But the rest of the film, even with other, more casual depictions of Michael Myers' white-horse visions (an image that is both Lynchian and Coulterian, i.e. the "Test Dream" episode of The Sopranos), is played at an insistent register of both dread and disgust. Even when it details the mundane, not-yet-bloody-again lives of Strode, Brackett, Loomis, et al, the Zombie aesthetic displays a consistently mildewy, liquor-store atmosphere. Faces typically fill the frame at oblique angles and show off a decay of their own. Myers eats a dog's viscera and Zombie cuts it against Sheriff Brackett (a "straight" Brad Dourif) unknowingly mocking the same act with a slice of pizza. In an early, utterly mesmerizing shot, a crash victim pukes blood and utters "fuck" over and over and over and over again in what appears either to be the onset of brain damage, or a word of talismanic power, to protect him from the temptation to appraise the spilled brains of his partner.
If television changed our relationship with movies by making our attendance more casual, by encouraging a sense of "change the channel" in our social behavior, then the Internet continues to refine these instincts with the hypnotic pull of surfing. (Try watching an entire movie on your handheld device, front to back, without taking a break.) The movies, in general, responded to television by upping the "event" ante. CinemaScope, 3-D, stereophonic sound. One offshoot was the increased explicitness of horror, because you can't argue against the logic that wherever there's a horrible car accident, people stop and stare. You can't take horror's bloody, gooey book of business and expect to make it pay on television. Zombie understands that about as well as the next guy, and Halloween II barely exists if not to survey the warpath of giant-ghost-thing Michael Myers. Sequences of shots that do not contain violence, i.e. the "in-between shit," share the slaughter setpieces' abandoned-parking-lot visual aesthetic: cold, stone-gray, industrial—bad things happened here. On a meta-, cultural level, he also seems to intuit that "You can't stop what's coming," and that his audience may find it easy to look away from his images, elegant and inelegant alike, not necessarily out of disgust or boredom, but out of a 'net-derived inattentiveness. Disinterest rather than resistance. Or they're texting to tell their friends whether or not the movie is awesome, or sucks.
Like the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who put the image of "gas station carnivals" into our minds, Zombie's rot and degradation feels continuously, stubbornly vital—if "alive" isn't quite the word we're looking for here. Ligotti, a Michigan-born writer unknown even to most fans of horror fiction, doesn't share much with Zombie in terms of agenda or style. His protagonists, luckless as they often are, are frequently the dregs of urban and/or academic spheres, educated but wearing second-hand coats, obsessing over myths or disreputable objects. (He would not feel at home valorizing a redneck band of outlaw cannibals.) The back-alley pharmacist's assistant in "The Clown Puppet" cannot get over himself and his unique lot in an incessantly phantasmagorical life even when he intuits correctly that he's just a bystander in someone else's nightmare. Yet, connecting strands abound.
Zombie's version of Loomis shares with Ligotti's author character, Alice ("Alice's Last Adventure"), a deep sense of entitled, bourgeois discontent, as they are both impatient with the scaffolding required to keep the gears of their financial liquidity in motion, drawn perhaps not unwillingly back into the abyss to which they truly owe the debt of their success. Most horror writers and aficionados are familiar with the concept that fear isn't fear, and horror isn't horror, unless the attraction is as strong as the repulsion. In terms of setting, physical and spiritual, the careworn shop at which Laurie Strode is employed is precisely the kind of "not quite a coffee shop, not quite a vintage bookstore" setting we might expect to find in Ligotti's "Teatro Grottesco," "Gas Station Carnivals," or "The Bungalow House." And there's the small matter of her nightmares pursuing her into daytime.
Zombie's elevation of the Myers killer into the supernatural is prime Ligotti. The vehicle of Laurie Myers-Strode's fate appears in one Ligotti story after another, as device, conclusion, casual offing, or theme: not merely to be haunted by familial blood but to be subsumed utterly by it. That's a horror that extends beyond its own genre—Douglas Sirk, for example, exploited the angle in his 1954 melodrama, Magnificent Obsession, in which a playboy's ultimate act of contrition is to become a widow's dead husband's resurrection; Stanley Kubrick used "you are digesting me" horror in several films, including A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, as did Robert Aldrich, arguably, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. And one needs hardly mention Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo or Tod Browning's Freaks—as it depicts the elusive "fate worse than death," i.e. you are still you but you no longer belong to yourself.
As Zombie closes the second Halloween, he leaves the door ajar to underwrite, of course, another sequel, but also tips his hat to the conclusion of Hitchcock's Psycho: at the end of way more horizontal space than any mental patient could ever hope to inhabit (which also cites Kubrick by way of a long dolly into an actor's fixed glare), Strode-Myers still exists but she has merged with the phantom of the boy Michael, himself long since devoured by the mountain man. Will the thirtysomething Laurie sport an unkempt beard? That would be truly scary.
Jaime N. Christley sells used automobiles in a questionable suburb of the great city, in the shadow of a magnificent baseball stadium; his jangly-nerved, bar-napkin jottings on disreputable cinematic objects and subjects are made corporeal on Out, damned spot!.