Rob Zombie’s gut understanding of what makes ‘70s horror so great—its volatility, its nihilism, its unrepentant, take-no-prisoners viciousness—is unfortunately glimpsed in only short, sporadic bursts in Halloween. Unlike The Devil’s Rejects, which captured the grungy spirit of his favorite grindhousers, the musician-turned-filmmaker’s updating of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher flick skews in the opposite direction, attempting to tonally distance itself from its source material by replacing Carpenter’s eerie, otherworldly menace with grim, brutal realism. In that Zombie had virtually no other approach at his disposal, it’s an understandable course to take, rooting the saga of Michael Myers—which, after seven sequels, had long since devolved into cartoonish supernatural garbage—in the twisted headspace of its iconic boogeyman. That one can rationalize Zombie’s decision to focus his redo—well, the first half anyway—on Myers’s upbringing doesn’t, however, mean that such a strategy is wise, or that it works. And despite the director’s comprehension of what makes serial killers (and horror films) tick, as well as a few exceptionally composed moments, it too frequently doesn’t work.
Zombie spends the opening portion of Halloween charting young Myers Myers (Daeg Faerch) as he spirals into madness, a line of attack that might have proved more sound were it not for the stock psychological explanations trotted out for his insane behavior. Ronnie (William Forsythe), the broadly conceived, misogynistic white-trash boyfriend of Myers’s warm-hearted stripper mom (Sheri Moon Zombie), hurls homophobic invectives at the young boy, while his skanky older sister (Hanna Hall) mocks him about jerking off with the aid of his pet rat. Given his anger and humiliation over Mom’s pole-dancing profession (which becomes the root of his anti-female-sexuality modus operandi, and about which bullies mercilessly mock him), Myers naturally isn’t up in his room fondling his pets but eviscerating them. As child psychologist Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) explains, such behavior is the byproduct of a “deranged mind,” and in the case of serial killers, it’s also rather textbook. Zombie dramatizes the typical forces and proclivities that prefigure compulsive killing, but in doing so, he reduces Myers from ominous myth to psychotic man—surely his intended goal, and yet one that serves little valuable purpose, since what makes Myers terrifying is the black, mysterious incomprehensibility of his “evil.”
Still, it’s during this section that Zombie’s own auteurist imprint is most strongly felt, such as during Myers’s initial foray into human slaughter, when shots of spinning treetops and a final aerial image of Myers observing his handiwork from the corner of the frame expertly visualizes his descent into hellish malevolence. A motif about façades presents itself through Myers’s increasing reliance on homemade masks as a means of hiding his own true, ugly nature, as well as via a later attack in which, after the grown madman drags a topless girl (Halloween 4 and 5 alum Danielle Harris) back inside a house’s front door, the camera momentarily lingers on the building’s quiet, serene exterior. The sadism that lurks beneath seemingly tranquil surfaces is a topic intriguingly touched upon by Halloween. Nonetheless, once the hulking adult Myers (Tyler Mane) escapes confinement and goes in search of baby sis Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), rote slasher-film routines largely take precedence. These are made all the more mundane by the narrative underdevelopment of Loomis (especially, his similarities to Myers) and Laurie, with the latter’s establishing scenes failing to elicit substantial sympathy for her plight and, consequently, much interest in her primal scream-punctuated fate.
Myers’s no-nonsense blunt-force tactics—stabbing and strangling victims, smashing through walls—are mirrored by Zombie’s use of sharp cuts augmented by sonic crashes, and his avoidance of outlandish, gimmicky kill sequences lends the film a measure of fierce severity. Mostly, however, this harshness doesn’t result in suspense (much less outright scares), both because Zombie refuses to push things into the sadistic territory of his prior work, and because awkwardly shoehorned-in cameos from various Devil’s Rejects alums and assorted B-movie staples regularly disrupt any unsettling mood. Ultimately, this bifurcated Halloween finds Zombie struggling to further his own personal directorial voice while also remaining true to Carpenter’s classic. It’s a tense tug-of-war that’s never fully reconciled, though if the origin-story early going is wracked by deficiencies, it’s also characterized by a desire for innovation; the ferocious but predictable latter half and its general, obedient adherence to stale genre tenets, on the other hand, merely confirms that—as Nazareth croons over a strange, discomfiting early montage—“Love Hurts.”