Friday, October 23, 2009

DVD of the Week: Halloween: Unrated Director's Cut

Remaking a classic horror film is almost never a good idea. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Hitcher (2007) are examples of recent remakes that are inferior shadows of their original selves. And so it came with great disappointment when it was announced that John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was going to be remade and Rob Zombie would direct. Known mostly for his music with White Zombie and a successful solo career, he’s branched out into making films like The Devil’s Rejects (2005), a down ‘n’ dirty homage to outlaw cinema of the 1970s. Why would a self-professed horror film buff like Zombie even try to remake a revered classic like Halloween? Hubris? Fanboy wish fulfillment? Or, did he figure that this film was going to be made one way or another and rather than let some hack do a crappy job he could at least bring his stylistic touches and point-of-view to the table.

Remakes succeed or fail on the kinds of choices the filmmaker makes and Zombie spends the first two thirds of the film examining what turned Michael Myers into an emotionless serial killer. All the signs are there at an early age: Michael (Daeg Faerch) tortures and kills small animals, his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) is too busy trying to support her family by stripping, his stepfather (William Forsythe) is an abusive, homophobic bully, and his sister is too pre-occupied with her boyfriend to care about her brother. To make matters worse, he’s relentlessly picked on at school.

Pretty soon, Michael graduates from killing animals to viciously dispatching everyone who treated him horribly. The ten-year-old boy is eventually transferred to a sanitarium where he is put under the care and supervision of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). The scenes between Loomis and Michael are some of the strongest in the film as the good doctor attempts to understand the young killer’s psychology and how he uses masks to hide what he perceives as his ugly self. Aside from his mother and Loomis, Michael communicates with no one and this only gets worse as the years progress.

Daeg Faerch, the young boy who plays Michael, is fantastic and very convincing as the disturbed killer-in-training. It’s all in the eyes which look dead and only get worse as he gets older until nothing good is left. It’s a very impressive performance. Zombie has an uncanny knack for casting. Malcolm McDowell is the only actor who could possibly replace the late-great Donald Pleasance. He brings his trademark intensity to the role while also providing shades to his character. Loomis starts out as altruistic with Michael but when he realizes that the boy is a lost cause, he turns his many sessions into a tell-all book and begins flogging it on the lecture circuit. It is only once Michael escapes the sanitarium that Loomis has a purpose again and makes it his single-minded mission to find and capture his former patient.

The original Halloween focused on the mystique of Michael while the remake shines a light on the areas of his life not explored in Carpenter’s version. What happened to Michael as a kid that made him into a monster? Zombie’s film answers this question and really gets into his head and explores what motivates him. The remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and The Hitcher failed because they were simple rehashes of the original with no new insight. Zombie doesn’t make that mistake. We get to hear Michael talk in great scenes with his mother and with Loomis that humanize him and also show his gradual de-humanization. They are simple, yet effective scenes with two people talking and are a nice breather from all of the carnage.

The first two thirds of Halloween (2007) are unrelentingly bleak and grim but also very gripping stuff. The last third condenses Carpenter’s film but fortunately Zombie doesn’t try to ape its style, opting instead to choose unusual camera angles and interesting compositions of the frame for certain scenes. He also mixes up how the many killings are depicted. Some are shot traditionally, others with hand-held camera in a very claustrophobic way, and one of the more interesting ones is when Michael kills a nurse in the sanitarium. It is captured in slow motion with the sound replaced by a jarring alarm that is surprisingly effective.

Zombie’s remake works because he takes the Halloween mythos and expands on it in all kinds of fascinating ways. He makes some really intriguing choices, like not making Michael supernaturally strong but rather a big guy who is naturally tough. Zombie also opts for gritty realism like he did with The Devil’s Rejects and it is a smart choice that works. Whether you love or hate Zombie’s take on the material, you have to admit that it doesn’t resemble Carpenter’s film in any way. It is easily the best Halloween film since Part III, although that isn’t really saying much when you consider the quality of the subsequent sequels.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by writer/director Rob Zombie. He points out the various locations they shot in while also drawing our attention to where he took footage out and why. He also talks about the music choices he made and why he picked a certain song that appeared in the film. Zombie spends a lot of time talking about the challenges he faced on certain scenes. He also points out the new footage in this cut and why he put it back. The filmmaker delivers another solid commentary that is well worth a listen if you’re a fan of this film.

The second disc starts of with 17 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Zombie. Unlike some auteurs, he is refreshingly ruthless with his footage and so we have a lot of scenes that were cut, including more of the strip club where Michael’s mom works. There’s also more of Loomis talking to a young Michael. Michael also attends a parole hearing that features a character played Tom Towles. Adrienne Barbeau even shows up briefly in a scene with Loomis. Zombie does a good job explaining why these scenes were cut.

Also included is an “Alternate Ending” with optional commentary by Zombie. This one is more sympathetic to Michael but wasn’t satisfying enough for the director and he went with the other ending which is much more visceral.

“Bloopers” features footage of McDowell cracking up with Sheri Moon Zombie take after take. It turns out that the veteran actor is a real goofball and looks like he’s having a blast making his fellow actors laugh.

“The Many Masks of Michael Myers” takes a look at how they constructed the iconic Michael Myers mask. They created several versions, including clean ones and then gradually grungy ones to symbolize the passage of time. We also see how the put together the various ones that Michael makes in the sanitarium.

“Re-Imagining Halloween” is a three-part look at various aspects of the making of the film. Zombie wanted to shoot it in the style of 21 Grams (2003) and The Constant Gardener (2005). He wanted the three acts to have their own distinctive looks: the first part was all hand-held cameras, the second was very static, and the third act used lots of steadicam work. The film’s production design is examined. They take a look at the various sets and briefly talk about the specific look Zombie was after. The makeup effects are also featured. This involved a lot of work as Michael kills a lot of people. Zombie wanted them to look realistic and we see how some of the kills were done.

“Meet the Cast.” Zombie says that the casting process is the most exciting part of the filmmaking process for him because it is the first time the film feels real. He talks about why he cast the actors that he did and, in turn, they talk about their approach to the characters and a bit about working on the film.

“Casting Sessions” is a collection of excerpts of audition footage of the cast members. It gives us a chance to see what convinced Zombie to hire them.

“Scout Taylor-Compton Screen Test” features more footage of this young actress testing for the role of Laurie Strode. It is easy to see why she was cast as she nails the role.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

8 comments:

  1. Great writeup. I'm not a big fan of remakes. I wish they would come up with some new ideas. We don't need to see the same things done well rehashed all again. I will say that I enjoyed this film. I wasn't sure if I would or not. I thought Zombie did a good job with it. The time spent on Michael as a child is really what sealed this one for me.

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  2. I agree, Keith. I certainly was apprehensive going into this but for the most part I think that Zombie did a good job. I haven't seen the sequel so I don't know if it is any good but I wish he do something more original.

    I read somewhere that Zombie has said most studios will only greenlight remakes and sequels so he's had a tough time pushing through anything original.

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  3. This was a great breakdown of one of the better remakes. You can really see in this Zombie's maturation as a director (especially since House of 1000 Corpes). I cringed when I first heard they were remaking this, but was pleasantly surprised with the outcome. For me, Daeg Faerch and McDowell were the best things, here. What I'd love to see is Zombie stretch more, not that he hasn't mastered the homage to outlaw cinema. He got more talent than people give him credit. And if he'd tried different genre's, I think he'd surprise a lot of critics. Another great review, J.D., and so right for the season. Thanks for this.

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  4. Oh,you've nailed this film so well. In the main, remakes invariably disappoint me but this one really works.
    I'm just hoping we get a bells and whistles fully-loaded DVD soon, as the UK has yet to get Zombie's comprehensive making-off on disc.

    Take it you're a fan of the excellent Halloween III, which has been unjustly maligned, I'd say.

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  5. le0pard13:

    Thanks for the kind words, my friend! I really do like Zombie and his films and, as you say, I hope he tries other genres. He has said that with his remake of THE BLOB that he hopes to go more the science fiction route so hopefully he'll take a break from the white trash aesthetic and try something different. I really like the '80s remake with Shawnee Smith so Zombie is gonna have to do something special to surpass that one.

    I agree with you that Faerch and McDowell were the stand-outs in this film. I also love how the film ended. A great, abrupt finale which, it seems, Zombie has explored in the sequel.


    Steve Langton:

    I'm with you. Most remakes disappoint me terribly and while, obviously Zombie's film is no where near as amazing as Carpenter's original, it really does stand on its own, which is a good thing.

    The extras-loaded edition is good. I have yet to upgrade to the mondo-version with the feature-length making of doc. If it's as good as the one on THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, I may have to double-dip.

    I do really like HALLOWEEN III. I think it is unfairly maligned. Altho, its title didn't do the film any favors but I think it is very creepy in its own way and has a lot going for it, namely Dean Cundey's atmospheric cinematography.

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  6. J.D,
    I've been a fan and reader of your blog for about a year now and I've just got around to leaving a comment. Thanks for all the cool reviews of some of my favorite films (anything by Mann basically) and turning me on to a lot of new ones.
    Thanks,
    Aidan Largey

    I've got the 2 disc unrated halloween and the extra documentary's really worth the money!

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  7. I paid to see this at the cinema and found I liked it. Surprising, considering my love of Carpenter's original.

    Wasn't sure whether to pick up the DVD but I think I will now.

    Have to second (or third) the love for Halloween III, a great film.

    "Five more days to Halloween... Halloween... Silver Shamrock!)

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  8. Aidan Largey:

    hey there! Nice to have you on board and glad to hear you're a Mann fan. Always a good thing.

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the doc. on the HALLOWEEN DVD. I think that at some point I'll break down and upgrade to the version with the feature-length making-of doc.


    Mark Salisbury:

    Glad to hear that you liked this version also. I too love the original dearly so I was not expecting to like this one at all but was pleasantly surprised by how much I did.

    And always glad to see another fan of HALLOWEEN III. Over the years, it really has been re-evaluated by horror fans and enjoys a pretty decent following now.

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