Rob Zombie is an auteur, whether you like to admit it or not. When it comes to mainstream horror filmmaking, no other director this decade has managed to create a group of horror pictures so stylistically different without ditching their directorial flavor quite like Zombie has; especially in such a short time span. His directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses is like a carnival freak show rotting under a colorful assortment of bubble gum imagery. His second film, The Devil’s Rejects, manages to be a full-blown neo-grindhouse flick in ways Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino only dreamed of accomplishing (and not to mention it was a completely exhilarating and surprisingly moving study of the animalistic nature that is instinctive to the human mind). Zombie’s third film just so happened to be a remake of the 1978 classic Halloween; however the film wasn’t as much a remake as a re-imagining. Somehow with that film, Zombie managed to skid a thin line of being one of the dumbest films of its year, but also one with a few brilliant moments. From a stylistic approach, the film felt uneasy, as if Zombie was trapped inside a box, trying his best to break free and take over and feed what he wants to personally provide for us. Now, he arrives with his sequel to that film called, unsurprisingly, Halloween II. While the title might lead one to thinking it’s so, the film is not a remake of the 1981 film of the same name. What it is, refreshingly, is Zombie taking the characters he did recreate in his update of John Carpenter’s masterpiece and moving them in his own direction; Zombie himself taking complete control over his own demented version of the Myers story – delivering his deranged breed of filmmaking in all of its beastly, compelling glory. This is Rob Zombie out of the box, showing us what he’s made of, and if one is willing to trust him, they just might come to realize that he is damn near genius.
One year after Michael Myers wrecked massive bloodshed on the sleepy town of Haddonfield, his sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) approaches the title holiday two years later with a delirious mixture of emotions ranging from the fear of her brother’s return (they never found the psycho’s body) and guilt accompanied by the loss of those who weren’t so lucky in the first installment (she doesn’t know, however, that she shares blood with the monster). Laurie now lives with her friend Annie (Danielle Harris), who also survived the massacre, and Annie’s father Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif), who also becomes weary of the serial killer’s possible return even though he is dead sure that the bastard is no longer alive. What sets Halloween II apart from other films of its ilk is that is doesn’t just go through the motions, cutting to the chase as the survivors of the previous film await to once again run away from being slaughtered. Here, Zombie makes the brave decision to make each survivor completely human and full of flaws because, well, after running from a psychopath who almost killed you, wouldn’t you change for the better or, hell, even the worse?
There’s a sort of poignant beauty to the direction Zombie takes the protagonists. Laurie, as I stated earlier, holds guilt and fear close to her but, instead of using her survival as a way to conquer her scars, she spirals deep into a nearly psychotic twister of anger. She has a therapist (Margot Kidder) who she gets prescription medication off of, screaming at her as she expresses, not only her fury, but her lack of stability (she becomes addicted to the very drug that should be helping her, using it to the point of where her psychosis only worsens). Zombie rightfully avoids sugar-coating Laurie, choosing to create a very believable subject of a girl now suffering from a severe amount of post-traumatic depression and paranoia. With the other young female survivor, Annie, Zombie respectfully demonstrates that there is also a possibility for better change after such an experience. Unlike her best friend, Annie takes on a stern personality different from Laurie, adapting as a figure of a mother to Laurie’s fractured child. It could be argued that maybe without Laurie’s drifting from sanity, Annie may have also spiraled into the very same earthquake of despair. The fact is that, without one another, maybe Laurie and Annie wouldn’t have been able to hold on to their lives as long as they already have.
It’s absolutely fascinating to compare how touchingly honest and real the characters in Halloween II feel compared to the first film’s disastrous second act. The characters there were all one-dimensional bores, existing in a world in which their brains are occupied by genre archetypes. For example, when Laurie tried to escape from Michael Myers in 2007’s Halloween, we never respond to her cries for help because the screenplay never developed her beyond a generic horror movie heroine. In Halloween II, when Laurie says to her therapist that Annie’s scarred face only lingers at her as a reminder to that psychotic night two years earlier, you can feel her desperation to forget. When she tells her friends that she wants to go to a local Halloween festival in order to party her troubles away after discovering the truth about her blood-soaked life history, we can somehow understand it on such a visceral level it feels quite uncomfortable. The truth is, we get to understand the flawed Laurie so well (maybe even too well) that when the anticipated genre chase scene comes around, we do fear for her life because, not only is her physical body itself at stake (she actually has to run away from the Myers serial killer while intoxicated), but so is the very last inch of sanity she has left when she is rarely sober.
The other big survivor of the first picture is Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), the child psychiatrist who tried his best to help the demented Michael Myers break free from his shell decades earlier. Now that the bloodbath two years before has taken its toll on the media, Loomis has become some kind of infamous bad guy to the public’s eye. There are those who absolutely despise the man, whether it is blaming him for the failure in curing Michael of his condition or, like most of the film’s other reoccurring characters, using their fragile history as a way to exploit his way into achieving more of the fame he has garnered. Zombie must really have balls to take such an iconic hero in the horror community and show him in such an unpleasant manner. Sadly, many of those fans will immediately overlook the intention of the character; refusing to look at the way that Halloween night has also affected him just as Laurie. It’s cause and effect, and Zombie is showing the change even further, making us see that this formally well-intentioned doctor has now become so caught up in his hunger for money that he feels he has nothing but that very thing left. His sudden change toward the end of the film, in which he tries to once again save the film’s lead, may be read by some as a terribly unconvincing change of heart in Zombie’s writing. What it is, however, is Loomis still caught up in a whirlwind of celebrity, as the media attention surrounding such an event is readily available to make him seem more like a hero than a villain to those against his fame. (It’s brilliant how Loomis is almost always shown in a media-influenced environment, whether it be a news broadcast, a book signing, or a press release).
It’s kind of shocking to see Zombie become so in-tune with his protagonists in this film when, if you look at his previous films, he is always more interested in showcasing the depths of his demented creations instead. House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are both completely centered on developing the vile Firefly clan, a family of psychotic murderers who take genuine joy in what they do. The films, like Zombie’s Halloween projects, are also cause and effect pieces. The first film showcasing the family’s brutality while the second film shows the changes they partake in when they slowly begin to become the prey to the same lunacy that they placed on their victims. (And for that, somehow, Zombie made The Devil’s Rejects’s final scene, set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, a final eulogy to the Firefly clan that we have slowly grown to see are not just mentally ill lunatics but seriously damaged human beings.) The first half of Zombie’s Halloween remake works so well compared to the second because of how in-tune it is with the director’s sensibility. He understands people who are psychologically fucked up and he’s intrigued by what makes those kinds of people tic. Halloween II is about an array of damaged people, therefore each and every character, from Dr. Loomis to Laurie to the Bracketts and to Michael Myers himself, is fleshed-out by blood and bone.
Everything we have come to know about Zombie’s re-creation of Michael Myers still lurks in his shadowy figure here. Only the beautiful thing about him here is that Zombie returns Myers to his human face; one of which is only covered by the ghostly white mask when he feels most necessary and, who decides instead, to roam around in a heavy jacket, beard-in-tow, looking like a grizzly hobo. The continuity that is held onto Myers’ development from the first film is paid attention to supremely, even while the film’s attempted realism is dosed with nightmarish neo-Lynchian _sur_realism. Michael Myers’ mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) appears to the killer in order to symbolize what it is the killer is starving for (i.e. Loomis’ hunger for fame and Laurie’s hunger for peace). He’s still that same damaged child deep inside, feeding his violent impulses because of a goal created by his own malicious imagination. Almost in the same way fellow slasher staple Jason Voorhees did in Friday the 13th: Part 2, Myers has twisted visions of his mom appearing to him with a white horse (a symbol of love between his mother and him in his childhood) telling him to kill Laurie, no matter who stands in his way. Unlike Jason, however, the ghostly presence of the killer’s mother is not used as a catalyst for Michael Myers, but as a sort of metaphysical symbol for what he believes to be the truth and what seems to be his goal. The only two people he has ever loved his whole life happen to be his mother and his sister. Michael sees death as an escape; believing there is a life after death that is completely absent of darkness, thus explaining why, as a child, Michael responded so vacantly to Dr. Loomis when he revealed to him that his mother committed suicide. To him, she is in the white afterlife. This is why the ghostly vision of his mother is always dressed in white and surrounded by snow. The color white stems from the white horse motif that is constantly running through the film’s veins, not because the white horse isn’t really important to any of the film’s characters (including Michael) but to Zombie who is using it as a way to express what he can’t with words or plot points. Through the white horse, he brings emotions to the surface that would otherwise go unsaid. He’s expressing his subjects through his imagery, provoking the audience in the very same way great auteurs are supposed to.
The haunting image of the mom and white horse isn’t only placed around Michael, but also Laurie, who sees the same visions in her nightmares before even knowing what Michael’s mother looks like, let alone knowing that it’s actually her mother as well. The white horse motif appears differently in context when Laurie sees it. With her, it represents that spiral in her sanity on a more unexplained level. This sense of violence that may or may not be lurking somewhere in her; a kind of repetition of the kind of pain Michael has put on her. Think of it as a psychosis on how some (but not all) molested children take on the dark behavior of their molesters. It’s not hard to believe Zombie is pursuing this theme here as it is not the first time doing so. A variation on it actually lurks in The Devil’s Rejects as well, where a female member of the Firefly clan runs away from the brother of a past victim – being chased through the dark of the night in, screaming in the night like the very victims she had once pursued. In Halloween II, it’s demonstrated in the white horse, in Laurie’s meltdowns (she even tells her therapist that she wants to kill her friend Annie after describing her incapability of controlling her rage), and in the film’s final scene involving her willingness to slaughter another person with her brother’s weapon.
With Zombie’s use of visuals and sound, there is almost always an avant garde mood breathing through every frame of the film. There is reality here, but also a murky dreamlike feeling that culminates it all into a very lucid mindset. The way Zombie shows Laurie expressing her confusion through grunge pop culture, decorating her room in imagery ranging from a poster of Charles Manson to foul graffiti including a bumper sticker placed on the bathroom mirror which reads: “Wake the fuck up.” The chaotic choice in which he cuts to Laurie as she roams town happy as can be with scenes of her screaming at her therapist to give her more drugs only a few minutes later. The eerie touch that he gives to a nightmare Laurie has at the beginning of the film where The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” seems to be screaming a ghostly chant that lurks in the air. Or the way a local Halloween festival in the middle of town is presented as some kind of surreal, alien blend of horror film history that brilliantly clashes with the grit that Zombie injects into his own universe. The host of this party is a drunken buffoon dressed as Dracula who cracks jokes nobody finds funny (symbolizing the falseness of the horror genre’s claim of honesty). On the walls of barns near the festival there are repetitions of scenes of Phantom of the Opera in which Lon Cheney is seen looking down on everybody in attendance. Laurie and her friends attend the party dressed as characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show while one of the friends turn up having an encounter with a man dressed in a werewolf mask (interestingly, like Michael Myers himself, this character never shows his face, staying behind a mask in order to hide is nervousness towards the girl’s sexual advances just as Michael hides his face in order to dispose of his inner child).
The festival scenes make for some of the creepiest and most disturbing moments in the film as Zombie confronts the audience with the fact that he is letting us know the fantasy of the cinema. It’s okay to use movies as escapism, but entertainment value of a fake slasher movie killing should not be confused with the very brutality of actual murder. This is why, when one of Laurie’s friends is butchered at the festival, Zombie cuts back and forth between that character’s murder and the other friends having a blast in the macabre ecstasy of the festival. When we see some naked women roaming the festival with model-like bodies as they gladly show off their flesh to everyone, it’s obvious we are going to be completely shattered when the next couple of scenes force us to watch as the natural, average-like unclothed body of Annie Brackett lies on the floor of a blood-covered bathroom, choking on her own blood as she slowly dies.
Annie’s death is possibly one of the most brutal death scenes in recent horror cinema, and what makes it so astonishing for achieving such a status is the fact that we never actually see the killing take place. We watch as Annie wanders the house in her robe, preparing the bathtub, and in the hallway we see the ghostly mother (along with young Michael) appear. (This inclusion of the mother in this scene is further proof that Zombie is using the image as a universal symbol, not one solely for Michael. Here, it’s basically representing the feeling of unease that the viewer is getting at this moment of her impending attack.) She sees Michael in the room with her, and just when the audience expects another one of the brutal attacks common in the film, the scene falls down to slow motion as Annie flees from Michael. On the soundtrack, we hear the sound of a pin on a record player waiting to be lifted from the end of its round. The sounds of Annie’s attack fade up into the audio as we see headlights pulling up in front of the home. One trying to predict the outcome of the next couple of scenes will probably be expecting Laurie and her fellow friend to enter the home and discover the dead body of the girl before running away from the killer themselves. Think of the way, for example, Neve Campbell’s character stumbles onto her best friend’s dead body hanging by a garage door in Wes Craven’s Scream. She looks at the carnage, gasps, and runs away from it, acting as if it never bothered her and the only reason she stumbled onto it was because the character needed to know her friend was dead so she wouldn’t be looking for her later on in the film. It verges on offensive. What Rob Zombie does here, instead, is he allows the two girls to go into the house and stand around drunkenly in the kitchen, unaware that Annie’s dying body is upstairs. They talk about random things for a few minutes before they finally head upstairs and discover the body. It’s that lengthy, quiet and very natural moment between two people that adds a melancholic tension and stark reality to the moment.
It’s very rare that slasher films take themselves seriously, but Halloween II is ambitious with it, knowing that it would be something that could easily bother anybody who watches the film expecting another thrill-ride in the same pattern of films like Scream (and the second half of Zombie’s first Halloween). We only hear the final screams of Annie, very brief frames of her begging Michael for her life, and then her bloody nude body on the floor being held by Laurie as she dies in her best friend’s arms. In this scene, the Laurie who was once complaining about how much she hated Annie now cries for her to stay with her, her cracking voice calling for her to “Stay with me, baby” as she, possibly unknowingly, realizes that she cannot live without that motherly figure who was the only other person to share that ugly experience of barely scratching the surface of death two years prior. Later in the film, when the big climactic chase begins and Laurie runs through a gothic wooded area composed like one out of a fairy tale, the film returns to Annie’s place of death as Sheriff Brackett finds his baby girl and breaks down in a terrifyingly raw manner. The look in his eye, the sound of his voice – and the complete hysteria of the moment is chilling. This man found his daughter two years earlier naked on the floor of a home, covered in blood and holding onto her life as much as she can. Now, Michael attempted to kill her the same way and this time succeeded. The way he looks at his naked daughter is depressingly juxtaposed with cuts to video images of Annie as a child. It’s Zombie once again using imagery as a way to compose the thought of a character. Sheriff Brackett’s baby girl left exposed and lifeless, only this time without a single drop of hope.
The turnaround way in which Halloween II goes back and forth between reality and surrealism makes it easy to comprehend why the film receives so much hate from both critics and regular moviegoers. For the latter group, it’s a complete departure from the franchise formula so the fans of the series will more than likely fail to engage in it because of how different is to what they have admired for years. The ones who aren’t fans of the series, or slasher films in general, may find it too depressing and therefore feel violated and uncomfortable when expecting something fun and forgettable. And the film critics will not take it seriously because of the franchise and see the metaphoric nature of Zombie’s direction as just messy attempts at David Lynch (which is unfair judgment, if you ask me) in an otherwise “typical” slasher film (when it clearly doesn’t rely on the conventions, but acts upon them in a very intelligent manner). My last hope is that in the years to come, when more and more lowbrow slasher junk is dumped into cinemas, the film is one day rediscovered and re-analyzed for all of its strong aspects. I remember reading somewhere that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was also critically panned similarly to Halloween II nowadays. It received massive hate from moviegoers, including fans of the novel who felt it fucked around with great source material. With time, and revisiting of the film, it has slowly worked its way up to the consensus considering it one of the great American horror films of all time. Surely Halloween II will never reach such heights, but I still remain hopeful. People seem to have gladly forgotten The Shining’s horrible reception and Razzie nominations now that it’s considered one of the few “auteuristic” horror films out there.
Halloween II is definitely a film conceived by an auteur. By using his direction to construct honest emotion – through his use of editing, photography, set design and soundtrack – while remaining truly cinematic and never backing down from using his own personal flair for filmmaking, Rob Zombie has definitely proved to be an incredibly smart admirer of film and music who knows how to blend them both in a specific way that he can proudly call his own. I know I’ll get flack for this following statement, but will hopefully be smiling in the years to come when Halloween II at least finds an audience somewhere. I am going to express that I feel, with this film, Zombie has paved his way to becoming a fresh face in a modern line of stylish and brilliant directors. A list that includes Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Harmony Korine, Vincent Gallo, Darren Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola, the Coens, the Dardennes, and Michael Haneke – filmmakers who have all proven to completely own a film in the same way masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dario Argento, Martin Scorsese, Douglas Sirk, Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, Akira Kurosawa, and, yes, even Stanley Kubrick seem to be able to put a distinctive stamp on their films. What these directors all have in common is that they are capable of owning a certain sense of themes and styles that other filmmakers never seem to possess in quite the same way. Zombie has created, with Halloween II and previous films, a knowledgeable vision for creating worlds that are truly original and all his own.
In the final scene of Halloween II, it would be easy to write-off its berserk nature as ridiculous had it not been so fully realized up to that point. Director Rob Zombie’s mother / white horse motif becomes so vibrantly alive in the film that, for a couple of minutes, it completely throws realism out the door for a moment of complete deus ex machina involving the film’s illustrative aspects overcoming the characters of Laurie and Michael to a point of absurdity. But the film’s destructive way of animating the truths is so frighteningly done with such an astute understanding of character that it becomes nothing if not strangely powerful. Dr. Loomis arrives, in a falsely heroic fashion, and Michael ultimately stabs and kills him. What makes this moment so powerful is what provokes Michael to remove his mask before the slaying and scream “Die!”; the first time Loomis has seen his face or heard his voice since his mother died.
It’s interesting to note that, like the Firefly clan at the end of The Devil’s Rejects, both living members of the Myers clan, Michael after killing Loomis and Laurie after attempting to stab Loomis’ dead body, are killed in a rain of gunfire set off by a group of policemen. Once again, the characters Zombie feels most close to meet their end at the hands of an old-fashioned law vs. outlaw showdown. Beautifully, Zombie finishes the film with a sequence that has baffled many who have seen the film (many believe that the final shot is that of Laurie, who survived the shooting, in a mental asylum). However, the claustrophobic white room that feels endless, the disappearing corridors that seem to close in on the frame and the white horse motif once again brings us into a parabolic state of mind. It’s as if we are seeing the very thing Michael himself always felt he would see in death. Laurie, in an afterlife bleached with white, awaiting the arrival of her dead mother; the white horse ready to take her away and be where it is that Michael saw nothing but happiness in. But with a sudden cut to black, Zombie lets us know that Michael’s faith was fantasy. That everything he ever dreamed for was nothing. That sad life was the only white he could ever achieve had he not been programmed into thinking it was so dark. Zombie once again uses imagery during the credits to take us a sly bit further into this assessment, as the credits continuously cut into snapshots of every person Michael Myers has ever killed in both of Zombie’s films; the brutality of every snapshot further shows the pointlessness of all he has ever worked up to. Therefore, while we feel sad for Laurie and pity Dr. Loomis, we also feel a large amount of pain for Michael. Like someone going to watch a harmless slasher movie, he only wanted escapism from such a devastating life. Both of you are disappointed.
There is scarcely a fun inch in Halloween II’s body. It goes from brutally violent to harshly stressful without coming up for air. There are these moments of brightness peppered throughout (a scene in which Laurie and the Bracketts eat pizza for dinner, for example) but that hope is vanquished constantly in the terrible moments that come crashing in afterward. In that pizza scene, Zombie cuts back and forth between Michael eating a dog and Laurie throwing up. Not because they have some psychic connection and she doesn’t like the taste of raw dog, but because Zombie is once again showing a point in her character. That rabid behavior of Michael Myers still haunts her to the point of where she can’t even slightly enjoy the good times. It’s a depressing nightmare one is not quite able to easily wake up from. It haunts every moment of her, all the time. And that’s what makes Halloween II such an important piece of work. It’s probably the first slasher film that actually cares.