“Avatar.” “Inglourious Basterds.” “Up.” Merely three of the most likely candidates to be propped up at the head of various film commentator Top 10 lists for the year 2009, a year in which 3-D began to find sure footing, James Cameron made the most expensive film ever and Quentin Tarantino defied history for the sake of cinema. Our very own Cam Smith declared QT’s excellent latest film the year’s best, highlighting a respectable enough movie that, yes, pretty much everyone loved.
But what was the nadir of cinema in 2009? The absolute pits? If you believe It’s Just Movies’ “Ten Worst” installment, it was a dreaded sequel to a remake, a summation of everything that’s wrong with the unoriginal Hollywood horror department and — you may gasp in terror — another film by that ol’ schlockmeister Rob Zombie. “Halloween II,” that is. A film of emotionless brutality. Now then — would anyone like to guess my pick for 2009’s best?
A revisit to a young, incarcerated Michael (Chase Vanek) and Deborah Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) aside, “Halloween II” picks up right where its predecessor left off, showing a mentally-broken Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) being taken to a hospital then documenting a thought-to-be-dead Michael’s (Tyler Mane) escape en route to the morgue, an triptych of scenes that concludes with the sight of an observing, ghostly version of Deborah Myers and a white horse that crops up throughout in the nightmarish sleep experiences shared by protagonist and antagonist throughout. Flash forward a year, and Laurie, still haunted by her experiences the previous Halloween, has taken on a more rebellious persona, living now with surviving friend Annie (Danielle Harris) and her Sheriff father Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif) on the outskirts of Haddonfield. As they try to cope with the forthcoming holiday and Michael prepares to return to finish off his mission, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is about to publish a cash-grabbing book on the series of murders that threatens to unravel what semblance of a normal existence Laure has intact.
Though “House of 1000 Corpses” had sporadic flourishes and “The Devil’s Rejects” turned its eye for grimy ’70s and ’80s B-movies into an individual success, Rob Zombie’s prior films have been somewhat hampered by the looming presence of those movies (such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Funhouse”) that seemed to inspire the musician-turned-director’s film-making career. Indeed, the most outwardly awkward problems in his still-underrated “Halloween,” a revamp of the same-titled John Carpenter classic, came in the expectations of adhering to that film’s pre-existing formula, Zombie incorporated whole passages of time and whole lines of dialogue into an otherwise upended vision of the Michael Myers mythos that slightly suffocated Zombie’s more rebellious artistic instincts.
Such problems, however, haven’t hampered Zombie’s “Halloween II,” though the starling originality and flavour of his confident sequel hasn’t helped him with critics, who seem to mistake his use of extreme violence for being his sole driving force. Exercising entirely free of the constraints that have previously bound him, Zombie continues to breathe life into an otherwise worn-down franchise in his latest film, following up “Halloween” with an altogether more masterful approximation of a slasher film, forming an artful evocation of cause and effect that doesn’t pretend to function outside the unique, grimy cinematic landscape the writer-director has created. Yes it’s brutally violent and intentionally disquieting, but it’s also got far more brains, intuitiveness and inspiration about it than any of its watered-down brethren.
Unlike previous films within its series, “Halloween II” functions without a fun inch in its body (indeed, the “tin-eared humor” is something shared between the characters, not the film and audience), upending the expectations of a post-“Scream” slasher sequel in how it refreshingly observes the survivors of Michael’s previous massacre as wandering souls barely reminiscent of their ’07 counterparts. Everyone’s grappling with the ramifications of a brutal tragedy here, be it in how Dr. Loomis has chosen to exploit the events for callous financial gain (in the film’s somewhat satirical “media monster” tangent), how Laurie has adopted a rebellious streak between vivid nightmares and ineffective therapy sessions, or how Annie Brackett has lost the outgoing persona of her former self, now a recluse with a motherly attitude bearing the scars of past. Even Michael has been altered, the result of his failure the previous year — now expanded upon by his hallucinatory dream and delusions — to dispatch of Laurie being a greater rage that adds to his savagery and sees the character audibly roar and vocalise as he performs his atrocities in what seems like a series first.
Indeed, Zombie’s crafted a horror movie in which all the characters seem to be gravitating towards an all-consuming abyss. Michael’s dreams are juxtaposed with a sleeping Laurie’s nightmares and recollections, the two beginning to fuse into one as “Halloween II” proves itself to be about more than a mere revisit to a wounded Haddonfield setting. These surreal touches may seem off-putting to viewers who have grown accustomed to suffering through slashers and horrors that can be easily boxed, but far from coming off like the gimmick trailers and TV spots promised, these scenes work far better. With them, Zombie builds upon the Myers character he erected in “Halloween,” affording him the kind of regret and emotional torment that superficially similar characters like Jason Voorhees (or Michael himself) were never granted, while simultaneously using them to anticipate and observe the out-breaking psychopath that lurks beneath the fragile exterior of Laurie, the latter context shifting into overdrive by the time Laurie comes to read Dr. Loomis’s revelation-heavy “true events” junk. The kinship between characters these shared sequences serve to illustrate is most broadly — but most brilliantly — signified by the scene in which Laurie’s subconscious frantically re-enacts one of the early kills of “Halloween.” Another scene, at a costume party, brings to mind Argento and Lynch without ever seeming like a cheapo alternative.
Of course, with all these effective psychological and supernatural themes comes a rich helping of gore and extreme violence, by now a guaranteed element of Zombie’s output. But lest critics and viewers mistake these flashes of brutality as either the driving force or evidence towards the absence of emotion, let it be known that “Halloween II” is more overtly concerned with other elements of its production, emotion included. On the contrary to the claims of many-a-naysayer, Zombie combines viscera with emotion better than any of ’09s other horror flicks, be it the silly “The Uninvited” or the truly hollow “Drag Me to Hell.” When Sheriff Brackett finds himself revisiting a scene from the previous film with greater finality, Zombie sees the deceased character whose blood-soaked, naked body lies across a tiled bathroom floor as more than a slab of meat — signifying an increase in maturity even from “The Devil’s Rejects,” which was more concerned with the perpetrators than the victims. For his part, Brad Dourif plays the scene perfectly, and the profound sense of loss the moment betrays is palpably felt. “Halloween II” may be explicitly violent, but violence isn’t its only concern. In another scene, Dr. Loomis is confronted at a book signing event by the father of one of Myers’ victims, another of the film’s prisoners of the past struggling to re-assemble their lives.
More than anything, the brilliant “Halloween II” has fallen victim to a critical community of pre-conceptions and group-think, so for every convincing put-down — as with Cam’s or Nick Schager’s — there’s another dozen that smack of insincerity and desperation. The film’s cinematography is consistently top-notch, a series of memorable, deep shots scored to a subtle musical score and solid screenplay. A triple-murder in a field is another of the film’s many technical triumphs, of which, and the film as a whole, critic William Goss writes: “At one point, we see a long shot of Michael Myers in silhouette dragging a victim in silhouette out of a truck and then stabbing them again and again and again and again, and it’s an image which singularly sums up what a numbing experience the whole film is. No flashes of blood, no hints of character, just shadows killing shadows” as I try to keep my head from exploding. Why even address the themes and pre-occupations (even the protagonists and antagonists) of a movie when you can fashion yourself a silly little summation that would appear to refer to any other movie but the one in question? Goss is wrong (completely) — the movie is more layered than he cares to acknowledge. Whether it fails or succeeds is another matter, but the foundation is there.
All the depth and thematic credibility of the film cast to one side, “Halloween II” doesn’t forget about functioning as a slice of cinematic entertainment. A blistering horror movie of fluid pacing and aesthetic splendour, the movie strides – free of baggage and superfluous padding – from an opening dream sequence that hints at the forthcoming mania to a conclusion in and around a dilapidated shack that perfectly sees the movie’s story and characters come full circle. His career as a writer seemingly destroyed before it got off the ground, Dr. Loomis arrives to aide an uninspired Sheriff Brackett and a now-lunatic Laurie to no avail, claimed by that on which he aimed to capitalise as the torch passes to another burgeoning psychopath. It’s a madly appropriate, atmospherically lush concluding note, capped off with an unmasking that gives the viewer a visual statement of succession that has hampered the production of the needless, unwarranted “Halloween 3-D.”
So a supporting character says during the film: “You gotta loosen up a little bit; bring some anarchy to the party.” Such is the clear outlook that drives Rob Zombie down his non-music career path, “Halloween II” representing his most fiercely original, provocative and breathtaking work to date. Of course, Zombie’s film isn’t for everybody, and if you aren’t heading into the film willing to suspend disbelief when witnessing the filmmaker’s Lynchian imagery and (yes) emotionally turned-on acts of violence and deprivation you’re likely to hate it as much as the next person. Fact is, the series hasn’t had a truly surprising moment since “Halloween 4” concluded, and the biggest surprise of Zombie’s best film is how confidently it’s torn down the limiting formula of the slasher sub genre to become something fully of its own — and, in turn, arguably the strongest movie of its ilk since the original “Halloween.” In a remake culture that sees the same basic teen horror carted out almost on a weekly basis — “Prom Night” is the absolute pits, “The (lousy) Uninvited” the norm — the startling originality and creativity betrayed by “Halloween II” should be marveled at, not roundly dismissed because it also happens to be extreme and vicious.
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