In 2007, Rob Zombie did what for many was an unthinkable cinematic no-no. He made a remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 groundbreaking film, Halloween. A masterclass in indie filmmaking, Carpenter co-wrote, scored and directed the movie that introduced audiences to the embodiment of evil, Michael Myers. A giant of a man, clad in a William Shatner Halloween mask, Myers unleashes terror on the town of Haddonfield, killing babysitters and boyfriends, until he’s finally (though temporarily) stopped by his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and the one who gets away, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Of course, nothing could really stop Michael, who would go return in a series of sequels (some good, some not so much), that in many ways numbed the impact that character and the original film had made. By the time Rob Zombie was offered a chance to reboot the series in the mid 2000’s, Michael Myers had joined the pantheon of horror villain like Jason and Freddy Krueger who, while iconic to the genre, just weren’t that scary anymore.
To give Zombie the keys to the Halloween kingdom was a bold choice for Dimension Films and producer Malek Akkad. Neither of Zombie’s previous film’s, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005), had been big moneymakers by any stretch of the imagination. However, what they had done was demonstrate Zombie’s skill behind the camera, and his place as a visionary horror director. Now, many genre fans hate Zombie’s work (pre and post-Halloween) – they say it’s too dirty, too violent, too Southern Rock. Depending on your tastes, those aren’t necessarily wrong assessments, especially with the case of The Devil’s Rejects, a more grounded, serial killer sequel to the twisted horror funhouse ride of House of 1000 Corpses. You can feel the grit and grime seeping into the frame when you watch The Devil’s Rejects, and it’s certainly not a pleasant film. It is, however, chilling and contains strong performances from his cast, along with the best usage of the song “Freebird” outside of the final encore of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
It’s this style that made Rob Zombie an interesting choice to reboot the series. After getting clearance from John Carpenter to work on the film, with the famed director encouraging Zombie to make the movie his own, Rob wound up creating a screenplay that took many of the best parts from the original, and merged them with a backstory for Michael Myers, something that the original had never given the character (though the second film established Laurie Strode as his sister, and other sequels gave the character connections to the occult).
In the first half of the film, we watch how Michael, played by Daeg Farch, has developed clear psychotic tendencies prior to his initial murderous actions, killing his pet rat and then asking his benevolent and oblivious mother Deborah (Sherri Moon Zombie) for another. Michael is surrounded by a verbally (and most likely physically) abusive step-father, played with white trash glee by William Forsythe, and an older sister who barely acknowledges him. There’s enough alarm bells at school that the Principal calls in noted psychologist Sam Loomis (played by Malcolm McDowell with an unbridled angst that Donald Pleasence never allowed in his role) to talk with Deborah, and suggest that Michael’s troubles are deeper than anyone suspects. Michael’s rage plays out when he unapologetically and violently kills a bully who had been picking on him at school, and then on Halloween night, murders his stepfather, sister, and her boyfriend. Zombie directs these scenes with as much violence as he can muster, and for a mainstream horror film (which this Halloween was definitely released as), it was significantly more graphic than the usual season releases. From there, we watch as Michael, committed to Smith’s Grove Psychiatric Hospital, regresses from a somewhat charming kid to a near-monosyllabic monster who ultimately only wishes to hide behind a mask… and kill. It’s a sad story, and gives a real insight into The Shape, who could be the boy next door to you or I.
I’ve always found this to be what makes Rob Zombie’s Halloween a genuinely wrenching piece of horror. This isn’t the supernatural at play, here. This is a boy/man who ultimately has developed into someone powerfully evil (the full grown Michael is played by former pro wrestler Tyler Mane, huge and intimidating). When the second half of the film becomes a more brutal homage to Carpenter’s original, with Scout Taylor-Compton facing the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, knowing where Michael’s come from simply gives the story a greater resonance; it makes it more than just a simple remake.
The huge success of the 2007 film, which opened on Labour Day and still maintains the record for biggest opening gross for that weekend with $26 million, meant a sequel was inevitable. However, according to Rob Zombie, producer Malek Akkad told the director to go as far out as he wanted; he wasn’t beholden to Carpenter’s sequel. Having explored the psyche of Michael Myers in his first film, it made sense that this time out, Zombie would look at the mental impact that the events would have on Taylor-Compton’s Laurie. While Halloween (2018) is being rightly hailed for its depiction of trauma on Curtis’ character, Zombie’s Halloween II (2009) actually did it first. There are, of course, differences; Curtis’ Laurie is 40 years removed from her encounter with Michael Myers, while it’s only been about two years for Taylor-Compton’s character. The former cute and bookish Laurie is now alienated from her friend Annie (Danielle Harris), and is having unexplained visions of a woman on a white horse, visions she unknowingly shares with Michael, who is thought dead but who has actually been hiding. Throughout the film, Laurie has to deal with the anxiety and trauma of having lost her friends and, by the middle of the film, the revelation that Michael Myers is actually her brother. This fact sends her spiraling as she looks to numb her pain. Inevitably, Michael returns for a family reunion that leaves Laurie as the ultimate heir to the Myers legacy.
Upon its release, Halloween II was a huge critical and commercial failure. As someone who had loved Zombie’s first take, I was hugely disappointed walking out of the second film. The movie felt heavy handed and ridiculous to me, and the white horse moments exceedingly comical. When I talked with Zombie about The Lords of Salem in 2013, I mentioned to Rob how it seemed there had been a lot of meddling going on with Halloween II.
“Both Halloweens were nonstop meddling and fighting, all day long, every single day, on both movies, to a point where you kind of feel like you’re losing your mind,” he recalled. “It’s a really hard thing to explain unless you’ve been there, but it’s kind of like, you build a sand castle and every five seconds a wave destroys it. And every five seconds someone says, “Where’s the sand castle?” You just destroyed it! And that goes on month after month and you’re losing your mind. So with both of those movies, I don’t even know how I feel since they were both such miserable experiences to make. Funny thing, same with the cast. When we wrapped both those movies, the cast would come over and say, “Rob, I love you, but I’ve got to get out of here.” They were both really hard. There’s the parametres that it’s Halloween, it’s Michael Myers, you’re sort of locked into some expectations that people have.”
Years later, I rewatched both films back to back, and the director’s goals finally clicked for me; I managed to walk away with a newfound respect for Halloween II. Zombie was exploring new territory, the connection between Michael and Laurie as siblings who likely shared elements of the same psychological make-up. Both were victims in their own way; Michael, at the hands of his family, Laurie at the hands of her brother. It’s heady stuff, especially for a franchise that for many epitomized the jump-scare, violent focus of the slasher genre. Much credit is due to Scout Taylor-Compton; Zombie puts her through the wringer through both films, and she delivers bravura performances each time.
Taken together, Rob Zombie’s Halloween films were ahead of their time tales of psychological and physical trauma meshed with his stock-in-trade cinematic vision. While far from perfect, their maligned legacy (especially in the case of Halloween II) is worth reconsidering.