good reading and poor viewing

Shroud MagazineHurray! Today the postie delivered my handsome contributor copy of Shroud Magazine, issue 2. I’m sharing the edition with my rather more famous countryman, Kealan Patrick Burke, along with Colleen Anderson, Steve Vernon, Marie Brennan, Nathaniel Lambert, Nate Kenyon, Tom Piccirilli and Ken Bruen, and Christa M. Miller. It’s a beautiful, well-produced, magazine. I’m proud my short story “Home” is in it.

Recently, a mysterious benefactor in RTÉ sent me a free copy of Halloween (2007), the version (re)written and directed by Rob Zombie. I’ve gone on record in the past of not enjoying Rob Zombie’s films. Mr. Zombie likes the monsters who chop up and mutilate other folks. The victims are secondary in his films. What he admires are the leering grotesques.

His version of Halloween has not changed my opinion of his work. The film is really about Michael Myers, and a least a third of the movie is spent detailing his evolution from troubled child to psycho slasher. The Zombie version of Halloween has Michael the product of screwed up trailer trash parents – his Mom is a stripper, and his step-Dad is a bum and layabout. This is pretty stereotypical stuff, in which the working classes are a hotbed of violence and a breeding ground for sociopaths.

Characters posses that marionette-feel of them jerking around the scenes and opening and closing their mouths based on plot and script lines. They have no believability. In particular, Michael’s mother is farcical: she loves her monster son, and visits him for a year or two in an asylum after he has killed her daughter and husband. Yet, in a moment of crisis she commits suicide, leaving behind a baby girl. This series of events strikes me as being written by someone who has no clue about women or their motivations.

The film does something that particularly annoyed me: it threw in a totally gratuitous rape scene in which the point of the action is to activate the monster, and the woman being brutalised is incidental. This encapsulates Rob Zombie’s vision: victims are needed for monsters, and otherwise they are of no consequence.

As it happens, SciFi Channel is doing a John Carpenter retrospective this week, so I watched Halloween (1978) to refresh my memory (he co-wrote the script with Debra Hill). Carpenter’s film situates the horror in the middle class estates of America. He wisely doesn’t attempt to analyse Michael: a cute blond aberration, born into a middle-income family, but he turns against them, and in particular his sister who is screwing around with her boyfriend. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Michael’s jittery shrink, repeatedly refers to Michael as the devil, as a force of nature that must be contained or stopped to protect others.

Carpenter constructs a monster that is terrifying because it is blank-faced and relentless. It does not possess mercy or kindness. It kills because that is its sole purpose. And Carpenter establishes this with brisk efficiency and gets the action back to suburbia to focus on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is stalked by Michael. I don’t find Halloween scary any more, but it is still creepy in places. In particular, Carpenter manages to convey the childish fear of the middle-class home when it is transformed at night into its shadowy double. Even Carpenter’s minor characters have hints of depth, and are sympathetic. You may not like all of them, but they are understandable. They don’t deserve to be killed, and you don’t want that to happen. I’m somewhat nonplussed by many modern horror films that populate their films with annoying or nasty characters – is it the lame notion that it’s okay to kill people if the audience doesn’t like them?

There are many great scenes in this film, and the signature music works despite my familiarity with it. One moment that is effective without a lot of props is when Loomis approaches the asylum, and the headlights of the car pick out the ghostly figures of inmates in their gowns wandering the grounds. The audience never has to see inside the asylum. We know what’s happened.

I love when Michael’s mask seems to float out of a darkened doorway to hover over Laurie’s shoulder, before he attacks. Or when he sits up in the background, as Laurie shakes in the foreground. The scene in which a bleeding Laurie screams and bangs on the door of a neighbour only to be ignored is a telling moment: this neighbourhood is about fa?ade, do not bring real problems into the spotlight.

The final disappearance of Michael highlights that he cannot be understood or contained. He originates from within suburbia, and is part of its leafy avenues and clipped lawns. Carpenter’s final static shots of silent darkened interiors and then the suburban street cement this notion.

Carpenter helped shape an entire genre of horror films through Halloween, and it remains a classic because it contains thrills, jolts, and an iconic monster. It also has subtext, and indicates that its creator put thought into what underpins the film.

In comparison Zombie’s version is a shallow attempt to hijack the back story of Michael Myers to his own ends: to valorise the monster, and to say: “Hey, he’s fucked up too… and isn’t it cool when he stabs this person to death?”

Give me Carpenter’s version any day. Thirty years later it still holds up to repeated viewing. In 2037 I doubt anyone’s going to care too much about Zombie’s version of Halloween, but the original will still be remembered.