Re-Fear: Halloween (2007) / Halloween II (2009) by Rob Zombie
A conversation between Nathan Smith and Mike Thorn
N: So I suppose we should probably begin by breaking down our own personal relationships to the Halloween franchise; to say the least, I think that most people’s feelings about Rob Zombie’s reinterpretation of the Myers saga is colored by their connection to the other films. Though I’ll always be a freak for Freddy Krueger at heart, I do find Myers to be one of the more compelling brand-name slashers, but it’s only been recently that I’ve really come around to the series at all. I’ve always liked Carpenter, but when first viewing Halloween several years ago, I felt a little underwhelmed. My taste has changed quite a bit in the years since so I anticipated that I’d love Halloween upon rewatch, and I did. I had a similar experience with James Cameron’s The Terminator: both movies were too “simple” for me as a young cinephile, but as I get older, simplicity reveals itself as the central virtue of both works. Carpenter’s Halloween is much like Michael Myers himself: an engine that can’t be stopped. It just goes and goes and goes.
As far as the other sequels are concerned, I like Ron Rosenthal’s Halloween II well enough, I don’t care much for Season of the Witch, The Return of Michael Myers is solid lazy Sunday viewing, and I thought the David Gordon Green remake was unfortunately rather abysmal. I still haven’t made it through Revenge, Curse, H20, or Resurrection, though I plan on it soon. Unlike a lot of people, I actually don’t mind how the sequels (at least thus far) extend the Myers mythology. What makes Myers interesting to me is his essential blankness, how hollow he is, but I don’t think filling in some of the margins necessarily makes him less interesting. He works for me as evil incarnate on two legs, but his emptiness promises a certain potential for malleability, which is why I’m open to other interpretations. How are things between you and Michael Myers, Mike?
M: John Carpenter might be my favorite American horror auteur to come out of the late-twentieth century, but while I love and respect Halloween (1978) a great deal, it has never been one of my top favorites of his (I’m drawn much more toward Prince of Darkness , Christine  and Ghosts of Mars , to name a few). Your description of both the film and Michael Myers as “an engine” is absolutely on point, and I think the entire piece works as a kind of vessel for Carpenter to develop many of his formalist ideas. I especially love the way the film uses “space” not only architecturally and compositionally, but also conceptually--it’s deliberately designed around the placement and duration of pauses and lulls, maybe one of the best visual illustrations of Carpenter’s rhythmic intuitions (which, of course, show very clearly in his work as a musical composer).
I like almost all of the sequels, especially Season of the Witch, which offers compelling possibilities for an auteur-driven series revolving around the theme of Halloween rather than the character of Michael Myers. Halloween II (1981) is an efficient slasher film; I enjoy the fourth, fifth and sixth entries, which owe most of their humble effects to Donald Pleasence’s presence; H20, possibly my least favorite, is a pretty vacant and cynical cash-in on the meta-sensibilities made popular by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson in the late-nineties; Halloween: Resurrection is dumb and a little boring, but not insufferable; and David Gordon Green’s newest reboot is incredibly muddled, made up of lots of incompatible parts (some of which are intriguing, many of which are not).
Rob Zombie’s two films are probably my favorite works under the Halloween banner, and I have no issue with viewing them as entirely separate entities from Carpenter’s original. I think they work together to form a very complex and thoughtful exegesis on American serial killer mythologies, with the first film primarily exploring social, familial and institutional systems while the sequel delves into the intricate and vexing connections between violence and un- (or sub) consciousness. I think these films’ thematic concerns speak clearly to Rob Zombie’s career-long interests (as a filmmaker, musician and visual artist), not only in terms of serial killer narratives and Americana, but also in their empathetic views toward societal “others,” which suggest Zombie’s allegiance to the Universal monster films released in the 1930s and 1940s.
How do you feel about reading Rob Zombie’s Halloween films in relation to their auteur’s body of work, rather than in relation to the Michael Myers saga? What is gained and/or lost?
N: I think I’d rank Halloween a little higher in Carpenter’s filmography than you would, but I agree that its appeal is largely a formalist one, in that it’s basically an endless narrative labyrinth that allows Carpenter to show off his stuff. Any “faithful” sequel or remake would need someone behind the camera with an equal understanding of space, which David Gordon Green doesn’t really have. Rob Zombie does have some mighty impressive formal chops, but I totally agree it makes more sense to read the Halloween remake and its sequel in line with his filmography more than the rest of the actual franchise. Carpenter drew us a blank outline; Zombie merely fills it in. If there is any real connection between the two films, it’s that both are unimaginable without the specific visions of their respective auteurs.
You do a very astute job outlining what is uniquely Zombie about these two movies. Though perhaps more restrained than House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, there’s still a strong element of “hillbilly horror” to these films. Laurie Strode leads a fairly stable suburban existence in Carpenter’s original, but Zombie throws all that out—the Myers family is poor, dysfunctional, and abusive, with a strong stench of “white trash.” The milieu we’re thrown in could not be more different from the Haddonfield of 1978.
What I think Zombie adds most is a sense of specificity. The 1978 Halloween may be set in a specific place with specific people, but its uniqueness stems from its ordinariness. Michael is, of course, The Shape: an outline of human being, a vague apparition, a face in the window. He is whatever we want him to be. I almost feel like the Carpenter Halloween is more akin to something like Alan Clarke’s Elephant, a structuralist experiment set in a world where people are only capable of relating to each other through brutal violence, than the slashers that followed suit. In Zombie’s world, Michael Myers is Michael Myers. The first forty minutes or so of the director’s cut of Zombie’s Halloween color in his childhood, which is relegated to a point-of-view prologue in the original. Even more specifically, it is not just about Myers’ childhood, but the intensive therapy he undergoes and his relationship with Dr. Loomis. I’m often resistant to this kind of mythologizing, but in Halloween, it works. For Zombie, Michael’s “origin” story isn’t one of beginning or birth, but of devolution and death. What we witness is not so much an origin as a decline. This is the hollowing out of a human being, a transformation from Person to Shape. Daeg Ferch is perfect as an abused and androgynous child who has an obvious sweetness despite the torment heaped upon him, but his environment and the circumstances of his existence—as well as the carceral system he is thrown away in—push him into non-existence. He wants and is made to want to die but he is not allowed to physically die, so he is killed and kills himself emotionally, becoming something much more machinelike, acting only on empty instinct and pure drive.
M: Yes, this reading is on point. Halloween’s depiction of Michael’s destructive ideations provides the foundation for Halloween II’s focus: the unconscious. Michael’s arc is indeed a kind of dissolve, but it is worth noting that while Zombie is attuned to the role of parental and institutional failings, he never presents us with a purely cherubic child whose violence is attributable solely to external factors; when we first see young Myers, he’s donning a plastic clown mask and blasting Kiss’s “God of Thunder,” playing a kind of little God as he prepares to kill his pet mouse. This film’s depiction of violent individuals is complicated from the outset, giving us a character whose eventual outcome is the result of “a perfect storm of internal and external factors” (to paraphrase Zombie’s Loomis). That is, we see seeds of psychopathy which Zombie wisely chooses not to locate--both films explore tenets of Jungian and (early) Freudian understandings of trauma, but we are not provided with easy resolution through a single “scene” whereby Michael is “made” a monster. Much like Alan Clarke’s Elephant and Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name, Rob Zombie’s Halloween understands the fundamentally inexplicable nature of violence. At the same time, though, the film is sympathetic to Michael and recognizes the factors that play into his formation (the socializing of oppressive gender norms, domestic abuse, etc.). At the risk of oversimplifying, I see a remarkably interesting relationship between the two halves of Zombie’s first Halloween film: the first half is concerned primarily with theory (contemplating the nature of violence and our relationship to slasher “icons” like Michael Myers), while the second is a study in cinematic practice (with one distinct formalist [Zombie] re-evaluating and reframing the content made famous by another [Carpenter]).
To return to this idea of Michael’s “dissolve” into the unconscious, Halloween II is deeply committed to the study of psychological states and spaces. By the end of Halloween, Michael’s self has been utterly fragmented and dislocated (and Zombie visualizes this through the archetypal masks lining Myers’s cell’s walls--here, it’s hard to ignore the role of masks in Jung’s understanding of individual personae). In Halloween II, Myers removes himself from embodied “reality” to find a strange kind of solace in a liminal dream-space; by contrast, his estranged sister (the traumatized Laurie) sees her psychological interiority as a labyrinthine hell -- all agonizing flashbacks and dead ends (very few films capture the exhausting process of intensive therapy as well as this one). Perhaps this sequel’s most brazen moves are its forays into the territory of shared unconscious. Not only does it deal overtly with ciphers of “universal” symbolism (the mask, the white horse, the watchful mother figure), but it also suggests a disturbing psychic chain between Michael, Laurie and Samuel Loomis. The first Halloween is forthright in posing a number of questions about the social variables inherent to violence, and its sequel makes a brilliant choice by not answering any of those questions. Structured around the quasi-abstract slippages between different characters’ psychic states, it expresses horror as pure violence and affect.
N: Your description of the first half of Halloween as being the theory to the second half’s practice—a metaphor I really love—could be extended a bit further to explain the relationship between that film and its sequel. Zombie’s first film is a bit like his master’s thesis: he does his duty and acknowledges the debt he owes to his cinematic ancestors, but he articulates something unique in his own voice. The second Halloween is his dissertation: balls to the wall, throwing out the rule book, asserting his own authorship. There’s something almost Borgesian to how Zombie imagines Laurie’s mental state as a kind of shifting labyrinth, with Michael the minotaur in the middle.
The first Halloween ends with Laurie screaming into oblivion while razor-blade cuts shock us out of reality, which inevitably recalls the various screams of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, but the second movie is a vicious unmasking of American iconography that brings Lynch to mind even more. Like Lynch, there’s horror, more disturbing than almost anything else in American cinema, but there’s also a great deal of empathy. Michael may be motivated by drive alone, but Rob Zombie feels for him more than any other director who has ever handled the series; Myers may be a shape now, but as the first film clearly shows, he still retains something of his humanity.
It’s particularly moving to me that Zombie defines Myers’ humanity most through his relationship to his mother, played by Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, who appears to Michael multiple times in Halloween II as a ghostly figure accompanied by a white horse. Sheri Moon Zombie gives an achingly good performance in Halloween as Michael’s struggling sex worker mother, but she’s only in the first 40 minutes of the film. There’s a lot of love every time she’s on screen, but Zombie feels a little less interested in everything that doesn’t have to do with her (as do I). However, her spirit appears throughout Halloween II, so that same affection is woven into the entire film. That said, it’s still a vicious movie; the film’s opening, which reimagines and condenses the hospital sequence from Ron Rosenthal’s Halloween sequel, is maybe one of the single most visceral scenes in any horror movie. I feel Laurie’s bones crunch as she tries to evade Michael’s endless pursuit on broken legs. I think the emphasis you put on affect is key, Mike, because this is a very affective movie from all sides, as intense as it is tender.
M: You’ve nicely unpacked the role of emotionality in these films’ approaches to violence. Zombie directs and shoots the most graphic sequences with a queasy kind of intimacy; maybe the most noteworthy aspect of these films’ onscreen brutality is that they so frequently invest time in the aftermath. Of course, we’ve talked about the fundamental role of trauma in Halloween II, both thematically and narratively, but the film also places emphasis on the incomprehensible, impossible-to-process moments of shock immediately following loss. Consider the moment when Sherriff Brackett comes home to find his murdered daughter, Annie. Critical language escapes me: this is simply one of the most painful and profoundly upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film.
As you’ve pointed out, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Zombie also feels for Michael Myers. However, unlike Jason Voorhees in some of the Friday the 13th sequels, Myers does not function simply as a catalyst for the audience’s most fucked up and antisocial desires. I find it useful to turn again to some of the Universal monster films that Zombie has cited as formative: even if these frames of reference are dramatically abstracted, Zombie’s Myers draws from traits in Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and even Boris Karloff’s monster from Frankenstein (1931). These character possess a kind of monstrosity that’s socially condemned, deeply rooted and self-corroding (we’ve discussed Michael Myers’ desire to die in Zombie’s Halloween films, and it’s worth noting that both Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man  and House of Dracula  portray the Wolf Man as an openly suicidal and self-hating character).
To me, Rob Zombie’s Halloween films form one of the more distinctive and complicated statements in contemporary American horror cinema. It is important to recognize that they’re engaging with a pre-existing franchise, but they speak very specifically to one auteur’s career-long aesthetic, formal and cultural interests. They have so much to say about otherness, monstrosity, violence, trauma, family, cultural mythology, social institutions, psychology, and maybe most fundamentally, despair. That they never once veer into didacticism or simplistic conclusion-making is in itself no small miracle.