Sunday, September 20, 2009

ROB ZOMBIE’S HALLOWEEN: Rob Zombie’s Untalented

In 1992, I was writing for a few music zines and often got review copies of albums long before they ever hit stores. Most were terrible--about 95% of all music released is pure garbage--but there were a few surprises. One of the better ones was an album called La Sexorcisto from White Zombie. My friends and I spent a lot of time listening to it long before anyone else had ever heard of White Zombie. By the time MTV broke "Thunder Kiss '65", we'd already gotten over the novelty and grown tired of White Zombie. Like a roller coaster, the impressiveness of the concept faded with every go-round. So, of course, at this point, every mall kid we met and every MTV kid on Mom's couch started loudly extolling the virtues of White Zombie, calling them the greatest band in the world, "our Beatles", etc.

It's 2007 now and, two nights ago, I saw Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN on a giant screen at an IMAX theater. The seats were full, not with bums and practicing sodomites, but clean white-collar whites with perfect haircuts and hand-holding couples. Across America, the same scenario persisted. It's clear that stuff like HALLOWEEN and HOSTEL and SAW can't really be called underground--major studios deliver this stuff into suburban theaters, the same people who make romantic comedies and THE PRINCESS DIARIES. They option surveys and audience screenings to determine what kind of endings the movies should have. They've wrested control from the real psychos and weirdos who originated this style of cinema. I'd bet $500 that GRINDHOUSE didn't play in one real grindhouse.

So HALLOWEEN's not an underground film or an exploitation film, but is it a good film? HA HA HA. Horror's messiah, the Hot Topic-approved genius Rob Zombie fires off his "reimagining" with a protracted look at Michael Myers's home life--stripper mom, slut sister, and a crippled father figure who offers lines like "I ought to skullfuck the shit out of ya!" (yes, RZ still thinks that this Jerry Springer bullshit is maybe entertaining, but defanetly FUCKIN EXTREMEE!!!) As we all know, good horror movies EXPLAIN EVERYTHING. It worked in Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Haunting, Night of the Demon, and the original Halloween, didn't it? Zombie seems to imply that the evil of young Myers stems from a rotten family environment, an approach that's probably less effective than the he's-just-evil-we-don't-know-why angle of the original. But, whatever, maybe it will work...

After a spate of killing, young Myers is sent to killer-rehab for one-on-one sessions with child psychologist Dr. Loomis. Eventually, he stops responding to Loomis and his pole-dancing mom, then he kills a nurse. THEN he breaks out of the institution and returns to Haddonfield to begin the rash of killing that will cement his legend, make me fall asleep and make a normally well-mannered beautiful blond girl scream, "COME ON ZOMBIE GIVE ME SOMETHING!" at an IMAX screen. The last half of the film, the one with all the killing and stalking, is inexplicably MORE boring than the talky, white-trash-fascination first half. A lot of the problem is that Zombie gives us no reason to care about any of the characters--we don't know anything about them, so who cares if they get stabbed to death or whatever--and the kill scenes are sooo slow. During one of them, Myers spends at least ten minutes smashing wooden walls, looking for his victim. TEN MINUTES!!! This after many minutes of Zombie's cutting-edge camera-shaking to give the film that ultra-fresh BLAIR WITCH effect. Zombie is, what, 46, so he can be forgiven for not being up to date on the latest techniques, but the camera shaking is so overused in this one that it's silly.

More stuff that sucks: Zombie scores a sad young Michael Myers intercut with his mom plying her cooch with Nazareth's "Love Hurts" (this is perhaps the film's greatest disaster); overuses Blue Oyster Cult; and studiously avoids any inventive gore/kills in favor of a repeated stalk and slash.

What a mess. What I expected, but disappointing nonetheless. I was one of the first to give up on Rob Zombie, but I feel like others will be following my lead soon enough. I've seen abortions that were more entertaining.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988)


Do not confuse this with NIGHT OF THE DEMON or DEMON KNIGHT or 50 FIRST DATES. All (okay 2/3) are uniformly lazy and not good, but there are substantial differences. NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (this one) was one of many late eighties horror films that had promise, but threw it away in pursuit of commerce, and it's all Freddy Krueger's fault. I will explain...

Angela and her friend (Linnea Quigley playing a character whose name I didn't bother to get, but who shows a lot of skin, so who cares what her name is, considering what kind of movie this is) throw a Halloween party at creepy, dilapidated Hull House. As THE HAUNTING and LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE proved, going to houses named H*ll is always a bad idea, and indeed this house's walls crawl with demons. This is explained in a hilarious monologue on the differences between demons and ghosts. The demons, once released, stalk and slash the most multicultural gang of horny drunken teens moviedom has ever seen. There's an Asian girl, a black guy, a fat slob, a tough Italian named Sal(!), goth Angela and slut Linnea Quigley. But, of course, the heroine is a blonde white girl...

The demons' look and movements are pretty obviously stolen from the EVIL DEAD films, especially Angela's shot-from-below glide down the house's halls. Even if it is a knock-off, it's still creepy to see--white eyes, jerky movements, makeup's OK, blood erupts. So far, so good. BUT, oh noes!~, NIGHT's creators decided to follow the lead of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels and let their villain deliver third-grade-level wisecracks after every kill! So when this kid gets impaled on a stick, Angela says, "He decided to stick around." LOL, who knew demons were such dedicated comediennes? This sucks for the same reason it sucked in NIGHTMARE--it personalizes the villain too much, strips him or her of menace & otherness, and basically turns her or him into Carrot Top with a knife/claws/fangs.

NIGHT would've been a decent fun little entry, but the attempts at marrying Adam Sandler and THE EXORCIST sink it. It gets really annoying at times and is unbearably boring at other times. If it's demons you seek, there are better paths to take. DEMONS is just as ridiculous as NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, but works much harder to be a good horror film. And, of course, the EVIL DEADs...even NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 is preferable to this, if only for the scene in which kids play Morbid Angel at the Catholic school dance party.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1973)

It seems hard to believe now, but it took a long time and a lot of effort to convince people that seventies grindhouse movies were important. When I was a teenager, nobody cared about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST because they were too busy speculating how awesome HALLOWEEN 4 was going to be. Even genre rags like Fangoria completely ignored trashy exploitation and horror, concentrating instead on crappy by-the-numbers slashers and major studio miscarriages that not even I can remember because they appeared and swiftly died their just deaths. Then, in the nineties, those same shallow slashers hit the wall and "postmodern" "self-aware" "efforts" like SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER carried the day while ill-willed grindhouse sat in film cans, biding its time. Finally, the time was right for malevolent movies to reach the mainstream, and Robert Zombie and that HOSTEL dude dished it out, albeit in much more user-friendly forms. People wrote academic treatises on I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. There are entire podcasts on ULTIMO MONDO CANNIBALE. Girls in cheerleader camp swap David Hess pants-pissing fantasies and giggle.

It seems like every new awareness is built on the bones of the old ones. Yes, it's great that seventies exp and g-house are finally getting their due, but everything else that the seventies produced is kind of getting the cold shoulder. In their rush to find more gore and newer extremes, the amateurs are overlooking some choice professional entries. British anthology films flourished in the seventies, deriving inspiration from the EC Comics that seduced a whole generation of innocents into horror hell. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is one of the best.

Four stories here, all with cool twists and the typical reserve and atmosphere for which Britain is famed. Peter Cushing stars as a maybe-wicked(?) antiques proprietor and provides the axis for the tales of the macabre. Don't miss a shockingly young pre-HALLOWEEN Donald Pleasance as a maybe-wicked(?) street peddler. Acting is uniformly good, pic is solidly-directed, just a good fun time. There's no real gore to speak of, but it's not really missed either: this is more of a ghost story trip than an intensines flying all about the land thing. So, yes, it's good, and it will probably be a while before ROB ZOMBIE'S FROM BEYOND THE MUTHAFUCKIN GRAVE is released, so you can like it without having to doubt the correctness of your taste. Recommended.

THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996)

"I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don't have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don't care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject."

When this was released, I had pretty much given up on Dario Argento. The disappointing TRAUMA and a general decline in Eurohorror quality mixed the apathy. Argento's awful abortion THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which was released after this (and which I did see), baked the apathy. I avoided Argento's post-eighties work until 2001's not-bad NON HO SONNO.

Re-evaluations are sometimes a good thing. STENDHAL is definitely worthwhile, even if fails to scale the heights of a PROFONDO ROSSI or SUSPIRIA. Dario's daughter Asia stars as a police detective who, whilst investigating a rapist, is raped herself. A long, prolonged downward spiral follows, with Asia's character adopting male characteristics and getting substantially more aggressive and less stable. Basically, STENDHAL is a much artsier spin on the old women's-revenge pictures of the SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE stripe. It's actually got a lot more depth, narratively, than Argento's earlier stuff, too--the titular syndrome (unbearable emotion in the face of great art) pops up as serious subtext, cycling through the film. It would be snarky to say that Argento used to make great art, now he just makes movies about great art...

...but, although STENDHAL isn't great, it's definitely a marked improvement over his other nineties efforts. The Troma disc gets a bad rap for picture quality too. Worth your time. And, yes, it's creepy that Dario threw two rape scenes into his daughter's acting debut.

FIDO (2006)

Unfortunately for fans of metrosexual monsters, the zombie craze shows no sign of abating. Old ladies at my library can't get enough of World War Z, there's a new Romero about to drop, and the living dead are starting to pop up in soda commercials. But they say that self-parody is the first sign of decline in pop culture, so maybe you haters will get your precious preening vamps in frilly collars soon enough...

In FIDO, a war between the radioactivated living dead and humans has been settled by the introduction of collars that suppress the flesh-munching cravings of zombies and turn them into well-behaved servants, crossing guards, and girly-girl sexpots. Humans dwell in fenced-in fifties neighborhoods, far away from the razed chaos of Zombieland, and ownership of zombies has become practically a status symbol. When our young protag comes home to find that Mom bought a zombie, he names it Fido and wacky adventures and a very modest amount of mayhem unfold.

This is another comedy-horror that just didn't work for me. Like BLACK SHEEP, it tends to skew a little too much toward obvious jokes (the kid's name is Timmy and there's a scene where he tells Fido to "go get help"). Basically, take any episode of Lassie and swap the collie for a zombie and ram the joke down the audience's throats for ninety minutes. Reminiscent of early Tim Burton stuff, only substantially more annoying in a "HEY EVERYBODY LOOK HOW WEIRD I AM!" way. Quality horror-comedy is so fucking rare that it takes a real jerkoff to even attempt it. SHAUN OF THE DEAD rocked, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was good...can anyone name another? (Anyone who cites SCREAM should find a paper bag to carry their teeth home in.)

I'm going against critical opinion, apparently, but I'd counsel passing on this one.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)

You don't need spirit gum or fake blood. You don't need shaky cameras and choppy editing. You don't need masks and machetes and you certainly don't people from Dawson's Creek or The OC or One Night in Paris to star in your epic.

Horror was borne in Britain. Yeah, the vampire and lycanthropy myths are found in almost every culture and were almost definitely derived from podunk eastern Europe. And every people has monsters, whether they're actual crytids like Leviathan or just ill-defined abominations-on-demand like the Satan of Christianity. But England was the birthplace and stomping grounds of our modern monster pantheon. Stoker broke Dracula, Shelley gave us Frankenstein. Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, Shakespeare's Weird Sisters and Hamlet's dad. English horror films, especially the stuff produced by Hammer and Amicus, codified the look and characteristics of the horror genre: fog, eerie music, darkness, et cetera. Even today, English people tell ghost stories at Christmas because the macabre is in their pudding-lipidy blood. The British horror scene scoffs when mall hags call NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET "old school". Britain has always been a haunted land.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a very British film that sort of encapsulates all that tradition and craftsmanship into a very solid piece of work. After the death of a widow, a young lawyer is sent to her isolated house to put her affairs in order. Slowly but surely, the plain dreariness of the place gives way to real supernatural happenings. It's a leisurely-paced film that coasts along on atmosphere and suggestion rather than explosions of sprayed blood. It doesn't hit you with everything, but continually delivers small shocks so that you're exhausted by film's end. It can be read as the pinnacle of traditional horror, utilizing all the old elements, whereas the also-English GHOSTWATCH might be viewed as the harbinger of the new (and was unquestionably a major influence on BLAIR WITCH, among other things). English horror is The Way. You might have to work to find it, but it's so almost always much more rewarding than watching another American movie that sucks in a theater with a bunch of scenester Americans.

Quite great.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE and eternal recurrence

Nietzsche suggested that the same events will happen over and over, eternally. People assumed he was being poetic, as happens in many songs by The Police, but he was not. He sincerely meant and believed that apparent linear progression is illusory, that time is basically a loop or a snake swallowing its tail. Then he had sex for the first time, contracted syphilis, and went insane.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE is a remake of a not-very-good eighties slasher picture. It's received a lot of fanfare because it's being screened in most theaters with 3D effects. MBV2009 is, then, a hybrid of two old things: trashy psycho-killer movies that flourished in the eighties and 3D technology that was cutting edge in the 1950s. 3D gained a foothold in its first run because theaters were losing their audiences to TV. Just showing movies wasn't going to be enough anymore. Showmen like William Castle kept movie theaters profitable by incorporating gimmicks and bullshit into their screenings: skeletons flying over the seats, buzzers underneath the seats, nurses posted outside for "potential heart attacks", and 3D. Castle's promotional efforts weren't anything new. They philosophically derived from the carnivals that traversed the nation, offering seedy entertainment, from the time of the Elephant Man until their death by Vaudeville. Circles and loops, eternal returns.

Theaters now are experiencing a similar falling-away of the crowds. Netflix and downloading make opening nights less of a priority. Dollars are rarer and dearer. One way to shore up attendance is to make theater attendance an experience. 3D, vomit bags, all the carny tricks. If the gods are with us, we will see a Renaissance of film carny in the near future. Desperation will breed creativity, Depression will drive escapism. If Nietzsche was right, all you cool kids will get to experience a real live grindhouse, shortly after we pass the TINGLER node on the loop. Enjoy the needles and masturbating bums.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE? Still not good, but better than it was. If it portends a 2010s that blends the 50s and the 80s, I will count my life a lucky one. The best times come out of the worst times. :)