— by Robert Mancini
LOS ANGELES, California — Horror remakes suck.
This simple fact is important for two reasons: 1) Based on the box-office success of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," "The Hills Have Eyes," "When a Stranger Calls" and more, you don't seem to know (or care) that they suck; and 2) This bit of information is coming from Rob Zombie, the metal-titan-turned-writer/director who's just been handed the keys to the "Halloween" kingdom.
"Horror-movie remakes for the most part don't work," Zombie said, taking a break from audio mixes in his recording studio to unleash his inner fanboy (which is never that far from the surface anyway). "They just imitate the original. They don't try to do something new and different, they just follow it. And if you're going to follow the original, then there's no point because that movie already exists."
It's that kind of fan-friendly logic (refreshingly honest and driven by a deep affinity for the genre) paired with the unflinching vision displayed in 2005's "The Devil's Rejects" that has horror fans betting their 18-inch Michael Myers action figures that Zombie's take on "Halloween" will be a whole lot more than just another Hollywood horror retread. So far, so good, Zombie said. While shooting won't begin until January, with an eye toward an October '07 release, the script — Zombie's blueprint for reinventing a modern horror classic — is complete. There's more Michael Myers, more Dr. Loomis and plenty of variations on the original. ... Oh yes, there will be changes, but more on that later.
Zombie's fresh take on the remaking/re-imaging/reinventing thing — and his cred with hard-core horror fans — will be put to the test with "Halloween." Not to overstate the issue, but John Carpenter's stylish and chilling original is viewed with the kind of reverence and adoration usually reserved for doe-eyed emo bands and the leaders of suicide cults. A seminal scream gem beloved by millions of filmgoers (and aped by countless filmmakers), "Halloween" set the new standard, giving us the unstoppable boogeyman, the virtuous heroine, killer P.O.V. shots and multiple "whew, he's dead ... no, wait" moments ... all stolen by a generation of slasher flicks to follow, but none of them ever used as effectively as they were during Michael Myers' first foray to the screen.
"My first memory of the film is of feeling swept up in the excitement of this new thing that was sort of changing the rules for horror movies," Zombie recalled. "It's just a great movie as a movie. Before it spawned this whole generation of imitators, the closest thing you could relate it to was maybe 'Psycho' — it seemed like this simple, suspenseful, Hitchcock-style movie. But of course, when something hits, it gets imitated, and the parts that get imitated are usually the most basic parts. 'Well, if they enjoyed four teenagers getting killed, then they're really gonna like 13 teenagers getting killed.' That's what gets exploited. I always feel bad that 'Halloween' gets lumped in with [the imitators] ... it sits alone as a classic film on its own, much better than any of the films it ever spawned."
And taking on such a classic is no small feat (undoubtedly, expectations would be somewhat lower if Zombie were revisiting, say, "Dr. Giggles"). Zombie said he's seen "Halloween" hundreds of times, and admitted that he recently had to cut himself off after repeated viewings left him feeling handcuffed as he tried to tackle the script for his own vision. He's certainly not alone, though. Generations continue to discover John Carpenter's original, and its hallmarks — that expressionless mask and that relentless score — can instantly chill anyone who's ever taken the cinematic trip to Haddonfield, Illinois.
"I think the music and the imagery and everything involved with 'Halloween' is still effective because it was simple, and simple things are always classic and they last," Zombie opined. "I relate it to the Ramones. When they were doing it first, nothing sounded like that, and it's hard to believe that nothing sounded like that because everything sounds like that now. It's hard to believe there was a time that was never done."
So why take on such a beloved and influential work, especially at a time when Hollywood seems to mine a different horror classic (Did we mention "Dawn of the Dead" yet? How about "The Amityville Horror"? "The Ring"? "The Grudge"? "Dark Water"?) every month?
"The remake thing is done all the time, but it's not done well," Zombie conceded. "I don't think it's because someone feels inspired, it's done because someone sees money. Truthfully, if I couldn't see any way to do this, I wouldn't do it because it's a challenging project."
That challenge came from Bob Weinstein, the co-head of the Weinstein Company who sat Zombie down for a meeting and simply said, " 'Halloween' ... what do you think?"
"My first reaction was I didn't see the point of any of this," Zombie admitted, adding that he was turned off by what a string of uninspired sequels had done to the legacy of the original. "Then I went away and thought about it for a couple months and started thinking that that was maybe a weird attitude to have." Inspired by David Cronenberg's 1986 take on "The Fly" and John Carpenter's 1982 version of "The Thing," Zombie started to see the possibilities in reinventing the franchise, and "started thinking of ways this could be done and done right."
Which brings us to the multimillion-dollar question (and the buzz of horror sites everywhere): What can we expect from Rob Zombie's "Halloween"? For starters, he describes his film not as a prequel, as rumored, but rather as "a remake with more back story built into it," and plans to make the film less about babysitters in peril and more about the man behind the mask.
"I want the lead character to be Michael Myers," Zombie said. "He's not just a faceless thing floating around in the background and then you focus on these girls. I feel that that's where you can make it different and that's where you can make it more intense."
As he talks about his vision, references range from "Murders in the Rue Morgue" to "The Constant Gardener" and "21 Grams," and he grows increasingly animated as he hits on his main goal: exploring these now iconic characters in greater depth. He talks about beefing up the roles of Sherriff Brackett and the somewhat demented Dr. Loomis, the gun-toting child psychiatrist who serves as Myers' chief foil while spewing his unique brand of dark poetry ("I watched him for 15 years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town.").
"I felt the character of Dr. Loomis just popped in and out when they needed somebody to say something dramatic," Zombie observed. "I wanted his story to feel more intertwined with Michael in a way that means something, which they did in the original, but sometimes it feels like he disappears for a long period and then just pops up to go, 'He's evil!,' and then he disappears again for a while."
Zombie's eyes light up as he talks about casting his Loomis, and names ranging from Jeff Bridges to Ben Kingsley turn up on his very, very loose "what if?" list. "There is no shortage of late-50s, early-60s male actors that are amazing and would like to work more, probably much like Donald Pleasence at the time [he was cast as the original Loomis]," Zombie said.
But the beefiest role by far will be that of Myers. No longer a figure looming ominously in the background of an artfully framed shot, Myers — his motives, methods and machinations — will be front and center this time around, a switch Zombie thinks is essential to sharpen the blade a bit.
"One of the things that's happened over the years to all those characters is that they become friendly," Zombie added. "Michael Myers and Jason and Freddy and Pinhead aren't scary anymore because they're so familiar. I thought we have to find a way to go back and start fresh and remove everyone's preconceived ideas about what they think this character is because no one thinks they can be scared by it again. It's almost like Santa Claus."
That means trading in the unexplained motives of the mysterious, relentless killer of the 1978 original and exploring the motives behind the evil. "There's a lot of great stuff they hint at [in the original], but you never see. That's where I think there's potential to make something unique.
"When you research anybody, whether it's Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer or Henry Lee Lucas and you see the things in their past, you go, 'Serial killer is the only job this guy was qualified for,' " Zombie said. "It makes it even more disturbing when you see the events that make someone have no concept of those things.
"The deeper you can get into a character's head, the further you will get under an audience's skin and the more it will unnerve them," Zombie added. "I think that people are used to these movies being a little bit tongue-in-cheek. You're not really supposed to really mess with them. But if you take it so seriously and there's no humor, it really gets to people. It doesn't happen that often. I remember ['Seven' was] the last time I was in a theater and people were walking out because it wasn't what they bargained for. People were saying, 'This is way too grim. I'm not going to survive two hours of this.' "
And it's hard to imagine places more grim than the inside of Michael Myers' head, but that dark, untapped space won't be the only new territory explored in Zombie's film. While "Halloween" purists will no doubt be pleased to note that key elements of the original — namely that mask and that score — will be intact, each will get at least a light touch from Zombie's brush. "There are even things about the original Michael Myers that bothered me," he admitted. "Like, he killed the only mechanic that wears a pristine mechanic's uniform. It's just things like that that bothered me."
Even the jarring 5/4-time piano melody of the film's main theme will be tweaked slightly, though Zombie plans to keep it rooted in the original. "It was the simpleness of it that became creepy," Zombie said. "It was sort of like the scary version of the opening credits for '[It's] The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.' "
They're minor changes (certainly compared to the character development he's got up his tattooed sleeve), but Zombie hopes they'll go a long way to putting his unique stamp on a horror franchise in danger of being crushed under the weight of seven sequels, each less inspired than the one before. "I think a lot of the sequels didn't work because they were just sort of doing an imitation of that movie, and you can't do that," Zombie said. "You have to come from a genuine place of inspiration with what you want to do."
So with a script and timetable in place, Zombie is now moving on to casting and location scouting. "We're right at the beginning of when this all begins," he said. Of course, "this" refers to much more than moviemaking. It also means scrutiny and debate from a legion of hard-core horror fans. It means the watchful eyes of a studio hoping that a blockbuster can be reborn. And for Zombie, it means satisfying both of those ends while also making sure not to suck. Or, as the man himself concluded, "You have to completely reinvent the wheel, but keep the people that love the original wheel thrilled. It's a tricky balancing act, but I think it's totally doable."