There’s a scene about halfway through the director’s cut of Rob Zombie‘s Halloween II where Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) visits her therapist. She stammers anxiously through a story, half crying, half whimpering, attempting in vain to communicate to her psychiatrist (played by Margot Kidder) that she just had an intense panic attack and that she needs more anxiety medication. “I can’t deal with this”, she sobs in anguish, “I’m not strong enough and I’m tired of pretending that I am”. The therapist tries her best to comfort Laurie, but the visit soon turns sour. Laurie demands her normal (presumably narcotic) prescription, but the therapist refuses, instead offering an alternative antipsychotic. Laurie launches into a furious tirade, screaming obscenities before the scene ends with an aerial shot of Michael Myers calmly walking across an empty field, making his way home to Haddonfield. The moment is frankly flooring, not just because of Taylor-Compton’s incredibly upsetting performance (the center, narratively and emotionally, of the entire film), but because it occurs within the runtime of a sequel (to a reboot) of a studio slasher funded to draw in bored teenagers looking for cheap thrills.
Slashers, perhaps more than any other subgenre of horror, seem to be confined to a certain set of rules and expectations. There will always be a psychopath, usually masked, stalking a group of people, usually teenagers, and by the end there will only be one victim left to either escape or fight. John Carpenter‘s original Halloween is partially responsible for distilling this formula, abstracting the basic plot of a masked psycho murdering suburbanites into something minimalist, cosmic, and almost poetic. Slashers are always violent, in fact so uniquely predicated on the certainty of violence that the genre largely evolved into a showcase of death, often relying on elaborate, gruesome kills to sell tickets. And yet, it would be impossible to argue that the genre is known for exploring in any meaningful capacity the emotional repercussions of its violence with which it so gleefully doles out in droves. There isn’t anything wrong with this, to be clear – violence on its own can be frightening and reveal certain fears we have about disfigurement, evil, and death – but the conspicuous absence of psychological aftermath is a notable mark of the genre. Rob Zombie’s Halloween II takes precisely the opposite path of this tradition, breaking the norm of using death and destruction for light fun and instead aiming its spotlight on the uncomfortable scars – both physical and psychic – left in the wake of its violence.
Following an extended dream sequence of Michael Myers chasing Laurie through an empty hospital (a loose homage to Rick Rosenthal‘s original Halloween II), the film begins two years following the events of Zombie’s first Halloween remake. After nearly becoming a victim to Myers and losing both her parents and a number of her friends, Laurie is now living with fellow survivor Annie (Danielle Harris) and Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif). She has changed dramatically since the events of the previous film, no longer a bubbly teenager making vulgar sex jokes to her mortified parents, now a depressed and severely anxious young adult. Even her attire and style has changed from inconspicuous to loud and punk, and the film’s production designers and wardrobe artists do an excellent job of externalizing the dramatic shifts in her personality through her grungy clothes and rebellious new sense of interior decoration. Profane graffiti lines the walls of her bedroom and bathroom, and an edgy poster of Charles Manson hangs over her bed. She knows Michael Myers is dead – or so she thinks, she shot him in the head after all – but as his body disappeared without a trace, she doesn’t have closure, and still lives with the traumatic memories of his merciless rampage every night in her dreams. As Halloween (and Michael) approaches once again, her nightmares begin to blend into the daytime, soaking the film in a sense of impending doom and uneasiness.
As I alluded to earlier, what’s so striking about Halloween II is how much it resists the expectations of its genre as a mere vehicle for showing off puddles of blood and dangling guts. It has quite a few kills, and all of them are quite gruesome, but the violence is largely joyless and painful to sit through. Tyler Mane‘s interpretation of Michael Myers is frightening by the mere imposing size and strength of his physicality, and all the murders Michael commits throughout the film have a brutal, grunting anger to them. Myers isn’t simply stabbing people and leaving them impaled on doors, he’s throwing his entire weight into ending their lives, literally and figuratively. Much of this tone and approach began with Zombie’s first Halloween film, but the look and feel of this sequel adds to and builds upon it immensely. Shot on grainy 16mm film instead of the first’s wider 35, the movie has a much rougher, hopeless appearance to it, shrouded in darkness for much of its runtime and relying almost exclusively on the natural lighting of porch lights and lamps to illuminate the horrors in front of us. After a string of tired and uninspiring sequels and reboots, as well as Zombie’s half-successful first entry in this duology, this is perhaps the best a Halloween film has looked since Dean Cundey left the role of cinematographer for the series after Halloween III.
What truly makes the film as viscerally powerful as it is, however, is the incredible strength of its performances. Character actor Brad Dourif of iconic horror films such as Child’s Play and The Exorcist III is excellent as the regretful Sheriff Brackett, who not only feels responsible for hiding Laurie’s identity as Michael Myers’ sister from her, but also for failing to protect her and his own daughter from the masked psychopath’s attacks. Reprising his role as Dr. Loomis, Malcolm McDowell interprets Michael’s posturing childhood psychologist as an egotistical hack, someone profiteering off the death and misery of his patient’s mutilated victims. It’s a slimy and repugnant performance, but one that feels like it contributes more to the story around these acts of senseless violence than Donald Pleasance’s repetitive one-liners about Michael being the literal embodiment of evil. Undeniably the center of the film, however, is Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie, who delivers one of the rawest, most believable portraits of trauma and guilt in any horror film I’ve seen. It’s a performance not dissimilar to Sheryl Lee in David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, one that screams and weeps at everyone and everything, clambering and clawing to locate an identity outside of all the pain and suffering that has been wrought upon her. After learning from Loomis’ exploitative book that she is in fact the long lost sister of Michael Myers, Laurie explodes into an all-out existential panic, and in the film’s single most heartbreaking moment, sobs to her friend “I’m not me”, expressing not only the literal fact that she is not the person she thought she was but more crucially her crumbling sense of self-identity in the aftermath of her trauma. To her, being Michael’s sister makes her more than just another random victim of his violence – it makes her a guilty participant. It deepens and complicates their connection into something perverse and ugly and metaphysical, as well as crushing and poisoning her hope of ever waking up from this nightmare.
Rob Zombie is often unfairly maligned by critics and audiences alike, who dismiss his work with reductive adjectives like “vulgar”, “pretentious”, “artless”, and “ugly”. One pull quote for this film reads “Rob Zombie makes incoherent films about people killing each other in brutal ways. Here’s another one”. The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus is slightly more forgiving, but ultimately reaches a similar conclusion: “Zombie shows flashes of vision in the follow-up to his Halloween reboot, but they’re smothered by mountains of gore and hackneyed, brutal violence”. While I can concede that Zombie’s films are not for everyone – this is one of his less assaulting works in terms of its sadism and “grossness”, but House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects all but throw out any notion of good taste – I still struggle to understand the criticisms of this particular film. The only explanation I can see is that such sentiments were written after watching the theatrical cut of the film, which I personally haven’t seen but have read that it leaves out much of Laurie’s psychological torment, likely leaving a much less emotionally satisfying and narratively coherent movie.
Nevertheless, the director’s cut is what I watched, and by Zombie’s account that is his true vision of the film. Even in this version, the film is not perfect – I think Zombie’s use of surrealism in the form of seeing Michael’s hallucinations is poorly conceived and a bit silly next to the very serious issues the film is examining – but there is nevertheless something messy, painful, and indelible about its portrait of a person spiraling out of control and losing her sense of agency and self in the wake of devastating violence. Whatever you think of Rob Zombie, or reboots, or slashers, or horror in general, this is decidedly not the crass, cynical sell-out of a movie its critics would have you believe. It is a dark, uncomfortable film about the psychic scars of violence, and one of the most empathetic depictions of trauma in horror of the last twenty years. It’s a film in dire need of an honest reevaluation, and very nearly the best movie by the name of Halloween.