HorrorFest 2009: Rob Zombie, 'H2,' and 'El Superbeasto'
Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
My absolute favorite thing about Rob Zombie?
On his IMDb page, under "alternate names," he actually has a fake middle name. Robert Wolfgang Zombie. That is endlessly funny.
Rob Zombie as a filmmaker embodies many of the things that I think are endemic of fandom at large right now, both in his work and in the reaction that work seems to elicit, both positive and negative. As a result, I think it's silly for any critic to dismiss Zombie out-of-hand, just as I think it's silly for anyone to proclaim him one of the greats, or even argue that the work he's done so far is across-the-board significant.
I didn't review "Halloween 2" when it opened because, frankly, I wasn't invited to see it before it opened. Fair enough. I paid. And at the time, I didn't know if I'd even bother writing about it, but since 'tis the season, I thought I'd take a look at the state of Zombie's career in general as one of the HorrorFest entries.
I haven't spent a ton of time writing about Rob Zombie as a filmmaker so far, but on those occasions I have, I think it's been fair, different from film to film. I liked "House Of 1000 Corpses" and thought it was an effective piece of side-of-the-road porno-funhouse fluff. I thought "The Devil's Rejects" was better. Not genius, but solid, upsetting, and it seemed to indicate that he was growing from film to film. I was interested to see what sort of original stuff he had planned.
And then it's like he chickened out.
I wouldn't give him shit about doing a remake or a sequel if he hadn't been so adamant up front about never ever doing those things. And he was. Repeatedly. I get it... and he did make two original films back to back, the second sort of a variation on the first, played in an alternate reality.
So now you have to consider his next two films together. And as individual movies. My review of Rob's remake of "Halloween" turned out to inspire a fairly vigorous talkback. I just re-read the review, and the talkback, and that pretty much sums up where I was with Zombie. I didn't like "Halloween" on any level. I thought it was a big step backwards from "Rejects," and not because of any loyalty to the original film or out of some care for the franchise. I really don't like any of the "Halloween" sequels. Parts of the second one are okay. I don't count "Halloween III: Season Of The Witch" because it's doing it's own thing, and I really dig that as the direction the franchise should have gone... different Halloween themed horror films each year. In a way, Mike Dougherty made a better "Halloween" sequel/remake than anyone except Carpenter who has ever shot a frame of film involving Michael Myers. He just didn't have the rights to the title.
My issues with Zombie's first film aside, I wanted to see what he was going to do with a sequel. Since I saw two different endings, I don't remember which version was the theatrical. I think Laurie killed Michael pretty conclusively... right?
That's the way Zombie's sequel begins, and I'll say this up front: I think it's a far better film than the first one. I still feel like I don't need to ever see Michel onscreen again, but this time out, Zombie really goes for the iconography, and for the first time, I sort of buy the argument that Michael is the Frankenstein of our age.
Frankenstein is a far richer character than Michael Myers. What Carpenter did right was to paint Michael as a thing. A shark. A force of nature that just fucking drifted across you like a cloud of bad luck, and bam, you're dead. Frankenstein's true struggle is with his soul, and if you want to really appreciate the art of collaboration on a new level, check out the new paperback "Frankenstein" that's coming out, where they've published Mary Shelly's orginal unedited manuscript, as well as the revised version done by her husband, Percy Shelly. It's a transformed piece of text. And the reason this story resonated so hard down through the years since is that struggle, that narrative push-pull, that tension that's buried in the process itself. By the time the movies got hold of "Frankenstein," it was already buried deeep in the collective subconscious. It was inevitable. And in the years since the Edison-era Frankenstein monster first lurched across the screen and audiences freaked out, unaccustomed to such an experience, there have been (and I'm estimating) eleventy-grazillion film versions of the Frankenstein story, which has passed into myth, which has passed into archetype.
Michael Myers? Nine movies and a couple of comic books and a whole lot of convention appearances.
And so far, I think Myers is thin. Not much meat on the bones of the boogeyman. I think "Halloween 4" through "Halloween 8" are all equal bags of crap. I don't think they are interesting or fun or that they are upsetting. They're just average and perfunctory, even the Jamie Lee Curtis movies. I don't think a single one of them told a story worth telling. They all just seemed like attempts to wring one more twist out of the lemon. The only reason they didn't send him to space is because Jason and Pinhead got there first, I'll bet. I wouldn't watch any of it again. Ever. Including the Zombie remake of the first film.
But Rob Zombie's "Halloween II"?
I'd watch it again. In fact, I think I want to watch it again.
I liked one thing about it a lot, and it's really the best compliment I can pay to Rob. There are several scenes in the film where Michael is, in my opinion, actually scary. There's a difference between building some mechanical scares into your film and actually scaring your audience, and the latter is what I think you aim for, while the prior is what you settle for. Here, Rob shoots Tyler Mane right, and Mane's performance is rough and violent and unpredictable. More than that, you can see Mane thinking as he plays the character, and that's what seems to always be missing in the "Halloween" sequels. What made Michael so scary in the original film was the blank face but the unmistakable intent of every action. You could tell he was thinking, but because you couldn't read any expression, you couldn't tell WHAT he was thinking, and I always find that scary.
It's not a great film, though, and I think his handling of Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) sums up what I don't like about Zombie's work. It's crass, it's obvious, and it's vulgar without purpose. He makes him a money-chasing fame whore who never really cared about helping Michael or, based on the evidence of the films, any of his patients. He's just a scumbag. Donald Pleasance in the original struck me as someone who was desperately afraid of Michael, and he saw the containment of Evil as his ultimate responsibility. McDowell has a change of heart at the end of the sequel, but Zombie's writing is so thin that it seems unmotivated by anything but running time. "What? It's the end of the movie? Okay, I guess we redeem Loomis now." It's a wasted opportunity, and it's a choice that never pays off thematically or in character terms, so why make it?
When I sat down for a home screening of "The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto" on DVD followed immediately by "Halloween 2" at a late-night screening at the Winnetka theater near my house, I figured seeing the two films back to back like that would give me some sense of where Zombie is as a filmmaker right now. My opinion has evolved somewhat, and I think that's because, no matter how frustrating I find some of his choices, I get the feeling that Zombie is trying to play inside the system, but by his own rules, and watching a filmmaker struggle to pull that off is always educational. And frankly, I'm not sure how he got someone to pony up for "El Superbeasto," which is just a big bag of fetish, loosely justified at best.
In a way, it's the most personally revealing thing that Zombie's ever made. It absolutely feels like he stole the animation aesthetic from John K., but then again, most American TV animation since the early '90s "borrowed" from John K. with both hands, so I can't even say that Zombie did it first or specifically. It's just the way "funny" animation looks now, exaggerated and gross and intentionally ugly. It's "adult" animation only by default because of all the sexuality and the foul language and the extreme violence, but like most animation that sets out to be overwhelmingly "adult," the end result is sort of juvenile and silly more than anything. Characters from Zombie's movies as well as dozens of horror icons show up in the background or for throwaway gags, and the main character, El Superbeasto, is a luchador-masked boob-crazy idiot who sort of stumbles into superheroism. Sheri Moon Zombie plays (surprise) a ridiculously-proportioned piece of ass who can also kick Nazi butt, and Paul Giamatti, one of the biggest genre nerds I've ever spoken to, has obvious fun as Dr. Satan, as does Rosario Dawson as a filthy little thang named Velvet Von Black. I just wish there was some point to it all besides making references to other things Zombie likes and being dirty.
I think Rob Zombie could turn out to be a significant horror director if he ever decides to stick to his convictions, and if he stops chasing commercial success. He is a genuine horror fan, and his best film so far, "The Devil's Rejects," plays like a film made by someone who has digested some of the hardest, ugliest films of the genre and who has decided to make his own attempt at outdoing all of them. Since then, he's been playing the game with the same sort of conservative fear that everyone else in the industry allows to rule their choices. If Zombie really wants to be the filmmaker he thinks he is, he has to leave safety behind and get genuinely crazy.
You think you're dark, Wolfgang? Prove it.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009. Except when it doesn't.
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