Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Second Look: Halloween II (Unrated Director's Cut)

SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR BOTH THE THEATRICAL AND UNRATED VERSIONS

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

It's best when you have a gut feeling to just go with it. A couple of months ago I shared my brief thoughts on Rob Zombie's sequel that isn't a remake, Halloween II, giving it a mildly negative review. But I gave Zombie credit for tackling a thankless project that was going to happen with or without his involvement. He had to know that despite the relatively lukewarm reaction to his 2007 re-imagining of John Carpenter's classic, audiences were burnt out on pointless horror sequels and remakes and would have little interest in seeing this franchise revisited further. Despite my issues with the film I still respected that he clearly gave his all, opting to use this second opportunity as a form of creative expression when no one would have cared if he just phoned it in for quick pay day. Daring to push the series' mythology in a different direction, he had to know his decisions it would infuriate hardcore fans of the franchise and more casual viewers just simply wouldn't care.

After watching the theatrical version on DVD I thought I had seen a mess with flashes of brilliance but even as mixed as my initial reaction was, certain scenes didn't leave me and there was a nagging feeling it needed to be revisited. That's just about the highest compliment I could give a picture I didn't like and made me curious whether this is one of those extremely rare cases where an unrated directors cut ends up being a difference maker. Additional footage in a film is usually a death knell, needlessly piling on minutes, narrative exposition and back stories to pad running time. The DVD director's cut of Watchmen last year is a great example of an already lengthy film hurt by additional pointless narrative and I still contend an extra trip to the editing room could have only improved The Dark Knight. But the director's cut of Halloween II is one of those unique films that enhances nearly every aspect of the theatrical version and diminishes its flaws, taking what was a barely recommendable outing and unleashing the deeper story that was struggling to break through.

Filling in the blanks where they need to be filled, these extra twenty minutes give the narrative and its characters more room to grow and breathe. The result is a genre-bending throwback slasher that's more grindhouse than the actual movie Grindhouse and builds to a fever pitch of suspense in its final hour. It also presents an alternate ending that truly is ALTERNATE in every sense of the word, as well as controversial. If you're in the majority who hated the theatrical version you'll still probably hate this but if you're like me and found that to be a fascinating misfire with promise then you'll be pleased to discover much of that promise is fulfilled here. Then again, it's still easy to see how it inspired levels of vitriol exceeding most slasher sequels when Zombie made ballsy decisions like this:

-Depicting all-American good girl Laurie Strode as a grungy metalhead losing her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and in the midst of a psychotic breakdown.

-Re-imagining Dr. Sam Loomis as a greedy, fame hungry author exploiting the suffering of Mike Myers' victims and their families for profit.

-Mike Myers unmasked as a bearded, wandering hobo...and talking!

-The film's first twenty minutes is---ALL A DREAM.

-Trippy hallucinations of Myers' late mother Deborah...with a white horse.

-The absence of John Carpenter's famous Halloween score.

-Laurie shown smiling after being committed to the confines of a mental institution in the closing scene.

As blasphemous as all these ideas are even the film's opponents would have to admit that they're intriguing and original, baring no resemblance to anything seen in the series before. Mentally and emotionally unglued two years after her Myers' murderous rampage, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a damaged shell of her former self living under the same roof as the Bracketts but her relationship with them (especially Annie played by Danielle Harris) is strained and only serves as constant everyday reminder of the traumatic ordeal she went through. This wasn't made completely clear in the theatrical cut but here important scenes are added between the two girls that better reflect this crumbling family dynamic. The pizza scene with all of them at the dinner table works largely because of Zombie's gift for realistic, Tarantino-style dialogue (it's also at play in the coffee house scenes). But besides just being entertaining it also conveys something more meaningful if you listen carefully to it. Sheriff Brackett (the great Brad Dourif) can't really relate to these girls at all and time has completely passed him by. This is cleverly intercut with Myers claiming his first victims in the field before heading "home."

Pitching Laurie as a psychotic and clinically depressed basket case is a tough sell any way you look at it but this cut of the film has the goods to justify it. Margot Kidder's bizarre cameo as Laurie's psychiatrist elicited unintentional laughter in the theatrical version mainly because it added nothing to the film and needlessly called attention to itself. Because it's so brief and unfocused we were forced to view it as a joke. But this version gives her more screen time focusing on her sessions with Laurie, giving us insight into her fractured psyche and relaying pertinent information. Leaving it on the cutting room floor to begin with wasn't only the wrong call creatively but turned a veteran actress into a bad punchline when she deserved better (especially with cameos like Weird Al Yankovic, Chris Hardwicke and Howard Hesseman to earn intentional laughs). Here, Kidder gets much better treatment as just those couple of minutes extra minutes hit all the right notes for the story. Laurie's scenes with her psychiatrist and Annie flesh out the character much more, which helps a lot considering the entire film centers around her inability to come to grips with the trauma she experienced. As a result of the renewed focus on Laurie's instability, the controversial twenty minute "Gotcha!" opening doesn't seem as manipulative, nor does she come off nearly as unlikable. A big improvement.

Of all the criticisms leveled against the film the one that boggles my mind most is how anyone could find fault with Scout Taylor-Compton's performance. Granted, I thought she did a suitable job in the 2007 remake (where she was boxed in by preconceived notions of the role and given far less) but this is a huge leap up from that. That she'll constantly be compared to Jamie Lee Curtis isn't fair because Curtis was never asked to do the things Compton is in this film. The first 20 minutes notwithstanding, this isn't a "scream queen" or "final girl" performance any more than the movie is just another flimsy entry in the dead teenager genre (see the Friday the 13th remake for that). This is a girl basically suffering from post-traumatic stress. Laurie may still be far from likable but Taylor-Compton makes us want to understand why, and in the process earns the character sympathy. No one can watch the scene in the car when she discovers she's Mike Myers' sister and tell me that isn't some seriously impressive acting.

Nor could you convince me that the decision to paint Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) as an egotistical, fame-hungry prick doesn't provide the film with its most wildly entertaining sequences, tops of which is his emotional book signing confrontation with a grieving father. Loomis' behavior does seem like a natural progression from the events of the last film and those still hanging to Donald Pleasance's interpretation should consider whether he ever really did anything with it or was given the opportunity to. McDowell is and takes full advantage. More screen time for him pushes the psychological component of the story even more, further calling into question his motivations in the final act. If there's one weak acting link it's Chase Vanek as young Michael if only because Daeg Faerch was so memorably creepy in the 2007 remake.

You could make the argument that Zombie is still pedaling his brand of hillbilly porn but I won't since he wears the trailer trash gimmick so much better this time around, achieving a mood and atmosphere that captures the look and spirit of the holiday (witness that costume party). He also makes inspired musical choices like the subtle but chilling use of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" during the hospital sequence. My biggest problem with the theatrical cut was that the actual implications of the story seemed to be treated as an afterthought in between Myers' graphic kills. The murders are still unflinching and disturbing but now with actual context to view it in it's less a horror movie rampage than an exploration into the sick mind of a serial killer and the lives he's affected. Even the white horse dream sequences don't feel as thrown in and seem to gain a sense of purpose. Zombie just keeps filling the cup with psychological back story to the point that it's practically boiling over with tension when Myers arrives in Haddonfield and sets his sights on Annie. Because so much of the film was unusually spent focusing on the day-to-day struggles of the Brackett family and Laurie, Annie's death is the first horror movie murder in a long time that packs an emotional punch. Nothing is shown but Dourif's face says it all after discovering his daughter's lifeless body on the bathroom floor.

The alternate ending does away with an unforgettable visual with Laurie stepping out of the shack in her brother's mask (as big a stretch as that was) but replaces it with an ending that arguably makes more sense and provides the needed closure lacking in the theatrical cut. It's reasonable given what we'd seen up to that point that she'd turn her knife on the true villain of the story, Dr. Loomis. This is the first ending of a Halloween film that actually feels like THE END. As if the final chapter's been written and the book closed. Of course it isn't and they'll be a Halloween 3D without Zombie's involvement but he at least deserves credit for attempting to provide the conclusive finale Carpenter refused to give us in 1978. Had he done that, the series wouldn't have needed to be bailed out of the mess it got into.

If Zombie's guilty of anything with Halloween II it's overestimating fans' ability to let go and accept something other than the original incarnations of these characters. Because doing that would mean conceding that most of the films in the series are terrible and can only be appreciated on a guilty pleasure level. This strives for more and for me takes the opposite trajectory of his 2007 re-imagining, a film I thought highly of right after seeing but fell by the wayside as time wore on. Torn between staying respectively loyal to the Halloween legacy and bringing his unique vision to the material, Zombie crafted a mish-mash of key moments from the previous entries and fused with it his own, resulting in a strange mix. But getting that film out of his system and freeing himself from the shackles of the original ended up being the best thing that could have happened. After three decades of suffering through countless sequels, the unrated cut of Halloween II not only feels like a worthy successor, but succeeds independently as a psychological drama.

5 comments:

Ben K said...

Fantastic review! I ended up buying a copy from a Blockbuster store that was closing, and I listened to Rob's commentary. There was a method to his story of madness, and your review does make it clear how much the added scenes help this version. The ending is especially tragic and does bring a finality to the series that (of course) won't stop the producers from making another film.

A.P. Simon said...

Awesome second look at HALLOWEEN II, Jeremy! Although I haven't had the pleasure of watching the Director's Cut yet - it's in my giant To Watch pile - your very positive review has given me more incentive to just sit down and watch it.

jeremythecritic said...

Thanks for the comments guys. This version is definitely a huge improvement. Really surprised just how much better it was. It's too bad they're still moving forward with another one.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

Still not a fan of this film, but the UDC version is the better of the two versions, but not my much in my opinion. And yeah, this ending is a lot better. At least I don't have to laugh at Laurie stumbling out wearing a white mask. Awesome review, Jeremy. Let's see what happens in the third one. *sigh*

jeremythecritic said...

I remember you hating this one. Glad you saw this as at least somewhat of an improvement. Something about Laurie putting on the mask just didn't ring as believable for me either so I prefer what was done here. And if there must be a third film I wouldn't mind seeing Zombie try to remake Halloween III: Season of the Witch.