Monday, September 3, 2007

For me, Labor Day meant 'Halloween"

For the last 27 years, I've spent Labor Day evening squeezing one last movie out of the Telluride Film Festival. This year -- considering the prohibitively expensive Telluride tab -- I decided to stay home. Still, I felt as if I should be in a movie theater as the holiday weekend began to fade. In a bold attempt at counter-programming, I did an anti-festival thing. I went to see Rob Zombie's remake of "Halloween."

Zombie, a musician and director of such unashamedly sleazy fare as "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects," doesn't necessarily go over-the-top, but under the bottom -- way under. He finds the lowest, low-life characters imaginable and puts them through a meat grinder of a plot. But in the case of this remake, Zombie would have done equally well to find a momentum-building, three-act structure to house all the murder and mayhem.

Only the opening scene -- a veritable aria of brutal insult and foul vituperation -- really lives up (or is it down?) to the Zombie standard. The rest of the movie becomes a pallid exercise in horror that never really creates a feeling that trapdoors of terror might actually open beneath us.

On the other hand, I didn't have to wait in line for an hour to see it as I might have at Telluride, where one often staggers out of the hot sun into a darkened theater, scuffling to find a seat before collapsing into a dehydradated heap.

I suppose Zombie's contribution to the "Halloween" literature -- which began with John Carpenter's still-unsurpassed 1978 slasher hit -- involves developing a chapter that might be called "Michael Myers, The Early Years." Young Michael (Doug Faerch) lives with his mother (Sheri Moon-Zombie), his festering sore of a stepfather (William Forsythe) and two sisters, one a sexually active teen-ager, the other a bawling infant.

In other hands, this easily could have been the setup for an art movie, I tell myself: What could be better than family troubles as seen through the wounded eyes of 10-year-old Michael?

And it gets even better. Bullied at school and humiliated by his stepfather, Michael launches a homicidal rampage that lands him in a mental institution. There, a psychologist named Dr. Loomis (Michael McDowell) tries to reach him. Deep stuff, no? Besides, Zombie's camera work seems every bit as tipsy as Lars von Trier's.

But wait, there's more. Fifteen years pass, the adult Michael escapes from the institution, returns to his hometown and kills more teen-agers, some of whom are in the middle of having sex.

Maybe Zombie should have gone the art route. A few jolts can't substitute for a genuine feeling of dread, and as I watched, my increasing dismay led me to wonder which would seem longer, the final few reels of "Halloween" or one of those windy noon-time Telluride panels that are held in Elks Park.

No, I told myself, mustn't think of Telluride. This, too, is cinema, I quietly reminded myself, as Zombie's least interesting movie to date reeled its way toward an empty finale.

But who knows? Some day -- at a future festival in a small mountain town far, far away -- someone may see fit to give Zombie a tribute. By then, he'll be deep into his 80s, and as part of his "rediscovery," he'll be hailed as a previously unsung master of the much-studied "trailer-trash" genre. His movies will have made him an American original whose best work captured the alienation and shocking despair of lower-class life in the early 21st Century.

Dissertations anyone? Hey, it's never too early to beat the rush.

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