In the new remake of Halloween, a babysitter tells her charge to fear the boogey man: The monster targets those who don’t believe in him, she explains. But, being a savvy kid of the ’00s, little Tommy isn’t buying that. “Why does it matter?” he prods. “Does believing in him somehow protect you from his power?”
It’s not a bad question. Nobody over the age of 10 “believes in” masked killer Michael Myers. Yet American pop culture has been in his thrall since 1978, when John Carpenter made a psycho-killer movie that was stronger on “Boo!” moments than blood. Halloween ended up grossing nearly 150 times its budget, and seven sequels followed. Over its three decades, the series has incorporated everything from druids to killer Halloween masks to MTV reality shows to teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett. It’s become self-parody and then some.
So maybe it was time to hit the reset button. Heavy-metal-icon-turned-auteur Rob Zombie is a good choice to helm the first-ever Halloween remake: He’s a lifelong horror fan. His version cuts the camp and brings the franchise back to its origins. But, unlike last year’s The Omen, this isn’t a plodding rehash of an old piece of schlock. It’s a “reimagining.” That’s where Zombie’s movie has the potential to go very right — but doesn’t, particularly.
Anyone who’s seen the original Halloween will recall that Michael Myers starts his reign of terror at a tender age by knifing his older sister and her boyfriend in flagrante delicto. After enacting this inventive twist on the Freudian primal scene, he languishes in an asylum till he’s big and strong enough to escape and, well, kill more nubile teenagers. That’s about as complex as it gets. Unlike Freddy Krueger, Michael’s short on personality: He’s scary because he pursues his victims with robotic relentlessness — and in total silence.
Zombie wants to get behind the mask. So he’s added nearly an hour of backstory, which departs radically from the original. In Carpenter’s version, Michael appears to be a suburban kid from a model home who inexplicably becomes Pure Evil. For a touch more realism, Zombie takes out his copy of “Serial Killers 101” and plunges us into an ugly spat between 10-year-old Michael’s stripper mom (Sheri Moon) and his wheelchair-bound, alkie stepdad. While the drunk leers at skanky Sis, Michael (Daeg Faerch) is upstairs killing his pets. At school, other kids taunt and torment him. Can you really blame him for snapping?
Well, actually, you can. Aside from a moment early on, when Michael appears to hesitate before beating someone to death, Zombie doesn’t do much to deepen or humanize him. He only brings the iconic character more in line with what we know of real psychopaths — who remain enigmas, as pontificating shrink Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) reminds us. Blond, empty-eyed Faerch has a disturbing presence but fails to convey much motivation. By the time Michael has grown up into hulking Tyler Mane, donned his mask and escaped his prison, he’s become a superhuman argument for teenage sexual abstinence, just like he always was. His young victims are just as vapid as ever, only now they look like Lindsay Lohan wannabes.
But . . . is it scary? Not so much as dread-inducing. Zombie jacks up the brutality to grindhouse levels, and he departs from the plot of the original to deliver some new shocks. But anyone who’s ever watched a slasher movie will see them coming. Halloween completists will want to see this one for its new take and memorably gritty atmosphere. The rest of us may be left wondering why 30 years later, with Osama bin Laden at large, we still have to fear this particular boogey man.