Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

It Was a Graveyard Smash; Why Critics and Audiences are Scarier than the Movies

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 31, 2007

Well, Halloween is here and I guess it’s time for my annual rant about horror movies. And in the scary spirit, I’m about to say something that may potentially frighten you out of your wits, chill you to the bone, possibly even shrink your genitalia. So brace yourselves, put down any hot drinks or sharp objects you may be holding as you read this. Are you ready? OK, here goes:

I liked Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

There, I said it. Can’t take it back now. I feel like I can finally make that statement now that a couple of months have passed. When the movie came out, the reaction to it from both critics and audiences was so vehement, so irrationally angry, that even a mildly positive review would be treated like, I don’t know, coming out against the Iraq war in 2002. It wasn’t enough that people hated it; they acted like there was something deeply wrong with you if you found anything worthwhile about the effort. If you liked anything at all about it, you didn’t just have bad taste – you needed a fucking exorcism!

Looking back on it, the furor, while inevitable, seems a bit silly now. Yes, it’s a remake of a beloved classic. No, Zombie’s version isn’t perfect and I would never claim otherwise. But for Christ’s sake people, can we all just get a grip? Some of these fanboys act like Zombie personally took a shit on John Carpenter’s mustache. Come on. It’s not as if Carpenter himself is such an artiste that his work is untouchable, like Fellini or Kurosawa or Affleck (I kid). JC certainly doesn’t seem adverse to people remaking his old films – if anything, he seems perfectly content to collect the paycheck (see my previous column on the Escape from New York remake). And it’s not as if the Halloween franchise hadn’t already been beaten to death (Michael Myers-style) by an endless stream of increasingly ridiculous and unnecessary sequels. Plus, let’s be honest here – it was going to happen eventually. We all know it. Everything is up for grabs now when it comes to Hollywood making the almighty buck. To believe otherwise, at this point in time, is incredibly naïve.

That’s not to say that it was necessarily a good idea, or even a necessary one. I don’t think any remake is really necessary, whether it turns out good or bad. My point is, it was going to happen no matter what. If anything, I think we should thank Zombie for at least making the damn thing interesting, as well as sparing us the inevitable Michael Bay-produced cookie-cutter hack version that we would’ve gotten had he not signed up. Hell, just look at last year’s Black Christmas remake to see how bad this could have been. Whether you liked the result or not, at least Zombie did what you’re supposed to do with a remake: he applied his own sensibilities to a familiar story and created something different, rather than simply regurgitating the original shot-for-shot as most of today’s current hotshot directors would do.

Where many people believe that Zombie erred in devoting the entire first hour to the creation of Michael Myers, psychopathic killer, that was the section of the film that I found the most fascinating. A lot of critics feel that Zombie “doesn’t get” Carpenter’s original film because he focused so much on Myers rather than on heroine Laurie Strode, but I disagree completely. Zombie’s intention was to show us the birth of a serial killer. He’s using the horror icon of “Michael Myers” to illustrate that. Why didn’t he just create his own masked psycho killer, you ask? Because it’s more powerful to do it with a character that everybody knows, that’s why. He’s not interested in simply putting another faceless slasher with a big knife on the screen – he wants to show you where they come from. His Michael Myers isn’t “the boogeyman” – he’s a human being whose humanity has been gradually ground away by the world around him. Some find his circumstances clichéd (neglected by white-trash parents, terrorized by asshole bullies, finding control over his own life only in torturing animals and harming others) but sorry folks, that is exactly how psychopaths are made. Read up on serial killers and you’ll see there are patterns in their lives that can’t be denied. What, was Myers supposed to have had a happy childhood with loving parents and supportive peers? Yeah, that would have been believable.

Of course, many would argue that even making that statement misses the whole point of Halloween. That Michael Myers is just supposed to be evil and scary and murderous and that’s it. He’s not supposed to be human, he’s supposed to be “the boogeyman”. I disagree. Because this isn’t John Carpenter’s Halloween, this is Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Had he made this as a sequel to Carpenter’s film, I would agree that it misses the point. But he didn’t. He made his own film from a different perspective. This isn’t Carpenter’s film; it’s not his Myers, or his Laurie Strode or his Dr. Loomis. This is a whole new ballgame and should be viewed as such. This is the Michael Myers origin story. In comics terms, it’s a one-off issue, it’s Michael Myers #1. It’s not “canon”. The argument AICN’s Moriarty made that compared this to the Star Wars prequels is completely off the mark, because, again, this isn’t Carpenter’s Michael Myers. Whereas Lucas basically took the mythic nature of his Darth Vader character away by exploring his roots in the prequels, Zombie has done nothing to Carpenter’s Michael Myers. It’s not a part of the original series, any more than a cover of a Beatles song should be considered an actual Beatles song. It’s simply a different take, a riff on a familiar tune that doesn’t change or ruin the original in any way. The original, as always, will still stand.

Ironically enough, it’s actually the last third of the movie that I found the least interesting, because it’s the section of the film that is most like Carpenter’s original. It’s as if Zombie suddenly stopped at some point during shooting and said, “I’m spending too much time on Michael, I’d better start giving people the remake they expect” (I know this didn’t actually happen and films are shot out of sequence, I’m saying it’s as if that had happened). Had Zombie done the conventional thing and patterned the entire movie on what Carpenter had already done, chances are good that the result would have been boring as shit. So why is it a bad thing that he didn’t do that? The truth is, Zombie would have been damned by the fanboys either way. No matter what he did, the majority of people would have hated it, simply because they were conditioned to. They were gunning for this thing from the moment it was announced to the moment the first frame hit the sprocket hole. Zombie surely knew this. Which is why it took a huge set of balls to say, “fuck it, I’m gonna do it anyway, and the hell with what any of them think”. Tell me, how many artists are working with that level of confidence and chutzpah these days?

So why didn’t I write a review saying all this? Because, frankly, I just didn’t feel like fighting the negative shitstorm that was out there at the time. This is the problem with writing reviews of films once they’re already out – you run the risk of spending too much time responding to what others have already written rather than stating your own opinions on the subject. I don’t want my reviews to be nothing but reactions to other people’s uninformed opinions. That’s a pointless and dispiriting endeavor. And that’s the main reason I haven’t written much lately in general – what’s the point in talking about films that have already been picked apart by the vultures? Sometimes I feel like I’d just be adding my voice to the cacophony of assholes, and I never intended this site to be like that. I wanted to write when I had something I felt was worth saying or an opinion that wasn’t being heard elsewhere. What I don’t want is to be just another douchebag on the Internet, and that’s what I genuinely fear. I don’t want to become what I loathe.

Maybe it would be easier if I just never read anyone else’s reviews, but as annoyed as I get from them at times, I also find them hard to resist. It’s part of my interest in film in general that got me wanting to write about film in the first place. Lately, though, I find myself increasingly dispirited by the level of discourse that’s out there. It’s just so tiresome to see a movie you really like, come home, get on the Internet and find out that everybody else is trashing it. You just want to throw your hands in the air and say, “whatever, man”. I guess it’s just cool to hate everything now – at least that’s the impression you get if you spend any time on the various movie news sites. But it’s not just the Net either – as audiences have been acting more and more like critics, critics seem to have become less sophisticated in expressing their opinions. The idea that there’s a difference between valid criticism and being a douchebag for the sake of being a douchebag seems to be increasingly lost. It’s as if one merely has to have an opinion to be listened to anymore; the ability to express that opinion intelligently and passionately doesn’t seem to count for anything. When the AICN Talkbackers (the Internet’s version of the “Wack Pack”) are given as much weight as Roger Ebert, there’s something wrong with the world. (I’ve never understood why so many news sites have these “comment” sections where people are allowed to spout off; these sections are usually filled with ignorant, uninformed opinions, insults, hate speech and just plain irrelevant stupidity. Seriously, who gives a shit what the peanut gallery has to say?)

Nowhere is this devolution of criticism more apparent than with two of the biggest douches out there passing themselves off as critics. One is Richard “Dick” Roeper, my favorite punching bag lately. As much as I hate to constantly rag on one guy, he comes off as such a smug, self-important little douche that I can’t help myself. I really can’t stand the way he dismisses so many genre films, especially horror films (see, this is coming back around to the subject I intended to write about). The latest whopper is his review of 30 Days of Night (which I really liked), in which he stated, “There’s nothing in this film that we haven’t seen a thousand times already”. Really? Well, how about the basic concept of vampires taking over a small Alaskan town in which night lasts for a month? Because I, for one, have not seen that before. Idiot. You know, I never read Roeper’s printed reviews, so maybe he comes off a lot more intelligently in whatever paper he writes for. On his show, however, he’s just an insufferable snob who only gives his precious “thumbs up” to films with a pedigree prestigious enough to justify his existence. He’s like the Golden Globes of film criticism, kissing the asses of the powerful and ignoring anyone who doesn’t make $20 million a picture. I honestly wish Ebert would come back and kick his self-righteous ass off the show permanently.

The other is Jeffrey “Geezer” Wells, the kind of critic for whom the past is not just a great place to visit. For him, the only good film is a ‘70’s film, and the only good recent films are those that emulate the styles and sensibilities of ‘70’s films. Everything else is shit. He’s like those old stoners who think that no good rock music has been recorded since 1975. This by itself wouldn’t bother me so much – unlike Roeper, at least I get where he’s coming from and can adjust my expectations accordingly. But like Roeper, he has a bizarre dislike of genre films and horror films in particular. Everything has to be “serious” for him or it’s not worth viewing. He’s one of those guys who has to “learn something” from everything he watches and the concept of escapism, well, escapes him. What’s even worse than that is his blatant and simple-minded dismissal of not just genre films but the audiences who watch them as well. He’s referred to the 30 Days of Night ticket-buyers as “the under-25 empties” (yeah, because only idiot children like horror films, right?) and considers anyone who would go see Halloween, Saw or Hostel to be “culturally retarded”. Which just makes me want to see them all the more, of course. As much as he loves the ‘70’s, how did the guy miss that Halloween is practically a piece of Americana at this point? Oh, because it’s a horror film, so it’s for mongoloids and sickos, not for serious cineastes like himself. Utter bullshit. Wells’ opinions are generally chock-full of ridiculous stereotypes and blanket statements, but this is one for which there truly is no intellectual justification.

Frankly, I consider this kind of blatant disregard for any genre to be a serious intellectual blind spot that makes me question the judgment of any critic. (And I don’t consider myself a hypocrite on this either: I may dislike most romantic comedies, but make a good one and I’ll be the first to champion it.) You see, it’s based on the idea, whether conscious or unconscious, that the quality of a film isn’t important – only its genre is. To Roeper and Wells, a horror film can’t be good because of what it contains, not how well it’s done. It’s judging a book by its cover, even after you read it. I consider this just as suspect as the people who like every film of a certain genre, no matter how bad it is. Those of us who aren’t snobs and actually enjoy watching movies but still contain critical faculties know that there are good horror films and bad horror films, just as there are good and bad sci-fi films, good and bad action films, good and bad thrillers and so on. I mean, I shouldn’t even have to explain that to supposedly intelligent people! Just as there are also good foreign films and bad foreign films, good and bad indie films, even good and bad serious dramas. I don’t understand how anyone can think otherwise. If you claim to love movies, you should actually love movies. If you hate movies, then you should stop watching them.

Here’s the thing: I love a good “serious movie” as much as anybody. I love it when a filmmaker has something to say and says it well. I’m all for that. But the general audience has always, always preferred escapism. That’s just the way it is. If anything, serious films are made in spite of audiences, not because of them. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein made more money than Citizen Kane. OK? I don’t think anyone would argue about which is the better film. But when you’re talking pure commerce, there’s simply no competition. The vast majority of people will always pick the escapist “fun movie” to the serious film about important issues. And I’m OK with that, as an audience member and as a critic. Because I like both. I’m the kind of guy who will go see In the Valley of Elah one week and then Resident Evil 3 the next. And I’ll judge them both on their merits. I think you have to mix it up, or your tastes become stagnant and your moviegoing experiences become boring. I don’t judge people who prefer one or the other, but I have to wonder why they limit themselves. Again, why does it have to be one or the other with people? Why can’t we have our fun zombie action movies and our serious Iraq war dramas? Why can’t we have both? I may not want to see The Game Plan, but I understand why something like that makes more money than an Elah. There’s a larger audience for family movies (kids want to see it, they talk their parents into taking them) than there is for somber current-events films. Just like there’s a larger audience for a vampire movie than there is for a Rendition. Is anyone really surprised by that? That doesn’t mean that both kinds of movies shouldn’t exist, for god’s sake! All it means is that one’s naturally going to make more money than the other. In the long run, who gives a shit? It’s not like they’re going to stop making serious dramas – it just means they should stop releasing them before Oscar season. Duh…

The scary part, to me at least, is how willing people are to become followers of one camp or the other, and how easy it is to persuade them that a movie isn’t worth seeing. That’s what’s really bizarre about this whole Internet thing. Instead of encouraging debate and diverse opinions, what passes for film criticism on the Net these days is all about groupthink. If Moriarty or Wells or David Poland or whoever else out there hates a movie, suddenly everybody hates it. And there’s no room for debate. It’s either “agree with me or you’re a fuckin’ retard”. People casually toss off statements like “the Halloween remake debacle” as if everyone feels that way, cutting off any potential disagreement. It’s a debacle because everyone says so. It sucks because we say it sucks. Bullshit! No one’s opinion should be that important, quite frankly. If you really want to see something, you shouldn’t let anyone stop you. Certainly not me. At what point did reviews become less about having something to say than about destroying directors and insulting audiences? I don’t get it. I never want to be that kind of critic, or that kind of man.

So that’s all I have to say about that. Now let’s play catch-up on the films I’ve seen but never got around to reviewing (see above). I’m keeping these short, because I’ve already rambled on for too long.

3:10 to Yuma – excellent Western, top-notch stuff based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard. Crowe and Bale at their very best. ***1/2

Shoot ‘em Up – just pure, ridiculous fun. You have to love an action movie where the bad guys are gun manufacturers and the corrupt politicians who keep them on the street. John Woo meets Bugs Bunny, on crack of course. ***

The Brave One I actually kinda liked this movie, as odd as it is at times. Neil Jordan is a strange director to pick for a female Death Wish, but I thought it worked in a weird way. Genuinely unsettling at times, fairly ridiculous at others, but fueled by a powerhouse Jodie Foster performance. Not as bad as people think. ***

In the Valley of Elah – a much better film than it’s been given credit. It’s not so much about the politics of war as the personal cost. Tommy Lee Jones is just fantastic, heartbreaking and forceful at the same time. Paul Haggis leaps and bounds over Crash and makes a real movie here, not just an op-ed piece. My criteria for any political film are always, “is it a good story?” and this definitely qualifies. Severely underrated. ***1/2

The Kingdom – good thriller set against a post-9/11 backdrop rather than a political drama. If you like the Bourne films, that kind of edgy techno-thriller, it’s worth checking out. I love that Hollywood is making films that reflect the world we live in now. ***

Resident Evil: Extinction – OK but probably my least favorite of the series. Some cool action, a couple of hot babes and of course, zombies. What’s not to like? Really dug the Mad Max vibe, but these flicks are starting to get stale. What else is left for Alice to do at this point? Maybe it’s time to quit while they’re ahead. **1/2

Across the Universe – Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical is uneven, but too interesting to completely dismiss. I can’t help but feel like using these songs is kind of an unfair shortcut – if you’re a Beatles fan, you’ve heard these songs a million times and they access emotions instantly that the film fails to do on its own. Some of the songs are performed very well, and some are just kind of misused (“I Want You” is not a song about Army recruitment, OK?). But overall, it’s worth seeing once for the experience of seeing it. ***

30 Days of Night – wasn’t a big fan of director David Slade’s Hard Candy, but this stylish and sophisticated (yeah, I said it) vampire flick reminded me of early Carpenter with its slow build and deceptively simple story, particularly The Thing (naturally), with a little Stephen King vibe in there. Killer sense of atmosphere, something which has been lacking in too many major-studio horror films these days. Definitely a film where you root for the survivors rather than the monsters, who are very creepy and “other”. Fuck the haters – this is the scarefest that kicked ass this Halloween season. ***1/2

And that’s it for now. I’ll be back when I’ve got something to say. Later my friends!

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