The now semi-retired film critic Nathan Lee, when writing at his most unfettered, is one part connoisseur, one part provocateur, one part contrarian, and three parts...well, probably best not to go into that. He's not afraid of passionate advocacy, or of stirring shit up, or of pissing people off. He contains multitudes; witness his most recent defense of director Richard Kelly in Film Comment (not online, alas; it's in the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue), wherein he seems to embrace a "it's-so-bad-it's-good" perspective on the abysmal Southland Tales before going on to castigate its detractors (e.g., the folks who pointed out how bad it was, you see what I'm getting at here) as "mental midgets." When you go back, you realize he's not really embracing a so-bad-it's-good reading of Tales, but something considerably more complex. Something that, as far as I'm concerned, gives Kelly too much credit, and is pretty untenable.
But anyway. My point is, for as many unpleasant exchanges as we might have had, and as irritating I've often found some of his provocations, Lee is both a genuinely sharp writer and what one should consider un vrai critic (in the same sense that Godard pronounced Scorsese's New York, New York "un vrai film"). Which is one reason why I thought it would be worth the time and effort to take his high praise of both 2007's Halloween and 2009's Halloween 2, rethinks of the John-Carpenter-originated 70s horror myth by rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie, seriously.
Now by "high praise," I'm referring to plaudits that have scant prose backup. Lee hasn't written at length about either picture. [UPDATE: This assertion, as Lee reminds us in comments, is incorrect. Lee wrote about Halloween at some length in an article for Film Comment's March/April 2008 issue. Sorry for the error, and for having missed the piece.] The sole testimony to his regard for Halloween 2 is its number two place on his 2009 Ten Best list for indieWire, right between The Headless Woman and Summer Hours, two pictures I myself have a very very great love for. As for Zombie's first Halloween, there's a very brief Village Voice review in which Lee describes the picture as "a biopic, and a superb one at that...every bit as reverent, scrupulous, and deeply felt as any Oscar grubbing horrorshow." One would hope for something more reverent, etc., than an Oscar grubber, but you see his point. In terms of evidentiary support, Lee asks us to consider the film's "strange circumspection, the discipline of tone, the utter lack of snark, the absolute denial of gore-for-gore's sake."
I have to say, Lee is on to something here. Whatever Zombie's talents and/or limitations as a filmmaker, his Halloween is, absolutely, conscientiously determined to respect its material. A near-obsessive student of the horror genre (hell, I used to run into the fellow back when they had the Chiller Theater Expos in East Rutherford before the Meadowlands Hilton...), he's an apt pupil with respect to both visuals and mood. But his style, at its best, is not without humor. I was particularly taken by the hilariously overdetermined horizontal planes (see almost any widescreen Italian horror flick from the '70s) and the blown-out lighting (see, of course, Kubrick's The Shining) in the shot at top, in which Malcolm McDowell's Dr. Loomis examines young family-killer Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch). As for the actual content, well, the specifics of young Mr. Myers' family situation do tend to lay on the white-trash histrionics pretty thick (and one suspects that Mr. Zombie learned most of what he knows about white trash from watching Spider Baby and such), but the scenario itself is not unconvincing and is conveyed with genuine verve. So much so that the viewer can actually feel Zombie's interest level dropping at the point wherein he's obliged to explicitly revisit the Carpenter original.
Halloween 2 presents some knottier problems. I had heard that it was in some respects an inversion of Zombie's initial Myers picture in that it was pretty much an almost unmitigated stab fest. As I was going to be watching it with not just an eye to what it actually was, but what Sir Lee saw in it that compelled him to place it between two whatcha-might-call-bonafide art films in his 2009's ten best list, I tried to imagine the possibilities. Could this be Zombie's version of a post-structuralist film? A Jeanne Dielman pulled inside-out, with endless violent stabbings substituted for the peeling of potatoes?
As it happens, the film begins promisingly, brutally. The images are very nearly drained of color, making the copious blood decorating the bodies of the two survivors of Myers look almost black. The chronicling of various medical procedures is both gruesome and matter-of-fact. The hospital atmosphere is grey, oppressive. An old TV clip of The Moody Blues lip-synching "Nights in White Satin" plays on a seeming loop on various television sets. As the looming, silent Myers infiltrates the hospital, in search of his sister Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton), the atmosphere grows ever more dank. Outside it's pouring buckets.
This great shot of the soaked, and soaking, hospital parking lot at one point intimated to me just what a great, revolutionary horror film Halloween 2 could be. A film in which the instances of violence became so insistently numbing that the real horror lay in the interstices, the moments in which nothing was happening. These moments usually function as a way of building tension; in the opening half hour of Halloween 2 they signify a nihilistic blankness, affectless space. Genuinely negative space, as it were.
I have to admit, I was pretty impressed. But then...spoiler alert...most of the above, if not all of the above, turned out to be a dream sequence. A damn fine dream sequence, but a dream sequence nonetheless. And the film devolved from there, a victim, among other things, of Zombie's defects as a writer. He turns the Loomis character into an opportunistic, vicious media whore, and limp satire ensues; his account of Laurie's psychological torture pretty much subsists of the character mocking self-help bromides and then screaming "fuck" over and over again; and so on. Which isn't to say that some nice touches don't appear. Certain subsequent dream sequences also impress, and show that Zombie's absorbed not just some Joel Peter Witkin but some Carl Theodor Dreyer; the sight of the Myers matriarch materializing in white in the middle of the strip club where she used to work is an almost Lynchian vision; and the way he dresses up the heroine and her pals in Rocky Horror Picture Show costumes for a climactic party scene shows some commendable cross-culture-critique ambition. But that part scene is precisely where Zombie lets the movie get away from him for good, spending way too much film on the less-than-awesome "psychobilly" band Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures, allowing whatever tension he's built go slack, and erecting yet another banal promiscuous teen abattoir.
For all that, to entirely dismiss Halloween 2 seems, to my mind, a mistake. But that doesn't mean that putting it on one's ten best list doesn't constitute a form of overcompensating. Or something. Sorry, Nathan!