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Attack of the Remakes! Halloween II (2009)

by Steve Habrat

While Rob Zombie tried his damndest to put his own fresh spin on the Halloween series while also staying true to the original story in his 2007 remake, you could tell that Zombie was on a short leash. It felt like he was holding something back, whatever that something was. Initially, Zombie swore he would not make a sequel to his remake but after the studio threatened to make a sequel without him, he agreed to slip back into the director’s chair to prevent someone else from desecrating his vision. Personally, I felt his vision was complete and that it really didn’t need a sequel but you know how Hollywood is. Apparently, they wanted to ignore the period he placed on the end of his film. In 2009, Zombie unleashed the deranged funhouse Halloween II, a meaner, bloodier, and busier follow-up that has to rank as one of the most unusual slasher horror films I have ever seen. Even more hit or miss than his 2007 reboot, Zombie attempts to mix exploitation gore, surreal black and white horror, and Michael Myers together and the results are… interesting. Halloween II finds Zombie off his leash and fully embracing that something that he was holding back. That something, it turns out, is full on brutality and countless nods to the classic horror that inspires him.

Picking up just moments after the first film ended, Laurie Strode (Played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is found wandering the streets of Haddonfield with a gun in her hand. Badly injured and in severe shock, Laurie is taken to the emergency room where her wounds are cleaned and mended through ear splitting cries for her family and friends. A year passes and Laurie, now a punk rock rebel who suffers from horrific dreams, is under the care of Sheriff Lee Brackett (Played by Brad Dourif) and shacking up with fellow survivor Annie (Played by Danielle Harris). As Halloween approaches, Laurie’s dreams begin to hint that Michael Myers (Played by Tyler Mane) may not be dead at all. Fueling Laurie’s fears is the fact that the authorities never found a body. Meanwhile, Michael has been searching for his long, lost sister and finding encouragement from the apparition of his deceased mother (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie). To make matters worse, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell), who is no longer the good doctor he once was, is capitalizing on the massacre that ripped the small town apart.

While Halloween II has been panned by critics and dismissed by fans as being one of the worst films in the Halloween series, I have to say that I actually found the film fairly entertaining even if it is gleefully repulsive and slightly unfocused. I will agree that the plotline of the film is a mess and that things don’t tie up like Zombie wants them to but the film has such a striking visual approach that it was easy for me to dismiss many of the flaws. I loved the gothic, dreamlike sequences that Zombie uses to cut up his grainy, foul-mouthed slasher exercise. I actually found them to be quite spooky and glaringly Zombie, something that was severely lacking in the 2007 remake. I also really liked the look of Michael in this film. Minus a pair of bloodstained coveralls and half a mask, Michael is filthy dirty and proud of it. Another new touch is Michael’s loud grunts as he brutally stabs to death countless more victims who bump into him. It certainly is a new take on the character and it does deviate from what we have become used to but that is why I like it. While I still prefer silent, coverall-clad Mikey, this one still makes my skin crawl in a good way.

As far as Scout Taylor-Compton goes, her Laurie has undergone a strange shift in character since we last saw her. No longer as buttoned up as she was in the remake, the dark side hinted at has been unleashed and boy, is she grungy. Her shift is unusual, there is no doubt about it, but I feel like Zombie could have found another way to convey that she has embraced more of a darker side after her encounter with Michael. She hangs out with a duo of punk rock chicks that work in a local record shop but these friends are left severely undeveloped and only there to meet the sharp end of Michael’s knife. If you think Laurie’s shift in character is out of left field, wait until you get a load of Loomis. Acting like an arrogant jerk, Loomis is a hot shot flirt who makes big money off of ugly tragedy and it is the complete opposite of what we saw in the first film. I hardly believe that Loomis would have such a drastic shift in his character after getting beaten up by Michael but I guess anything is possible. Dourif is still great as Sheriff Brackett and Danielle Harris works hard as the still-shaky fellow survivor Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie is also back as Michael’s ghostly mother, who encourages her son’s killing spree from the other side. It honestly feels like a way for Zombie to work his wife into the mix but her presence does give Halloween II the unique feel it possesses. Just like Halloween, Zombie throws in a number of B-horror fan favorites including Margot Kidder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and Richard Riehle.

Throughout Halloween II, Zombie also applies the psychological ‘White Horse’ theory, which he defines at the beginning of the film and then spends the next two hours cramming it down our throats. While I admire Zombie’s attempt to give the film a little psychological depth, he just goes overboard trying to convince us the film is smart. The film does have a seriously eerie opening sequence set in the quiet halls of a hospital while The Moody Blues moan in the background. It superbly pays tribute to the original Halloween II while also working double time to set itself apart from that film. The hospital sequence also features an awesome cameo from Octavia Spencer, who dies extra gruesomely. Steeped in bloody, tie-dyed visuals and unashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve, Halloween II comes out just ahead of its predecessor as far as I’m concerned. It feels more original and, dare I say, much more personal than the first film. I personally feel that this film solidifies Zombie’s place on the list of directors to pay close attention to. As he sharpens his skills as a filmmaker, I feel like he will really come up with something that is stunning visually and truly imaginative in the story department. All he needs to do is scale back on the repulsive dialogue and slow down. You can’t quite shake the feeling that Halloween II was rushed and that Zombie was under a lot of pressure to get this thing out. Overall, it certainly isn’t perfect but it is fun to see Zombie set himself apart from the formulaic pack.

Grade: B+

Halloween II is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Help (2011)

by Steve Habrat

For all the films that have acted like rollercoaster rides this summer, none have been more of an emotional ride than The Help. Do I dare say, this early on in the year, that Tate Taylor’s sassy comedy/drama set at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is one of the best films of the year? I think I can. But while some films find their way to the top of that list by how pertinent they are to the current epoch (see The Hurt Locker, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, etc.), The Help doesn’t send a particularly current message. Sure, it’s can’t-we-all-just-look-past-our-differences-and-just-get-along can work in every climate and it is basically a rallying cry for outsiders (of any color, might I add) to find their voice and stick up for themselves. No, a film can find it’s way to the top of that list on the performances that make up the said film. The Help thrives on this idea. Yet the film strings along scene after scene that in one second will have you chuckling (“I NEVER burn chicken!”) and the next will have you scrambling to pick up the pieces of your shattered heart. It’s quite the bipolar film.

When I say this is a film for outsiders, we must take into consideration the era that this film takes place in. Set in the 1960’s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Played by the inescapable starlet Emma Stone) is a recent college grad that is also an aspiring writer. She is a confident, self-assured, and snappy woman who is determined to make a career for herself and avoid becoming a phony trophy/stay-at-home wife like the ones she mingles with on a daily basis. Upon returning, she ignites an old friendship with Hilly Holbrook (Played by the jaw-dropping beaut Bryce Dallas Howard), a stay-at-home wife with a racist streak and a political agenda of her own. She is making a push to segregate bathrooms in the household between colored help and the white inhabitants. One day during a violent storm, Minny Jackson (Played by Octavia Spencer), the colored housekeeper of Hilly, has to use the restroom and she doesn’t want to brave the vicious storm to do it. Defying the frigid Hilly, she uses the white facilities and gets herself fired. Simultaneously, Skeeter has started working on a book with the reluctant and reserved Aibileen Clark (Played by the Oscar-worthy Viola Davis) on what it’s like to be colored help in the south. Aibileen convinces Minny to contribute to the book, sharing a story of revenge that threatens to tear apart Skeeter’s friendships with old friends and family.

The Help narrowly avoids being the mandatory mother/daughter bonding film of the summer. Upon an initial first glance, it appears to be the option for the ladies who don’t want to accompany their chest-thumping husbands and boyfriends to the latest Fast and Furious movie. The film does act as a celebration for the liberated, empowered female, but also a film that gives an individual who sees themselves as looked over and brushed to the side courage to find their voice. It’s universal, yes, but outrageously accessible. This is what troubles The Help. It’s so concerned about being unanimous and trying to appeal to everyone. That’s why the ending of the film is such a wallop. It seems like this sequence should serve as a bridge from one conflict to another in a film like this, but it leaves the audience filling in what happens next. I applaud the film for taking this route. It lacks the Hallmark ending that would usually make a sappy film like this diabetically sweet.

Despite its blatant comradery, the film is carried on the backs op Davis, Spencer, Howard, and Stone, who act as the heavy lifters in this picture. Davis plays Aibileen with haunted eyes and a cracked soul. She pulls genuine condolences for her character when we learn about her distraught back-story. Spencer is feisty and adds the spunk a film like this needs. She delivers the best lines of the film and she sometimes seems relegated to jester to the seriousness at hand. Near the end, get ready for a serious shocker from her character that will leave you clutching your gut in laughter. Stone is her usually sweet self as the ambitious Skeeter. She represents what was ultimately rejected during this era—the career driven woman. Her cancer stricken mother who pleads with her to find a man and get married hounds her every step of the way and this further solidifies her outsider persona. She absolutely refuses to give a man an inch. In one flashback sequence, she sulks to her sweet and elderly housekeeper Constantie (I could have watched a whole film about Skeeter’s relationship with Constantine!) about not getting asked to the school dance by a boy. It’s a minor sequence that hints at the confidence seeds planted within her. And we can’t forget Howard, who clocks in a vile performance as Hilly, a despicable human being with no compassion. She gets what’s coming to her and I won’t reveal what that is, but I will say that the revenge here is certainly sweet.

Despite it’s clichés, The Help is a remarkably enjoyable and ultimately a feel good film. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else but what it is. It acts as a voyeuristic look back in time as well as encouraging empowerment and liberation for present times. These messages are elementary at best here, but I had such a great time watching these women that I am willing to forgive this one flaw. There were scenes that ate at me and there are some tearful moments. It’s a performance film that tells a stimulating story with impeccable ease. Since seeing it and thinking about it, the film has a strange pull on the viewer. It’s delectably entertaining. You want to go back and listen to these characters again. The film ends with a monologue from Aibileen saying that no one has ever asked her how she is doing. Well Aibileen, you certainly have my undivided attention. Grade: A