2017 Film Essays

‘Halloween II’: Rob Zombie’s Mad Opus on Trauma and the Tendrils of Toxic Familial Ties

“Poor taste is the petrol that fuels the American Dream.” – Dr. Samuel Loomis, Halloween II

 “Hey world, guess what? I’m Michael Myer’s sister. I’m so FUCKED.” – Laurie Strode / Angel Myers, Halloween II

 “Soon, you’ll know us all too well, with my apologies.” – Henrik Vanger, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

 “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” – Mayo Clinic

Rob Zombie has stated that his remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween was about 50 percent his own vision, and 50 percent him working under the canonical original. So, while 2007’s Halloween holds much to admire, it is far from a pure — or perfected — vision. To appreciate it most, it is perhaps best to read it as dense emotional roadwork which paves the way for Zombie’s follow-up, a mesmerizing and relentless study of trauma and toxic familial ties. In Halloween II (H2), Zombie is operating at the peak of his emotional and lexical abilities, combining the dreamlike absurdism of later works like Lords of Salem with the dirt and grunge of his most recent (31) and his most reverently celebrated (The Devil’sRejects). These two aesthetic distinctions find perfect distillation in H2, which functions as a study of character experience through form — and because of this, Zombie reaches astounding heights in horror cinema. Freshly untethered from working under Carpenter’s vision — and so more refined, singular and ambitious than his energetic beginnings — Zombie crafts a once-in-an-oeuvre film that combines his most urgent thematic, narrative and formal interests with an emotional foundation found nowhere else in his filmography.

This foundation is built on character, which is where H2’s most vital essence lies. To tackle the horror formula — to take on, essentially, genre demands — Zombie makes a film with a strong beating heart that exists because of — and not in spite of — the brutality on display within. From its opening moments, it is crystal clear what concerns Zombie: trauma and its enduring effects. Emotional and physical wounds fill almost every frame; through broken skin and exhausted eyes, the weight of violence stands — like the film’s hulking, wounded killer — defiantly tall. Like 31’s Doom-Head states about his job,Halloween II is not here to “brighten your dismal day” — it is not here to entertain. Instead, it sets out to condemn bloodlust (horror fans at large depicted in the form of Dr. Loomis) while revealing the horrible results of what happens when that bloodlust is satisfied.

Within the first few cuts, all of H2’s thematic and lexical concerns are laid out: a small moment between Young Michael and his mother, Deborah, remind of the now-psychotic giant’s deeply damaged beginnings. Over the title card, the gunshot and subsequent screams from Laurie it elicits — abstracted from their images — recall the seeds of emotional trauma as she shoots her brother in the head. Then — a silent Laurie, blood-soaked and exhausted, wandering down abandoned and backlit streets in shock, as adrenaline drips off until nothing is left but confusion. Finally, there’s her traumatized, panicked face as she is wheeled through a hospital, screaming and begging to know if she’ll live, the camera bouncing frantically around her. Intercut with this are shots of her wounded, cracked body. Now, the aural and visual signifiers of trauma are melded, as are the psychological and physical components of that trauma. They exist together as one, an early warning sign from Zombie of the bleak and investigative journey ahead.

These opening moments immediately signify H2’s importance as a sequel in the horror genre and beyond. This is only deepened as the subsequent hospital sequence depicts healing wounds quickly reopened — trauma revisited. If slashers — and so, to a degree, Zombie’s first Halloween — callously steal images of pain and trauma to repurpose as entertainment, H2 is the brutally honest response to that theft (because Zombie is deeply concerned with the lasting impacts of violence) on the human form and on the human condition. Pain is felt long after the blade falls, and it is those cracks that show years later — and refuse to just leave you alone — that are often the most horrific. Halloween focuses on Young Michael’s psychosis, and the ways his own twisted morality led to so much violence. In a sense, it has sympathy for the devil, the killer. Michael is the emotional core of the film, no matter how dark or void his heart is.

In H2, that focus is shifted to Laurie Strode. And through this, H2 takes the responsibility one could argue all horror films should have but instead often disregard — sympathy for the victim, or victims. Around Laurie are other traumatized people, as her now-surrogate sister Annie bears her own scars, both literally on her face and in her growing agoraphobia. Annie’s dad (and now Laurie’s surrogate father, Sheriff Brackett — having seen his own daughter brutalized) is trying to grapple with his own guilt while dealing with two troubled daughters he cares deeply for. Even Dr. Loomis, now fully engaged in reaping blood money off of the carnage two years prior, feels responsible for what happened once his money-grubbing Dr. Phil exterior is stripped away. No character has made it out of Halloween unscathed, and so these wounds organically become the central focus of H2.

Within this study, H2 retains a depiction of killing that is neither fun, nor entertaining. In fact, it is downright brutalizing, thrusting viewers into an experience of such primal, beastial ferocity that is is difficult to not come away exhausted and breathless. These acts are displayed with Zombie’s unwavering lens, which — with all its shaking and jittering — is a main component of character experience through form. Of particular note is the utterly hellish and hospital sequence mentioned prior, which completely stuns with its sheer sadistic momentum. In these moments of violence, the world Zombie presents is distorted and frantic, inciting panic and temporary confusion before the violence can be comprehended. Then, once it is understood, the horror only elevates, as Michael’s savage nature is displayed. In addition, Michael’s inhuman grunts as he attacks further potentiate these acts of violence as honest, uncomfortable and downright ugly. Yet paradoxically, Zombie and cinematographer Brandon Trost pack every frame of 16mm film stock with such lush, stunning imagery as to render those murders beautifully horrific — or perhaps horrifically beautiful — in their own right. Still, they remain relevant to content.

Never detaching into a purely aesthetic existence, H2’s entire visual grammar is as dazzling — yet raw — as its thematic concerns are vital and biting. Backlights flood fields and craft terrifying silhouettes, accentuating dark expanses and terrible acts. Police lights are distorted until they become momentarily expressionistic, splitting a torn mask with blues and reds to visualize moral descent and decay. A face is lit so as to only show the smallest glint of the eyes, a pinprick of light in the retina, as if a replicant from Blade Runner took some form of demonic LSD. These ways in which Trost and Zombie depict horrific absurdist portraits — a demented pumpkin-head banquet to show wicked night terrors, a pit full of corpses arranged in a ghastly biblical display — is made all the more terrifying when they are supplemented with the very real, tumultuous life of Laurie.

Countering these madcap hellscapes is a horror of a different kind, those of Laurie’s tattered, disturbed visage. Catching every tick and reaction, the lens often remains of Laurie’s face; she is unable to hide her feelings from the audience, just as she has trouble containing her outbursts towards Annie. Even when only partially seen in dirty mirrors and behind unkempt hair, Laurie Strode’s internal struggle is laid achingly bare. This approach of character study through visual form is exemplified in the editing as well, notably in one small but poignant sequence. As Laurie suffers a panic attack in her psychiatrists’ office, she rushes through an explanation of her walk in town as she is triggered by sensory information around her. In response, the cuts frantically jump between images, encapsulating Laurie’s state of mind and thrusting it into the audience’s gut.

As a victim of violence two years out, Laurie is caught firmly in the grasp of PTSD, alternating between moments of teen rebel angst and deeply crippling panic, terror and confusion. Her PTSD often manifests in the form of flashbacks and hallucinatory daydreams that are all linked to her past; to the household where she sobbed as a baby, caught between an abusive stepfather and a struggling mother, all while a troubled young boy tortured animals and started his killing spree with Laurie’s family — their shared family. These traumas are buried in her subconscious, yet brought to fruition through Michael’s actions in Halloween. This toxic environment has found a living, breathing home in Michael’s head, and as he wreaks his havoc on Haddonfield again, it spreads its tendrils around Laurie. As H2 moves closer and closer to the sibling reunion Michael so desperately needs — egged on by the phantasmagorical rendering of his dead mother — Laurie’s deterioration feels like some horrible destiny.

In this way, the two primary visual conceits of H2 — the grotesquely absurd and the unbearably real — are inherently contextualized by this central struggle. And in this lies the deepest terrors of H2. These terrors stems from ideas and images and characters that are planted in reality, rendering situations horrific in a very raw form, peeled of fun and flare. Through the seriousness with which Zombie handles violence, and the ways in which he studies its lasting impact on human beings, this terror comes less from jump-scares — though there are some extremely effective and bone-rattling ones — than it does from a kind of horror that feels rooted in some innate element of human nature. It shows the primal side of a person warring with the side that goes to therapy to try and make sense of the anxieties that plague them; these anxieties that one can get caught up in which just may eat them alive. In the case of H2, these are born from tendrils of toxicity stretching out from abusive familial history, threatening to snake their ways past changes in lifestyle or even family units to grab hold tightly around the throat.

Narrative fate and visual trauma meld as a way to heighten and exemplify PTSD and its copious damaging effects, emphasizing how it is a battle not everyone is equipped to fight alone. But in Laurie’s situation, even a loving family can cause outrage and anguish, overlapping violent tendencies and threats with deeply-ingrained guilt. These moments come out most poignantly between Laurie and Annie, rendered accurately by Zombie’s words and anchored by two searing performances. In the wake of violence, loved ones can serve as horrible reminders, as much as they try to be a rock in a raging storm (echoes of the song “Love Hurts,” in both its forms between both films, are bluntly appropriate here). In this environment of tension and walking on eggshells that Laurie creates in the Brackett household, she unknowingly sparks the sort of toxicity that follows her in the form of her hulking, murderous older brother — a walking reminder. The sort of toxic environment they both come from; the labyrinthine Myers legacy. This parallel charts just how far those dark lines of trauma and abuse can extend through generations, to an almost fated existence. Sometimes, the battle isn’t won. Sometimes, you aren’t strong enough. So, when Laurie Strode steps firmly into the shoes of Angel Myers in her final living moments, it is as inevitable as it is crushing. Through this depiction, H2’s shocking violence is contextualized and never condoned, with its bleak tone standing as a reminder of just how much violence can harm — and keep harming.

With Laurie and Michael’s respective and equally deteriorating psyches, H2 beautifully and seamlessly balances the unbearably real with the obscenely macabre for narrative and thematic purpose. With this union emerges the two-horned goat vital for a brutally effective horror film and, perhaps more importantly, a searing horror commentary. Allowing his thematic fixations to be explored through form, Zombie has made a singular and wholly unique slice of cinema that is both deeply terrifying and yet consciously raging against its own genre; like the troubled teenager at its center, it hates the world it is in — yet underneath its anger, it cares so deeply about the people who inhabit it. This is the film’s open, beating heart — and around it is a relentless, raw and beautifully-shot freakshow that firmly proclaims itself as one of the best contemporary horror films put to celluloid. Where Lords of Salem stands as a feverish nightmare of Satanist propaganda, and The Devil’s Rejects reviles as a dirt-caked portrait of Americana, H2 remains a damaged orphanage for them both — one that elevates their different fixations to astounding heights and crushing depths.

Completely unshakeable, H2 is Zombie firing on all cylinders with force and grace, crafting beautifully dense images of trauma and pain. Few horror films before or since reach the simplistic brutality on display, and many fail to touch its profound and fervent examination of trauma and pain. Pushing it further into unexplored territory is its unique cinematography, detailed production design and sensory editing, all of which aid in depicting its damaged characters experiences. It is the rare film where form and content align at a time when its creator is close to formal mastery and itching for singular experimentation. The result is a deeply emotional cinematic experience with a staggeringly visceral wallop. There’s nothing quite like it.

Note: This piece most notably studies the director’s cut of Halloween II.

Michael Mazzanti (@BeTheGeese) is a writer, screenwriter and amateur photographer currently based out of Nanjing, China, where he teaches English. His film criticism has been featured regularly at The Film Stage, where he is a contributing writer. He received a BFA in Screenwriting from Temple University. Lately, he has been photographing his experiences in Nanjing and submitting his work to National Geographic’s Your Shot community. For more information, you can see his film work on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/michaelmazzanti), and follow him on Letterboxd (@RidleyScotch) and Instagram (@lionsgatepictures).