Sense of Wonder: Tired of sequels? Hollywood offers prequels, too!

Over at USA Today, Scott Bowles points out that Summer 2009 is loaded with blockbusters that feature origin stories. The motivations for this a fairly clear: Hollywood likes familiar franchises, but audiences are getting tired of sequels rehashing the same old plots. Prequels allow filmmakers to fill in the back story; more than that, an origin story also offer a chance to reboot a franchise entirely.


Consequently, this season is offering films like X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and STAR TREK, which take us back to the beginning in different ways: WOLVERINE is a genuine prequel; STAR TREK is a reboot. Even TERMINATOR SALVATION, which opened today, is a prequel of sorts: although set in the future, because of the series’ time-travel plot, it tells us the back story of John Connor and Kyle Reese, which was referenced in THE TERMINATOR (1984).
Bowles quotes Lauren Shuler Donner on her strategy for WOLVERINE:

“You have to start somewhere,” says Lauren Shuler Donner […]. “An origins story is like getting to know somebody. When you meet someone and like them, you want to know where they came from. It grounds your franchise.”

Producers credit BATMAN BEGINS with launching the current craze for franchise reboots:

Batman Begins really showed how much a back story can free you up creatively,” says Chris Aronson of 20th Century Fox, which released Wolverine. “You don’t have to confine yourself.”

This is true, but in a way I think SPIDER-MAN was the proto-type for this approach. Though not technically a reboot (unless you remember the old live-action television series), SPIDER-MAN showed what you could achieve with an origin story showing a character make the transition from normal human to superhero – which is the basic formula that BATMAN BEGINS used so well.

A young James T. Kirk watches the Starship Enterprise being built
A young James T. Kirk watches the Starship Enterprise being built

I would also add CASINO ROYALE to the list, or as I liked to call it “Bond Begins Again.”  that film was a perfect example of reinvigorating an old franchise by throwing out the old baggage and starting over like new – something that this year’s STAR TREK took to heart. Although J. J. Abrams’ film retains the old mythology, it uses a time travel plot device to create an alternate time line that will allow sequels to warp in a new direction instead of building toward story lines we already know – a problem that killed the STAR WARS prequels.
Whatever the reasons, this summer’s sequels are trying to sound less like knock-offs by avoiding numerals in their titles: ANGELS & DEMONS, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS. Only HALLOWEEN 2 is a hold-out. (Hey, Rob Zombie – how about “Halloween: Second Season” instead?)
Meanwhile, the prequels are proving potent at the box office. WOLVERINE achieved this year’s biggest opening ($85-million), and STAR TREK made a debut twice as big as any previous movie in the franchise.
At this rate can 1992: HAL’S BIRTHDAY ODYSSEY, DAWN OF THE MATRIX, PLANET OF THE APES: EVOLUTION, and THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING be far behind? Oh wait, they already did that last one…

Sense of Wonder: Halloween sequel will not go Inside

Over at Arrow in the Head, Jared Pacheco writes this odd lament over the news (via that Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the directing duo behind INSIDE, will not be helming the sequel to Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN. What’s odd about this is that Pacheco has never even seen INSIDE; his excitement over the directorial casting is based entirely on second-hand accounts of the film. “This thing has scored some very positive buzz wherever you go,” Pacheco claims, concluding from this that Maury and Bustillo are “obviously talented filmmakers.”
I think this says something about the negative impact that the Internet has had on the horror genre. The horror blogosphere is a hall of mirrors where a tiny handful of opinions are reflected back on each other unto infinity, creating an illusion of broad consensus where little if any actually exists. This consensus is magnified beyond its actual proportions until a perception is created that it represents the “horror audience” when what it really represents is the cult-gore-violence audience. Thus, last year, we had a situation wherein the horror blogosphere simply could not understand why GRINDHOUSE tanked at the box office; after all, everybody who was important loved the movie, so if it did bad, there must be something wrong with the audience, who just wouldn’t give the film a chance.
In the case of INSIDE, handful of people saw it on the festival circuit, and that handful was the sort who deliberately sought it out – in other words, not a representative sample but a group likely to be sympathetic to the film. On the basis of that, we are told that INSIDE has “positive buzz wherever you go,” ignoring our dissection of what’s wrong with the movie. Of course, if more people saw the film, there would be even more negative reaction, because it is a disappointing effort, pretty much designed to please only the gore fans. There is nothing wrong with appealing to a niche audience (not everything needs to be a bland blockbuster), but let’s not overpraise low ambitions. Maury and Bustillo are talented, but INSIDE fritters that talent away, turning what begins as an enigmatic thriller into a pointless bloodbath. This has earned accolades from a certain quarter, but it is funny to see this tiny bubble being inflated to such huge proportions that people who haven’t even seen the film are convinced of its greatness.
In effect, we have a new version of the same old problem that used to exist when a handful of snobby film critics like Bosley Crowthers were the Voice of Authority, and everyone had to either fall in line or admit they had no taste. The horror blogosphere would benefit from avoiding this group-think mode. Instead, of reflecting back the meagre consensus as if it were Established Wisdom, try challenging it with a little healthy debate.

Halloween Hororr Nights: House of Horrors

Universal Pictures is the great granddaddy of horror films, having launched the first great wave of talking fright flicks with DRACULA way back in 1931. So it is more than appropriate that the Universal’s Hollywood Studio lot should host the annual Halloween Horror Nights, a month-long celebration of the macabre season. We have a series of five videos showing off HHN’s various attractions, which include the back lot “Terror Tram Tour” and mazes based on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. First up is a walk through HOUSE OF HORRORS. This is a year-round attraction on the studio tour, but for Halloween it is ramped up with even more actors in makeup playing monsters. HOH is a sort of tour through the history of horror, featuring settings and monsters from many of Universal’s own classic movies, plus a few more modern ones.

Poking out the Eyegore Awards

A lurking ghoul from Halloween Horror Nights or a disgruntled loser at the Eyegore Awards?Universal Studios in Hollywood hosted the Eyegore Awards on Saturday night, and it was a press event in the truest sense of the word – which is to say, an event that existed primarily if not exclusively in order to get the press to show up. In fact, as the press notes clarify, the Eyegore Awards are “exclusive to Universal Studios Hollywood’s ‘Halloween Horror Nights.'” Universal was opening the crypt door on their Halloween Horror Nights that same evening; no doubt the Eyegore awards gave a little extra incentive for the media to cover the attraction.
The awards were held inside the Globe Theatre, near the Frankenstein parking structure of the studio lot. The darkened interior was dotted with tables but not nearly enough chairs, creating a standing-room only ambiance. Tucked in the corners were bogus (or were they?) displays evoking old-fashioned carnival freak shows, complete with a bearded lady, a two-headed woman, and more. A slick musical ensemble churned though up tempo versions of everything from “Tubular Bells” to the main theme from the Broadway PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
The ceremony was the soul of wit – which is to say, brief. The honorees for 2007 were Roger Corman, Patricia Arquette, Sheri Moon, Shawnee Smith, Corey Feldman, Don Mancini, and Michael Berryman, who also hosted. On a stage backed by ghoulish figures from the Halloween attraction (including SCARFACE’s Tony Montana, complete with his “Little Friend”), Berryman got things going by joking that the Eyegore statue was vaguely familiar, like a person whose face you recognize even if you do not remember the name (words that could apply very well to himself).

Don Mancini generated some laughter when he turned his acceptance speech into a tongue-in-cheek political tirade, asserting that the world would be better off if Jason, Chucky, and Hannibal Lecter ruled the world, because their particular brand of homicidal behavior was so much more limited in scope than that practised by current world leaders. He also apologized for Chucky’s absence, explaining that the killer doll was busy working at Knott’s Scary Farm (actually, Chucky’s Insult Emporium is part of the Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, not the Knott’s Halloween Haunt).
Shawnee Smith earned even bigger laughs. After a brief bump and grind directed at the musicians (“You gotta give the band some love”), she admitted to being terrified of the made-up ghouls lurking around the park that night, claimed she could not sit through her own SAW movies, and joked that she would not be able to keep her Eyegore award statue in her room with her.
Both Corman and Arquette were no-shows. Arquette’s brother, David, accepted for her. Dressed in  a Zorro outfit, he ruefully looked around the room and noted that he was not at a costume party. (Like most Halloween attractions, Universal likes only their paid monsters – not their customers – to be dressed for the season.) He took the opportunity to plug his own movie THE TRIPPER and said that Patricia would like to dedicate her award to Bela Lugosi for “putting fishhooks up his nose.” (David was clearly confusing the actor who played Dracula with Lon Chaney, the silent era “Man of a Thousand Faces,” who was famous for the painful lengths he would go to create monstrous makeups. Although no fishhooks were actually used, he did distort his nose quite a bit for his Phantom of the Opera makeup.)
Corman was reportedly lost in traffic, so presenter Rob Zombie accepted the award for him. In the space of a few minutes, he managed to equate being cheap with “genius” no less than three times and told a funny story about Corman being unable to afford extras for a concert scene featuring the Ramones in the movie ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL – so Corman charged people to attend, as if it were a real concert. In effect, the extras paid to be in the movie.
After the ceremony, the band struck up the tunes again, while the press moved in to try to get interviews with the honorees. As I drifted out toward the Universal back lot, to enjoy the scares being provided live that night in mazes based on movies featuring Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface, I could not help singing a silent lament for the state of the horror movie genre. Long ignored by respectable organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, horror movies don’t get no respect, so any opportunity to give them the recognition they deserve is a welcome one. However, the value of an award is diluted when too many are given out and the criteria for winning are not clear.
Corman (who produced and directed one of the greatest horror films ever made, 1964’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) has certainly earned any award that comes his way, and Berryman (who was so memorable in the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES) has had such a long career as a character actor that he deserves some kind of recognition. Mancini created Chucky in CHILD’S PLAY – a B-list horror icon at best – but I suppose the success of the long-running franchise warrants acknowledgement.
The other honorees, however talented, don’t have very extensive genre resumes. Shawnee Smith starred in the 1988 remake of THE BLOB before disappearing off the map and then re-emerging in the SAW films. Corey Feldman was in a couple of FRIDAY THE 13TH films and THE LOST BOYS before disappearing off the map and re-emerging for a LOST BOYS sequel, currently in production. Sheri Moon has done a bunch of music videos and a few films directed by her husband Rob Zombie. Patricia Arquette battled  Freddy Kruger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS and saw visions on TV’s MEDIUM. Professional performers everyone, but not icons of the genre in the tradition of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee.

Corey Feldman at center, David Arquette at right

I suppose there is nothing wrong with a studio-run awards show whose voting procedures and judges (if any) are entirely unknown; after all, it is just part of the great tradition of Hollywood hype that keeps the dream factory alive. But it would be nice if there was more attention to making the awards stand for something more than an excuse to get some celebrities to show up (a prerequisite for getting the press to show up). Without too much more effort, it should be possible to focus more on the genre specialists, who devote most or all of their careers to horror, not those who dip their toe in the water from time to time. Admittedly, the Eyegore awards are just for fun, and I’m taking things too seriously, but isn’t that part of the fun of being a horror fan – taking things too seriously?

Behind the Scenes of Halloween Horror Nights with John Murdy

Universal Studios Hollywood launches their 2007 Halloween Horror Nights this evening. The event will kick off at 7:30pm with the Eyegore Awards ceremony. Guests include producer-director Roger Corman, (TALES OF TERROR), actress Patricia Arquette (MEDIUM), actress Sherri Moon (HALLOWEEN, actress Shawnee Smith (SAW), writer-director-producer Don Mancini (BRIDE OF CHUCKY), and rocker-director Rob Zombie (HALLOWEEN).

Universal Studios resumed their annual Halloween presentation last year, after taking six years off. 2006 was short on the number of special attractions, even if those attractions were impressive in scale. 2007 promises to up the ante, including new mazes based on Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface, in addition to the classic Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman) who will be haunting the House of Horrors maze.
Earlier this week, we spoke with Universal creative director John Murdy, the mastermind behind the Halloween Horror Nights presentation. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Universal has had an erratic history with Halloween, which is odd considering their connection with the horror genre, going back to classic movies in the 1930s. Why have they been off the Halloween band wagon for so long?
JOHN MURDY: We’re the studio that invented horror movies, pretty much. Sure, you can point to the German Expressionist films in the [1920 and 1920s], but really it starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925 and the Golden Age of Universal horror films, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE WOLFMAN, etc. So that stuff is in our blood; I mean, this is a studio founded on horror. We did stop doing Halloween Horror Nights for a number of years.  I wasn’t actually involved in those earlier events, so I don’t really know why they stopped, except that it’s a major, huge, incredibly expensive production.
But last year…I came back to Hollywood – because I had been based in Florida – with one goal: to bring Halloween back. Because I love Halloween, and I grew up in this movie studio. Last year, was basically a baby step to get us back in the business, like putting your toe in the water to see if it would work. The good news for us was we exceeded our wildest dreams attendance-wise,  so now it’s time to step it up and take it to an entirely new level. That’s what we’re doing with the relationship with New Line Cinema, having these attractions for NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Considering the legacy that Universal has in the realm of classic movie monsters, why did you go outside the studio vault to subcontract other monsters for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights?
JOHN MURDY: I like the term “subcontract other monsters”! Well, like I said, Universal is the studio that horror movies, and we own classic horror – that’s just a given. I think of New Line Cinema, say from – well, depending on whether you’re talking about TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but really NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, because they call New Line “the House that Freddy Built” – from that point on, they really had a handle on the slasher film era of modern horror icons. We and our sister park in Florida had been talking about this for a long time, that while we have all these great horror movie brands, and we certainly use them and will continue to use them – we use them this year in Halloween Horror Nights – there was something very attractive to us about these three films in particular: FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETA, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. They fit in well with our horror legacy. They are monsters. They kind of are the modern-day equivalent of [our] characters.
New Line up to this year has never allowed that; they have never licensed their characters to something in the Halloween industry. There’s a reason for that: they’re very protective of their characters. There’s a reason there’s eleven FRIDAY THE 13TH movies – you know, they’ve been around so long, and they’re very successful and have a rabid fan base, a very protective fan base. So we needed to convince New Line that, if anybody was going to do this, we could do this, and we could do it movie-quality, because we’re Universal. That’s exactly what we’ve done.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You said you were more than satisfied with the attendance for the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights. Were there things about the presentation that did not satisfy you – areas where you saw room for improvement?
JOHN MURDY: Absolutely lessons learned. People coming Halloween, they want to go to mazes; they want to go to haunted attractions. I don’t think we had enough last year, so that’s one of the major deals with this year. Each of these New Line properties have their own attraction. We also have a new attraction called Universal’s House of Horrors, which is about an eleven-minute walk-through that encompasses the entire world of Universal Horror movies from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA up through PSYCHO to CHILD’s PLAY.
And of course we have the Terror Tram. When you talk about lessons learned, I look back on the Terror Tram as a great example of that. The truth is we had never done that before. We had never let 175 people every two minutes get off the tram and walk through our movie studio – through our famed back lot. We were probably a little conservative in terms of the path, of the barricades, because we really didn’t know what people would do, in all honesty. Would they go crazy and try to run all over the back lot. What we saw – and we adjusted last year, from week to week, on the fly – is if you take alcohol out of the equation (we don’t serve alcohol during Halloween, and that was a conscious decision), it’s a much safer and more enjoyable experience for everybody. The guests were actually really cool and really respective of the Bates Motel and the Psycho House, so this year we said, “Okay, what can we do to step it up? This is no walk-by the War of the Worlds plane crash set.  Let’s take them into it. Let’s take them into the set itself. Let’s go in between the plane and the wing. Let’s find a way to do that.”
So absolutely there were lessons learned from doing it last year and getting back into the industry, and you apply them. Also, there’s a million websites out there; there’s a lot of blogs. We read all of that. As designers, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, we read it all, and then we try to give our fans what they want.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: I enjoyed the Halloween Horror Nights presentation last year, but I had not been on the Universal Studios tour for a long time. The scale of something like the back lot tour, with zombies lurking amidst the plane crash, was just something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. I got the impression from other people that what they saw at Halloween was not that different from what they had seen when visiting the park earlier in the year. You know, “the plane crash  from WAR OF THE WORLDS is there all year, and they just added some zombies.” And the House of Horrors was basically Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula.
JOHN MURDY: In the case of Van Helsing, that’s a very legitimate criticism. What’s different this year with that attraction is I changed that to Universal’s House of Horrors back in April. I designed it with an eye toward Halloween. As a baseline, on a normal day, we have anywhere from eight to ten characters in that attraction. There are twenty-five – at a minimum – for Halloween. That attraction was designed, whereas Van Helsing wasn’t, to go from scene to scene of different movies. That was done not only for the enjoyment of our day guests (and it has gotten incredible ratings from our day guests – they love it), but we were also thinking about Halloween while we were designing it, so we could create opportunities to dramatically amp it up for Halloween.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: So it’s not a year-round attraction with the capacity to expand for Halloween.
JOHN MURDY: Absolutely. And then of course, the big event is the New Line characters, and each one has their own attraction. Those you can only see during Halloween.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: So how different will House of Horrors be from what we saw last year at Halloween?
JOHN MURDY: Well, you wouldn’t have walked through it last year; you would have walked through Van Helsing. [Technically, during the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights, a temporary banner was hanging up over the Van Helsing entrance that identified the attraction as “Universal’s House of Horrors.] Dramatically different. With House of Horrors, what I wanted to do was – I’m a huge fan of our horror franchise here at Universal, particularly our classic horror films, and I felt we had never really given them their fair shake. Sure, we have Frankenstein as a character in the park, but these movies – there’s a reason they’ve been around seventy-five, seventy-six years and are still pop culture icons. That’s because they’re classic, and classic is timeless.  I’m amazed all the time at how well known these films are. Sometimes people think, “Oh, it’s an old movie from the ’30s!” I was in the park only two days ago, and this little six-year-old kid came up to me with her dad and said, “Where’s Dracula? I want to meet Dracula!” I looked at her dad and said, “Dracula?” Her dad said, “Yeah, it’s her favorite movie.” I said, “Bela Lugosi, 1931, right?” He said, “Right, she must meet Dracula.” So these things have transcended being mere movies; they are part of the culture.
What was exciting about House of Horrors was: in the past, we’ve taken those things, and [emphasized] just one movie – whatever the flavor of the month is. What I wanted to do was take the entire brand of Universal Horror and do an homage to everything: Dracula, Frankenstein, the fruit cellar from PSYCHO, Chucky’s toy factory from CHILD’S PLAY. So modern and classic are all together, and each room you go into a different movie basically. So it’s not just one thing. And like I said, it was designed so that we could bring in additional characters for Halloween that you haven’t seen in House of Horrors before. That’s really cool; that’s been the fun part of the project.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: That’s interesting. If you got to (I’ll mention the competition) Knott’s Scary Farm, they’ll do a maze devoted to a single movie, like THE GRUDGE or BEOWULF. Because they’re movie-based, they seem more appropriate to Universal, but you’re not doing mazes devoted to a single film; you’re doing the History of Universal Horror. And the Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface mazes are about the characters, not individuals films.
JOHN MURDY: No, particularly with New Line, the beautiful thing about that is that you have so much to draw from. Think of how many FRIDAY THE 13TH movies there have been. You distill that down to the greatest scenes, the greatest kills, and you have so much to draw from. The same thing with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: how many dream sequences and nightmares have there been in those films? So you really get to pick and choose the best of the best, and it all basically comes down to the fans. We spend an awful lot of time looking at the fan websites, asking “What is their favorite scene from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or what is their favorite kill from FRIDAY THE 13TH,” and then we give it to them, straight up!
The environments are a huge part of it. With Jason, the idea of going through the woods at night to Camp Crystal Lake – that’s what we’ve done; we’ve created that. We created the camp; we created the woods. You’re going to go back and forth, outside and inside. It’s incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is the same thing. We set that in the asylum where Freddy was born, but we venture out of that into the dream world, so we hit the Roach Motel, that classic scene from the series that fans always talk about. And of course we have the Boiler Room and the baby carriage from [A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE] DREAM CHILD. All those things are there.
For THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you look at that house from the recent films that New Line has done, the Hewitt House – that big, horribly decayed mansion, and we’re like, “Okay, let’s build it; let’s build the whole house! Let’s take you through the whole damn house and then take you through the meat factory!”

So we really try to hit all those environments that people love on the silver screen, but they’ve only seen it on the silver screen; they’ve never walked through it. The sets alone for these attractions are just breath-taking, because it’s movie-quality. That’s what we strive for – everything down to the tiniest prop and piece of set decor. We have thousands of pictures of these films, and working hand in hand with New Line, who are very, very into their franchises – and so are we. We were fans before we ever had this arrangement; I was going to their films when I was in high school, and beyond. So we paid enormous attention to detail, special effects, full sensory experience, preying on everything psychologically we could prey on – from sense of smell to things touching you – we tried to hit it all.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Being Universal Studios, you’re obviously bringing that level of film craftsmanship to Halloween Horror Nights, but one way in which it is radically different is that movies can be controlled down to the tiniest detail with retakes.
JOHN MURDY: Yeah, there’s no retakes!
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Not just no retakes. You have a lot of actors out there, and at some point you have to turn them loose.
JOHN MURDY: Hundreds of them! I personally train every single one. I’m not kidding! There’s a reason for that. The vision obviously comes from the Creative Director, but that is… I always start my speech to the actors the same way: “Up to the point we bring you in, we’ve created the back drop, but you are the show; you have to bring it to life.” I think the best way to do that is let them hear it from the horses mouth and let me show them every step of the way. You know: “Jason leads with his head. That’s the way he moves – his head first and then the body.” There are certain things about these characters that you learn by reading interviews with the actors who played them. Jason never runs. There’s no reason for him to run; he’s going to catch up with whoever he’s after. So we take this wealth of knowledge from the films and the people who have played them previously, and try to translate that to the actors.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How scripted is it, and how much leeway do the actors have?
JOHN MURDY: You know, we try to listen… It’s all figured out down to the tinest detail, but once you get that down, we do listen to our actors, and sometimes they come up with great ideas. There was one the other night on FRIDAY THE 13TH that I did not write. I came through as the Creative Director and thought, “What’s that? Somebody being creative!” But it was good creative. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t think of that, but that’s bitchin’!” Actors will always have comments, because that’s the nature of being an actor. You’re constantly on the quest to find your – it’s funny to say – you motivation. While your motivation on Halloween might be very simply – to scare people – there are a million ways to do it. Hopefully, we have that variety. Working with these people and spending that much time with them, you get to know every single one of them. When you have that many creative people in one spot, ideas inevitably come up, and it would be really arrogant for us not to listen to them. So we really do try to listen to our actors. There’s a scene I’m going to change tonight because an actor had a really cool idea.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: What’s the supply of actors like for Halloween? There is such a proliferation of these haunts that it seems a lot of these people would get snapped up by the competition.
JOHN MURDY: We’re doing great! Actually, it was a big concern going in: could we find all these actors? But we have a wait list right now – a fairly extensive one, actually – because as word’s gotten out…I think for people who are fans of these films the chance to play Jason or Freddy or Leatherface is a dream come true. So we have a list of people waiting in the wings in case somebody decides they don’t want to do it, so we’re in a good position that way. Plus, we pay better than anyone else!
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: The Halloween Season is becoming bigger and bigger…
JOHN MURDY: Second only to Christmas in retail sales.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: With all the competition out there from places like Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest, the Queen Mary Shipwreck, and the Knott’s Halloween Haunt, what can Universal offer these other places can’t?
JOHN MURDY: Movie quality. It’s pretty simple. We’re the studio that invented horror movies; we do horror better than anybody else. The fact that there’s all these other events out there – I think it’s great. I love Halloween; I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, going trick-or-treating for the very first time. The fact that there is so much competition is good for Halloween in general. I’m glad there’s all that competition out there, because there should be. It’s a unique, mostly American phenomenon, even though it’s roots are in the old world. I think it’s wonderful how it’s grown year after year.

The two thing that we do differently… Nobody goes to the pains of detail that we do to deliver on a movie-quality experience to our guests – it really is like living a horror movie when you walk through these attractions. The other thing is our back lot. Aside from Halloween in general, back lots are pretty rare these days. The Universal back lot that has been there since 1915, where all of these famous horror movies have been filmed, is just something that nobody else has. To be able to take our guests down there at night, and let them get off [the tram], and walk through the most famous horror movie sets in history, that are still standing, that are the originals… you know, when we were lighting the Psycho House last night, there’s a moment when you go, “Oh my god! This is the Psycho House – and it’s the same one from 1960 when the film came out but 1959 when they filmed it.” To be able to bring that to life – nobody can do that. Only Universal can do that, and that’s what makes us different.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: This may be premature, but as deadlines arrive, ideas probably fall by the wayside – things you just don’t have time to get done this year. So I’m wondering: in your mind, are you already looking toward next year, to do the things you couldn’t do this year?
JOHN MURDY: Oh yeah. I walked past something yesterday. It was a character idea, and I thought, “Oh, I gotta do that next year!” Your mind is constantly going, and you think of things – “God, that’s a great idea!” – but at some point you have to say, “I’ll save that for next year; let’s just get this year done!” It’s just such a massive production; it’s ridiculous how much work is involved in bringing something like this to life. But yeah, you’re always thinking into the future; at some point you have to stop yourself and focus on right now. I’m really exciting to show the public what we got for them this year. I don’t think they’ve seen anything like these New Line attractions.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Hopefully, this means Universal will be in the Halloween business for years to come.
JOHN MURDY: I think so!

Halloween (2007)

It was with a certain trepidation that I attended an advance screening of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN in Hollywood last night (“advance” being a relative term – the film opened in the theatre at midnight). The charm of John Carpenter’s original 1978 film mostly eludes me, and there is little about Zombie’s career that would have led me to think he could do anything interesting with the subject. Still, hope springs eternal, so I went to check it out.
To pump up the already eager fans in the audience, Tyler Mane – the new Michael Myers – put in a pre-show appearance, autographing posters from the film. Then radio DJ Leon Quinones (who hosts something called “The Film Freak Show” on 97.1 FM) took the microphone and conducted a brief interview, during which we learned.

  • No one from the original HALLOWEEN was involved with the remake.
  • The film would be filled with “buckets of blood.”
  • Tyler Mane’s children would not be allowed to see the film “for a very long time.”
  •  Mane is getting married this weekend (“although I don’t know who the hell would want to marry Michael Myers!”).

Throughout this exchange, Quinones indulged in a stream of rabble rousing, dropping names (“Rob Zombie personally told me…”), promising that the film would terrify viewers (even though he had not seen it yet), and announcing several times, “Fuck the critics – this is for fans!” He exhorted the crowd to text message all their friends immediately after the film, recommending that they see it. By the time the lights finally went down, one couldn’t help wondering why everyone was so desperate to drum up excitement – where they afraid the film itself couldn’t do it on its own?
Once the film started, it immediately became apparent why there might be concern. For reasons best known to himself, Zombie opted to turn the first part of his remake into “The Origin of Michael Myers” – an unnecessarily lengthy section that takes the brief prologue from the original and expands it into an entire first act. Rather like Peter Jackson when remaking KING KONG, Zombie seems to have thought long and hard about everything he did not see in 1978, and he seems determined to put all those thoughts up on the screen, regardless of how tedious.

Zombie loves to wallow in white trash tawdriness, as if that will somehow explain why Michael Myers became the fearsome serial killer icon. We learn that his step-father was a drunken bum; his sister was a slut; kids beat him up at school; and his mother was a stripper (although, ironically, Sheri Moon Zombie, who plays the part, is one of the few actresses who does not have to expose her nipples – it pays to be close to the director). Later, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) will declare to a lecture audience that this background was the psychological equivalent of a “perfect storm” that led to homicidal madness, but what we see is more annoying than horrifying, and we suspect the most dire result would probably be growing up to become Marilyn Manson, not a monster.
When Michael finally blows his stack, the effect is less horror than relief – at last the movie is going to stop treading water and get moving. As if to pay back the audience for the lengthy build-up, Zombie stages what amounts to a massacre, but the effect is somewhat undermined by the fact that Daeg Faerch (who plays Michael as a ten-year-old) looks too small and weak to be an effective killing machine (and his blank-faced non-expression, meant to convey psychopathic evil, is simply a blank-faced non-expression).  By the time the whole thing is over, you’re starting to feel as if you have sat through an entire movie, and you’re wondering what’s left to fill up the rest of the running time. The answer: not much.
We get to see Michael in therapy with Dr. Loomis,  receiving weekly visits from his mom, who eventually blows her brains out after seeing her son stab a nurse to death. (This is one of those dim-bulb movies where mental health care professionals are naive morons treating the mass-murdering Michael as if he were merely a mildly troubled youth. In what is clearly a sop to the hardcore horror hounds in the audience, the nurse turns her back on Michael for no other reason than to give him an opportunity to kill her.)
Flashing forward to Halloween night fifteen years later, Michael escapes from the mental asylum in a none-too-convincingly staged scene. (Zombie relies on shakey camera angles and jagged editing to hide the fact that he cannot come up with a credible way for Michael to overpower his guards.) After killing a trucker in a restroom (DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Ken Foree), Michael steals his clothes and heads back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, and Zombie finally – finally – catches up with Carpenter, who covered the same territory in a few minutes.
From this point on, the remake more or less parallels the original (in highly condensed form), and the familiar situations do generate a reasonable amount of suspense, but the effect is muted by our over-familiarity with the masked killer. The weakness of Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN was that Michael was supposed to be an incarnation of evil – literally the Boogeyman – but we knew he was just a crazy guy in a William Shatner mask. The film might have been better off if we had not known Michael at all, but at least he was mysterious enough so that viewers could set aside their awareness of him as a person and accept him as the unkillable “Shape” (as he was listed in the credits). Zombie has compounded the problem, turning Michael pretty much into a pathetic freak who would probably spend his days locked in his room (or his cell), jerking off to splatter movies; we never believe this pudgy kid could grow up to become Tyler Mane, let alone a near-supernatural force (who is likened at one point to the Anti-Christ).
Michael Myers, up to the same old tricksUnable (or unwilling) to imbue a sense of the uncanny into Michael, Zombie opts for portraying him as a human tank who can easily smash through doors and walls. He comes across less like the Boogeyman and more like a brutal killing machine; in effect, he is much closer to Jason Voorhees than the old Michael Myers, and the overall aesthetic of this HALLOWEEN is a new-millennium update of FRIDAY THE 13TH splatter-horror.
The result is monotonous and repetitious. The first act is almost an overture that establishes the themes and motifs, but Zombie hasn’t the skill to develop them; he just repeats them with a bigger, older Michael. Perhaps this is meant to convey a ritualistic aspect to Michael, who apparently likes his victims to die painfully slow deaths, but it comes across like a lack of directorial imagination, with the same kind of action shown over and over again. (On at least three separate occasions, Michael stabs/bludgeons/beats a victim, who is then allowed to crawl slowly away while bleeding all over the floor – before Michael bothers to catch up and deliver the coup de grace.)
And boy, those death blows are a long time coming.  Like his on-screen serial killer, Zombie doesn’t want the violence to end too soon. He refuses to build a scene to a climax and move on; over and over again, long after he has reached a point where he can hit the audience with a shock and then cut away, Zombie extends the death scenes with extra blows, extra stabbings, extra everything. In a demented way, HALLOWEEN starts to feel like a musical, wherein the story stops at regular intervals for another song-and-dance routine; unfortunately, the choreogrpahy here is too limited to justify the copious screentime. Editing in five more whacks with a blunt instrument does not make the scene scarier; it simply dulls the shock past the point where it ceases to be scary.
Fortunately, there is a break in the monotony when Michael finally sets his sights on Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton). We don’t particularly care what happens to her or really identify with her as the film’s protagonist, because, in truth, Michael is the film’s real protagonist – the evil anti-hero whose antics are the sole draw. No, the only thing Laurie has going for her is that, because she is the “final girl,” Michael cannot simply kill her and move on; there has to be an extended cat-and-mouse game, which adds a badly needed change of pace to the movie’s otherwise mechanical rhythms.
To justify Michael’s focus on Laurie, the script utilizes an element that was introduced not in HALLOWEEN but in the first sequel HALLOWEEN II: Laurie is Michael’s baby sister. We’re not supposed to wonder how he recognizes her as a young adult or tracks her down since she has been adopted, under a new family name. We’re also not supposed to ask why, if she is his real target, he wastes time killing so many others, instead of going after her directly. (There is just a trace of a hint that Michael uses the wounded Annie Brackett [Danielle Harris] as bait to lure Laurie to him, but such a subtle tactic seems out of character for someone whose standard operating procedure is to jump up out of nowhere and start stabbing.)
Rather like the ending of HALLOWEEN H20, the film has a brief moment of Michael trying to generate a little family feeling with his sibling, but the effort goes again unrewarded. This time, Laurie merely stabs him instead of cutting off his head, thus allowing the confrontation to go on for another ten or fifteen minutes. By the time the film does finally wind down, it has pretty much run out of climaxes; rather than a triumphant crescendo, it fades out, with the heroine’s final screams covering the lack of any screaming from the audience.
Giving the devil his due, Zombie does manage to make HALLOWEEN grimly effective at times. Tyler Mane cuts an imposing figure as Michael Myers, and we do live in dread of the next time he will pop up and slice another victim. Zombie’s constant use of long lenses, close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are crude attempts to jack up action that is not staged particularly well, but combination of bloody violence and trashy sex (with lots of T&A) captures the old grindhouse vibe much more than GRINDHOUSE (to which Zombie contributed a faux trailer, WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S.).
This approach to horror is too blunt to warrant much attention, but there are moments when it strikes a nerve, even if accidentally. Probably the film’s most disturbing sequence involves the brutalization of Danielle Harris’ character, but the effect has little to do with the on-screen drama. Rather, it’s strange to contemplate that the cute little girl from HALLOWEEN 4 and 5 is now old enough to be treated like typical fodder for a slasher film, stripped to the waist and beaten bloody so that we can see lovely rivers of blood coursing between her naked breasts. Yeah, you’ve come a long way, baby!
Occasionally, something like an idea floats briefly across the screen even if they are not developed (during a lecture, Dr. Loomis raves on about the eyes of evil – meaning Michael – while the camera focuses on Loomis’ eyes, implying that his words are more self-revalatory than he realizes, but it’s a one-shot moment, introduced and then dropped). There is also an occasional flash of humor (among the films the characters watch on television, is WHITE ZOMBIE with Bela Lugosi, which inspired the name for Zombie’s old rock group).
The new cast is a mixed bag. The high school girls are generic, and Compton’s characterization seems almost deliberately crafted to be bland without turning her into the archetype that Jamie Lee Curtis became in the original. It’s fun to see familiar genre faces like Richard Lynch, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif, Dee Wallace, and many others walking on screen for a few moments (although all of them deserve better). Best of all is Danny Trejo, who inspired the best line heard in the theatre last night – unfortunately, not on the soundtrack: When he meets his fate at the hands of Michael, someone in the audience shouted, “You can’t kill Machete!” (a reference to Trejo’s appearance as the titular character in the faux trailer at the beginning of GRINDHOUSE).
Malcolm McDowell as Dr. LoomisMalcolm McDowell almost makes something out of the Loomis character (who was more or less just a mouthpiece in the original, raving unconvincingly about “evil”). In a nice touch, Loomis actually looks better after fifteen years have passed, having abandoned his long hair and casual attire (which suggested a man trying – and failing – to look young) for a more dignified, scholarly demeanor. Unlike Donald Pleasence, McDowell conveys a continued concern for Michael and a sense of regret at having failed him (although it’s hard to imagine any sense in which Loomis “failed”). In a film that has little higher aspiration beyond providing a body count, he almost becomes a tragic character, and his fate is treated in an atypically discrete manner, suggesting that someone, somewhere realized it might not be too much fun watching something horrible happen to someone you like.
Even more than the 1978 version (which was conceived under the title “The Baby Sitter Murders” and tossed in Halloween as an afterthought), Zombie’s remake fails to live up to its title. The holiday barely registers: it provides little in the way of spooky atmosphere, and it does not seem particularly crucial to the Michael psychology (he likes wearing masks all year round anyway). By focusing on Michael – in effect, making the film his life story – Zombie strays even further away from the Halloween ambience, and one suspects he would have been more happy had the film been titled “Michael Myers – The Devil’s Ultimate Reject.”
In any case, the primed and eager Hollywood audience sat through the film mostly in silence, seldom screaming – although there were occasional whispers of “Nice!’ over particularly brutal moments. At the end, they awarded the film with a big round of applause, and several were eager to wax enthusiastically for the guy taking a survey in the lobby. What – if any – lesson to draw from this, I’m not sure. The new HALLOWEEN has little to recommend it on its own terms. It’s a bit like hearing a recording artist cover a familiar tune; it doesn’t replace the original, but you’re curious to hear what the new guy did with the standard classic. In this case, the reinterpretation consists mostly of pumping up the volume of the percussion as loud as possible in order to cover the off-key singing. Little or nothing has been done to reach the ears of an audience not pre-disposed to like the film. The theory here seems to be that success as an artist is not a matter of honing your craft or having something new and interesting to say; it’s just a matter of finding an audience that wants to listen to you, no matter what. Personally, I think it’s a bloody shame that this film is getting national distribution, while Adam Green’s far superior, far scarier HATCHET is doomed to a limited platform release on its way to home video.
HALLOWEEN (Dimension, 2007). Written and directed by Rob Zombie, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Richard Lynch, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Danny Trejo, Bill Moseley, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, Sybil Danning. Mickey Dolenz, Sid Haig.

Sense of Wonder: Can Halloween save Horror?

While posting some new pics from Rob Zombie’s upcoming HALLOWEEN remake, Lucius Gore at E-Splatter.Com opines that the future of the horror genre is riding on the box office performance of the film when it opens on August 31. Lucius points to the poor performance of HOSTEL PART II, 28 WEEKS LATER, and GRINDHOUSE as evidence that, if HALLOWEEN likewise bombs, horror will descend into “the moribund direct-to-video-only mess that it was in throughout the first half of the 1990s.”
Though I have no doubt that a certain weight of expectations is riding on the shoulders of HALLOWEEN, I think Lucius is a bit off the mark with this analysis, which is premised on the idea that these are all really good films that tanked for mysterious reasons, perhaps a “paradigm shift” in our culture.
GRINDHOUSE was, frankly, a dud whose box office failure was not only utterly deserved but also, at least in retrospect, completely predictable. It was a rehash of movies that were never terribly popular to begin with. HOSTEL PART II and 28 WEEKS LATER are both sequels to movies that were successes only in terms relative to their costs. HALLOWEEN is a remake of a film that launched a franchise that long since wore out its welcome.

In short, they’re rehashed horror at best; even if well done, it’s just the same old stuff we’ve seen before. Is this really the best the genre has to offer? And if the answer is yes, should we despair if the box office kills off the current trend?
Truly, there is little mystery as to why audiences would not turn out in droves for these movies – these are films that were not necessarily designed to appeal to audiences. They were made by and for hardcore gore-hounds. They’re the equivalent of an initiation-hazing ceremony: you’re not supposed to be entertained; you’re supposed to be proud that you could stand the acid test while those around you were chickening out and hiding their eyes.
Consequently, it seems a bit of a stretch to blame the audience, not the films themselves for the poor box office results. If HALLOWEEN and/or SAW IV bombs like the rest of the recent horror films, it will not be the death of the genre; it will merely be the death of the current “splat-pack” style – which could make it one of the briefest trends in the history of cinema, on par with the brief 1953 craze for 3D.
Fortunately, “horror” and “splat-pack” are not interchangeable terms. The later is a sub-set of the former. If the splat-pack kids have to be sent home for failing to entertain audiences, there will be others waiting in the wings to send the genre in some new direction. In a sense, the failure of HALLOWEEN might even be a good thing: if reliable gambits like remakes and sequels no longer work; Hollywood might be forced to try some creativity.
Out with the old, in with the new, I always say.