Posted in Film, Writing

Why Less is Always More in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review

When I walked into Rob Zombie’s “re-imagining” of Halloween back in August 2007, I didn’t have the highest of expectations. First of all, the original Halloween holds a special place in my heart — it’s my favorite horror movie, and it’s a film that more so than maybe any other has inspired me creatively. It is the perfect horror film, a mesmerizing, gore-free exercise in suspense. Second of all, horror remakes almost never work. They either go in the direction of sticking too close to the original, like Gus Van Sant’s pointless Psycho re-make or that horrendous re-make of The Omen. Or they go in the direction of trying something completely different, like Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead re-make, which was better but still lacking the zest of George Romero’s original. Third of all, the studio released it on Labor Day weekend, a time when studios typically dump their bad apples. The hopes were not high.

But there was a bright light at the end of the tunnel. The most positive thing going for this movie was that it was written and directed by Rob Zombie. While not a great director by any means, his House of 1000 Corpses was a lot of fun, and his follow-up The Devil’s Rejects was a near-brilliant horror movie that is one of the better genre films of the 2000s. The man knows how to make an entertaining and grisly movie. He has seemed to be fairly humble in his interviews, paying a lot of respect to the original Halloween, and making it seem like he was going to make the film his own, while at the same time not change too much of the material. Also, I was just excited to be seeing a Halloween movie again. 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection wasn’t one of the finest chapters of the franchise, so I was excited to see, at the very least, a new take on the Halloween saga. The first film will always stand alone as a genre masterpiece; everything that comes after could never diminish that.

Well, thank God that’s true, because the 2007 Halloween wasn’t just bad, it was shockingly bad, and offensive to fans of the series. I didn’t expect a great movie. But I was shocked to see a classic story so mutilated in its new vision. Why is this movie so terrible? Let me count the ways… The horrendous acting. The one-dimensional characters. The laughable set-up. The hurried pace. The frantic editing. The tighter than tight close-up shots. The overly brutal killings. The never-ending climax. The ridiculous final scene.

It’s as if Zombie set out to make a bad movie. While there is some stuff in the first thirty minutes that works well enough, I suppose, he can’t possibly think any of the later material set in Haddonfield is any good. It’s all so poorly done that I may rank this movie at the absolute bottom of the Halloween series, yes even lower than the hated sixth installment The Curse of Michael Myers, and lower than the underrated Myers-less third installment Season of the Witch. It’s the first installment that I never wanted to see again, and that’s saying a lot.

The biggest mistake Zombie made is the Catch-22 of remakes. He made the movie completely his own, and that is inherently the big problem of the movie. Zombie made another movie in the style of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, and it’s distracting from beginning to end. So while it was noble for him to try something different, and not surrender to doing a shot-for-shot remake, he forgot to stay true to the spirit of the original. A remake works when it’s different enough to feel like a new movie but remains faithful to the original in some kind of way. If the writer and/or director don’t want to remain faithful to the original and want to make the new movie a completely new vision, then they should do so. The problem with this film was that Zombie brought his signature style to the movie yet ripped off almost everything from the original. It’s as if Zombie walked up to John Carpenter, shook his hand, and then spit him in the face.

Of course Zombie had to expand on the Halloween mythology by adding bits and pieces to the remakes. For example, he tells us how Michael got the mask. He tells us why he feels a connection to his younger sister Laurie. He tells us why he is who is, in a sense. All these set-ups are nothing short of laughable. Zombie made this Michael Myers the biggest, the most intimidating, the most ferocious Michael yet, but then he gives him a soft side in which Michael yearns for his younger sister, and ultimately neither side works. You want to be scared of Michael, but he’s such a physical force in this, there’s no hope for any of his victims. And the soft side of him comes so far out of left field that it feels like a re-shoot done soon before the film’s release.

The distractions are endless. The most distracting element in the movie is the camera-work. I put my arms up in the air in frustration many times throughout the movie because I couldn’t figure out what was happening on the screen. Many of the death scenes are so frantically filmed that it’s hard to discern exactly what Michael is doing to the victim. There can be a hypersensitive style to a death scene, but letting action play out in a way that the audience can follow the scene is absolutely essential. It’d be one thing if Zombie did this just once, maybe twice, but it’s a headache-inducing style used throughout the entire movie.

The brutality of Michael’s murders is also incredibly over-the-top and disgusting to the point of absurdity. I wanted to have fun at this movie, just as I’ve had at every other Halloween movie. This re-make isn’t even fun — not for a minute. It’s not fun because the brutality of the slayings is so heinous that any joy drains from the screen. Forget about audience participation — there’s none to be had here. The murders in the original are fun because they’re implied and done with a sense of the whole less-is-more technique. Zombie thinks it’s more effective to show everything, in the most possible shocking way.

Finally, Zombie uses a lot of character actors from The Devil’s Rejects in this. Sheri Moon Zombie does an all right job playing young Michael’s mom, and that’s fine, I guess, but actors from Devil’s Rejects keep popping up throughout the movie. Every few minutes, I’d say, “oh look it’s that actor, oh and that actor.” It should’ve been a brand new cast.

Speaking of the actors, they were mostly all wrong for their roles. The best pick for the movie was Daeg Faerch, playing young Michael Myers. He’s scary looking and pretty effective. If Zombie had just made the movie about a young kid who was troubled, he might’ve had something that worked. Everybody else in the movie is disappointing and mostly awful. Malcolm McDowell, who gets the thankless job of taking over the iconic role of Sam Loomis from the legendary Donald Pleasance, is the big disappointment, bland and banal. He never looks like he has a passion for psychiatry, and he doesn’t seem to ever really care for the well being of Michael. William Forsythe, playing young Michael’s dad is way over-the-top nasty, and Brad Dourif is a complete dead zone as Sheriff Brackett. The three girls may be the worst of the bunch, lacking any personality. It may be more a criticism of the screenplay rather than their performances, but Linda, Annie, and Laurie work so terribly it’s as if the characters don’t even exist up there on the screen. And then there’s Tyler Man as the grown Michael Myers, who’s so gargantuan he comes off more like a member of the WWF more so than one of the most famous movie villains.

The haunting music, so pivotal in the original, is used in the same style and tone. Except it’s used in the most awkward and unnecessary of times. When the music enters a scene in the original, it stands for something by either creating suspense or the right tone for that given scene. In this one, Zombie uses the music in throwaway moments, most obviously in his use of the classic main theme in a boring bit where young Michael walks out of his school. You don’t just use that theme anywhere. If it were to be used in the movie, it should’ve been at a key moment, like the main titles, or the first time Michael puts on his mask, or when Michael breaks out of prison. But no. Zombie uses the iconic music when young Michael decides to go for a walk.

A lot of my review has been comparing and contrasting bits that don’t work at all in this new version with all the sensational moments from the original. Well, here’s one thing I can honestly criticize about the movie in general. There is so much wrong with the movie that Zombie can’t even create an easily discernible sense of time and place. At times I couldn’t figure out whose house we were at and why, or how in the world Michael got from one place to another. The final showdown with Laurie is so confused that I couldn’t figure out where we were. That’s saying a lot when just the very notion of time and space doesn’t work in a scene, let alone the emotion or horror.

If there was any joy I had in this movie, it would one of three things, and they are all pretty closely related to the original movie. One, it was slightly amusing to get a little back-story of how Michael Myers came to kill his sister that night in 1963. I didn’t actually enjoy much of the prequel part of the movie in the first half-hour, but I had a masochistic sense of enjoyment in finally getting some Zombie-created answers to some life-long questions. Second, I enjoyed the number of nods to the original, like the pretty fantastic Michael Myers mask, which looks very much like the original mask, and all the nods, like the song Don’t Fear the Reaper, and the movie The Thing playing on the television screen. Finally, there was a lot to take in when Jamie Lloyd herself Danielle Harris shows up on screen playing Annie. Her death scene, however, was especially fascinating to watch, given that it could kind of work as the murder of the real Jamie Lloyd character, which we never got to see.

That’s it. That’s all. What surprised me most watching this movie was that, even though I’ve seen Carpenter’s original more than a dozen times, I found myself yearning to be watching the original within the first ten minutes of this movie. By the time the second half of the movie began, I was dying to be watching the original instead. By the time this movie ended, I felt sad, as if a little bit of the soul of my favorite horror movie had been ripped out. I turned to my friend and said, “let’s get outta here,” because I couldn’t face the mockery of what had just occurred concerning my favorite all-time horror movie.

But that’s not true. Nothing has changed about the original. There will always just be one Halloween. The 2007 version doesn’t exist. It’s a black hole of nothing.

Watching Like a Writer

As discussed throughout this painful review I wrote of the 2007 Halloween back in the day, I had mostly negative feelings about Zombie trying to EXPLAIN everything about Michael Myers. About why he is the way he is, why he wants to kill his sister, why his parents are so awful. It offered nothing in the way of drama, or even interest. The questions surrounding Michael make the original so effective.

This got me to thinking about what to withhold in my suspense fiction, how I should never over-explain anything. First of all, you need to think of your reader as super smart. Second, a little mystery will go a long way. The reader should understand a character’s motivations to a certain extent, but if it’s the villain, leave a little of that motivation off the page. Don’t panic about making absolutely everything in the story make sense. Don’t overload it with exposition and explaining and the awful Talking Killer Syndrome. Be original. Take chances.

And don’t tell me everything.

Exercise!

Go through your WIP and read your longest dialogue scene, whatever it may be. Does every line of dialogue need to be there? Is there any part of the dialogue that overly explains something about the plot?

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