Now, I don't mean to sound like a snob or anything, but sometimes I wonder how people judge cinematography. This post was inspired after reading several blog reviews regarding Halloween 2. While most reviews have been negative towards the film as a whole, many have singled out the cinematography to be a highlight of the film (even in blogs that don't usually comment on technical elements very often). I found this interesting because I felt that this was one of the worst aspects of H2.
The movie does indeed have a distinct look, but an edgy, frenetic visual design alone doesn't make good cinematography in my book. There are a couple of ways I judge cinematography--some ways are more objective than others. On the most basic level, cinematography is first and foremost about "getting the shot." That means the action needs to be photographed in such a way that what is intended to be seen can be experienced through proper framing and proper exposure. Artistic liberty aside, I think most people will agree that this is pretty fundamental. Next, lighting and composition are generally set up in such a way that it is aesthetically pleasing. This means using the rule of thirds, being mindful of screen direction, backlighting subjects, and avoiding flat lighting, but of course these are only general rules of thumb.
I'm sure the acting is brilliant, but I can't really tell for sure...
Not every film must be beautiful. And Rob Zombie's films will probably never be filled with glamour shots. However, breaking basic cinematographic "rules" should be done for a reason. And that reason should always be story. Each film has its own story to tell and each scene within that film has a mini-story. The cinematography should always be finding ways to tell that story for each particular moment. Cinematography should punctuate emotions, get us into the character's head, and capture the message in the most effective way possible.
What's the point of casting a giant if you hardly every shoot him in wides that emphasize his stature?
So does Halloween 2 do that? Well, it's always difficult to judge such a stylized film because it's honestly tough to tell what is a mistake and what is intentional. Zombie's inclination towards a raw, visceral, handheld approach is one piece of the puzzle and Director of Photography Brandon Trost's execution of it is another. In a rudimentary sort of way, not allowing artistic leeway, Halloween 2's cinematography is a complete failure. Tight framing and underexposure make it very difficult to perceive what is happening throughout much of the film. And of course, there are very few shots that are pleasing to the eye.
Yes, this is the 21st century, and not all films need to be shot like Citizen Kane (and thankfully they are not). However, getting back to the essentials, does Halloween 2's cinematography actually tell the story with the most impact it could? I would say that it does not. One could argue that the film is so chaotic because Laurie's life has been turned upside down, which is completely valid. But, it's hard to justify that after watching Zombie's first Halloween. It's equally as shaky and unfocused, even when nothing was wrong in Laurie's life. For Zombie, there is no visual progression from a normal conversation to scenes of terror. Almost every scene is photographed the same way (aside from the visions), even when completely different stories are being told.
What is happening in this picture?
It's like watching the garage chase scene of the original Prom Night on VHS.
Style aside, I still think the majority of action should be framed and exposed so that I can see what is occurring onscreen. So many scenes in Halloween 2 could have been more effective. If only Brad Douriff's face was lit so that I can see his brilliant performance, if only I could tell what Michael was doing during all that commotion in the strip club, and if only Laurie's emotions were showcased instead of random objects blocking the foreground.
Cinematography is at the heart of filmmaking. It's a strange blend of technical ability and creative storytelling. I'm open to a wide range of cinematographic styles. From slow and stationary shots found in John Carpenter movies, the color-oriented wide shots of Argento's films, the hard contrast lighting of Hammer horror, to the fast-paced grittiness of recent French flicks, I am a lover of all the ways to photograph a film. Whatever the movie is, I just hope the director and cinematographer opted for a style that best fit the story and best suited each moment. I don't think that is the case with Halloween 1 or 2. To me, it’s just style over story.
Tell me what you guys think, especially if you did enjoy the cinematography of H2.