The Girl at Smith’s Grove: An Interview with Chenell Cowan of Rob Zombie’s Halloween

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By Paul Talbot: Among the more disturbing images created by Rob Zombie for his controversial Halloween remake is the brutal scene where a young female inmate is raped by two sleazy orderlies in Michael Myers’s dark cell at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. Chenell Cowan played the disturbed girl in this unsettling set piece which was cut from the theatrical version (after negative test audience reactions) and can only be seen on the “Unrated Directors Cut” DVD.

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The petite, dark-blonde, blue-eyed actress first got involved with Zombie’s camp in early 2007, when she was cast in the director’s Werewolf Women of the SS, a fake exploitation trailer featured in Grindhouse. Cowan explains, “I was a huge fan of Rob Zombie’s first two films prior to working on Werewolf Women of the SS and was totally thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him. I worked on Werewolf Women for one day in the second week of January. I did not receive a script. Each time I shot a scene, I didn’t know what I would be doing until they brought me on set and told me what was going to happen.”

In the finished “trailer,” Cowan can be seen screaming on an operating table as a crazed Nazi (Bill Moseley) conducts a fiendish experiment. She says, “I filmed two additional scenes that didn’t make it to the version that was seen in theaters. The makeup was minimal. They made me look haggard and beaten down, like someone who has been kept prisoner and experimented on. I also had special makeup applied to my body to add wounds and slash marks. All of those details were amazing. I thought those sets were incredible.”

“Bill Moseley was a really nice man and really talented. I did another scene with Sheri [Moon Zombie] and Sybil [Danning], and both of them were great. Sheri is a real sweetheart and it was really exciting for me to get to meet her after being such a fan of [her] ‘Baby Firefly’ [character] in Rob’s first two films.”

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Most of the actors from Zombie’s Grindhouse trailer ended up in his Halloween remake including Cowan, who was cast as Karen Mercy, a mentally-unbalanced resident of the Smith’s Grove asylum. “I didn’t audition for Halloween,” she explains. “Shortly after the shoot for Werewolf Women of the SS, the casting director for Halloween called me and said that [Zombie] had asked her to offer me the role of Karen Mercy. Grindhouse and Halloween are the first two studio films that I worked on, and they both happened really quickly. I got both jobs within around two weeks. Prior to shooting those films, I had worked on two short films that were both comedies, so it was a lot of fun to dive into something completely different.”

“I watched the original Halloween before shooting. I knew that the part I was playing was not in the original film. I did research to prepare for the role. This character is a mental patient, who is also overly-medicated, and she has this incredibly violent and traumatic experience in the film. She is very helpless in many ways but she is still going to put up a fight. I really worked on my strength and endurance so that I’d be able to handle it.”

“I shot Halloween in mid-March. I worked for two days. The hallway scene was shot in a real hospital. The scene in Michael Myers’ room was shot at the same hospital, but his room was built by the crew. The first time I walked into his room, I was blown away. It felt so real and just perfect [with] all the masks covering the walls. The room had such a dirty and dark feel to it. You really felt like someone had been in there in isolation for years. I only met [Tyler Mane] briefly. I think he gives an awesome performance in the film.” (Mane played Michael Myers.)

The effectiveness of Cowan’s Halloween scene was helped immensely by the creepy performances by cult actors/convention regulars Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects) and Courtney Gaines (Children of the Corn) as the rapists. “It was a closed set when we shot my scene,” Cowan says. “Both Lew and Courtney are really nice guys and great actors, and I think they were both so pitch-perfect in the scene. They really turned your stomach. When I arrived on set the first day and met them, we knew that because of what went on in the scene that it was going to be tough to shoot. We spent some time talking about it and getting to know each other a bit before we shot so we had a comfort level with each other. I honestly couldn’t have asked for two better guys to have done that scene with. They made me feel so completely comfortable every step of the way. I thought they had a tougher job than me, given what they had to do to me in that scene. I mean, that is really disturbing stuff. We had a really open dialogue about everything, and I wanted to make sure that they knew they didn’t have to hold back or anything. I wanted it to feel really gritty and I think and hope that we managed to achieve that.”

“No stunt woman or double was used for me in Halloween. There was a stunt coordinator who helped me learn how to brace myself against the walls and the bed frame and make sure I didn’t really get hurt. It was tricky because the scene needed to feel gritty and sloppy in a way because you have these two really drunk guys taking advantage of this helpless girl in tight quarters in front of this dangerous killer. But at the same time, for technical reasons, it needed to have structure to it. We couldn’t just be flying all over the place without a plan. We needed to make sure we stayed in frame. It certainly felt like we shot a ton of takes for the scene, but it is hard to remember how many we did. I lost count! I think the best word to define how that scene felt is ‘draining,’ both emotionally and physically. I definitely went home feeling drained but also really excited and invigorated because I was just so thrilled to be a part of Halloween.”

“The makeup I wore was pretty minimal; mostly it was used to make me look pale, tired and worn-down. I was not brought in during post to add screams. Any screams I did were recorded as we filmed the scene.”

Cowan speaks highly of her Grindhouse and Halloween director: “What was really wonderful was that he was such a great guy in person, and such a talented director, that he actually exceeded my expectations. The scenes I did in both films had difficult material and, right off the bat, I completely trusted him and he made me feel totally at home and comfortable. As a director, he has a really clear vision of what he wants. Yet at the same time, he is really open to input from the actors and different ideas that are discovered in the filming process. The crew on both films worked so well together. You could certainly tell that there was a comfort level and camaraderie.”

Although her role took up only a few pages of the screenplay, Cowan explains: “I was given the entire script for Halloween. The script was labeled as ‘Confidential’ and I knew that the plot details were a secret, so I made sure to honor that before the film’s release.”

After a June 2007 test screening of Halloween in New York City, comment cards and website reports revealed that the vicious rape scene had alienated most of the audience. Rumor had it that the explicit sexual attack could get the film an unwanted NC-17 rating. Later that month, Zombie and company shot several additional scenes including one set in Smith’s Grove that replaced the rape with a different vignette that leads to Michael Myers’ escape. All footage of Cowan and Courtney Gaines was completely deleted from the final cut. (Lew Temple still appeared, briefly.)

Cowan says: “I definitely think [the scene] is unsettling and disturbing. I really like how they put it together and added the music it really has a sense of dread to it. I can definitely understand how people would find it hard to watch. A couple of friends of mine were really disturbed by it, especially because they know me. It’s kind of weird for me to watch it, because my perspective is so different after having shot so many different takes. When we were filming it, I purposefully didn’t watch any of the playback. Plus, a lot of what goes on was not in my line of sight, or was going on behind me, so I had no idea how the final product would look when I was shooting it. I do think it has the gritty, visceral, unsettling feeling that we were going for when we shot it so I am happy about that.”

Cowan saw the final theatrical version of Halloween at the August 23, 2007 private screening in Hollywood. “Before I saw the film at the premiere, they told me that my scene had been cut. While it would have been great to have seen my scene on the big screen, I also think that the new escape sequence works incredibly well. There are so many factors that go into these types of decisions. It would be selfish of me to be upset about my scene not making it to the final version. This kind of stuff happens all the time, so you just roll with it. I love the final version. I thought it was such a cool take on the original. Rob Zombie really made it his own. Honestly, working on the film was such an amazing experience for me and I feel so privileged to have been a part of the film and I didn’t worry that the scene ended up being cut.”

But Cowan’s performance didn’t disappear into Halloween oblivion. A few days before the final version opened nationwide on August 31 (to huge grosses and mixed fan reactions), a high-quality copy of the early test screening version became available as an illegal download on numerous torrenting sites. Labeled by fans as the “Work Print Version,” this early cut is considered by some to be superior to the theatrical version and, like the Halloween 6 “Producer’s Cut,” became a popular bootleg.

When Zombie put together his “Unrated Director’s Cut” for the late 2007 DVD release, he decided to restore the scene with Cowan. On the commentary track, Zombie explained why he cast the actress in Halloween after working with her on Grindhouse: “I knew that she was game for anything. Sometimes people complain a lot and I knew that she wouldn’t complain, so she’d be perfect.”

The “Unrated Director’s Cut” far outsold DVDs of the “Theatrical Cut” and the former is now the only version that is readily-available. Chenell Cowan’s minor Halloween role has insured her a place in Michael Myers history. (One rabid fan of the series even purchased, off eBay, the soiled nightgown that she wore for her role.) She says, “I know some people who are fans of the series and they were really excited that I was a part of this film. I would really love to do another horror film.”

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About the Author

Editor, Retro Slashers. Producer, Sleepaway Camp 4.

4 Responses to “ The Girl at Smith’s Grove: An Interview with Chenell Cowan of Rob Zombie’s Halloween ”

  1. I never cared for the rape scene as I felt it was not a necessary part of the film and prefer the theatrical version of the escape. The scene went a bit too far for me.

  2. i’m a sucker for anything trashy. rape scenes and RZ are trashy. i love them both. however, at first glance i was completely taken out of the film when i saw the rape scene. i felt it was too trendy and pointless…but then after a second thought, i realized that it would explain a lot about why he would kill people during/after sex. maybe myers has an altered perception on what sex is, and thinks the girls are being harmed?
    i don’t know.
    just a rant. :)

  3. Personally, I felt the rape scene was an incredibly disturbing scene. Sure, it isn’t easy to watch, but it shouldn’t be. To me, the theatrical escape is a cop-out, and totally didn’t work.

    The rape is really viceral, but it also has the payoff in that Michael kills these two sickos. It’s satisfying to see them get what they deserve.

  4. the rape, is indeed disturbing stuff, I mean Rob went a little far with this scene, but, then again, it kinda made Micheal (for once) a bit of a hero; the way he trashed those two (whether since they did messed up his masks or just because of impulse) is well deserving and a more satisfying than just seeing the big guy wastes some cardboard cops.

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