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Horror Summer of Horror

Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (1981)
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Far be it from me to claim Halloween II is a good movie, but I ask you to detach yourself from the perfection of its predecessor and look at Halloween II on its own merits.

It’s still not good, surely not, but the trick to watching Halloween II isn’t to view it as a sequel to Halloween (bear with me). Rather, watch it as an ’80s slasher, as a contemporary to the Friday the 13th series, as a contemporary to all the other Halloween sequels. Relative to those movies, you can admire (again, relatively) what Halloween II offers. Because, frankly, trying to compare any of these movies to the original Halloween is a losing battle – Halloween is on such a distinct plane that at some point you’re better off leaving those lesser films to scrap with the others. This is not sound logic, but I have a bit of nostalgia for Halloween II and defending it is one of the more meaningless hills I will die on.

And to be fair, I’m asking you to distance Halloween II from the first despite it beginning directly where the first left off, so that’s helpful. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that they actually reshot the final moments from Halloween for the sequel. Like, remade it shot-for-shot, as if no remaining prints of Halloween were available for them to use. It’s immediately shittier, but in some abstract way lets you engage with Halloween II on its level. Afterward, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is carted off to Haddonfield General Hospital while Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) spouts some extra neurotic dialogue this round, reduced from a man speaking in eloquent horror prose to some guy in a trenchcoat screaming “SIX TIMES! I SHOT HIM SIX TIMES!” to anyone in passing, or this delicious exchange:

Guy: “Is this some kind of joke? I’ve been trick or treated to death tonight.”

Loomis: “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT DEATH IS.

Guy (in my imagination): “Okay.”

To say nothing of Michael Myers (Dick Warlock, who opted for a more robotic take to Myers versus Nick Castle’s methodical and purposeful approach, which isn’t really great but it suffices), who spends the first 10 minutes of the movie touring a Haddonfield neighbourhood, scaring and killing and all that. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are searching for Michael and doing a spectacularly poor job of it, given Loomis runs right past a decently lit path that he’s on, with Brackett bowing out of the movie fairly early after the police find the body of his daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis). That’s perhaps the only moment where Halloween II attempts to recognize the tragedy of its predecessor’s events and the consequent toll on the once-idyllic town, which you’d think would easily ring most true for Laurie, but alas. Where Brackett is shaken, taking out his anger on Loomis (the closest figure to Michael), Laurie is kind of, y’know, there, lounging around in a hospital. You could claim she’s in shock and that explains her nonchalance to everything around her, and that would be very nice of you since it’s obvious Jamie Lee Curtis gave not one fuck here, and more power to her really. After the police cart off Annie’s body and Brackett disappears with her, Halloween II unshackles itself from Halloween and plows full-steam into a hugely entertaining blitzing mess.

The gist of Halloween II is that Michael’s still out to hunt Laurie and finds out she’s being treated at Haddonfield General, a fact he comes across by a guy hitching a radio on his shoulder. What makes this especially divine is how Michael walks past said guy, is very in public, and nobody bats an eye – even though the police manage to spot Ben Tramer (Jack Verbois) in an off-off-Broadway Michael mask, go to chase him thinking he’s Michael, and a police cruiser speeds from nowhere, pins him into another car and just explodes. Divine.

You see, where Halloween is an exercise in restraint, Halloween II is in many ways an exercise in excess. There are many random characters, to the point where the movie forgets about some of them and they show up dead, because killing them on-screen would bloat the runtime I guess. Michael’s killings are more varied: he’s stabbing, slitting, choking, scalding, needling, hammering, lifting, draining, on and on. There’s an abundance of blood and gore relative to Halloween, and depending on whether you take to folklore you can thank John Carpenter for that (rumour is director Rick Rosenthal, who later directed the truly ungodly Halloween: Resurrection, didn’t intend to make Halloween II a bloody affair, and Carpenter, smelling the cash from the rising slasher genre, took the reins and reshot death scenes accordingly).

As far as slashers go, and as far as one watches a Halloween movie (the original is an anomaly among the 11 films in this franchise), these kills are pretty effective, corny in that ’80s way (e.g., scalding a promiscuous nurse in a hot tub after strangling her vaguely creepy coworker she hooked up with, or lifting another nurse with one hand via a scalpel in the back) and only helped by the disco swerve the score took, which I personally love – the organ swell in the theme feels like the Halloween season, evoking imagery of ghouls and witches and have you. It’s synthy as hell and delightful all the same. Even the visual elements lifted directly from Halloween, like Michael’s mask fading from the blackness before he sticks a syringe in a nurse’s skull, still work fine, thanks to the return of Halloween‘s DP Dean Cundey. Halloween II isn’t the surreal treat its predecessor was and doesn’t really have a distinctive visual acumen aside from “Halloween but duller,” yet it’s still Dean Cundey and he still knows how to shoot these movies: the nighttime is perfectly nighttimey, the hospital is oppressively sterile, and the shadows still press against the frame, promising evil within. Special credit to one shot of Michael enveloped in red light as he chases Laurie, the closest Halloween II comes to iconic horror imagery.

Regarding the hospital, it’s perfectly emblematic of how ridiculous Halloween II is. It seems impossibly large for the, like, less than a dozen people working there. Laurie, as far as we know, is the only overnight patient aside from some newborns in the maternity ward. It’s totally stupid and the movie does not care, yet it works: the hospital feels desolate and unsettling (on a superficial level; Halloween II is not frightening, but it does manage to be quite creepy from time to time), emphasizing Laurie’s isolation in her fight against the elemental Evil as it stalks the hospital corridors. If I’m stretching, I can call Halloween II surreal in how over-the-top everything seems when compared to Halloween, including the oddly empty hospital – but it’s more likely they couldn’t be bothered to fill a cast of staff.

Of course, that elemental Good vs. Evil story is annihilated by a drunk John Carpenter when Laurie is revealed to be none other than Michael’s sister, a hilariously useless twist that still served as the foundation of the Michael Myers saga going forward, because horror is both adaptable and submissive. It’s counterproductive against Halloween and even disrupts Halloween II‘s internal coherence (if Michael kills to get to Laurie, why did he kill that random young woman at the beginning of the movie?), but mainly it’s a giant middle finger to what made Halloween so perfect, and I imagine it’s the product of an apathetic John Carpenter and Debra Hill thumbing away at a screenplay like, “You want this movie, you little shits? We’ll give it to you.” They go further with Loomis discovering “Samhain” written in blood in an elementary school, connecting Michael to the occult in a low-brow attempt to explain his invulnerability. All of this is difficult to reconcile with, but it’s almost impressive how entertaining Halloween II is in spite of itself. Plus it’s harder to be mad about this when you can cherry-pick no less than three different timelines in the non-remake Halloween series, so if it bothers you that much you can just watch 2018’s Halloween and act as though Halloween II never happened.

I haven’t really touched on the characters aside from Laurie and Loomis, and that’s because… there’s not much to say? These are all stock slasher characters, though I’ve always found Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford) to be legitimately kind, one who seems to look out for Laurie’s best interests and is comforting accordingly. There’s one scene between two nurses that’s a decent bit of character work, reminiscent of that from Halloween (the grapevine suggests Carpenter directed this scene), hinting at inner lives and relationships for them as they go about their day, discussing work, who’s driving who and where, but my inability to remember their names should indicate it’s not that good, and it’s not like the movie’s keen to expand on any of it. Jimmy (Lance Guest) functions primarily to make Laurie emote, so that’s noble. Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), Loomis’ colleague, returns from Halloween, acting as an anchor for Loomis while smoking and looking sassy. Everyone else is either there then not there, sometimes dying later, or they die rather immediately. And that about covers it.

Yet, despite all its misgivings, I find myself craving Halloween II when Halloween time draws near. It’s reckless in the most endearing sense, a movie that clearly has no reason to exist but does it with a particular zest anyway. And for what it’s worth, Halloween II rolls its punches against the wave of slashers to follow, putting up inventive kills and a technical competency often overlooked in the genre. To the end of Halloween II being a sequel to Halloween, it really does fail more than it succeeds, but Halloween II shares plenty with the slasher as its commonly known, and to that end it’s one of the most successful realizations of those genes. I will always have a soft spot for its synth-infused atmosphere, coupled with perhaps the best embodiment of Michael Myers as a slasher-genre villain than the mythic Evil in Halloween. A step down, sure, but when step downs are this ideal for a cool October evening it’s difficult to feel too vexed.

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