More of the night HE came home …
We're back in Haddonfield, Illinois, it's the longest Halloween night in the town's history, and it's far from over – for Michael Myers, knife in hand, is still on the rampage. Halloween II, Universal's stab at rejuvenating John Carpenter's immortal terror classic, Halloween, gets its 30th Anniversary rebirth on Blu-ray.
This was the one when the Shape proved that he would never ever have to run to catch a victim. Because the idiots would just step into any dark room he happened to be lurking within, run around in decreasing circles until they collapsed, or simply box themselves into a corner to await their medicine.
“Is this some kind of joke? We’ve been trick or treated to death tonight.”
“You don’t know what death is!”
Halloween II kicks off in splendid style. We rejoin the battered and beleaguered Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in a flouncy wig to help shave off of few of the years that stood between her two performances as the eponymous survivor) as she makes her final stand from the previous movie against Michael Myers and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) pumps lead into him and blows him off the balcony. “I shot him six times! I … I shot him six times!” With the Strode-girl whisked off to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, Loomis takes off into the night, prowling around the manicured lawns and leaf-strewn sidewalks of sleepy Middle America, searching the shadows for his nemesis. With John Carpenter’s awesome main theme rattling around our heads in a slightly spruced-up, appropriately “clinical” new guise, Michael's laboured breathing indicating that they we are inside the mask with him, and Dean Cundey’s incredible Panaglide photography gliding down the streets, we are off to a tremendously atmospheric and knuckle-gnawing start. The atmosphere and sense of steady momentum is right up there with the dread-filled finale of the 1978 masterpiece.
But this rich and breathless anticipation doesn’t last, and the movie swaps slow-simmering chills for weirdly bland assassinations and bumbling heroics from Loomis and the Haddonfield cops.
With Carpenter so busy at the time and disinclined to take pole-position behind the camera, what with Escape From New York and pre-production brainstorming taking place on The Thing, he handed his screenplay, co-written with buddy Debra Hill, to studio-approved Rick Rosenthal along with the directorial reins. His smash-hit original film, which was then still the most successful independent feature to be released in the States, had opened the doors to a bloody deluge of stalk 'n' slash flicks, almost all of them pale imitations of his own nightmarishly simple creation. And with so few of these insane wannabes coming up to scratch, it seemed only right that he return to the story to show these hacks how it should be done. But without his reassuring and instinctive hand at the helm, Halloween II became not the glorious triumph of nerve-shredding suspense that the first film had been, but just another claret-splashing retread.
Well, that's what many critics were quick to claim. But the seeds of something much better had been sown into the story and the mythos of Michael Myers to ensure that the saga did, at least, offer a few intriguing new tangents to explore. The problems with the movie are in its overall execution and, primarily, Carpenter’s uninspired handling of the scenario that he'd set up. A undisputed master of the one-line pitch – Assault, The Fog, Halloween, Escape and The Thing could each have their brilliant concepts summed-up in one sentence – Carpenter, in the years that followed his classic early run, would consistently prove that he would only go on to drop the ball once he'd got his plot underway. Great scenarios were set up, but then allowed to fizzle out with an almost dismissive lack of interest because he simply didn't know where to take his concepts once he'd set the ball rolling. A lot of his films would move along at a nicely measured pace, only to become painfully rushed in the final act because he had simply run out of ideas. We can't always blame budgetary issues for this when it becomes apparent that the erosion of his own imaginative chutzpah is mostly to blame.
Rosenthal tries his best with the material, though. He matches the look and style of the first picture, revelling in meticulous scenes of stalking and agonised pursuits of Laurie, savouring the lustrous beauty of anamorphic lenses and evocative night-time shooting, and creating a vivid setting in which to massacre a number of basically unlikeable characters – namely an entire ward-full of doctors and nurses. With Nick Castle not returning to the role, Rosenthal employed stuntman Dick Warlock to play the Shape, albeit with lifts in his shoes to match Castle's more imposing height, and the result is a colder, more brutal and determined Michael. Rosenthal apes the progress of his killer with the lame attempts of the authorities to catch up with him in much the same way that Carpenter did back in 1978. Pleasance has completely lost his sense of humour this time out, leaving Loomis as unhinged as one of his patients. His underplayed and eccentric creepiness is missed, though, as he is forced to deal with a variety of angry or useless cops before he finally gets on the right track and confronts his enemy once more. But he remains one of the strongest elements in the film, even if his dialogue is way below the standards of that heard in the first film. Curtis, too, is squandered. Way too old-looking now to play Laurie with any conviction, she has barely any lines at all and is pitilessly plagued with simply standing and watching as Michael makes mincemeat of anybody in his way, or simply staggering away from him. Laurie Strode is a fantastic character and one of the most iconic of scream-queens … but here she is reduced to a whimpering wreck with absolutely none of the gumption or resilience she exhibited so credibly in her previous encounter. In this way, the film is handed to Michael on a plate. Even the naffest, cheapest slasher rip-off boasts some heroine – no matter how unlikely – who can ultimately outwit the maniac and balance out the drama. Perhaps refreshingly, Halloween II does not even attempt this, but then I don't, for one second, believe that this was an intentional tactic from Rosenthal or Carpenter. Personally, I think that once they got Curtis on-board they simply didn't know what to do with her. Laurie Strode only serves one purpose in the movie, and that is to set up the shocking twist around two thirds of the way through ... which I'll come to later.
And the majority of the rest of the cast are unpleasant and/or just plain irritating. Most of them can't die quickly or horribly enough.
And it was here, in this crucial aspect of the slasher flick, that Rosenthal struggled most of all. He wanted to keep the suspense and dark mystery of the original, but with a script that was just too idiotic to sustain such a tone, this wouldn't be enough. So, famously, John Carpenter went back in to insert some shocks and violence. He was right to do so, of course. Without his “kills” Rosenthal’s film would be lacklustre and bereft of impact, just a sham of a Halloween horror. But these set-pieces are a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the downright lousy. The first film got by without the benefit of spilling much blood, and was arguably all the more effective for it. That just wouldn't be enough for the second instalment. So, this time around, Michael gets to work with a butcher knife, syringes and tubing, a claw-hammer, a hot-tub and, for that precision slaying, a scalpel. The needle-work is eye-popping stuff, almost literally, and does make you cringe. Notice the superb framing of the shot in this sequence too – a pure Carpenter favourite of having something grisly at the edge of the foreground whilst the “main event” is taking place much further back. The scalpel is also put to great use – we have a nice throat-slashing and a hefty thunking spinal-thrust-and-dead-lift. But the draining of blood from one victim is a complete waste of time and totally against Michael’s modus operandi. The claw-hammer is embellished with a very comical suh-poing! sound and is as tame as getting a whack on the bonce from Timmy Mallet. The hot-tub scene, notable for the ample assets of naughty nurse Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop) is nothing but a damp squib too. Mimicking Dario Argento’s deliriously nasty drowning in scalding water from Deep Red, this face-peeling submersion has none of that essential viewer-squirmability and the effect is, again, boringly tame. Carpenter even pays tribute to his act of blowing away Kim Richard’s little ice-cream-lover in Assault On Precinct 13 with the glaringly gratuitous sequence when a frantic mother brings her son into Casualty because he has, of all things, a razor-blade lodged in his mouth. This is even framed in such a way as to glint wickedly in the moonlight as the poor kid spits out of gouts of blood. Let’s be honest about it, though, this is knee-jerk audience manipulation of the crassest kind. Both he and Rosenthal have absolutely no excuses.
But we do get to see a great char-grilled corpse in close-up, as well as the startling image of the killer having received two bullets to the head … and still swiping away with his scalpel whilst gore runs in rivers down his masked face.
The hospital setting could have been magnificent, and there is a sense that Carpenter knew damn well that the Shape couldn’t function in a busy, bustling environment because he almost completely evacuates the place, leaving only Laurie, her besotted orderly Jimmy (Lance Guest), a handful of pretty but useless nurses, an even more useless doctor and an even more useless night-watchman … oh, and a nursery with three babies in it. Where is the rest of the staff? And, most significantly, where are all the patients? Or the mothers of the tots? Obviously a building full of screaming people would have been logistically impossible to manage, but this absence of ailing folk and attentive medicos makes Haddonfield seem like the healthiest place on Earth. And with Michael Myers lumbering around we just know that can’t be true. Where are all the ambulances that should be streaming in? The visitors milling about? There’s nobody here. It’s ridiculous. Even for a small-town night-shift, this is not in the least bit believable. For a start, where are they taking all the bodies they've found from the earlier butchery? Oh, I know they're dead … but they'd still be transferred to the hospital morgue.
The film is stuffed to the gills with such utter stupidity. If this hadn’t been the sequel to Halloween, it would have been lambasted and pilloried as just another exceedingly contrived and badly-written rip-off of the original Carpenter classic. A battered and bruised Laurie evades the Shape’s clutches and manages to make it outside to the car lot. Now we know that Michael has sabotaged all the vehicles there, so she can’t simply drive out there, but instead of just heading out towards the road and summoning assistance, she merely climbs into Jimmy’s jalopy and cowers beneath the dashboard. And then, when Jimmy arrives, we get the simply embarrassing scene when Lance Guest, who is really much better than this, climbs in, spies his hidden crush, mumbles nonsense and then passes out! What the hell is that about? But worse is to come. As Dr. Loomis and co. tootle up in the Marshall’s car and pile into the deserted hospital they are unaware that Laurie is crawling in a very undignified fashion across the lot towards them … unable to raise a scream until after the hospital doors have swung shut behind them. After the skilful suspense built up in the first film, this sort of thing is downright insulting. And the romance between Laurie and Jimmy, which is never allowed to get off the ground, is ill-fitting and unconvincing. We know that Laurie is the wallflower of the college-set, and we also know that she only has eyes for the now-legendary Ben Tramer. Plus, the fact that Curtis has visibly aged between the movies and can no longer portray a teenager, wig or no wig, only makes the affectation even odder. One way of lessening this effect was by having Laurie doped-up for much of the time, thus stemming her interaction with anybody else and providing an excuse for that more sedated and matronly countenance.
Another problem is that the film is possibly a little over-ambitious without the full rationale to back it up.
We had just had The Empire Strikes Back shocking the world with its revelation that Darth Vader was, in fact, Luke Skywalker's old man. Carpenter, ever the audacious, wasn't about to be outdone with his lord of the dark side – and rammed home the grim surprise that the adopted Laurie Strode was actually Michael Myers' other sister. Some surreal, yet disconcerting flashbacks in Laurie's medication-addled mind hint ominously at their connection. At the time this revelation worked well. It genuinely wasn't expected, but it still played into the hearts of genre-fans and provided a delicious extra frisson of home-grown horror. Seventies terror had been all about dark family secrets or about sick and twisted parodies of the nuclear clan menacing the “normals”. America was turning upon itself and the monster was closer than we thought. Whereas Michael had started off as a troubled kid and then pretty much left humanity behind to become the bogeyman in the first film, Halloween II almost turns full circle in establishing that this unkillable fiend still has a family, a connection. A soul. When Laurie begs him to stop and calls him by his name, he does indeed hesitate, cocking his head in momentary contemplation as he did in the first film when admiring one of his kills. Here, though, it is with recognition and not pride, and his attack briefly falters. Laurie does, if only for an instant, break through to the brother inside that wrecked body. Halloween H20 would provide a similar “moment” between the two … but it doesn't work quite as well in my opinion.
The script comes unstuck when it attempts to shoehorn-in some of the traditional elements of the festival of Samhain. Although the films never make this clear, it is known that Michael Myers is allegedly the undying spirit of a druid youth who slew the girl he loved and her own betrothed in a fit of jealous rage, his own executed body then tormented and cursed to walk the Earth for eternity reliving his crime, his vengeful spirit able to pass from one body to another when the original vessel is ultimately destroyed. Well, this is literary backstory for the character, anyway, as can be read in Dennis Etchinson’s novelisation of the original screenplay. The films like to simplify things by having him as the metaphorical “bogeyman” made flesh. Carpenter, this time out, actually incorporates some Celtic mystery and resonance by having Loomis spout some inane wafflings of Samhainian claptrap to the returning nurse Marian Chambers (Nancy Stephens), and anyone else who'll listen. Plus we get to see some familial clues in the school that Michael has apparently broken into and vandalised, as well as the word Samhain written on the blackboard. None of this adds up, of course. The Shape learned how to drive a car in seconds after having been incarcerated in an asylum since childhood, but this puzzling new skill was just part of his uncanny and freakish repertoire. In Halloween II, the guy can now leave enigmatic clues for his pursuers like a real-life serial killer would do. He can handle hypodermic needles and perform an unwanted blood-transfusion without another body to transfuse with. These abilities, and their elaborately unlikely place in the grand scheme of his rampage, don’t make any sense … especially when combined with the traditional Halloween folklore that Loomis is banging-on about. Once again, Carpenter is coming up with ideas and concepts that he just doesn’t know what to do with once they’re instigated. Loomis hinted at so much in the first film that it fired up our imagination. Here, he simply rambles.
But you know what? I still love this movie. Really love it.
No matter how cack-handed the screenplay is, Michael Myers remains a towering presence of supreme malevolence. His slow pursuit has been reworked and tweaked into a blood-curdlingly metronomic gait. He moves in-synch with Carpenter’s and Howarth’s insistent, relentless beat. His mask, grubbier now and with added texture and latex wounds, seems to have life and sentience. In the rare occasions when we see them, his eyes glow with that weird star-crystal gleam that we saw briefly when Laurie unmasked him in the first film. There is even a new sort of expression that he employs even through the mask. Look at the evil leer when he suddenly appears in the window of the door to the operating theatre, and then when he makes that vicious turn on his own doctor. When he skewers Nurse Jill (Tawny Moyer) with a scalpel in the back, he then lifts her up to brandish as a trophy towards Laurie at the other end of the corridor … but look at his face. The damn mask is almost grinning. And the creepy half-smile when he pushes a hypodermic into another nurse's eye ...
The fact that he so easily strides through the town in his mask, with passers-by totally ignoring him and even the odd police cruiser drifting past and paying him no heed because it is Halloween night is also a nice touch. I like the way that he hears where Laurie has been taken on the radio broadcast of a beat-box that a kid (actually Dick Warlock's own son) is carrying. And there's a neat moment that allows us to see him entering the hospital grounds on the close-circuit TV that the night-watchman is completely ignoring – and this is accompanied by the menacing music from Night Of The Living Dead playing on the other screen in part of the longest “Horrorthon” in history! Whoever it was who crafted the sequence when the Shape slides gently into view from out of the shadows behind the unwitting Nurse Janet – whether it was Carpenter or Rosenthal (and I suspect it was the former) – they did a bang-up job. He may have forgotten that his preferred method of murder is strangulation but, by now, his hands are probably getting tired and achy. Aye, use the blade, Michael.
It’s great to see Deputy Hendricks, Chief Brody’s long-suffering buddy in Jaws and Jaws 2, cropping up here as the dentist hastily drafted-in to check over the barbecued remains of Ben Tramer. Jeffrey Kramer doesn’t do or say much, but the fact that he’s there in Haddonfield, albeit with a career-change, just seems to tip us off that the authorities, once again, are totally out of their depth. I mean it’s pretty clear that this was no boating accident! And the cops are particularly useless, aren’t they? In the first film they had no bearing on the story because they simply weren’t around, but we still believed in them. That they could perhaps save the day. This time out, there are loads of them, but when they aren’t chasing shadows or diffusing rather aimless riots outside the Myers house, they’re ploughing into innocent people. Sheriff Brackett (once more played by Charles Cyphers) damns Loomis once more for letting Michael out, but is then taken out of the equation when he discovers that his own daughter, Annie, has joined the list of the victims. But it doesn’t matter because there’s plenty more law enforcers to bumble about the town in their snazzy green flight-jackets. I’m often reminded of the meat-heads employed by Sheriff Teasle in First Blood. To paraphrase them, you could actually have the line “That Myers guy? He’s on the loose again!” as they lurch impotently from one messy crime-scene to another. After crushing and immolating the innocent Ben Tramer in a simply terrific set-piece of tragic mistaken identity, they break the news to Sheriff Brackett about his loss and pay virtually no heed to the poor guy being roasted in the wreckage! “Is it him … or not?”
It’s been said that Carpenter’s intention all along was to build up to a terrifying crescendo. Surely that’s the point of most horror films, though? Either way, I think he and Rosenthal do pretty well in this respect. After the tedious doldrums that whittle-away the tension in the laborious middle act, things get much better for the climactic escape and evasion through the hospital. Seeing the Shape simply stroll up to the big glass main doors of the hospital and then stride right through them is one of my favourite moments in the entire franchise. Cundey and Rosenthal handle it exceptionally well, with the Shape walking directly into a hail of the Doc’s psychiatric bullets. “I shot him six times … again!” you want to hear him shout. Just how many bullets has he got, anyway? And the foolhardiness of the cuddly-bear Marshall (John Zenda) is also worth its weight in genre gold as the soft sod leans over Michael’s now sieve-like body. Some people just never learn, do they? Oh, and look out for the bullet that goes through the Shape's torso and hits the metal cover on the wall behind him. Nice.
Rosenthal wouldn't quite be done with Michael Myers just yet though. He would return to the myth in 2002 for the exceedingly poor Halloween Resurrection. By contrast to that pile of pop-referencing, post-Scream yawnfest, Halloween II is a bonafide classic. Although it works well when paired-up with the original for a double-bill, the film's shortcomings become all the more apparent – visually a blood-brother, but emotionally just a Thing-like imitation. Even so, Michael's second outing is still tremendous fun and a great slice of vintage slaughter that leaves the rest of the sequels in its gory wake.
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