Wednesday, August 29, 2018

40 Years of Halloween - Halloween II (1981)

The nightmare isn't over.

When tasked with writing a sequel to their 1978 hit / instant classic Halloween, the first film's director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill had all sorts of options in front of them.

At the end of the previous film, the masked murderer Michael Myers had disappeared into the night after being shot six times by his psychiatrist Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) - who had arrived too late to stop Myers from killing the friends of teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Having established that Myers was a force of pure evil who would target and kill people at random, but who was also capable of going dormant for years at a time (after killing his older sister when he was six, Myers spent fifteen years just silently staring at a wall in a mental institution), Carpenter and Hill could have acknowledged the time gap between movies and crafted a story in which Myers returns to terrorize the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois again after recovering from his wounds and being in hiding for three years.

If they wanted to bring Jamie Lee Curtis back, and they clearly did, they could have had Myers going after Laurie again three years later. At one point, that's what they were thinking of doing - apparently they had an idea in which Myers would have found Laurie living in a high rise apartment building. Carpenter had worked with such a setting before, in his 1978 TV movie Someone's Watching Me!, and in hindsight maybe that's the story option they should have pursued. If they had done that, they could have made a sequel with more of a plot. They could have done more character work with Laurie, Curtis could have shown off her acting chops more in a story where she's trying to overcome the trauma of what she experienced on Halloween 1978. They could have given her an interesting supporting cast to interact with. If they made a sequel with some depth, maybe Carpenter wouldn't have been downing beers while struggling to write the script because they went with an idea where there was no story to tell.

Regardless of the story, Carpenter never intended to direct Halloween II, and his first choice for a replacement was Tommy Lee Wallace, the production designer and co-editor on the first film who created the iconic mask worn by Michael Myers. Wallace was honored to receive the offer, but turned the offer down after reading the disappointing script. So the producers turned to someone who wasn't part of Carpenter's inner circle, hiring Rick Rosenthal to make his feature directorial debut on the film - partly because Rosenthal had made an impressive short film, and partly because he had the same agent as Carpenter.

Halloween II picks up from the exact moment when its predecessor ended, starting off with a recap of the first movie's final moments, which we're taken into with an incongruous use of The Chordettes' version of the song "Mr. Sandman". Some fans like that this song is played here (it plays again over the end credits), some are baffled by its inclusion. I enjoy it, so it's fine with me... In fact, I'm fine with everything that goes on this sequel, up to a point, and it gets off to a great start.

Seeing that Myers survived being shot and has disappeared, Doctor Loomis goes off in pursuit of him, finding the time to have a brief interaction with a Haddonfield local who hopes Loomis's ranting about an escaped killer on the loose isn't a prank because he's "been trick or treated to death tonight." Loomis informs this man, "You don't know what death is." Cut to the main title sequence, which features composer Alan Howarth's synth take on Carpenter's famous piano score and, like the title sequence for the first Halloween, has the credits appear in orange letters alongside a jack-o-lantern. But this time the camera pushes in on the pumpkin, which splits open to reveal a human skull inside, an awesome spookshow addition to the set-up.

From the opening credits, just like in the first movie, we go right into a sequence that is shot from the point-of-view of Michael Myers, and this is some really great stuff because it sticks with the idea of Myers being a force of evil, drifting through the night, stalking people and picking victims at random. Moving through the Haddonfield alleyways, Myers sees trick or treaters off in the distance, sees Loomis waving down Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) in his cruiser, avoids a dog, and walks up to the back of a house inhabited by two elderly people. The horror host TV show marathon that was being shown in the previous film, where Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World were spotted on TV screens, is continuing on the TV of this couple, and Night of the Living Dead has just begun... only to be interrupted by a news report on the murders Myers has just committed.

While the elderly couple is distracted - the man sleeping, the woman watching the news report - Myers enters their kitchen and steals a knife. The woman is shocked by the news report, unaware that the murderer is standing just a few feet behind her, knife in hand. But Myers chooses not to kill this couple, instead leaving the house and going over to their neighbor's house, where he kills a teenager girl named Alice (Anne Bruner). A choice made for no apparent reason beyond the fact that Myers seems to prefer killing teenage girls. Like his sister when he was a kid. Alice isn't in his way, he gains nothing by killing her other than another victim on his body count.

Myers is played in this film by stuntman Dick Warlock, who based his entire performance on one moment at the end of the first Halloween, the moment when then-Myers performer Nick Castle was on the ground, sat up straight, then slowly turned his head to look over at Laurie. Warlock's movements are very robotic, and that robo feeling is driven home even more by the fact he keeps his body rod straight at every moment. His performance is good, but a little off from what came before, much like this movie as a whole.

While Myers continues roaming around Haddonfield, Laurie is being hauled away to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, where she's treated for her wounds by the skeleton crew the hospital has working on this night, including a doctor (Ford Rainey) who's drunk because he got called in from the party Laurie's parents are at. If you're excited to see that Laurie is being kept around, you might want to temper that excitement, because here's where the troubles start. Curtis is absolutely wasted in this film, spending almost the entire running time in a dopey haze as she drifts in and out of consciousness. She was pretty much only brought back to put on a wig (she had shorter hair by the time this one started filming) and lie down in a hospital bed.

Eventually the wandering Myers will overhear a news report that mentions the survivor of his attack (Laurie, that is) was taken off to the local hospital, so he sets off on a specific mission to go visit her. It works out for the hospital that they have so few people working this Halloween, because every single one of their employees will be dead by the end credits start rolling, with maybe one exception, depending on which cut of the film you watch. A character who seems to die in the theatrical cut after slipping in blood and cracking their head on the floor turns up alive at the end of the version that's shown on television.

Working at Haddonfield Memorial in this film are the rather useless security guard Mr. Garrett (Cliff Emmich); the aforementioned drunken Doctor Mixter; the head nurse Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford); airhead nurse Janet (Ana Alicia); a nurse named Jill (Tawny Moyer), who doesn't have all that much to do; foul-mouthed, pot-smoking ambulance driver Budd, who is played by the great Leo Rossi and is one of the standout characters, even gifting us with his own rendition of "Amazing Grace"; nurse Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop), who has been fooling around with Budd and sneaks off for some hydrotherapy time with him; and paramedic Jimmy (Lance Guest), who is just a little older than Laurie and keeps sneaking into her room to talk to her and bring her something to drink.

As the increased number of characters indicates, Halloween II was following the trends of the early '80s slasher boom and is primarily a body count picture. Myers only killed five people in the first movie, but he scores around twice as many in this one. And instead of the quick, simple, clean kills that the first movie had for the most part, this one has some designed to make you squirm and cringe. A couple characters get killed with syringes, another bleeds to death all over a hospital room floor, and worst of all is Karen's death - increasing the heat of the hydrotherapy pool up to dangerous levels, Myers drowns her in the scalding water, dunking her head in it repeatedly as her skins gets increasinly damaged. Yet somehow the skin on his hand isn't affected at all.

Before the scalding begins, there is a great, creepy moment between Myers and Karen, as she thinks he's Budd - who has actually just strangled to death - when he comes up behind her. He places a hand on her shoulder, she bites and kisses his fingers, which I would think wouldn't taste so great after he has killed so many people, but she doesn't mind. When she realizes it's a masked madman behind her instead of her buddy, the killing begins.

Carpenter was not happy with Rosenthal's initial cut in the film, feeling that it wasn't scary at all, and he handled the reshoots himself, adding in the moments of more explicit violence so the film could try to match up to its competition - which were, among other slashers, the Friday the 13th movies by this point. I love a good body count movie, but the sequel to Halloween could have gone in a different direction. I love a good gore effect, too, but my favorite kill in this movie doesn't have any gore in it at all. It's when Myers stabs nurse Jill in the back and lifts her off the ground on his blade, high enough that her shoes even fall off her feet. Then he pulls the scalpel out of her back, her body drops to the floor, and he continues on his way.

While Myers is whittling down the hospital staff and working his way toward Laurie, Loomis is off doing what he did in the previous movie, which is accomplishing nothing and having no idea what's going on. Ditched by Brackett after the sheriff realizes his daughter Annie was one of the dead teenagers, Loomis ends up hanging out with Deputy Gary Hunt (Hunter von Leer), a cool guy who is more helpful than Brackett was, but is really only in this movie so Loomis will have someone to continue to hype up Myers to. If you're concerned that Loomis already said all he had to say about Myers' evil mind and demeanor, don't fret, he's got more to go on about. None of it as memorable as the lines he had in first film.

In one scene, you'll see a female reporter taking a special interest in what Loomis is saying, making it appear that she's going to have more to do in the movie. Then we never see her again. That reporter was supposed to have more scenes, and in the novelization (so presumably also in at least one draft of the script) she even gets killed by Myers. She and her assistant, who's played by a Dana Carvey who was still five years away from being on Saturday Night Live, lost out on some screen time.


Never considering that Myers might go after Laurie again, Loomis accompanies Hunt to the old, abandoned Myers house, which is now being torn apart by locals, and to the elementary school, where Myers broke in to stab a drawing of a family and write the word SAMHAIN on a chalkboard in blood. As odd as it may be that Myers knows the word Samhain, it might be equally odd that Loomis can immediately launch into an explanation of what it means: "It means Lord of the Dead. The end of summer. The Festival of Samhain. October 31st. ... To appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals, were burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future." He has certainly done his research.

As nonsensical as it is, the Samhain reference does tie the film back to the ancient legends that started Halloween celebrations. There's also a nod to modern Halloween urban legends: the only other patient we see treated at the hospital is a young boy who bit into some of his trick or treat candy and got a razor blade lodged in his mouth.

The one thing Loomis manages to accomplish before the climax of this film is to cause the death of an innocent teenager, who coincidentally happens to be the boy Laurie mentioned having a crush on earlier in the night. Ben Tramer. Young Ben made the mistake of getting drunk at a party while wearing the same sort of mask Myers stole from the local hardware store, so when Loomis spots him he pulls his gun and chases the poor guy. The inebriated youth walks out into the street... where he gets mowed down by a speeding, inattentive Haddonfield police officer. Ben doesn't just get run over, though. No, the police cruiser smashes him into the side of a van, which for some reason explodes. Ben Tramer is burnt to a crisp - leading to some confusion over whether the corpse is Myers or someone else.

It takes the arrival of Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens, who would soon marry Rosenthal), the nurse who witnessed Myers' escape from the mental hospital, for Loomis to come to the realization that Laurie is still in danger. Marion brings him to that realization by dropping a bombshell on him, a twist that was teased in the film about 20 minutes earlier. After being told by Jimmy that the man who attacked her and killed her friends was Michael Myers, that Haddonfield kid who murdered his older sister fifteen years earlier, Laurie has a soft-focus nightmare / memory. A reminiscence of being a young, doll-carrying her girl when Mrs. Strode told her that she was adopted. Then soon after, still carrying her doll, Laurie made a visit to a hospital to see a silent young boy.

Carpenter and Hill had so few ideas on what to do with Halloween II, the script Carpenter was writing while wiping out six packs was so devoid of substance, they chose to drop in an unnecessary twist that retroactively alters the perception of the movie that came before. Halloween ceases to be the story of a force of evil targeting a young babysitter at random and becomes the story of a madman seeking to wipe out his family when Marion informs Loomis that Laurie is Michael Myers' younger sister. Laurie would have been two when six-year-old Michael killed their sister Judith. Michael was committed, two years later the Myers parents died and Laurie was adopted by the Strodes, and after years of waiting in the sanitarium Michael has escaped with the intention of finding Laurie and killing her. It was just a great stroke of luck that she had to drop off a key at the Myers house while he happened to be inside there, so he could see her and somehow recognize her. I'm not a fan of this twist at all, and you can tell that nobody involved thought Michael Myers was going to be coming back for more Halloween movies, because this decision restricted what could be done with the character from this point on.

Loomis didn't know about the adoption because the Strodes requested that the files be sealed, but I don't know how he missed the fact that this girl visited his patient a few years back.

The hospital staff is dead and Laurie has finally crawled out of bed so Myers can start chasing her around the building by the time Loomis gets there, just in time for what was meant to be the final confrontation with the slasher. Carpenter did his best to make sure these characters would die off - an explosion tends to do the trick. But when you have the unstoppable slasher continue to walk down a hallway while completely engulfed in flames, you can't expect the audience to believe he has really died when he finally collapses to the ground. That inadvertently signals that Michael Myers is going to be back someday.

Halloween II is generally well regarded, and since it starts right where its predecessor ended there are a lot of fans who basically see these films as one long movie, both parts on equal footing with each other. Rosenthal definitely went along with the idea of making them seem like one long movie - if he had any personal vision for how to approach this subject matter, he left that aside in favor of precisely mimicking the style of Carpenter's movie, bringing back cinematographer Dean Cundey (who turned down the chance to shoot Poltergeist to work on this movie) to make sure the two movies would look the same. I used to have a lot more love for this sequel than I do now, but as time has gone on and I've watched it more and more, the further my opinion of it has fallen. It's still a fine horror movie to watch, it's got a nice creepy atmosphere and the kills are fun, but it is a substantial step down from the movie that came before. You can tell Carpenter and Hill were struggling to justify continuing the story, because there is nothing going on here. Laurie has nothing to do, Loomis is still just stumbling through the dark, and the new characters are cardboard cutouts.

Carpenter got a paycheck for this one, which was his entire goal. Halloween had been a major box office success, but not much of that money had made it into Carpenter's bank account, so agreeing to write Halloween II was his way of getting some of that money he missed out on. He achieved that objective, but the result was a film he wasn't pleased with, which has story elements that he regretted. That "Myers going after Laurie in a high rise years later" idea probably would have paid just as well, and probably would have given him something better to write, but they took the more simplistic way out.

In the end, Halloween II is so well loved by so many fans that it can be considered a win. But while I get some enjoyment from watching it, these days I can't watch it without wondering how much better things could have been if different decisions had been made.

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