Retrospective: Halloween II

John Carpenter hit it big with the release of Halloween (1978), which became the highest-grossing independent picture at the time, and it seemed that he was well on his way to becoming a long-term, successful filmmaker. Irwin Yablans, a producer for the film, was hoping to lock Carpenter in for a sequel. Carpenter, however, was against the idea of a continuation as he felt the story had ended.  Instead, he wanted his next project to be what would become The Fog (1980).

Yablans accepted that idea and came away thinking he would be Carpenter’s producer for this project. Carpenter had other ideas and went with a different backer. This angered Yablans, and in turn, he sued Carpenter for damages. They soon came to an agreement: Yablans would drop the lawsuit and Carpenter would make Halloween II (1981), but only in the role of being the writer/producer/composer since he was able to hire an outsider to direct. The first choice for director was Tommy Lee Wallace, who handled multiple aspects of production in the original Halloween (including suiting up as Myers for some scenes). It was an obvious choice for Carpenter, but Wallace was disappointed with the first draft of the screenplay and promptly dropped out. Soon after, the reigns were passed on to up-and-comer Rick Rosenthal.

Halloween II. Dir. Rick Rosenthal.

Carpenter’s struggles with Halloween II were immediate. Also returning was his writing partner for the first, Debra Hill, and together they would be the first filmmakers to try to answer the question of, “Is it possible to produce a quality sequel to Halloween that is unique from the original but still does not abandon the principles/concepts of what made it work, to begin with?” He was in a tight spot as he was being honest with Yablans when saying he had no idea how to continue the story.

Initially, he and Hill decided to pick up the story years later with Michael Myers once again stalking Laurie Strode who was living in a high rise apartment building. This concept never panned out, and they ultimately settled on a direct continuation, occurring the same night as the events from the original. Staying true to the original’s simple approach, the plot of the sequel can be summed up quickly: Michael Myers escapes after being shot by his doctor, Sam Loomis, and tracks Laurie Strode to the county hospital where he intends to finish what he started by murdering her and anything else that comes in his path. Meanwhile, the only means of stopping him comes from the search by Loomis. If that sounds a little familiar, it is, because it sticks very close to the plot of the first with only minor changes. It is from this premise that Halloween II’s problems begin.

Immediately, Carpenter and Hill seemed to write themselves into a corner by continuing directly from the same night in Halloween. Laurie, the protagonist, would need medical attention due to her injuries. This results in her spending over half of the runtime being incapacitated, with a healthy portion of that time having her sleep. With the main character out of the picture or a majority of it, the film struggles to find someone else to carry the reins.

Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis is partially up to the task, but the entire movie can’t revolve around him, especially since he is basically doing the same routine from the first where he is wandering around Haddonfield tracking Michael. As such, since Laurie’s friends were killed off last time, the job of carrying the film falls to the staff of the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital. Unfortunately, these characters just aren’t up to the task of doing so, at least with how they are written. Thanks to the financial success of Halloween, the slasher genre was in full swing at this point; a sort of arms race had developed between these films where the emphasis of time was increasingly placed on murder scenes and special effects over other aspects like characterization. Carpenter has admitted he gave in to this trend in writing this sequel.

The staff of Haddonfield Memorial is high in numbers but it’s hard to remember their names or much about them. They are primarily written as one-note and generally serve the purpose of being murdered. Any one of them who actually displays a personality, such as the character of Bud (the comedic relief), is killed off too soon. The film seems to be on a constant timer counting down until the next murder scene.

Laurie sleeps much of the time in Halloween II.

The character who receives perhaps the most screen time is actually Michael himself, which is in contrast to the “Jaws Approach” taken with him in the original.  Lacing up the boots this time is Carpenter regular stuntman, Dick Warlock, as Nick Castle either was not interested or was not asked to return. In addition to his increased onscreen presence, Michael doesn’t stick to the shadows or hide in plain sight as much. In many of his scenes, he is actually in full view, dead center of the frame. Carpenter’s decision to include more Michael is easy to criticize, but in his defense, the cat was out of the bag because of the last movie and it is hard to put him back in; this is called the “Jaws 2 Approach”.

Michael may have lost many of his “Shape” characteristics, but to compensate he has received a sort of character evolution. Whereas Halloween left the character’s supernatural state ambiguous, Halloween II throws that out the window, or in this case it’s walked through the glass door. His movements have changed as well, as the cat-like gestures have changed into something more slow-paced and robotic, a sort of creeping force of death. The mask he wears is the same exact modified Shatner mask from the first film, but much like the degraded state of its appearance, it seems that any sense of humanity Michael had left has completely disappeared. He has become basically invulnerable, able to withstand damage that would seriously take down any person.  Luckily for the film, he might have lost some of what made him special, but he is still a very intimidating presence.

“Breaking glass in your room again.”

Despite the many sins of the screenplay, Halloween II has many redeeming elements, but they often come with a catch. The film at its best is still just retreading old ground. The goal of making this film a direct continuation applies in more ways than one. Dean Cundey returns as the director of photography, and along with Rosenthal is able to craft a visual style very similar to what was accomplished in the original. Aspects such as lighting, color, and camera movement are closely mimicked, and their work in doing so is admirable.

As a whole, it is a step down from Halloween’s photography, but there are some wonderful shots despite a feeling of being derivative and unoriginal. This is especially true when some of Halloween’s more iconic moments (head tilt, face reveal) are straight-up lifted for use here, which just demonstrates a lack of ideas. The best visual moments are when the film tries to carve out its own legacy, such as the one-take POV shot during the opening moments or when Michael is stalking the hospital hallways. The later moments reflect a more classic style of horror where monsters would roam around their own castles; as a result, it feels gothic.

Adding to that gothic tone is the score provided by Carpenter along with his collaborator Alan Howarth. The tracks mainly reimagine Halloween’s legendary score but with more lean-in on the synth elements and less piano. Howarth’s primary contributions were in dialing in the sounds Carpenter was looking for as well as providing a sharper and edgy approach by exploring tonal textures. There are some new contributions that take a more ambient and sinister sound to augment the main themes. Old themes are given new life under this direction. “Laurie’s Theme” now has a darker connotation as if it’s invoking the innocence she has lost and the darkness that still approaches her.

POV shot from Halloween II.

One of the standouts from the score is the new version of “The Shape Stalks”, which is aptly titled “The Shape Stalks Again”. This new version of the track includes the original version in all of its glory but with layers placed overtop that give it a new identity. It’s as if Carpenter and Howarth combined two separate songs and then added a series of synth notes that continually escalate until they feel like an all-out assault on the senses. Even on repeated viewings, the actual chase scene featuring this track remains effective. There are a few moments during it that are particularly manipulative in its desire to make the viewer tense, and without the featured track playing it would be hard to suspend enough belief for the scene to work, especially with Michael literally inches away from Laurie in a situation where she should not escape. Personally speaking though, I fall for it every single time thanks to the score.

Elevator actually stopped him.

That scene is also reflective of how Halloween II manages in the scare department. Where the original spent a great deal of time creating terror through the use of space, openings, and long takes, the sequel takes a more claustrophobic approach, which is really the only pro to Laurie’s situation of being stuck in a hospital bed for so long. The audience knows Michael is coming for her, and as each second passes, he is getting closer. However, there is a lack of dread due to his overexposure on camera. The “he is everywhere” gimmick from the original is gone.

When Carpenter saw the first cut he panicked and stated that it was as scary as an episode of Quincy, which means not scary at all. Carpenter responded by personally conducting reshoots as the director and taking over in the edit. It was here that Carpenter caved into audience desires and added more kills and beefed up others by adding more slasher-style effects. Unfortunately, despite how entertaining these moments can be, the added and replaced scenes of blood don’t really enhance any of the scares and it is a shame that the Hitchcock style of suspense was not carried over in this sequel. The film does pick up once Laurie gets out of bed and Michael closes in, and an exciting third act saves Halloween II from mediocrity.

Halloween II. Dir. Rick Rosenthal.

If would feel incomplete to review this film and not talk about the elephant in the room: the twist. During the time Carpenter was writing Halloween II a little movie called The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was released. He knew he was force-writing much of it and was desperate to find anything that could get the audience’s attention. It was after drinking down a six-pack of beer that he decided to give Halloween II its “No, I am your father” moment with making Laurie and Michael siblings.

He does deserve credit for one thing: nobody saw that coming. The reason is simple: it doesn’t make any sense, nor does it add anything to the picture. In truth, it actually detracts from the original film by taking away the randomness of Michael’s motivations. The only purpose this revelation serves is by being a placebo. The twist tricks the audience into believing they have just received some information of substance when in truth they have been force-fed chalk. After that moment happens, the film continues as if it had not. It means nothing and it wouldn’t be until later films in the series that this plot device is taken advantage of. At least Carpenter regrets it!

Halloween II is a sign that the series was already starting to become creatively bankrupt (wait, there is how many of these again?) A disappointing screenplay and moments of retread lead to a sequel that acts as a come down from the creative highs and scares of its predecessor. There are redeeming elements, mainly due to the technical aspects such as the visuals and sound. Jamie Lee Curtis has less to do and Pleasance mostly does more of the same, but they are still appealing to the viewer. Even with more screen time, Michael Myers is still scary and intimidating, but the kind of fear generated here doesn’t attach itself to the mind as the original did which affect its longevity. When viewing, it is obvious how much of this project was forced from a creative standpoint, as Carpenter seemed to be pushing in every direction just to finish it. The film improves just as it is about to cross the finish line. When it does, it seems Carpenter just may have laid Michael Myers to rest once and for all, leaving the series feeling optimistic and hopeful with its future.

“I’m Not Going Anywhere”

20 thoughts on “Retrospective: Halloween II

  1. Carpenter’s motivations are beside the point. In fact, Carpenter, himself, is beside the point, so far as I’m concerned. I have always regarded Halloween as a lucky punch in a career of being mostly overmatched and completely dominated on the scorecard(boxing metaphor, probably wasted on younger readers….just my way of saying that Halloween is much, MUCH better than most of his other films). Halloween 2 is the quintessential slasher movie….not as great as the original, but virtually perfect on a scene-by-scene basis. The first one builds to a magnificent climax, and that is its’ strength. But this also causes it to suffer on repeat viewing. I find Halloween 2 to be far more enjoyable on subsequent screenings….I’ve seen it well over 400 times, and continue to find new things to appreciate. There are virtually no weak moments…I love it from start to finish.

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