Retrospective: Halloween II (2009)

Author’s Note: This Retrospective is for the Director’s Cut of the Film

Despite the negative reception to 2007’s Halloween remake, along with a fanbase seemingly divided, the Rob Zombie directed film cleaned up at the box office. The experience was an exhausting one for Zombie, and despite attempts by producer Malek Akkad to get him locked in for a sequel, Zombie didn’t have any interest. The sequel was still announced, however, but according to Akkad none of the proposed takes worked. After a year or so, Akkad went back to Zombie, who now felt more open to the idea of returning. Once Akkad established a rule dictating that the rules of the past, specifically John Carpenter-isms, were gone and that Zombie had free rein to do whatever he wanted, Zombie couldn’t say no.

The film picks up two years later, with some caveats that will be touched on later, as the audience is brought back in the universe of Zombie’s Haddonfield to find the characters in peril. Laurie, who is in therapy, now lives with the surprisingly alive Annie in the Brackett household with Annie’s father, Sheriff Leigh Brackett. They are all three trying to move on with their lives and forget about the night they met Michael Myers. Speaking of, he is somehow still alive after getting shot in the head by Laurie from point-blank range. Michael is seeing visions of his mother that sends him on the ultimate path for revenge and a desire to bring his family back together again. Michael’s psychiatrist, Doctor Samuel Loomis, is cashing in on his experience with Michael more than ever before. He is on a press tour on the eve of the release of his new book, which holds details that will change Laurie’s life forever.

Halloween II. Dir. Rob Zombie.

These days, many fans of the series (or movie buffs in general) will say they wish that John Carpenter’s anthology direction for the series, which began and ended with Halloween 3: Season of the Witch(1982) had taken hold and that the endless onslaught of Michael Myers related sequels could have been avoided. Zombie’s two Halloween films are often brought up as casualties in this alternate universe full of creativity. What about when the Michael Myers related sequel goes into a different direction? This almost happened with the cancelled Halloween 4 script by Denis Hutchison, but it became a reality with Zombie’s sequel to the Halloween remake. Ultimately, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (or H2) is the most non-Halloween movie that ever Halloween’d. He finally took Carpenter’s initial advice to “make the movie his own,” even if it took a couple of films to get there. “Different direction” means more than just coming up with some silly cult origin for Michael or also making him a reality TV star. This means to take the series out of its comfort zone and maybe even dip into other genres.

There is a question that arises when a film in a long-running series does this, though: isn’t that the wrong approach? This pops up often in film debates these days, with a recent example being the issue of characterization in The Last Jedi (2017). Laurie Strode isn’t supposed to be a self-medicating, juvenile, basket case, is she? Is Doctor Loomis supposed to be this egotistical jerk that cares more about his self-image than the pain his self-glorification causes? What about Michael? Michael Myers is supposed to be no one, an enigma that is utterly devoid of character and certainly doesn’t have crazy dreams about his mother. Who does he think he is, that momma’s boy Jason Voorhees? Where’s his mask at, anyway? The answer to all of these actually comes in the form of a question.

Michael Myers, or what’s left of him.

Why the hell not? There is so much focus on what legacy franchises should be, but not enough on what they could be. Ultimately, this is the 10th Halloween movie, 11th if the Producer’s Cut of Halloween 6 (1995) counts. This is a series that has, for the most part, been guilty of beating a dead horse since the first sequel in 1981. Why not offer something new? Zombie, along with others calling the shots, made the right decision here in throwing out the checklist of things every Halloween movie must do. That leaves just one more question: did he actually make something out of it?

H2 is a story about change, focusing on how the events of Halloween (2007) have shaped the lives of the survivors involved. It’s largely a character-driven drama that has its fingers in the psychological horror genre as much as the slasher film. The plot isn’t as dynamic as its predecessor, where the story covered decades through expansive set-pieces and an ever-revolving door of characters, who more often than not were character-less. There are three major players, listed in order of screen-time: Laurie, Michael, and Loomis. Their individual journeys feel intertwined, although the movie mostly keeps them apart.

Laurie, perhaps, undergoes the most change from the previous film and is much more of a character this time around instead of a lazy Jamie Lee Curtis clone. She is deeply troubled after her run-in with Michael and her story is about her trying to cope with these emotions caused by her trauma, all the while attempting to maintain what sanity she can. Her scars are quite visible, but the most painful ones occurred under the surface. Her arc largely gets attacked for being immature, with an edgy, “goth” version of Laurie who does nothing but shout “fuck” all the time. This characterization may seem immature, but it is written that way for a reason. Laurie IS immature. She is a 19 year-old who lost many of her friends and family and is going to deep lengths to find an outlet to express herself. The Brackett family serves as a stand-in family for her, but does not substitute for the real thing. Annie, covered in facial scars from Michael’s initial attack, is constantly bickering with Laurie and the two resent each other. Annie, for having to put up with Laurie’s drama; Laurie, because Annie’s scars remind her of the attack. Despite their crumbling relationship and her annoyance, Annie still cares very much for Laurie and offers support when Laurie can’t hold her food down or has scream-inducing nightmares.

Laurie Strode suffering from PTSD.

Michael has undergone the least amount of change, but more is shown from his perspective and motivations. He has become a silent drifter, resorting to stealing food from gardens and trash cans when he can’t eat the occasional animal. In another controversial move, he remains unmasked through many parts of the film and wears a various layers of clothing. The newest addition to the character, aside from the cosmetics, are the visions he sees. These visions are populated by a younger version of himself (clad in clown outfit) and his deceased mother, Deborah, who is dressed in all white and parading around a white horse (also to be touched on later). Deborah speaks to Michael through his younger self and serves as his motivator, telling him where to go and who to kill. This leads to some particularly interesting character moments, such as the massacre at the Rabbit in Red – the exotic dance club his mother worked at. The club, in bad taste, advertises that they once employed the mother of the infamous maniac, and Michael makes them pay for their sins. The interesting part is, after avenging his family name by killing the owner, he changes his focus to one of the dancers. In a scene that is very disturbing, the level of violence he enacts on the nude dancer raises the possibility that Michael’s view of his mother isn’t so perfect after all. In fact, the aggression taken on the poor woman seems to be pointed directly towards Deborah. This is one of many parts of the film that make the viewer question just what they are watching, because they’ve never seen a Halloween like this before.

Doctor Samuel Loomis is an absolute joy to watch, because he’s such a scenery chewing prick. The Donald Pleasance regurgitation Malcolm McDowell acted out is completely gone, and is even symbolized when the new, suavely dressed Loomis looks at a picture of himself in the signature trench coat and declares, “No! This is the old Loomis!” He is a bit offensive, sexist, and an all-around bad human being; Malcolm McDowell excels in this type of pompous role. There is even a bit of social commentary through his character about the exploitation of tragic events, and the harm it causes. A particularly strong scene occurs as the father of the deceased Lynda (from the previous film) confronts Loomis at a book signing. It’s heavy stuff.

A different kind of Loomis.

In addition to characters actually having direction and being, well, characters, it’s the smaller bits that actually give them life. The dialogue is at times a miraculous improvement. An example is the dinner scene at the Brackett household where Leigh, Annie, and Laurie are existing organically together, which increases the relatability of the scene. Even the arguments between the two young women make their friendship seem authentic, with lines that are not only effectively well-written, but also well-acted. Even smaller roles are allowed to stand out; for instance, the random wolf-guy that one of Laurie’s friends wants to hook up with. Despite his short on-screen presence, he gets to display character traits and is actually funny when he is supposed to be. It’s the smaller moments like these that act as the glue that binds the bigger moments of the story together.

Of course, there are times that Zombie’s worst tendencies comes through in the dialogue. The redneck “Zombie-speak” is more limited, but not excised completely. It’s a huge turn-off to hear the paramedics early in the film force out dialogue about “fucking corpses,” as if they are going down the Zombie checklist again. Thanks, Rob. Laurie and her group of friends also speak some of the most cringe-worthy teen speak this side of Juno (2007), but thankfully Zombie also allows them to be human as well. It doesn’t quite cancel it out, but it’s an improvement. In lieu of the overall dark tone, there are some beats of comedy that range from dark to subtle. Loomis provides the opportunity for more light-hearted bits, but sometimes laughs can be dug from the darkest reaches of the film.

Dark humor should be allowed here.

H2 was shot on 16mm by cinematographer Brandon Trost, who provides the film with a sinister, gritty, but beautiful look. The lighting is very expressionistic and feels more experimental. Atmosphere is one of the film’s best aspects; it feels very much in line with the Halloween holiday, but distinct enough to set it apart from others in the series that excelled at evoking similar feelings. It’s ironic, by being the most different-looking Halloween, H2 has actually properly followed up the original by putting so much focus on the visuals. Many of the images have a postcard quality to them, which is a big improvement over the “throw the camera anywhere” feel of the remake. The sinister tone enhances the violence, which captures the intent Zombie had in the original. The violence is supposed to be disturbing. This is a mean movie and the violence/subject matter reflect this. At times, it can be gratuitous in the wrong way (Rabbit in Red) and others in the right way (the hospital). That seems like an odd sentence to type, but the latter example is intense and somewhat emotionally devastating. Zombie does use suggestion, though, not as much as he needs to, but from time to time he’ll string the viewer along just enough to let their brains fill in the rest, which shows an overall maturity in his direction. Admittedly, this could be an accident. This isn’t his first crack at off-screen violence, and he displays an improvement. Restraint goes a long way, and H2 could use a bit more, particularly in regards to pacing and showing too much.

Halloween meets the surreal.

In another move of Halloween blasphemy that helps to give H2 its own identity, the last installment’s issues involving the musical score are gone. There is not one Carpenter written tune that plays throughout the runtime. The film depends on original Tyler Bates compositions and licensed material. Bates does a decent job of providing appropriate music. It’s not as memorable as past Halloween scores, but maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. The images do the talking while the music helps to set the mood. Zombie has shown a particular talent in picking licensed songs in his previous works (“Free Bird” in The Devil’s Rejects) but has dropped the ball as well (“Love Hurts” in Halloween, 2007). He does well here, with “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues as a standout. Many of the actors have improved as well, with particularly strong performances coming from Danielle Harris as Annie, Brad Dourif as Leigh, and Scout-Taylor Compton as Laurie. There are some more inconsistent bits in this department; Sherri Moon’s Deborah ranges from appropriately creepy to unintentionally hilarious.

A big point of contention comes from the opening of the film, which leads into a big recurring aspect: the dream sequences. This early segment picks up directly from the end of the previous film’s director’s cut and takes Laurie to the hospital in a Halloween II (1981) nod. The tone taken with the violence is set right away as the doctors work to fix Laurie and everything is shown in explicit detail. After a rough scene involving the paramedics mentioned earlier, Michael awakens from his “shot-in-the-face” state and goes straight to Haddonfield Memorial to finish off Laurie. What happens after is a set piece that provides more tension than the Halloween series has seen in over two decades. It’s scary and disturbing.

Halloween II. Dir. Rob Zombie.

The contention comes from when it’s revealed to be Laurie’s dream, two years after the initial meeting with Michael. There are actually some clues sprinkled in that provide some wonderful visual moments and a vibe that makes things seem off. It does serve its overall purpose in showing how Michael’s corpse might have gone missing, and in getting us into the head space of Laurie and what she is currently going through. It’s mentioned that this is a recurring dream. Despite the effectiveness of the scene, it feels cheap just because of the time spent on the sequence. The rest of the dream sequences are eerie, but don’t always work. They have a music video quality to them that feels a little try-hard at times, but even then they get the point across and are essential the development of the characters and tone in general.

Halloween II. Dir. Rob Zombie.

The most damaging aspect to this movie’s quality is in the ending. Despite some inconsistencies with the plot, and some scenes that should have been refocused or thrown on the cutting room floor, the film is strong leading towards the climatic showdown between the three characters and begs for a better ending than what occurs. Without going into spoilers (which has been rare in this series retrospective), it feels rushed and anticlimactic, leaving the viewer feeling a bit meh about the overall experience. There is too much wasted potential, particularly in the interactions of the characters. The payoff, or lack thereof, feels random and unjustified. Zombie is known for shooting multiple endings throughout his productions, but this method has proven to work as he decides on the correct one despite the overall quality of that film. None of the endings here (which are available on the home release) fit. Zombie had the pieces lined up, but he couldn’t knock them down.

Zombie’s Halloween II (theatrical version) was met with an even worse reception than its predecessor (both critically and financially) and was quickly dismissed as the low quality black sheep of the Halloween franchise. The director’s cut shows not only an improvement over the theatrical, but shows the maturity in of its filmmaker, who stuck to his gut and didn’t bow to expectations for the sake of commercial value. It represents Zombie’s highest point as a filmmaker. The movie is a bit pretentious, but also brave. This is a brutal cinematic experience, but also an emotional one that shows how the horrors of the world impact the lives of those involved. Flaws still exist throughout, but this is a unique horror film that is vastly misunderstood. Watching the film almost a decade later brings David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) to mind; this is a film that portrayed an uncomfortable subject matter and explored it by using a supernatural approach. The abrasive tone put forth by Zombie harkens to Lynch’s misunderstood masterpiece much more than Carpenter’s horror breakthrough, and just like Fire Walk With Me, the audience soundly rejected the film to the point of near ridicule. History has shown that great work can still get its due. The tide has turned greatly on Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982), which was dismissed outright at release. Time will tell if Zombie’s final word on Halloween will fare the same way.

This is the place of the dead, we’re all dead here.

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