AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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HALLOWEEN II (1981)
“He became an obsession with
me, until I realised that there was nothing within him –
neither conscience, nor reason – that was even remotely human. An hour ago I stood up and fired six shots into him. He just got up and walked away….”
Director: Rick Rosenthal and John Carpenter (uncredited)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers, Hunter von Leer, Lance Guest, Nancy Stephens, John Zenda, Leo Rossi, Gloria Gifford, Pamela Susan Shoop, Cliff Emmich, Ford Rainey, Lucille Benson, Nancy Loomis, Dick Warlock
Screenplay: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Synopsis: Rushing to the rescue of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) fires six shots into her assailant, Michael Myers (Dick Warlock), sending him plunging from the second-storey balcony of the house. However, when he goes to inspect the body, Loomis finds nothing but a bloody imprint upon the lawn…. While its occupants are distracted by a news bulletin, someone enters a house. When Mrs Elrod (Lucille Benson) returns to the kitchen, she finds her knife missing and blood on her bench-top. Shortly afterwards, the young woman in the house next door discovers that she is not alone…. At the Doyle house, Laurie is lifted into an ambulance by two paramedics, Budd (Leo Rossi) and Jimmy (Lance Guest) – the latter of whom has a crush on her. At the hospital, Dr Mixter (Ford Rainey) declares that Laurie’s shoulder wound requires stitching and, ignoring the girl’s pleas that she not be made to go to sleep, orders her sedated. Meanwhile, Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) continue their search for Michael Myers. Loomis sees a masked figure and runs towards it, drawing his gun. The Sheriff must wrestle with Loomis to prevent him shooting. The figure crosses the street, only to be struck by a speeding police car, slammed into the side of a parked van, and incinerated as both vehicles explode. As Loomis and Brackett contemplate the horrifying scene, Deputy Gary Hunt (Hunter von Leer) comes running up with the tragic news that the dead bodies of three young people have just been discovered – and that one of them is the Sheriff’s own daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis). Having identified Annie’s body, the grief-stricken Brackett goes home to his wife, leaving Hunt in charge. Loomis insists that Michael Myers may still be alive, and asks that Hunt arrange for a dentist to meet him at the coroner’s office, where the incinerated body has been taken. Nearby, a second masked figure hears on a radio that Laurie has been taken to the Haddonfield Memorial Clinic; it heads in that direction. At the hospital, security guard Garret (Cliff Emmich) fails to notice that his monitors have picked up the approach of a shadowy figure in a mask. Garret releases the electronic doors to admit Nurse Karen Bailey (Pamela Susan Shoop), who is late for her shift, and is reprimanded for it by her supervisor, Mrs Alves (Gloria Gifford). Meanwhile, disturbed by the news reports of the three murders and his partner’s callous reactions, Jimmy goes to visit Laurie. He tells her all that is known so far about the killings, including the name of her assailant. Laurie recognises the name “Myers”, but can only ask in a mystified tone – “Why me…?”
Comments: Even as Halloween II opens with a replay of the climactic events of its predecessor, I thought it might be not inappropriate to open this review with an observation made during the final section of my review of Halloween:
“What is truly startling when watching the film these days is how patently its open ending was not intended to set up a sequel, but rather, merely to leave the audience with the uncomfortable feeling that ‘the evil’ was still out there.”
And in spite of what history has given us, and in spite, too, of John Carpenter’s cryptic on-set remark to Donald Pleasence, “Would you believe Halloween II?”, I still believe that initially there was no real intention in anyone’s mind of producing a sequel to Halloween. Let’s not forget that twenty-five years ago, the film industry was a very different place. It had not yet degenerated to the point where even a very minor degree of financial success is deemed sufficient to justify the production of a sequel; or where, still more insanely, sequels are put into production before their forerunners are even released. Prior to October of 1978, no-one would truly have contemplated the making of Halloween II. For one thing, whatever John Carpenter may have said at the time, there is no way that even in his very wildest dreams, the writer-director could have envisioned the magnitude of his film’s ultimate success.
More importantly, however, Carpenter knew very well that although “the evil was still out there”, the story of Michael Myers was over – done with – told. There was no call for a sequel to Halloween, because there was nowhere left for such a film to go. And so things stood for another three years. In the meantime, the world of the horror film was undergoing a profound – and profoundly depressing – revolution. Halloween’s success sent low-budget film-makers into a frenzy; and one of them, Sean S. Cunningham, hit upon a formula that could generate a maximum of profit with a minimum of effort and ability.
With its brutal simplicity, its disregard of story and character, and its unapologetic emphasis upon the bloody details of human death, Friday The 13th is, in essence, Halloween stripped to the very bone; and it proved to be a watershed in the evolution of the horror movie. When John Carpenter and Debra Hill finally gave in to the various pressures being exerted upon them and began production of Halloween II (and perhaps I should say here that I am unfamiliar with the exact sequence of events that led to their doing so), they found themselves working in a very altered atmosphere. And in response, the two of them made a critical decision: not to challenge that atmosphere, but to become a part of it. Of course, the tragedy is that we will never know whether that decision was right or wrong. Perhaps a Halloween II made in the spirit of the original could have held its own against its savage competition; perhaps it could even have helped stem the flood of Friday The 13th imitators; or perhaps Carpenter and Hill were entirely right, and the movie world no longer held a place for a simple fright-film like Halloween. Their sequel, when it appeared, was expressly designed to compete in the increasingly bloodthirsty marketplace of the early nineteen-eighties. Put succinctly, Halloween is a horror movie. Halloween II, in contrast, is a slasher movie.
Now, I want to be quite clear about something: when I use expressions like “horror movie” and “slasher movie”, I am doing so merely as a means of classification, not as a form of judgement. I, for one, don’t considered the expression “horror movie” to be a derogatory term; and in fact, few things tick me off more than film-makers who do verbal somersaults in order to avoid calling their works “horror movies”, even if that’s clearly what they are. And furthermore, I don’t necessarily consider the expression “slasher film” to be a derogatory one, either. I do, however, use that term to convey that a film has certain characteristics. While it’s true that I have yet to discover a slasher movie that I would consider a good film, in the usual sense of that phrase, I do have to admit that most of them manage at least an effective sequence or two, enough to rescue them from worthlessness; and moreover, that the sub-genre as a whole exerts a sick kind of fascination over me; one that draws me back to it repeatedly, against both my taste and my judgement.
The moment that John Carpenter and Debra Hill made the---well, I hesitate to use the phrase “artistic choice”; “commercial choice” is more like it; anyway, the choice to make their sequel a slasher movie, certain aspects of Halloween II were guaranteed: a sharp rise in the body count, for one; the concomitant introduction of a myriad of minor characters who have no purpose but to die, for another; and perhaps most of all, the ever-escalating outlandishness of the manner of those deaths.
The other notable aspect of Halloween II, which I would also consider to be a slasher movie “given”, is its overall mindset. Horror movies are, of course, perverse little beasts. As any fan of the genre could tell you – and as non-fans usually fail to understand – there can be a world of difference between the content of such a film, and its tone. It is quite possible for a film to scrub the entire human race and yet remain an essentially good-natured work; while conversely, there are films in which no-one dies, and yet leave the viewer feeling in urgent need of a rub-down with a strong disinfectant.
The disparity in attitude between Halloween and Halloween II could scarcely be greater. The former, in spite of its dead teens, is basically a fun little exercise in fright and suspense; the latter, one of the most mean-spirited slasher movies of my admittedly limited experience. Indeed, the film as a whole seems infected with the resentment and negativity with which Carpenter and Hill undertook the project; and while there are quite a number of scenes in the film as nasty as they are improbable – like the draining of Mrs Alves, or the syringe of death – three in particular stand out. One is the fiery demise of the unfortunate Ben Tramer – the object, if memory serves, of Laurie Strode’s hesitant desires in Halloween – which is everything that the death scenes in the original film were not: contrived, grotesque, and needlessly cruel; similarly, the lingering close-ups of Ben's incinerated corpse are only there for their gross-out value. The best that can be said for all this is that it serves a purpose, of sorts, in both temporarily diverting Sam Loomis from his pursuit of the real Michael, and illustrating, in its lead-up, just how unhinged his non-fatal encounter with his quarry has left the good doctor.
You would be hard put, however, to find purpose – other than the purely exploitative – in the demise of Nurse Karen Bailey, notoriously boiled to death in the hospital’s hot tub. (I can only repeat here my objection to the tanning bed in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer: why would a hospital have a hot tub capable of getting that hot? – and that quickly?) This sequence is truly ugly, with long, loving shots of Ms Bailey’s hideously blistered face interspersed with equally loving shots of her bare breasts. (Which shouldn’t be bare: when Michael goes to work, Karen’s towel is beneath her arms; when he finishes, it’s mysteriously around her waist.) But even this – legitimised in genre terms by Ms Bailey’s attempt to have illicit sex in the killer tub – pales besides the moment that for me, sums up in a single shot everything that is wrong with Halloween II: a close-up of a small boy who has a razor blade embedded bloodily in his mouth - even though part of the point of Halloween is, surely, that Haddonfield is a place where that kind of thing wouldn’t happen. (Or if it is, would there really be so much unsupervised trick-or-treating going on?) Now, I’m not one of those who consider children to be off-limits when it comes to miserable horror movie fates, but this scene is beyond the pale in its sheer gratuitousness. I know I use that word a lot – “gratuitous sex”, “gratuitous violence” – but this is one time when it is dictionary-definition appropriate. The razor scene is without reason, cause, or justification. It is the work of some truly desperate film-makers.
But even aside from these scenes – and granting that my reaction to them is largely a matter of taste – Halloween II has a number of serious problems. One of the things about this film that annoys a great many people intensely is that it commits the prime sequel sin of re-writing its predecessor. The whole point of Halloween is, after all, that its events have no point. There is no real motive for what Michael Myers does. Laurie and her friends are targeted not because of anything they do, or anything they are, but simply because Laurie happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this works wonderfully, both because the very randomness of it is frightening, and because we know only too well that this is often the way things happen in real life. Laurie Strode’s plaintive, “Why me?” is a question that never should have been answered.
But the beautiful simplicity of Halloween has since been retrospectively tainted, by its sequel’s insistence that Michael’s pursuit of Laurie is motivated by the fact that she is actually his sister, who was adopted in early childhood by the Strodes, and whose origins were kept a strict secret from everyone, including Sam Loomis – and Laurie herself. There is, truly, no way to quantify the sheer wrong-headedness of this idea – which I can readily believe was the result, as John Carpenter claims, of an attempt to overcome terminal writer’s block with the help of a six-pack or two. The mystery is that, once sober, Carpenter didn’t see the damage he was doing to his earlier work; if indeed he ever got sober during the production of this film.
(While it is customary to talk about the influence of Friday The 13th upon Halloween II, I can’t help wondering whether Friday The 13th Part 2, which was released early in 1981, wasn’t just as influential. John Carpenter may well have thought that if horror fans were prepared to swallow that film’s 180-degree about-face, then they’d swallow anything.)
And in fact, this particular “twist” does just as much damage to Halloween II itself as it does to the original film. The shadowy characterisation of Michael in the first film – and the fact that we get that characterisation via the obviously unbalanced Dr Loomis – allows his actions to pass without attracting too much critical scrutiny; but once they start broadening Michael’s background, he becomes too concrete, and just too much of a contradiction. Either Michael is an essentially supernatural entity, “the Boogeyman”, or he is Judith Myers’ psychotic and sexually outraged younger brother, but not both at once, surely? And if it is as the latter that he is stalking Laurie Myers Strode specifically, then how could he possibly have known that Laurie was his sister in the first place?
But the revisionism of Halloween II, and of the character of Michael Myers, doesn’t stop there, of course. Another objectionable touch is Michael's fondling of Karen Bailey before he kills her, an action entirely at variance with the child-man concept of the first film. Above all, however, this film is infamous for its completely out-of-the-blue suggestion that Michael is, of all things – a Druid!? Much as I disagree with the question of Laurie Strode’s secret identity, at least I can see what might have put it into the film-makers’ heads, and where they were trying to go with it. But this--- If ever there was a definitive, “What were they thinking!?” moment, this is surely it. While you might just be able to believe that a boy could develop a homicidal psychosis by the age of six, are we seriously expected to believe that he found the time to become a Druid as well? Or perhaps Druids are born, not made? I don’t know…. And besides, I don’t even think they got their inference of Druidism right. The term is thrown around wildly enough, I know, but I’ve always been under the impression that “Samhain” was just some kind of harvest festival….but I might well be wrong about that.
(Also - isn't it pronounced “Sah-win”?)
The Druid twist is far from the only sign of desperation and negligence to be found in Halloween II. The level of emotional involvement of its makers – or at least, of its writer-producers; Rick Rosenthal, I’m sure, meant well – is perhaps best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, which features not one, but two flagrant continuity errors. Dr Sam Loomis spends a considerable amount of time in the early section of the story wailing to anyone who will listen, “I shot him six times! Six times!” The good doctor underestimates himself: as it happens, despite wielding a revolver, he actually shoots Michael seven times. Talk about a tone-setting moment! This multiple shooting precipitates Michael’s dramatic plunge off the balcony of the Doyle house….which happens at the front of the house, not, as it was in Halloween, the back! Worse is to follow, with what looks like another continuity error, but isn’t. Michael’s first act upon shrugging off his bullet wounds is to invade a neighbouring house and steal a knife. The absence of the knife, and some shed blood, are discovered by an elderly housewife, who screams. This in turn is heard by the woman’s young female neighbour, who will shortly become the film’s first victim. And pointless as this killing is, this is not my objection to the scene. We first see the neighbour, Alice, as she is learning about the murders, first from a friend over the phone, then via a radio report.
The trouble is – the bodies haven’t been discovered yet. The actual discovery occurs simultaneously with the roasting of Ben Tramer; it is immediately subsequent to that event that Sheriff Brackett gets the dreadful news about his daughter. (And I love the fact that the Sheriff identifies Annie’s body in the middle of a crowded street!) It is fairly obvious that the stealing of the knife, and the killing of Alice, were initially intended to occur later in the film – probably after Michael hears about Laurie being in the hospital – and that the scenes were transposed during post-production into the opening sequence. The question is, why? My guess is that it was done to get the film’s body count kick-started. Compare this approach with that of Halloween itself, which was confident enough simply to tell its story. There was no perceived need to throw in some meaningless violence to spice things up; and consequently, the first onscreen killing does not occur until it is dramatically valid, about halfway through. Halloween II, on the other hand, has no real story; it has only dead human beings to offer the viewer, and so naturally wants to get down to business as quickly as possible. Moreover, Michael is no longer content to merely strangle and stab – two modes of killing fully in keeping with the original child-in-a-man’s-body conception of the character. Instead, the film again concedes its own hollowness by trying to keep the viewer’s attention by serving up a smorgasbord of improbable deaths.
So, have I finished going to town on this film? Hell, no! I haven’t even touched upon the film’s single biggest idiocy – well, second biggest, after the Druidism: the world’s darkest, emptiest, most under-staffed hospital! Even the people who like Halloween II, and manage to overlook what I consider to be its flaws and shortcomings, usually have a tough time swallowing the Haddonfield Memorial Clinic, which seems to have no patients at all beside Laurie Strode – except for a nursery full of newborns, and even they don’t seem to have parents. It’s the kind of hospital where the lights don’t work, the phones are out of order, the doctors (both of them) are either drunk or dozing in front of the television, and where nurses figure that if they leave a door open, they’ll be able to hear any (non-existent) patient who calls for help while they’re romping naked in the hydrotherapeutic hot tub with their sleazy paramedic boyfriends. Puh-leese! Theoretically, I agree that a hospital is a fabulous setting for a horror film. Who isn’t, deep down, scared of hospitals? But to make the setting work, you have to get around the fact that hospitals never truly shut down; that they are lit, and populated, and busy at all hours of the night and day. Halloween II doesn’t even try.
Now – I’ve said that I consider Halloween II to be a slasher film; and I have also said that most slashers, while not working for me overall, generally offer up something to make them worthwhile; and so it is here. The one thing that I truly like about this film is the contribution of Donald Pleasence. Melodramatic? Yes. Over the top? Absolutely! But, dammit, it’s also fun! The one positive aspect of the screenplay of Halloween II is the endless number of quotable lines it serves up for Sam Loomis, and the sheer entertainment value that Pleasence managed to wring out of them (“You don’t know what death is!”). Like many British actors, the man was simply a pleasure to listen to. His work in Halloween II is, to me, rather reminiscent of that of Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch: dubious films, both, but close your eyes and open your ears and they very nearly work. In fact, Pleasence’s verbal performance is so very engaging, he almost manages to sell that idiotic “Samhain” speech. Almost. I enjoy the fact that Halloween II puts so much emphasis upon Loomis as a character, and that at the end, he gets to be a hero. Pity that another bunch of sequels had to come along and spoil it.
But this shift of focus onto Sam Loomis means, of course, a shift away from somewhere else – namely, the problematical contribution to the proceedings of Laurie Strode herself. Emotionally drained by the horrifying events of earlier in the evening, and zonked to the gills with drugs despite her pleas not to be sedated, Laurie is the most passive of heroines, and spends most of the film just lying around waiting to be attacked. While at the last she does manage to drag herself out of bed, and to play a crucial role in the film’s climax, for about three-quarters of the film she might as well not be there at all. (And even this is oddly staged: one moment Laurie is catatonic after suffering a reaction to her medication, the next she's limping down the corridor with Michael in pursuit.) After the energy of Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance in Halloween, this is a real let-down. Of course, if we’re honest, after Laurie’s experiences she would end up flat on her back and helpless – but nevertheless, it is extremely annoying. Halloween II could scarcely have picked a worse time to turn logical! As I said earlier, I am not cognisant with the behind-the-scenes negotiations that preceded the production of this film, so I don’t know what were the terms of Curtis’s reappearance. Clearly, however, either she didn’t want to do the film in the first place, and consented to only the most minimal involvement, or having lured her back, Carpenter and Hill then realised they didn’t really have anything for her to do. Whatever the truth, it’s a shame.
Being a body count film, Halloween II didn’t provide its supporting cast with many opportunities for actual acting, but a couple of good performances managed to sneak through anyway. Charles Cyphers’ reprisal of Sheriff Brackett is sound, and his retirement from the proceedings after the discovery of Annie’s body rather moving. I also like Hunter von Leer’s contribution as Deputy Hunt, a man swiftly realising that he is way out of his professional depth but doing his best nevertheless. Nancy Stephens’ return as Marion Chambers is welcome; Gloria Gifford is convincingly authoritative as Mrs Alves; and John Zenda offers a nice supporting turn as the Marshall with the unenviable job of removing Sam Loomis from Haddonfield – and who makes the fatal error of assuming that a psycho killer is dead just because he should be….
The single best idea in Halloween II was to pick up exactly where Halloween left off, and with many of the same players. To an extent at least, this ensured some emotional investment in the project on the part of the fans of the original. (And this decision may, in turn, have influenced the direction of the second and third Friday The 13th sequels.) It was, however, the re-recruitment of someone behind the camera that was responsible for giving this misconceived project a real touch of class. The single outstanding virtue of Halloween II is Dean Cundey’s cinematography; the film looks fabulous, probably better than it has any right to. The opening sequence documenting the pursuit of Michael through the dark streets of Haddonfield by Loomis and the Sheriff, as trick-or-treaters continue to go about their business, is full of atmosphere – as are the climactic scenes at the hospital. The shadowy corridors of Haddonfield Memorial might be dramatically ridiculous, but Cundey wrings the maximum amount of eeriness out of them. Everything about the film’s closing scenes is geared towards exploiting the fear and paranoia of the viewer.
Otherwise, Halloween II is, technically, a mixed bag. John Carpenter’s seminal score from Halloween itself makes a reappearance, but it’s been souped-up electronically, and isn’t nearly so effective. (Oh, and speaking of inappropriate music--- “Mr Sandman”!? What was that about? Now, “Enter Sandman”, possibly….) The actual direction of Halloween II is a real point of contention. It is evident that for the most part, Rick Rosenthal tried to duplicate the visual style of the original film. He probably thought it was the most artistically valid thing to do. How angry and frustrated he must have been, then, to have John Carpenter declare that that wouldn’t do, and to re-shoot chunks of the film himself! – particularly after, supposedly, Rosenthal was hired because he and Carpenter were “philosophically compatible”.
But despite the re-takes, and the gruesomely emphasised murders, the quieter moments of this film are again the most memorable ones. Rosenthal reproduces the famous “fade in” from Halloween, and it is just as effective here, if less unexpected; once again we have a scene where Laurie pounds hysterically on a locked door as Michael closes in on her from a distance; and a typical Halloween night film makes a cameo appearance: Night Of The Living Dead, presumably screening after The Thing and Forbidden Planet. Rosenthal does manage to create a new and startling image during the hospital climax, with Michael seemingly weeping tears of blood; while the shot of the film is – to a point – an admirable piece of subtlety. Nurse Karen Bailey is late for work, and is reprimanded for it by Mrs Alves. This scene takes place near the hospital’s nursery, and with the two women well fore-grounded – so much so, you nearly don’t notice that Michael is inside the nursery. It’s a beautiful, eerie moment – and then Rosenthal all but ruins it by cutting to Michael’s point of view.
And this brings me to something that really struck me upon this viewing of Halloween II: its shift in perspective. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the original film and its sequel is that “the evil” is no longer something outside the characters – and by extension, us. Whereas the story of Halloween is told primarily from the viewpoints of Sam Loomis and Laurie Strode, one as he pursues that “evil”, the other as she becomes aware of it, in Halloween II, large stretches of the action are seen exclusively through Michael’s eyes. Above all else, it is this identification with the killer rather than with his potential victims, and the very facelessness of those victims, that puts Halloween II on the darker side of the horror movie world’s philosophical divide.