If you size up Halloween II on the mer­its of the tal­ent assem­bled, it should have been a pow­er­house affair: Halloween auteur John Carpenter not only pro­duced but co-wrote the script with pro­duc­ing part­ner Debra Hill, co-com­posed the score with Alan Howarth and chose the direc­tor, Rick Rosenthal, him­self.  He also got Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance, the two thes­pi­an anchors of Halloween, to return.  To com­plete the aes­thet­ic con­ti­nu­ity, ace cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dean Cundey was brought back to once again provide the stark, chilly Cinemascope imagery.

Despite all of this, Halloween II pales in com­par­ison to its pre­de­ces­sor.  In fact, it often feels more like one of the imi­ta­tors of Halloween rather than a prop­er con­tin­u­a­tion of the sto­ry.  With all of the assem­bled tal­ent, how could such a thing hap­pen?

The prob­lem starts with the script.  Halloween II was pro­mot­ed as “More of the night he came home” and that’s exact­ly the man­date the sto­ry­line fol­lows.  The pro­logue starts with the last few min­utes of Halloween and picks up where those min­utes leave off: Laurie (Curtis) is cart­ed off by para­medics to Haddonfield Memorial as Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) gets police to help him fran­ti­cal­ly prowl the streets for Michael Myers (por­trayed here by stunt­man Dick Warlock).  Unfortunately for Laurie, Loomis and any oth­er cast mem­ber, Myers is very much alive and still has mur­der on his mind.

The last 60 min­utes of the movie alter­nates bare bones attempts at plot­ting with mur­der set­pieces as Michael makes his way to Haddonfield Memorial and picks off any­one in his way.  Other char­ac­ters in the ensem­ble include nice guy para­medic Jimmy (Lance Guest), his randy co-work­er Budd (Leo Rossi) and Budd’s sexy nurse girl­friend Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop).  As the film builds towards its inevitable show­down finale, a motive for Michael’s tar­get­ing of Laurie is intro­duced as well as a poten­tial killing method for the seem­ing­ly unstop­pable psy­cho.

If the above syn­op­sis sounds clut­tered yet unin­volv­ing then it accu­rate­ly rep­re­sents what goes on Halloween II.  Carpenter and Hill’s script throws a bunch of char­ac­ters and plot threads at the wall to see what will stick.  Unfortunately, very lit­tle of it is com­pelling due to some fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed choic­es.  Laurie is side­lined until the last half-hour and is por­trayed as more a mewl­ing damsel-in-dis­tress rather than the indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, resource­ful hero­ine of the first film.  Loomis suf­fers from an all-over-the-map rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of his char­ac­ter, who either shouts at his fel­low char­ac­ters or bab­bles inco­her­ent­ly about Samhain.

Every oth­er char­ac­ter is a non-enti­ty that exists only to be slaugh­tered by Michael — and their sce­nes of point­less chat­ter weigh the film down because they have noth­ing to say and no life beyond the story’s set-‘em-up, slash-‘em-down needs.  The lat­ter half of the film tries to add some extra tex­tures to the stalk-and-slash antics but those bits fall flat: the “Samhain” stuff comes in from out of nowhere and the expla­na­tion for Michael’s fix­a­tion on Laurie is, in a word, corny.  The only rea­son the sto­ry­line doesn’t fall apart is because of base­line com­pe­tence: Carpenter and Hill keep the over­ly busy plot mov­ing for­ward with ruth­less effi­cien­cy… but it col­laps­es like a house of cards the moment you start think­ing about it.

The actors put in their hours but, as the above descrip­tion of the script should sug­gest, they have noth­ing to work with.  Curtis applies a nice emo­tion­al inten­si­ty to her work and does some good phys­i­cal act­ing in the last half-hour but the film doesn’t know what to do with her (she’s also sad­dled with a mem­o­rably lousy wig).  Pleasance throws out the kind of ham­bone the­atrics that he’d become known for in lat­er Halloween sequels, per­haps as a dis­trac­tion for how incon­sis­tent his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is.  Guest and Rossi are like­able enough in terms of pres­ence but their char­ac­ters are the kind of card­board cutouts you’d expect from a Friday The 13th movie.  Everyone works hard to keep the sto­ry on its feet but there is real­ly no one to root for here, main­ly because the weak writ­ing denies us that lux­u­ry, and that’s one of the most depress­ing aspects of Halloween II.

The best part of Halloween II — main­ly because is so cool­ly effi­cient — is the direc­tion of Rick Rosenthal.  Much to-do has been made of the fact that Carpenter reshot some sequences in Halloween II, amp­ing up the blood, but the seams don’t real­ly show for a few rea­sons.  The first is that Rosenthal has done an admirable job of absorbing a lot of Carpenter’s visu­al man­ner­isms, a task aid­ed might­i­ly by stel­lar pho­tog­ra­phy from Dean Cundey.  The lat­ter man is the true MVP on this film, giv­ing this sim­ple slash-flick exer­cise flaw­less­ly com­posed shots and a bril­liant use of shad­ows: one scene, involv­ing the dis­cov­ery of a mur­der vic­tim lit by an aquar­i­um, is wor­thy of study for how light­ing and angle selec­tion can make a scene scary.  The oth­er rea­son that Carpenter’s add-ons don’t stand out ter­ri­bly is that the sto­ry is so lack­adaisi­cal in its moti­va­tions from the begin­ning that it would be hard to see the seams any­ways.

In fair­ness to the film, Halloween II gets the job done if you keep your expec­ta­tions low.  It racks up a solid body count, has strong pro­duc­tion val­ues and main­tains a creepy atmos­phere from the first frame to the last.  However, the same could be said about a lot of medioc­re slash­er flicks from this era — and when you com­pare it to lov­ing crafts­man­ship and inspired nature of the first Halloween, Halloween II looks par­tic­u­lar­ly ordi­nary.  It has the joy­less nature of a film being done out of com­mer­cial oblig­a­tion rather than artis­tic inspi­ra­tion (by all accounts, this is exact­ly what it was) and for that rea­son, Halloween II will always feel more like a knock-off than a true sec­ond chap­ter.