HALLOWEEN II (1981): Slashing More, Frightening Less

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.

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