Wednesday, 30 October 2013

RETRO FEATURE: Halloween II (1981) - A Worthy Companion Piece to the original or Not?


The Original

Taken from a BBC interview with John Carpenter in 1999 conducted by film critic Mark Kermode for the 21st anniversary of the original ‘Halloween’:

Kermode:There is also a confusion in ‘Halloween II’ in which there’s a relationship developed between Michael and Jamie Lee Curtis’s character which apparently justifies why he’s after her but the point is there isn’t any reason why he’s after her.”

Carpenter: Well you know that was the sequel. I didn’t want to direct it and I got forced into writing it and look it was 2 o’clock in the morning I had a six pack of beer and it was the only idea I could think of.”

The relationship Mark Kermode is referring to is a sibling one as the majority of us well knows. In a key scene of ‘Halloween’ (1978), Laurie Strode (Curtis) goes to the empty Myers house to drop off the keys for her estate agent father on the way to school. She is accompanied by little Tommy Doyle who she meets along the way and is babysitting that night. Michael Myers sees them from inside and fixates on Laurie. John Carpenter is establishing that even the most common mundane things we do in the daily routines of our lives can land us in mortal danger. This is a frightening thing in itself.


This is one of the many great scary elements of the first film the lack of motivation. There is little backstory or exposition to the antagonist of The Shape (Myers). One Halloween night a six-year old boy from a middle class suburban family in Haddonfield, Illinois decides for no reason whatsoever to stab to death his older sister Judith. Fifteen years later, he comes out of his state of catatonia and escapes his incarceration in Smith’s Grove mental hospital to return to his small hometown to relive his crime. That fateful day doing a simple everyday kind favour for her father, Laurie became the unknowing target of Michael in achieving his obsessive goal of rekindling that one specific moment in his life that is his sole driving force. Laurie’s friends come to the attention of Myers while he is stalking her giving him the opportunity to relive his crime repeatedly.


Michael Myers’ pursuing psychiatrist Dr Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) in a scene in which he visits a cemetery where buried is Michael’s sister he discovers that Myers has taken the tombstone out of her grave. Later in the movie’s climax Laurie discovers the dead body of her friend Annie the first victim of the film laid out on a bed in front of Judith’s tombstone in the master bedroom of the Wallace’s house where Annie has been babysitting little Lindsey. From the moment Laurie and Annie arrived at their perspective babysitting jobs across the road from each other The Shape stalks Annie the whole time. He knows where Laurie is but he does not for once during the whole night go over to scope her out and he does not attack her until she walks on over to investigate the break off from phone contact.


“…It was 2 o’clock in the morning I had a six pack of beer and it was the only idea I could think of.” No shit, John! Because that would have to be the only reason, you would make Laurie Michael Myers’ sister in the sequel. If it was the case here in the original movie then why did Michael not reserve the bed with the tombstone of his older sister for his younger one? Instead, he chose one of her friends who shouted out and called him a jerk when he sped by in a car. If that was the reason Myers went on over to sort out Annie first out of anger then it really does not sound like the behaviour of a psychopathic killer focused on the one thing of murdering his remaining sibling. Also considering she is easily reachable for him just over the road. These are the acts of a deranged lunatic wanting to relive a previous crime over and over again by using whoever comes across him to serve his homicidal repetition.


Because of the franchise that was born from the success of ‘Halloween’ it would be easy for viewers not to separate the sequels from it. It is even easier because of those later instalments and understandably too for audiences to misinterpret the original’s ingenious ambiguous ending which has been set up right from the outset. Throughout the course of the entire film, the late great genre veteran Pleasance as the unhinged Loomis constantly warns the other characters of the extreme danger that Michael Myers is. Smith’s Grove officials and Haddonfield’s Sheriff Brackett believe none of it. Given some sublime dialogue, the actor delivers great monologues about how Michael is pure evil and the devil incarnate. He is very convincing in his conviction that Myers is something other than a man. This serves as a narrative purpose:

I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes... the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.”


These powerful lines coupled with Donald Pleasance’s powerhouse performance are used as a superiorly effective device to help turn Michael Myers into more than just a mad psycho killer. Tommy Doyle believing that the Boogeyman is coming for him this Halloween night supplements this. Michael realizing this belief. To enhance all this is the superiority of the cinematography by Dean Cundey. John Carpenter has Cundey shoot The Shape in such a way that he becomes an enigma. Is Laurie seeing him or not? We actually start to believe that this unstoppable murdering machine although born of the world he is not part of it - a detached reality. Myers’ mask itself represents pure evil. It is subtle in its image of evil as you read into it as to what it signifies and is much like how Loomis describes Michael Myers “…blank, pale, emotionless”’. This all contributes to a supernatural theme with Michael as an ominous force of nature.


We come to the movie’s final moments. After firing six shots into Myers the devil incarnate falls off the balcony of the Doyle’s house and we get a lingering long shot of his supposedly dead body laid out on the ground of the front lawn. Laurie then asks: "Was it the Boogeyman?" Loomis replies: "As a matter of fact, it was." When he looks down and sees that Michael Myers has disappeared his expression is not of shock but like he knew this was going to happen. We then go to a montage of shots showing everywhere The Shape has been throughout the night, accompanied by the sound of his heavy breathing behind the mask and the film’s closing frame features the Myers' house. He is still out there and could be in any of these places. This is a representation of no matter what you do you cannot kill evil and that is what Michael is the embodiment of that - the personification of evil. It is left open ended to leave it up to the audience to interpret what he is and is not the gateway for a sequel. However, moviemaking being a business and business is to make money we got one anyway.


Halloween II (1981)

The original idea for ‘Halloween II’ was to have it set a few years after the original with Myers tracking down Laurie to a high-rise apartment building presumably in the city. Instead, with the setting changed to Haddonfield hospital it picks up literally right after the conclusion of the previous movie making for one whole night of terror. I cannot recall many sequels in the history of cinema actually doing this making this follow up truly unique in that respect.


The film opens with the sound of the seemingly strange choice of ‘Mr Sandman’ by The Chordettes playing on the non-diegetic soundtrack (the song also closes the movie). However, it is actually significant as it suits the premise to a T. It is relative in that Michael Myers stalks Laurie and bumps off the residents of the hospital one by one while she is heavily sedated struggling to stay awake and drifting in out of consciousness leaving her dangerously vulnerable to the present evil of the malevolent Michael. Director Rick Rosenthal took a cheerfully innocent song and turned it into something extremely creepy here. It is during her slips into sleep in which Laurie has flashbacks detailing vaguely about her adoption and visiting a boy in what seems to be an institution. This is after EMS attendant Jimmy (Lance Guest) who has taken a shine to Laurie tells her that the man who attacked her was Michael Myers the boy from Haddonfield’s infamous house who killed his big sister fifteen years previous.


After ‘Mr Sandman’ fades out there is then a recap of the original’s climax. When Loomis goes down to investigate the disappearance of Myers a neighbour comes out to see what’s going on and here we are treated to some more immensely quotable dialogue delivered by Pleasance thanks to John Carpenter’s and Debra Hill’s solid script:

Doyle Neighbour: What’s going on out here?

Loomis: Call the police! Tell the sheriff I shot him!

Doyle Neighbor: Who?

Loomis: Tell him he's still on the loose!

Doyle Neighbor: Is this some kind of joke? I've been trick-or-treated to death tonight.

Sam Loomis: (looks at the blood on his hand) You don't know what death is!


After Loomis runs off Carpenter’s famous musical score kicks back in. Upped in tempo the familiar piano melody from the first film is now played on a synthesizer backed by loud blasts of the heavier enhanced version of the organ parts all making for a darker gothic like version. It is an exhilarating piece of music and this version of the classic theme remains one of the most underrated music works by its filmmaker/composer.


The title sequence shows Rosenthal’s partial dedication to carrying over the stylistic traits of the original. John Carpenter’s first movie featured a Jack o' lantern against a black backdrop with the camera slowly zooming in on it through the entire credits accompanied by the director’s haunting and eerie theme music. As the camera closes in on its left eye, we see an image of a skull and then the candle light inside starting to dim and go out. Here the camera slowly moves in on the Jack o' lantern as a whole, the candle light starts flickering, and it rips apart to show the full visage of a skull. The camera carries on getting closer moving in on the skull’s right eye socket until it goes right inside and we are immediately subjected to the first post-title shot of the film a point of view from Michael Myers’ perspective. Much like the opening of Carpenter’s movie, this POV lasts a long time fluidly but just a fair bit less clocking in at 1:43 seconds as opposed to the stonking 4 minutes in the original film.


We see Michael creeping around the back-alleys including seeing Loomis picked up by Brackett in his patrol car as he shouts at him “I shot him six times!” Myers comes across the back of a house where the kitchen is situated. He sees through its window an elderly woman preparing a sandwich for her husband who is in the front room watching the TV asking him whether he wants mayonnaise or not. The camera then moves away from his subjective narrative and then goes into the interior of the house as she walks into the front room away from the kitchen to see why her asleep on the couch other half is not answering her. We see on TV the channel showing the Halloween horror marathon. This is carried on over from the original except instead of ‘The Thing from Another World’ (1951) it is now showing ‘Night of the Living Dead (1968). The camera then goes back to Michael Myers’ perspective for 24 seconds and we hear a news bulletin about the three murders committed just previous in the Wallace’s house. As this report is going out The Shape enters the back of the house through the kitchen and picks up the knife the woman was using for the sandwich making looking just how it did in the opening of the first movie when as a boy he picks up the butcher knife from the kitchen draw.


It is from here we start to see stylistic differences to the original. After possibly taking care of the old couple off screen hearing the woman screaming, Michael makes his way to a neighbouring house where a young woman has come out concerned about the old woman’s screams. The killing here features the first bit of blood we have seen since the very beginning of the last film when  six-year old Myers killed his big sister Judith. A stab of the throat ensues and the blood explicitly splats up her neck. This is the start of many graphically violent set-pieces. We see a hammer claw go through the top of a fat security guard’s head that makes me grab mine every time I see it. In a boiling hydrotherapy tub drowned and scalded is a nurse. There is an extreme close-up of a syringe needle going into the temple of another nurse’s head and another needle in the eye of the hospital’s head doctor. An IV catheter used to drain the head nurse’s blood supply is quite innovative on Michael Myers’ part. Last but by no means least, there is a scalpel through the back of the receptionist nurse with her being lifted with it high up off the floor until she dies then dropped to the ground. The victims are all round likable and believable characters much like the first movie and like those set of teens talk realistically about what young people talk about.


Unlike John Carpenter’s original, which relied a lot on lighting to create its atmosphere this follow up brings out the gory money shots instead. For example, the death of Bob in the first film in which Michael pins him to the wall with his butcher knife we see no blood at all as it is all done off screen with cut a ways. The violence in this scene is implied as Myers rams the knife through him and is effective enough without the blood, as we know what has happened so we do not need it spelled out for us. This scene is similar to the one in Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Pam’s impalement on a meat hook by Leatherface was possibly an influence on Carpenter here.


Ironically, John Carpenter himself inserted these murder set-pieces into the movie by doing some unaccredited ghost directing. After the huge success of ‘Halloween’ Sean S. Cunningham came along with ‘Friday The 13th’ (1980) with Tom Savini providing the SFX work for the visceral graphic kills and was a massive box office phenomenon. This all lead to the gory glory days of the early 80’s slasher boom with a whole host of nasty and gruesome slice and dice flicks packing them in in the cinema aisles. Made at the time the slasher sub-genre of horror was at its peak and after seeing Rosenthal’s final cut of ‘Halloween II’ Carpenter knew it was just too tame and was not going to fare well against the competition. This and other reasons why the original cut was just not up to scratch - 

Here is what John Carpenter had to say about it all in the book ‘Prince of Darkness’:


Click here to read about Rick Rosenthal’s original version at Wikipedia.


The other big stylistic difference despite the return of Dean Cundey as director of photography is that Rosenthal has him shoot The Shape to bring him right out into the light employing none of the original’s camera trickery. This coupled with the revelation that Laurie is Michael Myers' sister robs Michael of the entire supernatural Boogeyman mystic he had in the original. This would remain the same for the rest of the franchise. Dick Warlock though is a good replacement for Nick Castle as Myers. Aside from a slight more stiffness, Warlock generally nailed Castle’s movements. If the mask looks a bit different you might be surprised to know it is actually the original's William Shater one. It has just deteriorated in the three years between the two films. While ‘Halloween II’ is visually less rewarding compared to its predecessor due to the confinements of the hospital setting as opposed to small town suburbia this darkly lit setting does make it very claustrophobic, twitchy and really terrifying stuff with the slow moving methodical evil of The Shape stalking its rooms and halls.


A Worthy Companion Piece or not?

So is ‘Halloween II’ a worthy companion piece to the original or not? Well, yes and no. Despite the obvious fact that it is not in the same league of filmmaking and that it loses certain key elements from the first movie that made it so great it is also a very worthwhile slasher that stands out from the pack of the early 80’s slew of them. If they had to make a sequel to ‘Halloween’ and they did not they could have made one a lot worse than this and they did repeatedly with the rest of the entries in the franchise. Granted, if Carpenter’s heart was in it and he actually wanted to make a follow-up with him in the director’s chair they could have made a better one also. However, as it turns out it is an ultimately satisfying piece of terrific horror entertainment that would have literally ended the series in an explosive way. The final showdown with Loomis and Laurie fighting off Michael is breathtakingly tense as hell.


Not great but a rock solid decent entry that is a damn good time and would have sent the iconic movie villain of Michael Myers out on a memorable high. Unfortunately, money makes the world go around.

*** out of **** 

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

2 comments:

  1. Good stuff Dave, I enjoyed reading this and I actually watched the Shout Factory Blu just last night (preceded by The Exorcist no less) so the film is fresh in my mind. Worth saying right away that I like Halloween II - it has that wonderful early 80's atmosphere that no Horror film made today can recreate. I love the idea of the film picking up minutes after the original, and the revamped Halloween score is just great - that moment that you pointed out, where the music kicks in after Donald Pleasance snaps "You don't know what death is" is a fantastic cue. Halloween II is rare also that the second half of the film is stronger than the first - in most cases films of this type usually run out of steam and end up limping to the finish line. Not here though.

    As a sequel it's harder to defend - despite Dean Cundey providing a certain continuity regarding the mood of the original, the screenplay has little of the great dialogue from the first film, which makes Donald Pleasance's character seem like a spent force - he has almost nothing interesting to say in the film. Also, there's a lot of filler in the first half of the film - where Halloween took its time, at least it had interesting characters to engage with, but the sequel is rather wasteful, with whole minutes of the film going by with nothing going on. The twist in the story concerning Laurie Strode's bloodline is an unfortunate addition, and aside from a misjudged flashback/dream, thankfully it doesn't press on the film as it does in later sequels. And while I can just about ignore the fact that Haddonfield hospital is seemingly empty of patients (?) Donald Pleasance's mangling of the Celtic word samhain always grates on my ears - in Ireland we would pronounce it as sow (as in south) in !

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    1. Thank you, Wes. It's easily the best sequel of the franchise (not counting III here which is a good stand-alone entry) despite its flaws some of which you pointed out here and is one of the very better sequels to any slasher. 1981 was one of finest years for the sub-genre and this is definitively a highlight.

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