A conundrum of success and failure: On HALLOWEEN II

Years ago, I got into an argument with someone in a video store who tried telling me that Halloween and Halloween II were originally filmed as one long movie. I guess this person hadn’t noticed Jamie Lee Curtis’ rather obvious wig in the “second half” of the film. But the most frustrating thing? After pointing out that both of these films have different directors, this person still refused to believe me.

This is my way of saying that Halloween II seems to enjoy lots of mileage for simply picking up right where John Carpenter left off.

Once upon a time, as a kid, I might’ve felt something similar for this classy slasher sequel. As a sucker for good continuity in franchise storytelling, there’s plenty to like about Halloween II. For starters, it goes to great lengths in order to recreate the sleepy midwestern town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Minutiae is everywhere: nosy neighborly gossip from the bored babysitter, the hot ticket soiree that every adult in town seems to have gone to, and even the way it ties a plot twist to governmental bureaucracy. This place feels as real as any of Stephen King’s fictitious bergs. Similar details are present in all the best Halloween sequels, because there’s an understanding that Haddonfield is as much of a character (and a victim) as Michael’s most ill-fated prey. Seeing the town react to the ongoing trauma brought by the boogeyman has always given the series some added weight and Halloween II excels at this, painting Haddonfield as a small corner of the world that’s been irrevocably altered by the boogeyman’s homecoming. 

With the passage of time (and the production of sequels), Michael’s look has suffered many ups and downs. Halloween II’s boogeyman is one of the character’s most frightening iterations, however. From the oily jumpsuit to his dirt-smeared hands, there’s something disturbingly tangible about Michael’s appearance. And while actor/stuntman Dick Warlock conveys a nice sense of menace, the movie occasionally reveals his vertical limitations, a reality that denies him the same amount of threat that Nick Castle enjoyed in the original role.

Halloween II makes a good faith effort to recapture the signature aesthetic of the original. With Dean Cundey back as director of photography, it’s perhaps easy to take Halloween II’s searing visual style for granted. Arguably, it’s a better-looking film than the original, and some of the imagery and compositions are stone cold stunners. From a room filled with glistening, cherry red blood, to a nightmarish recreation of the original’s “mask bleed” sequence, where details of the boogeyman’s mask gradually emerge from a background of crushing darkness, this is a stunning-looking picture.

But the most interesting thing about Halloween II is that, ultimately, it’s a conundrum of success and failure. All the elements are here: a game cast, a dynamite locale, and mean-spirited bloodshed–unleashed in an era where the slasher film regularly dominated the box office. The problem is that director Rick Rosenthal is no John Carpenter. So while Carpenter teased us to the edges of our seats by showcasing the boogeyman’s crawl through the shadows of Middle America, Rosenthal treads much the same territory without any of the suspense of the original, proving that you’ve got to do more than follow a blueprint if you want to build a dream home. Compare the sequence in the original where Michael stalks Annie in the laundry to a bit in the sequel where inept security guard Mr. Garrett stumbles around a storeroom. Everything about the execution falls flat. It’s hardly a well-crafted moment, and it feels more like padding than an exercise in tension. To be fair, the opening shots of Michael’s stealthy escape into suburbia are rich, shadowy, and beautiful to look at. And it’s why Halloween II still emerges as a classy affair. It looks and sounds absolutely amazing.

The script (by Carpenter and Debra Hill) is also frustrating. Carpenter is infamously quoted as sitting down to write this sequel only to realize there was no place to conceivably take it. As a means of keeping the story moving, he and Hill decided to give the boogeyman some motivation. And while I’ve always admired some of the ways in which later sequels would keep the franchise stalking ever onward, I’m not sure it was a good idea to make Laurie into Michael’s sister (and I swear, this isn’t me slyly embracing David Gordon Green’s late-stage revisionism). Halloween works so well because we don’t really know what possesses this psychopath to pick up a knife and murder babysitters. Michael fixates on Laurie after dropping the keys off at the Myers’ house, and it’s a chilling moment of randomness. But Halloween II asks us to believe that Michael’s crimes were essentially preordained for convoluted reasons. Does HE actually believe that killing Laurie is a modern day druid sacrifice? Or is his schoolhouse vandalism simple window dressing to serve compulsions unknown? Either way, this plot twist does more than retroactively color the original movie. It also voids its own opening by rendering the murder of the random babysitter completely pointless.

The rest of Halloween II is up to par, though. Check the terrific John Carpenter score (superior to the original), dig the brilliant Dean Cundey cinematography, and savor the wonderfully obsessive Donald Pleasance performance. For all its warts and blitheness, Halloween II remains an atmospheric slasher that succeeds in spite of itself. 

The cast is uniformly terrific, too. Sure, Curtis doesn’t have much to do this time around, but even in a near catatonic state, her Laurie is sympathetic and likable. Her protracted “h-h-help MEEEEE!” bit never fails to bring chills. Lance Guest is a delight as the [sometimes] ill-fated EMT, while Leo Rossi is hilariously smarmy (“Amazing grace, come sit on my face…don’t make me cry, I need your pie.”). Many of the bit players are afforded a moment or two as well, infusing this sequel with enough personality to keep things memorable, even through the lulls. 

None of this is meant to infer any real disdain for Halloween II. It’s just a curiously contradictory experience that works as well as it doesn’t. Rosenthal never manages to find the magic, but his picture isn’t without some real greatness (that needle-in-the eye sequence is a stunner, and the stealth strangling is probably the closest this comes to conjuring any of the original’s mojo). It is lessened by a somewhat disappointing story and lapses in pacing while being redeemed by modular inspiration. “More of the Night He Came Home” certainly delivers, at least on some level. It’s just a question of whether or not it gives you more of what you loved about the original.

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