Halloween II (1981)

The best horror sequel-to-be-set-directly-after-the-original ever made.

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Plot: It’s the end of the first Halloween film. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)’s friends are dead, murdered by the escaped mental patient Michael Myers. Before she becomes his next victim, Laurie is saved by Myers’ psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who unloads a round of bullets into the killer. However, his body rapidly vanishes, and it looks as though his night of terror is far from over…Laurie is admitted to Haddonfield’s local hospital, but she’s not safe there….

There have been eight Halloween movies. One of them is a classic, an expertly directed and crafted gem of the genre that, despite the odd unintentionally amusing moment, still manages to stand up remarkably well considering nearly every element of it became cliché. I don’t need to tell you which one of the series I’m talking about. There was also another which had nothing to do with the stalk and slash of Michael Myers, instead concentrating on a totally different story in the hope of using the Halloween brand to kick-start a series of ghoulish tales linked around this most wicked of holidays. That was Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and it was not a success, so that promising idea was killed off and Myers returned for the next five instalments. I have to say I’ve not seen Halloweens IV-VI, and hopefully, that won’t change. I did see the big comeback, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (which, if the ‘H’ stands for Halloween, means that the film’s full-length title is the rather cumbersome Halloween Halloween Twenty: Twenty Years Later) at the cinema, and as someone who grew up on 70s and 80s slashers but was too young to see any at the cinema, the film proved to be a fairly decent, suspenseful bit of fun. That seemed to have a definitive ending, so it was all the more baffling when Myers came back – again – in the reportedly appalling Halloween Resurrection, which features Busta Rhymes. ‘Nuff said. That movie was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who ended up becoming the only director in the series to have made more than two instalments. His first was way back in 1981 with Halloween II.

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Halloween II was made three years after the original, in which time the horror genre experienced a high old time dicing and slicing its way through countless scores of hapless teens. The original was relatively restrained in terms of violence and gore, but by the time of shameless knock-off Friday the 13th, blood was lashed out in abundance, and Halloween II reflects this hunger for gruesome scares with an exponentially higher body count and plenty of grotesque slayings. General (in fact, overwhelming) consensus regards this sequel as inferior to the original. I will not contradict that opinion. It is not as good. But, it is an effective horror. There are problems: in giving the apparently motiveless and mysterious killer a deeper backstory, he becomes more mundane. There are so many supporting characters/victims, that it becomes impossible to see them as real people, because they’re barely on screen before they get murdered. The film seems to reflect this excess of slaying by not even expending the time to give two of its victims on screen deaths. The film does not hang well together as a strong story. The original, whilst far from intricate or complexly plotted, did engineer and set-up its terror with remarkable skill, so even though not much happens in its first hour, the screws are being tightened so well that suspense is carefully maintained. Here, we just get a spree of killings.

Okay, the good stuff. For conceptual intentions alone, Halloween II is already a winner. Setting it IMMEDIATELY after the original was a masterstroke, and it is possible (if exhausting) to watch the two as a double-bill and still get swept up in the same atmosphere. The return of surviving cast members (and even the re-appearance of Nancy Loomis’ Annie as a corpse) greatly helps matters, with no dodgy re-castings to spoil the mood. The music is once again by John Carpenter (this time with series regular Alan Howarth). The only obvious jolt in terms of difference between the two is outright quality. For those, like me, who have the original firmly imprinted on their twisted psyche, it is perfectly possible to enjoy Halloween II without having immediately watched the original, and if anything, improves the quality of the sequel because there’s no having just watched a masterpiece to bring you down.

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Ah yes, the comedown. If Halloween was the ghoulish, thrilling rollercoaster ride, the sequel is the bit afterwards when you feel queasy. Remember when Annie got killed in the first one? Well, she had a family, you know  – her dad was the police chief, and he’s back this time, initially in charge of leading the manhunt against Myers before he’s told the tragic news about his daughter. As for Laurie, she’s no longer the resourceful, brave and defensive heroine – some have lamented that all Jamie Lee Curtis gets to do in this film is get pumped full of drugs and whimper with a limp. It’s true that she’s no longer the protagonist, but given what she’s just been through, is it not surprising that she’d be in a total state? Remember, this sequel isn’t set years after the original, but mere seconds afterwards. Still, for fans of Laurie/Jamie, this is further evidence of this sequel’s darker approach. Oh yeah, aside from the very end, the whole film’s set at night. So it’s literally darker too.

Myers’s own killing spree is in full swing. No careful deliberation or time biding. Oh no, he’s doing his thing as soon as the credits are over. Also, this film is substantially more unpleasant than the first one. I’m not just talking about what Myers gets up to. One kid gets slammed into by a police car and goes up in flames, all because he was wearing a mask similar to Mikey’s and he was trying to get away from a hyperactive Loomis waving a gun around. Also, this kid ends up being identified as Ben Tramer, who as fans of the original will know, was the kid Laurie had a big crush on. He was never seen in the original, but he’s dead now, so that’s some nice news Laurie will get to receive once she’s recovered from the worst night of her life. Also, there’s an unrelated bit where a mum brings her little boy to the hospital because he’s got a razor blade jammed in his mouth, presumably from one of those prank apples. Looks bloody horrible, and it’s got sod all to do with the story, but I guess it enhances the twisted atmosphere. We get not one, but TWO close-ups of a needle being put into an arm for sedation/blood test purposes, which always gets my teeth on edge.

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The effective soundtrack continues the themes from the original, but this time with greater emphasis on synthesisers – listen to the main theme over the credits. It’s shriller, more piercing, uncomfortable, with the occasional washes of synth providing disorienting creepiness. Also, whilst the opening credits replay the ‘pumpkin’ iconography of the first film, this time we go right INSIDE the pumpkin as it breaks in two to reveal a scary skullface inside.

Then, we get to the nasty business of the murders themselves. Now, it’s immediately tempting to blame Rosenthal for the increase in gore, but it was actually John Carpenter who insisted on the blood as he regarded the film ‘about as scary as an episode of Quincy’ beforehand. Ouch! We get a throat stabbing, a throat slashing, a needle in the eye (only the consequences of that one), a needle in the head (in close-up, and this one is especially creepy, especially as she’s being ‘watched’ by the corpse of another victim at the same time) a scalpel in the back (good one this, complete with superhuman lifting of the corpse), exsanguination (again, only the consequences), a hammer to the head, a major headache following a slip on a puddle of blood, a garrotting (seen through frosted glass) and ‘best’ of all, severe scalding by exposure to very, very hot hottub water. The filmmakers were clearly trying to work in the most inventive plateaux of murders imaginable, even if the scalding one had already been done in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. If that itinerary of nastiness sounds like overkill in more ways than one, you’re right, but at least all the build-ups are handled with pretty decent suspense. We’re not talking Friday the 13th here, where the results are laughable – Rosenthal conjures up an effective nocturnal atmosphere. Yes, the hospital is ridiculously understaffed, and yes, no one seems to have paid the electricity bill, but I’m willing to let that go, as simply, an empty hospital is a far spookier locale than a packed one. It’s also the first time I’ve seen a kid listen to the news on a ghetto blaster rather than music. You could say this is only so Myers can listen in and then find out Laurie’s location (and would they seriously give out info like that on the radio?). Various characters do go wandering off alone when they shouldn’t, and this less forgivable than in the original because now everybody knows there’s a killer on the loose. Sadly, even the best slasher films can never seem to avoid such silliness in their characters.

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The point-of-view scenes as we stalk the streets of Haddonfield are beautifully staged, with great use of widescreen photography (the original’s D.O.P Dean Cundey returns here). Also, Michael Myers’ face is seriously scary looking in this instalment. It’s literally the same mask they used in the first one, but three years later (in the real world) has altered it somewhat, and it looks very, very creepy. Rosenthal gets a kick out of loads of shots where Myers is in the background, be behind his victims or on the hospital’s CCTV, and they’re done well here, so I can’t get enough of it too. Performance wise, Curtis is effectively anguished, weary, terrified and disoriented, and she does well despite the more passive nature of her character second time around. Pleasance admirably avoids crossing the line into outright pantomime, remarkable given his apocalyptic lines and ‘this town is doomed’ approach. He’s definitely the main character this time round, and he steals the show. It’s good to see Charles Cyphers as the police chief, but he’s not around for long sadly. He’s replaced by his deputy, played by the delightfully named Hunter Von Leer. The rest of the cast are made up of victims. Lance Guest, who would go on to be The Last Starfighter himself and then grow a horrible beard and take on a vendetta-fuelled shark in Jaws the Revenge, is amiably bland as the nice paramedic who takes a shine to Laurie. Leo Rossi, who played one of the rapists (or rape instigators, I can’t bear to watch again to find out) in The Accused is a textbook definition of ‘the jerk’ in this, yet he manages to get it on with the one of the nurses, played by the also delightfully named Pamela Susan Shoop. Gotta love that latter bit of alliteration. She also gets naked for the camera, in a shameless bit of titillating slasher movie nudity, right before she’s scalded to death. You can imagine both moments getting a cheer from depraved horror movie audiences back in the day, both moments being shamelessly excessive, though her death is way too nasty for me to enjoy. Paris Hilton getting a pole in the head in House of Wax, that’s funny. This is just nasty. Oh yeah, some have mocked the fact that Myers’s own hands do not get scalded during this sequence. Should they? He’s survived six bullets (and will survive more later on), plus he also walks through glass. Face it, he’s not human. At least, not any more. Who else? A pretty blonde, a pretty brunette, a hapless (and, par for the course, portly) security guard. The stern (but caring) head nurse. The last one I recognised as being played by the actress who discovers Derek Smalls’s cucumber appendage at airport security in This is Spinal Tap.

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The final twenty minutes is classic stalk ‘n’ slash, genuinely tense in parts, especially when Laurie awkwardly crawls through an upper window, or when the lift takes forever to reach the basement, or when she has to hide in one of the cars after all of the tyres have been slashed. One moment where her location is given away by a recent corpse is teeth-clenchingly good. We arrive at a showdown between Laurie, Michael and Loomis where Michael, his eyes shot out by two alarmingly precise shots from Laurie, proceeds to lash out blindly towards his victim. It’s a bit silly, but it’s tense. We get a seemingly definitive ending with no hope for sequels, but noooooo, Michael came back another five times after the whole Halloween III stopgap. You just can’t keep a good homicidal maniac down.

So, Halloween II is a must for genre fans, a solid, middle-ground entry in the canon. Yes, it feels more generic than the epochal original, but it still has plenty of that Halloween ‘charm’ to make it a must-see for fans of the first one.

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