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Halloween II (1981)

Halloween IIThere has been one conspicuous omission from my reviews of the Halloween franchise, and it is this first sequel.  The reason for this is, one, I have never really written a full review of it before, and secondly, I’ve never really cared for it at all.  This stems from the fact that it has very little to offer me as either a fan of John Carpenter’s original or as a big slasher movie fan.  Simply said, so much of it just doesn’t appeal to me.  From the reworked score to the bland hospital environment to the clear shift from atmospheric horror to a reliance on gore, this isn’t the Halloween sequel that I want to see.  Even the ones that are technically worse films, they have an entertainment value that I can indulge in on some level.  There are many reasons why this film doesn’t even give me that much.

Picking up exactly where the first film left off, it seems the inhuman Michael Myers is still very much alive and out for more revenge as he stalks the deserted halls of the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). As he gets closer to his main target, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) discovers the chilling mystery behind the crazed psychopath’s actions

It might sound somewhat unfair, but the vast majority of my gripes with this film are in comparison to John Carpenter’s original.  However, with the fact that this film picks up exactly where the first left off, it demands that comparison because it is trying to convince us that this is a seamless continuation of that movie.  The problem is that it doesn’t feel seamless in many aspects, and they are largely on the technical side.  Still, there are issues with the quality of the script, and just the effectiveness of Halloween II as a horror movie that I wish to address.

To be straight up honest, I do not like the score for this movie at all.  Yes, they are the same themes with John Carpenter and Alan Howarth doing the score, but the overly saturated synthesizer sound has never been to my liking.  It doesn’t sound like a horror movie score to me.  It sounds silly and over bloated.  The first film’s score felt far more subtle and artistically applied.  To me, the score for Halloween II just evokes no sense of tension, suspense, or chilling atmosphere for me.  There are many instances where a strategic use of score could have been utilized to craft great suspense and nerve-racking tension, but instead, it’s dead silent.  This score relies more heavily on the musical stingers, and feels poorly implemented overall.  Carpenter’s scores usually craft a brilliant soundscape for a unique auditory experience, but there seems to be a significant lack of score in the moments where it should flourish.

Now, this is a very well shot movie, done so again by acclaimed director of photography Dean Cundey.  It has some very good lighting schemes in certain scenes, and the continued use of the Pana-glide camera work is excellent.  Director Rick Rosenthal does make an effort to emulate John Carpenter’s visual style, but I have always felt that the color palette of Halloween II was never quite right when compared to the first film.  The hospital interiors feature a terribly bland color scheme, as most hospitals do, and because of this, it doesn’t have any of the visual pop of the first movie.  There are no daytime scenes to soak in that late autumn feeling as this is all set at night, and really, it feels like it could be any night of the year.  The film also lacks the atmospheric blue tones that Cundey used in the original as well as several other films he’s shot.  Also, when I look at this film in certain instances, the lighting just doesn’t look quite right.  The feeling, the mood, the balance of light and dark, at times, doesn’t feel consistent with the first film.  This is especially evident when new footage is spliced into the revisited footage from the ending of Halloween.  It’s not even knowing that it is new footage married with old footage.  Back to the Future, Part II did this sort of thing seamlessly, and was also shot by Dean Cundey.  These issues, I think, also stem from the fact that the first movie was a late 1970’s independently produced film while this is an early 1980’s studio produced sequel.  It is inevitably going to have a slightly different visual feel due to extra money, studio mandates, a shift in filmmaking aesthetics, and a change of directors.

Even then, Rick Rosenthal’s film was tampered with by the studio and Carpenter as they felt it was too tame in comparison to other recent slasher films.  While I can see the clear evidence of that since there is a definite lack of suspense, although much of that is, again, due to the absence of a score in key scenes, this is a sequel that didn’t stay true to its predecessor.  Yes, of course, this is a slasher film that is going to follow many of the tropes of the genre which were originated in Halloween.  However, this sequel feels like it’s trying to fit in with the Friday The 13th style slasher film craze instead of staying true to the Halloween style slasher.  The genre exploded after the success of Friday The 13th, and it became very indulgent in gore and sexuality.  It essentially became exploitative in that regard, and this film embraced that mentality whereas Halloween was a film built entirely on suspense and atmosphere.  There is some suspense here, but it is especially sparse.  Instead of holding to what made Halloween successful and effective in the first place, Halloween II tries to conform to what was popular at the time, and thus, feels second rate to me.  Rick Rosenthal tries to match Carpenter’s style in many regards, but then, Carpenter comes in and tries to veer it away from what he originally did.  It’s certainly not a film that is one director’s vision, and even then, Rosenthal isn’t given much to work with to make this as good as the first movie.  I really didn’t get the feeling that there was enough creative effort put into this film to make it succeed in the creative vein.

One of the bigger problems here is that Halloween II feels scattered.  The first film had a distinct plot progression as elements gradually converged with one another in a tight, cohesive way.  This sequel is extremely loose in that regard.  Laurie is essentially a stationary target throughout the movie, spending a good chunk of it asleep or screaming, but Michael Myers roams about the hospital killing everyone else while Loomis is out scouring the streets for Michael.  No longer is Loomis in sync with his prey anticipating his psychology and instinctual impulses.  He’s tagging along with the police instead of driving the narrative forward.  Even the majority of his dialogue feels retreaded from the first movie as he re-explains the history of himself and Michael, and his talk about evil incarnate.  It entirely feels like it is only there in case someone watching this movie never saw the first one.  Even Donald Pleasance seems a tad monotonous delivering this reworked dialogue.  While his performance is still of a high quality, there’s just nothing new for him to do here.  The film also hardly feels like it’s building any momentum.  John Carpenter reportedly had a very difficult time coming up with a story for this film while writing the script, and it really does show.  Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode have next to nothing to do here except uncover newly conceived secrets about Michael and Laurie’s past, which amounts to nothing.  There’s no mounting tension heading into the third act, and Laurie’s chase scene earlier on is very mild and slow paced.  This film doesn’t offer a sense of escalating threat until the last few minutes before Loomis engulfs himself and Michael in an inferno.  The pacing is very monotonous because the story is very loose and lacks directional momentum.

The supporting characters here are mostly a lot of interchangeable hospital staff going about their mundane duties getting killed, and an audience likely couldn’t care less about any one of them.  They feel like standard, hollow slasher film fodder, but without even the crutch of a stereotype to make them funny or entertaining.  Carpenter’s original was smartly and greatly cast filling out very lively characters, but here, there are just so many throwaway characters with very little personality that very little care was needed to put together a memorable supporting cast.  Even Sheriff Brackett vanishes from the film after learning of his daughter’s death, and so, we get new police officers who have really nothing fresh or pertinent to contribute to the story.

And it really is a shame that Jamie Lee Curtis got hooked into doing this film.  It is an utter waste of her talents.  She spends the majority of the film either laying in a hospital bed, running away from Michael Myers, or hiding in a parked car.  This is a sequel that brings people back to simply do nothing new or challenging.  To me, it’s another sign that there was a lack of creative drive behind this.  Every character feels either generic or wasted.  Also, since Jamie Lee Curtis had since adopted a shorter hairstyle, she had to be fitted with this blatantly obvious bad wig.  This just further adds to the nagging inconsistencies between the two films.

Now, I know there are people who are fans of Dick Warlock’s Shape, but I have never liked his lethargic, robotic movements at all.  If this movie is supposed to pick up at the exact moment the first left off, there should have been a demand for consistency.  Nick Castle’s Shape moved with a relentless fluidity.  He felt like a shark hunting his prey with a fierce single-minded focus.  Warlock is so horribly stiff that I see no ferocity or cunning intellect here.  Before, Michael’s actions had a clearly evident intelligence and deliberateness behind them.  He stalked his prey with patience and purpose.  He observed them before striking.  Here, he just shows up and starts killing like a mindless machine, and to me, that’s just not interesting or intriguing at all.  Warlock is a great stuntman, but as Michael Myers, he does nothing good for me.

I can appreciate some bad slasher movies because many of them at least show that they are trying.  Their end result might not be creatively successful, but the filmmakers put forth a visible effort to make a somewhat effective horror film.  For me, Halloween II doesn’t even give me that much.  I find it to be a very dull, bland, and boring slasher movie.  It has none of the atmospheric tension or magic that John Carpenter harnessed for the first movie, and the story is very lazy even for a slasher film.  I think Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is the vastly superior sequel in every aspect.  Also, released the same year, I passionately believe that Friday The 13th, Part 2 is one of the best slasher films ever made.  I don’t hate Halloween II.  It just doesn’t do enough either way to motivate a passionate response from me.  Any other films in this franchise I don’t end up reviewing are simply because I don’t wish to subject myself to them again or even for the first time.


John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

You know, the term ‘classic film’ is thrown around a hell of a lot.  There’s a great deal of times where it is simply not justified.  People jumping the gun the second a film is released, and saying it’s one of the all time greats.  Let’s see how it endures after 10, 20, or even 30 years.  Directors also get this treatment.  For example, Rob Zombie.  The man, in my brutally honest opinion, has yet to make a decently watchable film, but so many people hail him as some messiah because he makes dirty, ugly films.  It takes more than simple visual style to make you a good, let alone great director.  So, if you ask me who my favorite genre director is, who I feel has had the best run of things with the most diverse body of work?  I would say John Carpenter. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Escape From New York…. all favorite films of mine.  He demonstrates a brilliance in everything he does – writing, directing, producing, and music composition.  When it comes to Halloween, there’s nothing quite like it.  Every other slasher film in the world goes straight for the gore.  After the years and decades have passed, filmmakers seem to have lost sight of what is truly scary in horror.  It’s not shock gore, cheap jump scares, or splatter films with ten thousand gallons of blood.  Taking the time to adequately build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense seems to become a dying art among the mainstream horror filmmakers.  I’m not going to turn this into a comparison to other films, I’m going to tell you exactly why this film has remained a justifiable and certified classic for over 30 years.

If you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot, I’ll give you a lean and mean version.  Michael Myers, fifteen years ago, murdered his sister on Halloween night.  Afterwards, he was put into a psychiatric sanitarium, overseen by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), but on October 30th, 1978, he escapes back to his hometown of Haddonfield.  Come Halloween, he is stalking a group of teenage girls for reasons unknown.  Among these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sweet, caring, and decent girl.  Loomis himself is in pursuit, fearing for what might indeed happen with Michael loose.  After fifteen years of treating the young man, Loomis is convinced he is purely and simply evil.  Someone without conscience, compassion, humanity, or any grasp of good or bad, right or wrong.  In clinical terms, a sociopath.  Donning a pale white mask of blank expression, Michael proceeds to methodically kill people throughout Halloween night.  Can the evil be stopped before too long?

You talk about film direction?  This should be shown to every aspiring filmmaker.  Even if they are not interested in the horror genre, this film gets everything right.  Music, cinematography, staging, acting, tone, pacing, editing….the list goes on.  Certainly the most impressive and crucial technical element is Dean Cundey’s high caliber artistry as the film’s Director of Photography.  Before Halloween, I don’t think any film had been shot in this fashion.  The beautiful, genius composition is the main element which crafts the horror so effectively.  You could take a still from about every scene, and you’d have something special and effective.  The composition creates striking images that serve the tension and terror.  How Michael seems to materialize out of the darkness just before slashing Laurie around the 76 minute mark is beyond known words to describe that brilliance.  Don’t forget all the steadicam work.  Very impressive for a film of this scale, and it adds so much to the production values.  Even these days, the lower cost ones will cost you around two grand, and back in ’77, they were brand new technology.  How shots glide from one place to the next, in and out of rooms, panning ever so smoothly around the action – it is masterful.  Where now, everyone’s gotta shake the camera so much, it makes you puke, it is a breath of fresh air to see filmmakers shooting a film like this.  Slow reveals, shots pushing in, pulling out, and oh lord….the gorgeous lighting.  Lighting creates atmosphere.  Subtle fills and key light.  Patterns across the walls and ceilings.  It helps to direct the eye, and envelope you within a certain mood.  Dean Cundey is a masterful cinematographer, and continues to showcase his artistry to this day.  He would also work on Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, & Big Trouble in Little China.

While most might not take conscious note of Cundey’s work, everyone knows the value of Carpenter’s score.  His themes have become legendary and iconic.  No other film in the entire franchise has a score this prominent or effective.  It drives so much of the film, creating a taut, nerve-racking strain of suspense.  There is one theme that I call the “Stalking Theme” because that’s when you hear it.  Michael begins to stalk Laurie through the Wallace house, across the street, and all throughout the Doyle home.  This is a relentless theme which accurately and powerfully reflects the intentions of The Shape.  I continue to firmly stand by my belief that Nick Castle was the absolute best Michael Myers.  While the direction and camera work make the Shape truly effective, making Myers appear to move like a ghost – appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat – I want to specifically address Castle’s performance.  Where later Michaels were more thoroughly rigid and mechanical in their movements, Castle brought a fluidity to The Shape.  He moves like a man, reacts like a man, but has a quality which is simply unsettling.  He’s creepy.  He feels like a realistic homicidal maniac, but with a clear, calculating intelligence allowing him to stalk and kill at the most opportunistic moment.  He’s not just running around like a nutcase, screaming and wildly slashing up people.  He’s conscious of his actions, and acts deliberately.  In addition, Castle injects a violent intensity to the role.  He is relentless, and continues to come back with increased violent ferocity.  It can tend to seem like he needs to kill Laurie, that he is compelled to make sure she dies.  Compare how he strangles Laurie at the end to any other time Michael chokes someone later in the franchise.  In those later instances, it’s very cold and empty.  Here, there’s an apparent rage that cannot be satiated.  Some twisted, unwavering obsession at work, it would seem.  Michael actively and endlessly pursues Laurie.  He is the living embodiment of death.  He is inevitable and unstoppable.  And yes, this specific mask adds so much that subsequent ones lack – it has very human features, but clearly, they are fabricated.  He appears to have human features, but what he appears to be is not what he really is.

Speaking of performances, you would be hard pressed to find a substandard one here.  Everyone fits their role just right, slipping into it like a finely crafted glove.  Jamie Lee’s acting really shows what she was at the time – fresh, young, and eager.  I would take her performance in this film over what she offered in Halloween H20.  She showed genuine vulnerability, compassion, and emotional innocence here.  The performances throughout this film just feel authentic, believable, and tangible.  No one feels out of place or over the top.  Everything is very grounded and honest.  Charles Cyphers holds his ground as Sheriff Leigh Brackett, offering up a very real perspective against Dr. Loomis’ “fancy talk” about pure evil.  You could see any small town Sheriff thinking and saying the same thing in reaction to such claims.  All of the ladies really bring energy and life to their roles.  The youthful enthusiasm, again, feels purely authentic.  Makes a lot of the “teenage” performances of today seem flat and cliché.

As I say in reviews for the sequels, Donald Pleasence is the glue that binds the film together, and provides it with a weight and urgency it needs.  His performance in this first film is more low key than his incensed sequel appearances.  You can see Loomis’ fear surfacing as he speaks about his escaped patient.  Michael frightens him down to his core, and it is his own fear which motivates him.  He knows the hollow, emotionless, indifferent monster that Myers is, and cannot bare the thought of what will happen now that he’s loose.  I believe, in the sequels, it drives him rather mad.  His obsession is enhanced by the volume of bloodshed spilled by Michael, and is why he becomes so deadset and crazed later on.  Pleasance demonstrates a real brilliance in this role.  The dread and fear in his voice gives every last one of his words credibility which is so crucial to building up Michael to being more than just a mentally ill murderer.  He is the boogeyman, a presence, an indomitable, elemental force that cannot be reasoned with or destroyed.  The final look that Loomis gives, which came from Donald’s own brilliance, conveys to the audience, “I knew this would happen.”  It does not shock him, only frighten him further.  What he has believed all these years has been proven true – you cannot kill pure evil.

It is refreshing to watch the original film after weeding through the sequels.  John Carpenter’s Halloween is like a revelation, and reminds me how none of the sequels measure up.  It was never simply one element that made this film so great – it was every element.  The cinematography is worthy of awards alongside the direction and music.  The acting is, mostly, understated and firmly based in reality.  Characters like Loomis and Brackett keeping cool heads instead of either going way off the deep end, or being complete buffoons.  This film is an undeniable and justifiable classic.  I can’t say it’s the most frightening film I’ve ever seen, that honor goes to The Exorcist (which I still can’t pull myself to watch again), but this film will keep you rattled and unnerved to significant degrees.  While, I’m sure, there are minor technical gaffes here and there, it’s nothing that you will pick up in a casual viewing.  No film is perfect in all aspects, absolutely, but what this is, is an excellent piece of cinema that should continue to endure for all time.  There is no reason not to give this a full ten out of ten rating.