Sunday 27 November 2011

Doctor, kindly tell your wife that I'm alive

In a nutshell, Halloween II sucks. I now feel I've been too hard on Rob Zombie's attempt at a Halloween sequel. The metal maestro has ambition and ideas, even if he doesn't always execute them well: but the 1981 film is nothing but a tired cash-in, released only after the first two Friday the 13th films kick-started the eighties slasher.

And yes, we can blame John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who wrote the screenplay together and very much acted as the film's public face. Rick Rosenthal may have directed Halloween II, but he was hand-picked by Carpenter, who reportedly reshot some scenes and reworked the whole thing in post-production - leading to a backlash from Rosenthal, who felt his film was being taken away from him.

Halloween II begins right where Halloween ends: Michael Myers (Dick Warlock, Kurt Russell's long-time stunt double, replacing Tony Moran) has been shot six times (for some reason, the sound effects team adds a seventh shot in the sequel) but has got away, while Dr Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) stays behind with the injured Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who now gets equal billing). It's not quite the same, though: Rosenthal inserts a number of glaringly obvious new shots of Loomis running around outside to insert momentum (you can't have dénouement right at the start, I suppose).

Then the credits start up: it's 'a Dino de Laurentiis Corporation film', practically guaranteeing quality. Remember how the credits of Halloween showed up next to a jack-o'-lantern? Same in this one, except OMG, the pumpkin opens up to reveal a skull! That's Halloween II's terrible case of sequelitis in a nutshell: it tries to one-up the original, but falls flat on its face.

Anyway, Michael roams the neighbourhood in a mixture of conventional and POV shots that negates the entire point of using somebody's point of view, namely audience identification with the character - it's as if Rosenthal decided to pay homage to Carpenter, but didn't understand what he was doing. Michael sneaks into an elderly couple's home and steals a kitchen knife while Night of the Living Dead plays on the telly. Across the yard, Alice (Anne Bruner), a teenage girl, speaks to her friend on the phone and listens to the radio, helpfully summarising the first film; Michael then stabs her in a terrible shot because, I suppose, killing teens is what he does.

Meanwhile, Laurie is carted off to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital. It's a pretty massive building, but Laurie is apparently the only patient. She's befriended by Jimmy the ambulance driver (Lance Guest), besides whom there exist the following hospital staff: Mr Garrett (Cliff Emmich), the caretaker; nurses Jill (Tawny Moyer), Janet (Ana Alicia) and Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop), who is in a relationship with ambulance driver Budd (Leo Rossi); Dr Mixter (Ford Rainey), who's drunk; and head nurse Mrs Alves (Gloria Gifford). These people are remarkably likeable for a slasher film, and from Jimmy Laurie, who of course never found this out in the course of the first film, even learns that her attacker was Michael Myers - a pretty good catch from Carpenter & Hill. Eventually, of course, Michael turns up and starts massacring everyone.

In the meantime, Loomis is running around Haddonfield with Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers). They see a man, apparently Myers, be hit by a car that subsequently explodes, burning him alive; but the dead guy turns out to be one Ben Tramer. (The bloke Laurie fancied in the original, which is a cruel and pretty funny nod.) Brackett decides to pack it in because he's had it with Loomis, so the doctor follows Deputy Hunt (Hunter von Leer) instead. They find that for whatever reason, Michael has broken into a local elementary school and scrawled 'Samhain' on the chalkboard in blood; this convinces Loomis that Michael is somehow linked to ancient druidic cults who supposedly burnt their victims to divine the future. Which they didn't, since we're not even sure druids ever existed.

I like this Loomis, incidentally. Malcolm McDowell in the new series is a bit of a jerk, but Pleasance's Loomis is full-on crazy!, thoroughly earning italics and an exclamation mark, and in line for capitals. And he chews the scenery in a glorious mess of a performance that threatens more than once to lift Halloween II into the realm of interesting. Loomis eventually finds out that, spoiler, Laurie Strode is Michael's baby sister he's determined to kill. This, besides retroactively sullying the original in ways we could discuss 'til the cows come home, introduces plot holes in the present film, since it takes away the motivation for most of Michael's killings.

If it's Laurie he wants, there's simply no point in Michael stalking around the clinic murdering every last named character: but he does, since this is a slasher film and has a body count target to meet. With a count of ten, incidentally, Halloween II seriously one-ups the original's three shown murders - two stranglings and one stabbing - and they're much nastier too. Victims are, minor spoilers, stabbed, beaten to death with a claw hammer, strangled, scalded to death in a hot bath (with gore effects I really did not need to see), and stabbed in the eye with a hypothermic needle, they have all their blood drained and their throats cut. Misplaced creativity in murder is a classic Friday the 13th feature, as is the attendant focus on gore rather than suspense; and so Halloween II is much more in the tradition of that abhorrent series than that of its predecessor.

This isn't the same old Michael Myers, either. Dick Warlock's physical acting is indifferent, ending both the menace and childlike curiosity Tony Moran brought to the role. This Michael walks and murders as if in a daze. Slasher film villains have always walked slowly, but here Michael is positively glacial, which ruins a scene in which Laurie is frantically pressing lift buttons, hoping to close the door before Michael reaches her: if he moved at a normal human pace, he'd get her in no time. Oh, and he walks straight through a freaking glass door instead of opening it. I suppose he's much more explicitly supernatural now, shrugging off bullets left, right and centre, but some sense on his part would still be nice.

It's well shot at least, and there are a couple of images that linger in the mind: although I don't think that, other than Conan the Barbarian, I've ever seen a film in which the night scenes were quite so obviously filmed in daytime. But after the lofty arthouse glories of Halloween, the sequel brings us right down to harsh reality. This is the eighties slasher, and it ain't pretty. Now we're in for the long haul of disappointing cash-in sequels.

In this series: Halloween (1978) | Halloween II (1981) | Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1988) | Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) | Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) | Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) | Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) | Halloween: Resurrection (2002) | Halloween (2007) | Halloween II (2009)

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