Halloween II (United States, 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When John Carpenter's Halloween was released in 1978, no one (least of all the filmmakers) could have predicted the phenomenon it would create. Not only did Halloween turn into one of the most profitable movies of all time, but it spawned a class of pictures that has since become known as the "slasher" genre. For better or for worse, we can blame (or thank) Halloween for everything from Friday the 13th to A Nightmare on Elm Street toScream. All-in-all, during both the primary slasher era (1979 through 1988) and its recent revival (1996 onward), there have been about 100 movies that fit the mold, many of which are borderline-unwatchable, and only a few of which meet a minimal standard of cinematic quality.

In the wake of Halloween's success, the market was flooded with inferior material (such as Prom Night and Friday the 13th). Each of these films took the basic Halloween premise of hormone-crazed teenagers being stalked by a soulless serial killer and made a few changes - more sex & nudity, copious quantities of blood & gore, and a palpable decline in plot, characterization, and suspense. And, while the box office success of Halloween was never duplicated (a 150:1 gross-to-cost return), the genre became profitable enough to ensure that workmanlike film after film would be churned out by Hollywood. How long could it before before Carpenter, Debra Hill, and company decided to bring Michael Myers out of mothballs?

In real time, the break between Halloween and its first sequel was three years. In screen time, it was about three minutes. The closing of the initial film was sufficiently open-ended that the second movie was able to pick up right where its predecessor concluded. And the story isn't the only aspect where continuity was maintained. Many of the principals from the original Halloween returned: actors Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Charles Cyphers; writer/producers Carpenter and Hill; and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Composer Alan Howarth was a newcomer, but his source material was primarily Carpenter's instantly recognizable score (albeit a "souped up" and heavily electronicized version). The only major outsider coming on board was director Rick Rosenthal, and he was apparently hand picked by Carpenter. So, with much of the same talent involved, why is Halloween II such a disappointing movie?

The main problem is the film's underlying motivation. Halloween was a labor of love, made by people committed to creating the most suspenseful and compelling motion picture they could. Halloween II was impelled by the desire to make money. It was a postscript - and not a very good one - slapped together because a box office success was guaranteed. Carpenter and Hill didn't believe in this project the way they believed in the original, and it shows in the final product. The creepiness of the first movie has been replaced by a growing sense of repetitive boredom. The Shape, who was an ominous and forbidding force, has been turned into a plodding zombie. The characters have all been lobotomized, and, in keeping with the slasher trend, the gore content is way up. There was virtually no blood in Halloween; Halloween II cheerfully heaps it on. (Rosenthal reportedly wanted to honor the original movie's low-key approach when it came to the murders, but Carpenter, concerned that the picture would be deemed too "tame" by the slasher audience, re-filmed several death scenes with more gore.)

Most of Halloween II transpires in the hospital where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is taken in the wake of her babysitting ordeal. It's a strange place - a very big building with only a few nurses and one doctor on duty, and virtually no patients. In fact, since there's so little business, the hospital administrators have apparently decided to cut costs by turning out half the lights. Michael (played by stuntman Dick Warlock), of course, has no difficulty figuring out exactly where to find his prey, so he quickly makes his way there and starts killing everyone. His homicidal methods are a bit more inventive in this movie - instead of just slicing people up with a butcher knife, he opts for variety. One woman is scalded to death in a tub of hot water. Another victim gets a needle through the eye. Of course, Michael still makes use of a series of sharp implements for stabbing and dicing.

As Michael stalks the hospital halls, Laurie cowers in her bed. There's no sign of the brave, smart heroine of Halloween. This is a fragile, broken idiot who spends most of the movie either half-unconscious or limping away from her nemesis (except on those occasions when Curtis forgets that her character is supposed to have a bum leg). Her vocabulary has also been seriously curtailed. Now she tends to speak in monosyllabic grunts, making her only marginally more articulate than the silent Shape.

Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is out scouring the Haddonfield neighborhood for the Shape, waving his gun and screaming "I shot him six times!" and "He's not a man - he's evil!" He also has a rambling discourse that improbably links Michael to the Druid worship of the Lord of the Dead, although I'm still not sure how this is all supposed to connect together. Somehow, the governor gets wind of Loomis' lunacy and sends a nurse to pick him up and get him out of the small Illinois town. But, when the doctor learns a dark secret about his patient's family tree, he brandishes the gun again and demands to be taken to the hospital where Laurie is being menaced.

Adding a backstory to explain why the Shape is relentless in his pursuit of Laurie is a mistake on Carpenter's part. One of many reasons that Halloween worked is because the Shape represented an implacable, inexplicable, unstoppable force of evil. He existed to stalk and kill; there was no reason for it. Offering an explanation emasculates this image. He's no longer "the Shape," but "Michael Myers." The depiction of evil incarnate has been replaced by a slow-moving guy in a Captain Kirk mask with some serious family issues. And, instead of always hovering around the edge of the frame or just outside of it, he becomes the focus of shot after shot. Gone is the malevolent figure in the shadows; now, he's striding down long hospital corridors under the baleful glare of fluorescent lights. Michael is an icon that should never have been explained or humanized - not even a little bit.

The saving grace of Halloween II is Donald Pleasance. More than any of the other films, this one belongs to Loomis, the gun-toting action figure who arrives in the nick of time and has more good one-liners than everyone else put together. (I won't print any of them here, since they lose their zing when taken out of context.) Pleasance, who accepted Loomis' role in Halloween with reservations, seems to be enjoying himself immensely this time around. The actor would return to reprise this role three more times - in Halloweens four, five, and six. He died shortly after making the penultimate (and worst) Halloween sequel.

There is a way to enjoy this movie, and it has to do with lowering expectations. Halloween was a classic - the kind of film that will cause you to walk a little faster on your way home after a screening, or, if you travel by car, to check the back seat. The sequel doesn't offer the same kind of horror. However, it is a passable piece of camp. There's some genuinely funny material in this movie, although I can't guess how much of it was originally intended to generate mirth. Consider, for example, the scenes near the beginning of the movie where Loomis empties his revolver into the Shape, then runs around screaming, "I shot him six times! I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart! I shot him six times!" That's enough to get a hearty chuckle out of any one, especially when you consider that the good doctor has a problem with basic mathematics. He actually shot him seven times. (Don't believe me? Count for yourself.)

As slasher movies go, Halloween II is far from the bottom of the barrel, but, given its pedigree, one has a right to expect a higher degree of quality that what is delivered. The film offers more laughs than scares, and, if watched in concert with the original, has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the earlier picture. When John Carpenter went to work on Halloween, the project was all about generating tension and toying with the viewer's expectations - lessons learned from Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. With Halloween II, it was all about graphic, grisly murders and a high body count - lessons learned at the box office. And that disparity, more than anything else, illustrates why Halloween is a classic and its first sequel is a sloppy afterthought.

Halloween II (United States, 1981)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 1981-10-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1