Monday, August 24, 2009

More Of The Night HE Came Home

With the original Halloween (1978) now over thirty years old and with seven sequels, a remake and a sequel to that remake in its wake, it's hard to remember a time when Halloween was just a film and not a franchise. It's also hard to remember a time when a Halloween sequel was the cause of real anticipation, rather than skepticism, among fans. But in 1981, there was plenty of excitement to go around over the idea that the story of Halloween would continue. At least I know that excitement was the mood among the kids in my neighborhood (most of whom, like myself, hadn't yet seen the original) - I can't speak for the adult world of 1981. The tagline for Halloween II was perfect, promising fans "More of the night HE came home." Even though three years had passed in the real world since John Carpenter's film had altered the course of modern horror, Halloween II was going to pick up the story just after the Shape's body vanished at the conclusion of Halloween. Now that sounded like a hot plan.

Initial story concepts for Halloween II had involved Final Girl Laurie Strode fending off a new attack by Michael Myers in a high rise apartment years after the events of Halloween but the choice to make Halloween II a seamless continuation of the events of Halloween proved to be a wise decision. First time feature director Rick Rosenthal was assigned the thankless task of following in Carpenter's footsteps (Rosenthal was hand-picked for the job by Carpenter based on the strength of a short Rosenthal had directed called Toyer) while Carpenter and Halloween producer Debra Hill co-wrote Halloween II's screenplay, with a story that featuring heroine Laurie Strode doped-up on meds and going into a second round with Michael Myers (now played by veteran stuntman Dick Warlock rather than Nick Castle) in the largely empty halls of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.

The members of the original cast who's characters had survived the first film loyally returned to their roles with Jamie Lee Curtis now a full-fledged Scream Queen sharing top billing with Donald Pleasence and Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens returning in smaller appearances as Sheriff Brackett and Nurse Marion Chambers respectively (Stephens would go on to marry director Rosenthal) - and even Nancy Loomis (today known as Nancy Kyes) came back to appear in one shot of the late Annie Brackett lying on a gurney. But even with so much returning talent in front of and behind the camera (the indispensible Dean Cundey encored as cinematographer), Halloween II was mostly greeted as a letdown from the original. Because, well, it was. Carpenter famously - or infamously - stepped in after Rosenthal handed in his director's cut and filmed some graphic new footage meant to help the film compete with the kind of explicit horror films that had come into vogue since the release of Friday the 13th (1980). Rosenthal denounced these changes as tampering with his vision but without the kind of virtuoso suspense of the original, Halloween II clearly needed something to boost its chances with increasingly jaded audiences. The result was that Halloween II became something that Halloween hadn't been - a splatter movie. Today that doesn't seem like such a big deal but at the time, it was taken by some as a betrayal of Halloween's much-admired aesthetics.

More controversial than the added gore - and arguably more damaging in the long run for the series - was the unexpected plot development that Laurie and Michael were actually siblings. Even though this has been a part of the Halloween mythology for so long that most fans don't think twice about it, for those old enough to remember when the only Halloween movie in town was Halloween, I think there's almost universal agreement that having Michael and Laurie turn out to be brother and sister was a creative fuck-up on Carpenter and Hill's part. It was a lazy move, cribbed from the playbook of a soap opera, and it immediately took away a good deal of the original's mystique.

A large part of what was scary about Halloween was that Michael was an implacable boogeyman, stalking and slaughtering girls who had done nothing to invite his wrath. To find out that Laurie was really his sister was just lame - lame, I tell you! - and the series has had to deal with that misstep ever since. If Rob Zombie could've accomplished one great thing with his 2007 reboot, it would've been to finally free the series of that baggage. Of course, it reappeared right there in the first film - Zombie couldn't even put that shit off until the sequel! Now here we are with the new Halloween II bearing the tagline "Family Is Forever."

But it all started back in 1981. In a Halloween II flashback Laurie visits Michael in Smith's Grove Sanitarium when they were kids and in one of the new scenes cut into the TV airing of the original Halloween prior to Halloween II's theatrical release, Loomis finds the word 'Sister' scrawled on the door in Michael's abandoned cell. Despite delivering a crippling kidney punch to the series, however, there's still plenty to enjoy in OSHII (old-school Halloween II, natch!).

The film's single best asset, of course, is the returning Donald Pleasence as Michael's ever-batty nemesis. In fact, Pleasence remained the best thing about all the Michael-themed sequels until his death in 1995. In Halloween II, Pleasence puts the Loomis persona back on like a glove and his portrayal of Loomis as a twitchy, belligerent nut is endless fun. Loomis is the indefatigable Van Helsing of slasher cinema and it's the ongoing duel between him and Michael (with all his shouting about the inhuman, evil nature of Michael, Loomis is ironically the best press agent a boogeyman ever had!) that made the Halloween series distinct from its competition.

Sadly, Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't fare so well in her return performance as Laurie Strode. Whether Curtis didn't feel the same enthusiasm for the part as she did in the first film or the fact that Laurie had little else to do in this film other than lie in a hospital bed, Curtis' performance isn't nearly as strong this time around. What's worse is that what we do see of Laurie seems contradictory to - or at least inconsistent with - the character as established in the first film. When Laurie reacts to the attention of Lance Guest as Jimmy, the smitten EMS, it's with a visible confidence that doesn't seem at all like the same painfully shy wallflower we knew Laurie to be in Halloween where she was beside herself at the idea that dreamy Ben Tramer might know she liked him (in a nice touch, Carpenter and Hill have the Tramer character killed off in a traffic accident, briefly mistaken for Michael). The Laurie in Halloween II seems too much like a Laurie who's gotten three years older between films, not the mere three hours older that's she meant to be (on a side note, the real life time gap makes for an amusing moment as Loomis is reacquainted with Nurse Chambers - even though in terms of the story he was just with her hours ago, he has to take a moment to 'recognize' who she is for the benefit of those viewers who might not remember such a minor character from the original).

Whatever faults Halloween II may have, though, they're all but forgiven with the film's fiery finale. Carpenter and Hill meant to end the story here and it shows. The conclusion of this movie - where Loomis and Michael suffer a mutual immolation - remains an awesome sight. There's been plenty of scenes in movies over the years where stuntmen are burning from head to toe but this is the best of the bunch to my eyes. Maybe because usually when you see these kind of fire gags, the stuntman is always - understandably - flailing around. Whether it be the Thing in both the original and the remake, or Freddy Krueger in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, you always see characters on fire acting like people are supposed to act when they're on fire. They're panicking, running - doing everything they can to stop the fucking flames. But in Halloween II, to see Michael still doing the classic Michael Myers walk while enveloped in a full body burn - and having strolled out of a raging inferno in the first place - well, it's a sight that continues to impress. I don't know if Dick Warlock did that specific stunt himself but whoever did it really earned their paycheck that day. I've got to hand it to anyone who can stand there lit up like a roman candle.

While Rosenthal returned to the series to zero acclaim with the maligned Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Halloween II remains one of the most popular of the sequels. It may be a flawed film but in that its story is so linked to the original, it's hard to disregard it - and unlike any of the series' entries that followed, Carpenter and Hill's participation lends it the stamp of the genuine article. Had they known where their boogeyman would go, though, perhaps they would've concluded Halloween II with Loomis riding on a nuke a la Slim Pickens on his way to obliterate Michael along with the rest of Haddonfield.


Vince Liaguno said...

When Laurie reacts to the attention of Lance Guest as Jimmy, the smitten EMS, it's with a visible confidence that doesn't seem at all like the same painfully shy wallflower we knew Laurie to be in Halloween where she was beside herself at the idea that dreamy Ben Tramer might know she liked him...

Two possible reasons for this: 1) She was hopped up on the pain-killing drugs that gave her a false sense of confidence or 2) Nothing boosts your confidence like surviving a massacre(!).

As always, good stuff, Jeff!

Wings1295 said...

Wow. You cover all the bases there.

I have to say I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I think the series would have been better off not connecting Myers and Laurie by blood, just having Michael as some super-wacko was enough. It has bogged things down, from Part II, to Parts 4, 5, 6 and beyond. Makes it a tricky web. Too tricky.

One thing you don't mention is Laurie's hair. Gah! Even when I was a kid, I knew something was "wrong" about the way she looked. The wig just didn't work, didn't make Laurie look like the old Laurie. Ah well.

It is a good enough sequel that I do watch it. But it could have been more. Nitpicking, I guess, when we are almost 30 years away from it's release.

And hey, to me, it's always gonna be GOLD compared to whatever crap Zombie is about to throw on the screen!

Jeff Allard said...

Vince, your explanations as to Laurie's personality change make perfect sense. Whether those involved with the film had those same thoughts or not, I don't know - but either way, I find Laurie's newfound confidence more of a funny reminder that while this is supposed to be "more of the night HE came home" that three years had passed.

And Wings, I meant to mention that atrocious wig but in re-reading the piece, I thought it would throw off the rhythm of an already long review. Thanks for bringing it up - now I feel that we've really said it all about Halloween II!

Blue Seven said...

I talked my babysitter into taking my brother and me to see Halloween II in the theater. I was 10, almost 11, because back then a movie about Halloween wasn't released in August. What an awesome babysitter! I was traumatized in the best possible way. I'll never forget that nurse getting her face boiled off. And (as you said, of course), naturally, compared to what followed this one still makes me happy...

Jeff Allard said...

Sounds like your babysitter kicked some ass, Blue! The best I ever got was to stay up late for Fantasy Island!

Tower Farm said...

Great post! My brother just bought me a copy of the old HALLOWEEN 2 paperback. I can't believe he was able to track that down. Cool book with a picture or two taken from cut scenes.


J. Astro said...

HALLOWEEN II has always for some reason been my favorite of the franchise... it's got kind-of a 'part one' vibe, but it's not as boring for repeated viewings. The original is a masterwork and all, but it's kinda hard to see too many times. But II? I can watch that all OVER the place, anytime, anywhere!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Tower - that Halloween II novelization IS cool. I always loved the sick cover illustration of a jack o'lantern with a woman's mouth screaming from inside.

And J., I agree - Halloween is the true masterpiece but II is easier to kick back with repeat viewings.

Bob Ignizio said...

Excellent analysis. I'm not a huge fan of this or any of the Halloween sequels (I thought the first one ended on a perfect note), but at least this one felt like it had some respect for the audience and the material.

I just wish they hadn't changed the nature of Loomis' final scene from the original film. In 'Halloween', when he looks down and sees Michael is gone, he has this world weary look and laid back delivery like he knew it was going to happen. When part 2 replays the scene, he's much more agitated and seems surprised that Michael isn't still lying there dead.

The Man-Cave said...

I never knew that the original proposed plot was Michael going after Laurie in a high rise. Glad they went with the hospital setting because this is one of my favorite sequels ever.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Bob - I agree that Halloween II seemed like an honest attempt to give the fans a worthy follow-up, and one that tried (albeit in vain) to end the need for more sequels.

And Geof, I think the high rise concept would've been a bust, too!

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Is II the one that brought up the Samhain stuff to explain Jason's motives/powers?
That witchcraft angle always bugged me.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, Knob - this is the one where the idea of Samhain was introduced but it really didn't have much to do with explaining anything about Michael yet. The word is found scrawled in a school room but outside of Loomis making note that the word refers to the festival of the dead or whatever, nothing more comes of it.

It wasn't until 5 & 6 that the supernatural origin of Michael's abilities would be explained - and I agree with you that it was a bad move. Although as 4, 5, and 6 were taken out of the series' 'official' continuity by 7 and 8 (which picked up where II left off) - I guess the 'Thorn trilogy' (or whatever you want to call it) is its own pocket universe within the Halloween series. And now the remake and its sequel have their own self-contained continuity so really, if you don't like what one film says about Michael, it's ok - another film will completely contradict it!

Bryan said...

This was quite possibly the greatest summation of HALLOWEEN I have ever read.. Certainly the best Halloween 2 (81 version) review..

But somehow somehow looking back at this film and comparing it to Rob Zombie? I get sentimental for the past.. as it was meant to be. This was supposed to be the final Michael Myers. In some strange way, even though having the old guy around in the box office, him being gone would have made Halloween 1 and 2 together so much scarier and realistic

An old friend,

Jeff Allard said...

Hey Bryan - how's it going, man? Great to hear from you! Glad you liked my Halloween II write-up - I agree that it would've made for a fitting end to the series.