Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review: Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (1981)

Rated R

Score: 3 out of 5

You don't need to take my word for it to know that Halloween is a classic. Take the word of nearly every other critic in the last thirty-seven years. For every one who blames it for unleashing the gore-over-plot slasher era of horror films that peaked in the '80s, you'll find ten more who acclaim it as John Carpenter's masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films ever made, many of them having written entire essays analyzing it from every perspective (sex and violence, the "final girl" trope that it popularized, a morality play, a satire of suburbia, you name it). And more importantly, it was one of those films that nearly everybody at the time realized was a classic. It made huge bank at the box office and became one of the biggest independent films ever made, the Paranormal Activity of its time (a blasphemous assertion, I know), and it sparked fierce debate among those who saw it. So of course, a sequel was in order. Carpenter wrote the script with frequent collaborator Debra Hill but turned down the directing job (though he apparently shot a few scenes uncredited), giving it to first-time feature film director Rick Rosenthal. The story followed on right from where the first film left off, amping up the blood and the nudity in an effort to compete with the growing wave of Halloween clones that had come out in the three years since.

The end result was undoubtedly a sophomore slump, but one that remains a very serviceable example of the early '80s slasher genre. The pacing is off when the film isn't focusing on the killer and his victims, it doesn't really stand up on its own two feet apart from the original, and some plot details served to foreshadow the manner in which later films flew off the rails, but it's still an intense thrill ride that does what any good horror sequel ought to: take everything that worked about the first film and crank it up. It's no classic, but it's still a good and enjoyable entry in the genre.

The film opens literally seconds after the end of the first, with Michael Myers, the escaped mental patient who terrorized the town of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night, seemingly killed by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) -- only for his body to disappear soon after. Michael is still alive, and the blood of his initial victims hasn't even dried before he's once again picking people off around town, later heading to the hospital where Laurie is being treated for the injuries she suffered fighting Michael earlier that night. As Loomis and police officer Leigh Brackett (who seeks vengeance against Michael for killing his daughter Annie) search for the killer, the nurses, doctors, and paramedics at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital must fight to survive against the masked maniac in their midst.

I watched the first film and then this one back-to-back tonight so that I could enjoy them as one continuous story, with this film serving as a direct follow-up to the first that picks up right where the original left off. While the transition between the two wasn't seamless, Rick Rosenthal manages to successfully imitate Carpenter's visual style, most notably when it comes to the scenes of Michael stalking, chasing, and killing people. The bloodshed doesn't compare to other contemporary slashers, either in what it shows or what it even implies, but we do get some standout kills regardless, including a dunking in scalding water and a syringe full of air being injected into someone's head. Many shots are lifted directly from the original, most notably the nods to the famous scene of the Shape emerging from the shadow behind his victim. The body count is double that of the original film, with a much greater focus on the act of killing as opposed to the buildup. If the original Halloween was the birth of the modern slasher movie, then Halloween II resembles what it looked like in 1981, a year when body-count splatfests were already starting to conquer the multiplex. What this film lacks in the original's creeping dread, it makes up for in the form of a far more visceral sort of fear. It's when it slows down, however, that this film kind of drags. Rosenthal's inexperience behind the camera is evident in this film's uneven pacing, particularly with one sequence involving a drugged-up Laurie stumbling out of bed and wandering the halls to get away from Michael, a scene that went on far too long.

I must give props to returning actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance for their work here, as they were standouts in an otherwise average cast. Curtis gets less to do here, spending a long chunk of the film sedated and bedridden after her clash with Michael in the original, and you can kind of tell that she's wearing a wig (she'd already cut her hair to her famous short 'do by that point), but she still stands out in every scene she's given. It was enough to make me forgive the fact that Laurie's a fair bit less competent here than she was in the first film. While at least some of that can be chalked up to her injuries, she still plays only a minor role in defeating Michael at the end, whereas in the first film she did most of the dirty work fighting Michael and protecting the kids under her care. Dr. Loomis only landed the finishing blow, and even that didn't put Michael down for the count. Speaking of, Dr. Loomis is still his old self here, and Pleasance's take on him has gotten even more obsessed with taking him down, especially after he jumps the gun early on and accidentally gets an innocent person killed. You get the sense that this man will do anything to stop Michael. And of course, the Shape himself (this time played by someone with the awesome name of Dick Warlock) is an ever-chilling presence, a figure whose slow speed is made up for by the fact that he just will not stop until he gets his target. The folks working the night shift at the hospital are pretty much your standard one-dimensional slasher victims, though. Their interactions are what you'd expect, only they're coming from nurses instead of camp counselors, and the only one who gets any development is Jimmy, a young EMT who develops a crush on Laurie in a subplot that never really goes anywhere. They were all pretty disposable, none of them as interesting as Lynda or Annie from the original.

Finally, I come to the bigger story, particularly two elements that would bedevil this series in its later installments: the revelation that Michael is Laurie's long-lost brother, and the implication that his rampage may be occult-related. With the benefit of hindsight, I know that this would eventually degenerate into the much-maligned Curse of Thorn storyline from the fifth and sixth films, but on its own, these bits work pretty well, though far from perfectly. Having Michael and Laurie be related does undercut some of the chilling senselessness of the violence in the original, but it also adds a resonance to the murders, with Michael seeking to finish what he started when he killed his older sister fifteen years ago. The occult implications, meanwhile, are never overbearing, instead making Michael seem that much more like a madman obsessed with all sorts of weird stuff as opposed to the pawn of some cult that he ultimately turned out to be. And on that note, I liked all the little nods to the assorted folklore surrounding the Halloween holiday, not just in terms of its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, but also with its references to modern urban legends like the infamous "razor blade apples" that everybody was getting panicked over in the early '80s. Much like the original, it definitely managed to capture that sort of festive feel.

The Bottom Line:

It's not the classic that the original was, but it's still an acceptable follow-up that makes for a good companion piece. Watch both of them together, and so long as you don't expect the same stunning quality as the first, you won't be disappointed.

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