Halloween II (1981) dir. Rick Rosenthal.
Written: John Carpenter and Debra Hill.
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, and Dick Warlock.
When John Carpenter unleashed Halloween onto audiences in 1978, he probably didn’t know that it would become, almost overnight, the blueprint for dozens if not hundreds of imitators. The night he came home almost seems bland and unsubstantial nowadays because its innovations have been “borrowed” by wannabes and knock-offs ever since, unfortunately cheapening what’s an elegantly simple masterpiece in taut terror and suspense. Horror has diluted its essence into ubiquity. The most famous copycat was Friday the 13th in 1980, and at the same time, Jamie Lee Curtis rode her Halloween stardom to become a certifiable scream queen in Prom Night and Terror Train, but it was 1981 when slasher flicks exploded and theatergoers were treated to a veritable buffet of death: My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, Happy Birthday to Me, Graduation Day, Final Exam, and Friday the 13th’s sequel, Part II. So when Michael Myers continued his killing spree in Halloween II that same year, he wasn’t necessarily the big maniac on campus anymore. There were a lot more killers to compete with, and it showed – how funny that Halloween II would be so markedly influenced by its peers, which were all still following the first Halloween, forming some weird, self-referential circle of inspiration.
But is Halloween II a bad film? It can’t be blamed for having a tough act to follow. It must also be remembered that John Carpenter was hesitant to continue the story at all (which is why the franchise infamously switched gears entirely for Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Comparisons to the original are going to be inevitable throughout this review, not just because it’s a sequel, but also because of how closely their narrative events are tied together. That being said, I still want to give it a fair shake and see if Halloween II can do at least one thing: entertain.
Halloween II begins immediately where the first one left off: recycled footage from Halloween’s ending explains that Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) has fired six shots into escaped mental patient Michael Myers (Dick Warlock), knocking him over the railing of a second-story balcony. When Dr. Loomis turns to comfort the would-be victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Myers vanishes, and the stage is set for the sequel. Laurie, injured and traumatized, is transported to a hospital while Dr. Loomis leads the hunt for his patient, but when Myers catches wind of Laurie’s location, the late night orderlies at Haddonfield Memorial are in for a night from hell.
Right off the bat, let me say I love the premise. I’m a sucker for seamless sequels, and getting the police involved, heightening the Myers manhunt, was a great way to expand the narrative. Behind the mask this time is Dick Warlock, as opposed to (principally) Nick Castle in the first. Halloween depicted Michael Myers as an inhuman, unfeeling, hauntingly detached stalker – there may as well have been nothing but shadow behind that mask – and it was an extremely powerful performance. Halloween II makes Myers much more prominent, however, and Warlock really came through with making him a bit more personable. Myers is still a cool silent type, but now it’s slightly different in a way that’s hard to articulate. There are these twinges of not quite emotion, but feedback that sneak through Warlock’s performance, making his invariably brief and lethal interactions with other characters a bit more captivating than “walk on, kill, walk off” (a necessity of the higher and more graphic body count). But what a walk – Warlock’s Myers is never in a hurry; he practically jogged in Halloween next to this. Castle’s Myers feels more like a ghost to me, while Warlock’s is almost a robot. They both have great merits and could be compared and contrasted for days, but I think Warlock was an ace in the role. In short, there’s less staring, more stabbing, and he adapts.
And it’s undeniable that the film goes bigger than the first Halloween, with an immediately apparent shift between suspense and spectacle. That shift gives us some great scenes, like not just one but two big fireballs and some pretty stylish kills, but it hinders the film in other moments where a more subtle approach would have charmed (see the Stinger for my pitches). My favorite part of Halloween is the first half, just forty full minutes of intrigue and build-up. It’s shot in broad daylight, and the movements and machinations of The Shape are a half-glimpsed mystery. Irwin Yablans, executive producer, said of Halloween that the “that the audience shouldn’t see anything. It should be what they thought they saw that frightens them.” The first half of Halloween has so many shots where Michael Myers isn’t immediately obvious that once you do notice him, you start searching for him in the background of every shot, and even more excruciating, you wonder how many times you didn’t notice him before (and it’s for all these reasons and more why I think It Follows is such an effective film). Halloween II, unfortunately, has none of that. All throughout, Myers’ screen presence is explicit and his appearances are overt, which makes for some startling moments for sure, but nothing so chilling as in the first.
The film as a whole feels like a step down in technique, but not for lack of trying. Rosenthal put in a good effort, but Halloween II fails to consistently deliver iconic, striking shots the way its predecessor could. Unless it’s delivering the iconic, striking shots of the first – there’s an annoying amount of substance literally just stolen from Halloween. The mask of The Shape being slowly illuminated behind his victim, the long tracking shot that keeps Myers just out of frame, and more greatest hits from 1978 come back for seconds. I have no problem with echoes, especially in sequels, and I think Rosenthal was deliberately trying to imitate John Carpenter’s style, but it feels uninspired and repetitive.
One thing Rosenthal really loves, though, is background movement. In the original, one memorable sequence is Michael Myers driving in the stolen car right behind Laurie and her friend as “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio. In Halloween II, there are no less than three (and I assume I’m forgetting some) scenes where The Shape slinks in the background behind oblivious orderlies, or is caught on security footage that goes conveniently unnoticed. The overtness of these moments is supposed to be scary. I know it’s supposed to be scary. But honestly? Every single one lands like a visual gag straight out of the Mel Brooks slasher parody that never was (and don’t tell me you wouldn’t see it). At some point, Myers walking around the hospital seems more like a lost child looking for his mommy than a killer stalking his victim. Your mileage may vary on this one, but speaking personally, this aspect certainly made the film much more fun (for better or worse).
Anyway, we’ve talked about Michael Myers long enough – how about everyone else? Well, there’s not too much to say. Jamie Lee Curtis is back and screaming, but her character spends most of the film heavily sedated. Despite getting top billing, she’s actually in the film for less than thirty minutes! She’s just as good as she was in the first Halloween, but the real star this time is Donald Pleasance. His second portrayal of Sam Loomis is even more desperate and determined now that Myers has shrugged off half a dozen bullets, and he delivers a marathon of deep, brooding monologues on the nature of evil. Every scene he’s in is overflowing with intensity, and I could watch him chew the philosophical scenery for hours.
As for the death fodder working in the hospital, not a one of them are particularly memorable. It’s disappointing, because the first film spent a lot of time establishing the lives and relationships of its ill-fated teens. I understand that expendable cast members are a necessity of slasher movies, but I can think of plenty with strong death fodder. The Nightmare on Elm Street series, for example, has always been great at fleshing out its victims. That came a little after Halloween II, but the point still stands: don’t worry about getting attached to the hospital staff because there’s nothing about them to attach to.
Let’s be real for a second, though: flat characters are forgivable characters in a slasher film as long as they die spectacularly. Halloween II eschews its predecessor’s more subdued approach and deliberately steps up the gore, a production decision made to appease 80s slasher gore-hounds who may have been disappointed otherwise. After all, the first Halloween didn’t have an over-saturated market of bloodbaths to compete with when it came out, so a bigger, bloodier body count in the sequel is understandable. In Halloween II, the best kills are the ones where Myers drops the knife and gets creative. There’s a healthy variety in the ways these hospital workers clock out for good, but never fear: the obligatory plain-and-simple slashing is worked wisely into the mix. However, the film straddles an underwhelming middle ground where despite being gorier than the first, it’s still not an ultra-violent bloodbath like its most extreme competitors. So those who preferred the original’s subdued approach may think the sequel is cheap, and hardcore gore-hounds could find much better elsewhere.
If it sounds like I’m dragging Halloween II through the mud, it’s only because the original set the bar so high. There’s plenty to love about Halloween II on its own. Compared to other slasher films of the time, I’d definitely say it’s above average. It’s a vague and nebulous term, but Halloween II’s biggest problem isn’t really structural. It just lacks heart. There’s no auteur spark that John Carpenter had when he was directing the first – I guess going from a 300,000 to 2.5 million dollar budget will do that. A bigger and better budget, however, does get us a sweet hospital set and an absolutely spectacular, cathartic finale in an operating room, so I’ll take the bad with the good.
The original Halloween is a bona fide classic of horror cinema. It does almost everything just right and plays invested audience members like a fiddle. Taking place immediately afterwards is both a blessing and a curse for Halloween II; the seamless transition between the two films allows the story to continue in a gripping, organic way (we’re still hoping Laurie Strode survives, after all) but it starts from a position where all of its supporting cast is dead. I love the labyrinthine hospital setting, and Dick Warlock is arguably the best man to ever wear the mask, but all of Myers’ victims are ineffective, uninteresting substitutes for the well-rounded cast from before. Since the only living people in the story the audience cares about are Laurie and Dr. Loomis, the hospital staff are just props to be manhandled and murdered between other scenes of actual tension and development. Fortunately, those scenes are enough to keep you watching, mostly because of the incredible Donald Pleasance. Halloween II is disappointingly generic, but it’s not unenjoyable and anyone who liked the original should at least check it out. The popular choice is to screen Halloween and Halloween II back to back – a perfect double feature often expanded with Halloween H20 – but on its own, Halloween II is still a treat. Three stars out of five.
When writing a review, I avoid describing the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or so as not to spoil it. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below…
- Please don’t think that I don’t think Halloween holds up. I know that I practically eulogized it in the first paragraph, but also notice how much I brought up its merits throughout this review. As long as I can temporarily forget everything I know about slasher films, I can still get surprised by Halloween’s tricks, and even if I can’t, it’s still a highly immersive, well-paced thriller that’s absolutely striking on the technical level and succeeds where so many other horror films try and fail, or never try at all. There’s a lot to appreciate about Halloween almost forty years later: it did it first, and still does it best.
- Disclaimer: Halloween didn’t do it first. Psycho aside, something like Black Christmas (1974) ought to be more deserving of that honor, but culturally speaking, I feel that those films are precursors to the big bang that Halloween was for the genre. I see Halloween as zero on the number line, and its predecessors are negative numbers.
- Alongside Prom Night and Terror Train, Jamie Lee Curtis also reunited with John Carpenter in 1980 for The Fog. She had a very busy year! The Fog, despite being a really good movie, was excluded from the first paragraph just because it’s not really a comparable film to Halloween – and I’d hardly accuse John Carpenter of ripping himself off in his own follow-up.
- Nick Castle, Dick Warlock, and later the blunt Don Shanks – what’s with actors playing The Shape all having really cool names?
- How egregious of me not to talk about music when talking about John Carpenter! Well, the short of it is that Carpenter’s excellent score comes back in full force. Apparently, he composed Halloween’s iconic score in just three days. The remixed and brand new music in Halloween II shows that even if he didn’t want the sequel, he (alongside frequent collaborator Alan Howarth) could damn well score it.
- Yeah, this is the film that first brings up the druidic cult stuff that would go on to bog down the later sequels to the point of ridiculousness (as if the druidic cult stuff was the only thing wrong with the later Halloween movies). It’s a double-edged sword. Part of what made Michael Myers so frightening, on a primal level, in the first film was his inexplicable nature (a trait I’ve touched on before in my analysis of Jason Voorhees as an urban legend). One’s disbelief could be suspended enough to accept that Michael Myers was just a really tough dude, which is why six bullets didn’t stop him. And if one didn’t accept that, then they could let their imagination run wild with haunting possibilities. Spilling the backstory not only runs the risk of breaking audience disbelief, but it shuts down internal fears that audiences may project onto that emotionless mask, and that’s precisely why so little information is giving about Myers in the first film. What, you were scared of The Shape because he represented something deep and archaic within your own soul, and he represented the uncontrollable and chaotic nature of the universe, and perhaps the inevitable and indiscriminate nature of death itself? Well, rubbish to that, he’s some kind of druid thing and Laurie was his sister.
- Poor pseudo-Mike! You know, that kid that just happened to be wearing the wrong costume at the wrong time in the wrong place – those wrong things being, respectively, Michael Myers’ mask, on the night of his rampage, and in front of an extremely explosive van. But that fireball is so sudden and gratuitous that it’s one of the most memorable moments of the film. It also foreshadows the real Michael Myers’ demise where he’s cooked alive in an explosion. You could say that particular narrative device was…well done. Ha!