Why I Love… #84: Halloween II

Year: 1981

Director: Rick Rosenthal

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode),  Donald Pleasance (Dr Sam Looms), Charles Cyphers (Leigh Bracket), Lance Guest (Jimmy), Dick Warlock (The Shape)

Genre: Horror

With the aim in mind here at thelosthighwayhotel to provide a diverse range of reviews and essays I might ordinarily have considered it far too soon to make my case for Halloween II, having so recently fought for another under appreciated horror sequel (Gremlins 2: The New Batch), and having followed that with a piece on one of 1981’s other troubled gems (Ms. 45), but the season has rather forced my hand. As October 31st approaches so do the questions of how to spend that hallowed evening – exercise the inner extrovert at a fancy dress party, or settle in for a cosy and creepy horror movie marathon?

I’m still on the fence personally over which way I’ll land, but if you end up favouring the latter, then dusting off John Carpenter’s landmark slasher which shares the festival’s very name is something of a no-brainer.

But wait. When it’s over, spare a thought for Rick Rosenthal’s sequel; unfairly sidelined to the  cluttered gutter of horror sequels. Another name in a landfill of thousands, but one which, I feel, deserves more credit than it generally receives. Make your visit to Haddonfield a double bill. It’ll be worth it

What makes Halloween II one of the best horror sequels ever made is the remarkable consistency that it achieves when slid side-by-side with the original. Picking up exactly where Carpenter’s film left off – it’s set the very same night – Rosenthal does an incredible job of aping Carpenter’s vice-grip tension and supposedly unique stylistic sensibility. It’s a thankless and ego-free task, but Rosenthal deserves an A here. This is, along with the similarly misunderstood Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, the best film Carpenter never directed.

Credit where credit’s due, however, you can’t attribute the consistency of these two features to Rosenthal alone. Though busy with Escape From New York, Carpenter still found time to co-write this instalment with frequent collaborator and producer Debra Hill, therefore instilling the continuation of the story with the same lean, menacing sensibility. The inevitable trademarks of horror sequels are nevertheless all in place; more deaths, more eclectic deaths, more back story, while at the same time enough of the original’s zeal to placate those simply after more-of-the-same.

It’s a coup for the film that the actors who played the three principal survivors of film one were all up for another roll of the dice. Curtis is relegated to a hospital bed for much of the feature (sedated following her distressing ordeal earlier that evening), but by the last half hour she is gamely given a lot of fleeing to do, and proves somewhat more resourceful this time around (the post-Alien ‘Ripley’ template welcomingly exerting itself). Pleasance is on fine form as Loomis once more. A little crazier than last time, sure, but pleasingly so (unlike some of his later scenery-chewing appearances). Cyphers brings up the rear dependably. One of those third-billed barrel-chested everymen that are uniquely found in Carpenter movies of this era.

The other significant recurring name for Halloween II is master cinematographer Dean Cundey. Cundey is, perhaps, the film’s most essential and successfully tapped resource. Having helped the original, his efforts to make the look of the film seamless is invaluable. From Michael Myers’ terrifying, roaming POV shots to the sinister sleepiness of Haddonfield’s suburban neighbourhoods, the coherence with film one here is marvelous.

Yet there are developments. Halloween II takes place primarily at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital (making it, in some respects, more of a haunted house movie). It’s markedly darker than Carpenter’s film, but Cundey uses this darkness beautifully. Much is often made of how comically understaffed HMH appears to be, but anyone who’s visited the emergency room of a medium-sized hospital after midnight can attest to the eeriness of medical facilities on the graveyard shift. Cundey conjures this with some wonderful lighting, even going so far as to lightly evoke Argento’s giallo pictures during Laurie Strode’s late-picture escape. Even before the more extreme cues that make up these final reel moments, Halloween II ranks as one of his most beautifully lit films, up there with another undervalued Carpenter masterpiece, The Fog.

These things in combination elevate Halloween II far beyond what one might reasonably expect from a sequel to such a recognised genre milestone. I personally loathe hospitals. Perhaps that also helps make this, for me at least, far scarier than the original. Rosenthal gets a lot of mileage out of his location, and, with Cundey’s aforementioned assistance, manages to make Halloween II one of the great “he’s behind you!” movies. On more than one occasion Myers steps forward out of the shadows in a way that is downright chilling.

I’m not suggesting the film is perfect. It does struggle at times from the required mandate of being a continuing chapter. Carpenter’s film amps up gradually, but Rosenthal’s is expected to assume its heightened mood of oppressive threat from the get-go. That’s a big ask. And though it achieves initially (those neighbourhood-roaving scenes from Myers’ perspective), there’s a slackening in the middle, even if this section does treat us to some memorable deaths for the flick’s also-ran characters. Out of necessity, also, this is the instalment that started the increasing trend of supernatural invulnerability in Myers, though in fairness to Rosenthal, this is the hand dealt to him following the first’s finale. And you can hardly blame him for what came after.

…But, if I’m pushed, I’d say this film is at least the equal of its predecessor (a film not immune to criticism). They’re of a piece, certainly, but Halloween II is a mite more muscular, it’s easier to watch; I’m less inclined to restlessness. And, in a strange way, it’s a champion example of how so many tired horror movie sequel clichés can be done right. Or, at least, more effectively.

The series would make a perceived misstep the next year with Season Of The Witch by ditching Myers and Haddonfield and hoping, ambitiously, to continue as an anthology series, bringing disparate ghoulish tales to cinema audience every October 31st. But it was not to be. The following film’s Outer Limits-esque conspiracy story didn’t satisfy an audience baying for more of Michael Myers and the series reverted to type for part IV and an increasing sense of diminishing returns sets in. It’s a shame. Season Of The Witch is a great little yarn (and actually makes for a great double bill with Carpenter’s later film They Live), but for me the series ends here, with a burning hospital, with Laurie Strode and Dr Loomis, with that fateful night in Haddonfield in 1978. And you can keep your Rob Zombie do-overs. Don’t get me started on those films.

So when you’re ejecting Halloween from the DVD player this year and looking at the stack of alternatives to round off your evening, spare a thought for the most obvious but neglected choice. You may discover you could’ve done a whole lot worse. Who knows. You might, just might, find a new favourite.

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