And here we have a film never should’ve seen the light but, like that three-car pile-up on your way to work, resolutely sits right in the middle of the road refusing to be ignored. The same way most critics ignore John Carpenter’s made-for-TV movies.
Awkward segues aside, there’s two very good reasons to focus on the man’s studio pieces. For (1) they’re better, and for (2) they’re easier to find. Yet in their blindness, critics miss essential facets of Carpenter’s story, which is in many ways the story of genre cinema in the 1980s. That’s sad because it’s a great story in itself…often much more interesting than the films it created. A story littered with greed, betrayal, and compromised aesthetic principals that will probably go on to make a great bio-pic once everyone forgets who Orson Welles was…or, if they remember him at all, remember him only as “the voice of Unicron.”
The same year Carpenter made Halloween, he also directed an NBC movie-of-the-week called High Rise, starring (among others) the Original Rizzo, Carpenter’s future wife, and the First Lady of 80s sci-fi/action/horror, Adrienne Barbeau. High Rise (a.k.a. Someone’s Watching Me!) focused on the adventures of a recent migrant to LA (Lauren Hutton) who discovers she’s being stalked by a menacing stranger. Parallels to Halloween are obvious: a protagonist isolated by social circumstance within the heart of modern, metropolitan society…an invisible antagonist who drives the protagonist to madness through the steady invocation of creeping dread….a Final Confrontation shot through with Campbellian parallels…
Sometime later, between The Fog and Escape From New York, producer Mustapha Akkad came knocking with a chance to do Halloween II. I can see why Carpenter’s first thought would be, “Alright, fine…let’s reshoot High Rise with Laurie Strode in Lauren Hutton’s role. It’s years after the original babysitter murders and Laurie’s moved to L.A….only to discover Michael Myers is already there, waiting for her…dun-dun-DUN!”
Someone nixed that idea. I doubt we’ll ever really know who. Halloween II‘s production history is fraught with charge and counter-charge, a black miasma of business dealings that have as much in common with sausage making as the American legislative process. The less you know, the better. Look too closely into the workings and you’ll never eat a sausage, respect a law, or try to make a film ever again.
Since I lack the budget and time to do any actual research, I thought I’d just make something up: a rough approximation of the dialogue that led to Halloween II‘s current incarnation. It’s a work of complete fiction. Celebrity voices are impersonated. No celebrities were harmed in the making of this review.
“Fine,” (the entirely fictional) Mustapha Akkad said to Carpenter’s pitch. “I love it…but we can’t use it. NBC would sue us out the other side of the Earth…and besides, you ended the first film on a totally-unfair cliffhanger. We’ve got to go from there or the audience will be pissed.”
Carpenter’s face fell, his mustache drooping like a hothouse flower. “Look…I meant for that ‘unfair’ cliffhanger to invoke a sense that the Evil which Michael Myers represents is still out there, waiting everywhere and nowhere all at once. Inexorable, unstoppable. Inhuman. If we just pick up from that there’s fuck-all we can really do…other than turn Michael into just another empty-headed spree-killer, like those assholes did when they made Friday the 13th…oh, holy hell no!”
Carpenter’s eyes glazed over as the full horror of what this production meeting really meant, both for him and for the film that’d arguably jump-started his professional career, sank in. “Holy shit…that’s what you’re trying to do, isn’t it? Build a fucking franchise on a mound of ‘teenage’ corpses. You looked at all the money Paramount made ripping us off last year and convinced Universal you could call down the same lightning. With my film as your rod.”
Mustapha Akkad spread his hands and smiled a thin, tight grin, saying There you go without a word.
“Well, fuck that,” Carpenter said. “I’ve got Kurt Russell in my Rolodex and Adrienne Barbeau in my bed. I don’t need to waste time making clockwork, take-off-your-clothes-and-die bullshit. I’ll write it…but find your own director. I’ve got better…things…to do.”
But you can’t keep a jilted artist away from his beloved babies…even after they’ve grown up into jaw-grinding coke fiends…shameless, mass-market whores made to cash-in on the first Great Wave of Slasher films released in Friday the 13th‘s wake.
Which brings us, after a long, strange trip, back to Halloween II. In a de regure move for Slashers of this vintage, we begin with a recap of the last film’s end. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) once again saves Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from The Shape’s not-so-tender attentions, putting seven (count ’em) shots into Michael Myers (now played by the beautifully-named Dick Warlock)…out of a six-shot revolver, no less. Fuck continuity, right? Continuity’s for pussies.
Example: in the original film, Loomis ended things up on the balcony, beaming a horrified look down on the empty bit of lawn where his perforated ex-patient should have been. Here, Loomis runs out of the house, finds some blood, and tells a curious neighbor to call Five-oh. “I’ve been trick-or-treated to death,” Oblivious Neighbor Man says. (Where the hell was he during Laurie’s frantic run across the road? Or was he the asshole who turned his porch lights off as she frantically pounded on his door?) “You don’t know what death is,” Dr. Loomis retorts – a perfectly Loomis-ian line if ever I heard one, and the last genuinely good line in this film.
The opening credits, backed as they are by an inferior, synthesized-to-all-hell version of Carpenter’s Halloween theme, let us know we’re in for an inferior experience. At least Henri Manfredini would hearken back to the grand old days when, a year later, he thermined and discoed-up his theme for Friday the 13th Part 3.
In a bid to re-create the tension that kept its prequel afloat through interminable scenes of Laurie and her now-dead friends, we spend the next few post-credit minutes inside Michael’s eyes as The Shape scoots through back yards and alleyways. He steals a knife from an old couple and, for no particular reason, proceeds next door to kill their much-younger (and much more photogenic) neighbor, Alice (Anne Bruner). (Veiled reference to Friday the 13th‘s Alice and her muddy, stormy rabbit hole? You be the judge.)
Alice’s death is a microcosm for everything wrong with Halloween II. She steps outside to investigate the scream her neighbor sent up in response to that missing knife (and the blood Michael left in its place). Getting no response, Alice heads back inside and resumes her pre-scream phone conversation, assuming her next-door neighbor finally got tired of his wife’s nagging and started (!) beating her. Obviously no cause for concern.
As her friend yaks about some triple-murder some escaped loony committed just down the street, Alice hears a noise, notices her suddenly-open front door, and sets the phone down to investigate. She asks the obligatory “Who is it?”…the Slasher movie equivalent of smoking a pound of marijuana while having premarital sex in a graveyard outside the Crystal Lake Woods. Getting no response, Alice walks into the foyer, looks left, looks right. Nobody there. She takes three steps toward shutting the door and – BAM!- up jumps a psycho. Exit Alice, stage knife-in-the-throat.
So…just where the fuck was Michael hiding? In the floorboards? Behind a couch the director refused to establish out of some misguided sense of principal? Did Dr. Ray Palmer moonlight at Smith’s Grove at some point during Michael’s fifteen-year stint? Did Mikey abscond with some white dwarf star matter right out from underneath the Mighty Mite’s nose? It’s the best explanation I can come up with…apart from an image in my head of our credited director, Rick Rosenthal, saying, “Fuck it. Let’s just hope no one notices.”
Back at the Wallace house, Laurie’s loaded into an ambulance. Her two EMTs, Budd (Leo Rossi) and Jimmy (Lance Guest), form the core of this movie’s New Meat. We meet the rest as Laurie does, at Haddonfield’s inordinately large Hospital (played by L.A.’s now-demolished Morningside). There’s Dr. Mixter (Ford Rainey) and Dr. Mixter’s hangover (portraying itself). There’s Janet (Ana Alicia), our Designated Nice Girl, who also happens to be a nurse. There’s Mr. Garrett (Cliff Emmich), our Token Doomed Security Guard. And our Designated Bitch, Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford). And Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop), another Girl Spice…who also also happens to be a Nurse.
For what it’s worth, the film’s got more pep than Friday the 13th Part 2 and more forward momentum than Jame Lee Curtis’ previous Slasher vehicles, Prom Night, Terror Train or Road Games. Odd that Curtis spends most of the film either under sedation or so zonked out she hardly has a chance to act at all, much less act well. I can only surmise that her 1981 schedule was so packed she just couldn’t find the time to have a bigger role in this pic…or didn’t want one.
Donald Pleasence suffers from a similar lack of screen time and his scenes are necessarily broken up by the flick’s ultimately-pointless efforts to characterize the New Meat. Here we see a Dr. Loomis verging on exhaustion, stretched to the brink of his own sanity by a seemingly-endless night spent so far out on the edge he might as well be Wile E. Coyote…perfect opportunity for an actor with Pleasence-level chops to showcase professionalism. Pleasence is the one bright spot in film’s otherwise drab middle, even if his Dramatic Speeches are little more than uncreative rehashes of shit he said throughout Halloween I.
In the end, Dr. Loomis does take a Coyote-ian plunge of sorts. Would that this series had followed his noble example and honored his noble sacrifice. Fuck all knows Mustapha Akkad wasn’t about to do that when there was money to be made from this series.
The other actors do what they can to characterize walking targets. For what its worth (about half a G on my scale) they do a better job than their contemporary competitors. And nothing much else.
Halloween II has many, many, many problems, a lot of which spring from the Carpenter’s monumentally bad decision to involve himself in the first place. I can just see the man, hot off Escape from New York‘s premiere, sitting down to take a look at this…the shocked expression on his face befitting a Lovecraftian protagonist who’s just witnessed the Elder Gods in all their glorious horror. “I had no influence over the direction of the film,” Carpenter told Twilight Zone Magazine. Odd thing for a man who co-wrote the script to say…but whatever. “I had an influence in the post-production. I saw a rough cut of Halloween II, and it wasn’t scary. It was about as scary as Quincy. So we had to do some post-production work to bring it at least up to par with the competition.” Meaning all the money shots (including Alice’s death) might very well be Carpenter’s.
If so, it’s as if Carpenter traded places with his counterpart from some “evil” parallel dimension. Suspense? Out. Fake blood? In. Coherent plotting? Out. Body count? Grossly inflated by unsympathetic, one-note characters that ass about doing stupid, stupid things…making their gruesome on-screen deaths cathartic experiences rather than horrific ones…undermining the whole premise of a “horror” movie. And this from the man who wrote and directed The Fog? And Assault on Precinct 13? Did some kind of mass hysteria break out in 1981? The full “dogs and cats living together” number? Or was Carpenter lying?
Rosenthal says so. He maintains Carpenter f-ed up his big-budget debut, filling it with needless gore, rendering it incoherent. We know there’s some truth to that since the script is already incoherent, stretching and pulling at the original film’s plot in order to squeeze in enough ret-cons to support a second story. That this story takes place in the most deserted hospital in the universe is a testament both to the film’s low production value and it’s contempt for the audience’s IQ. (I swear, there are, like, seven people on duty here. On Halloween night. In a town that not only boasts its own Homegrown Homicidal Maniac, but where kids actually find razor blades in their apples…an urban legend from our modern age appearing in a film that’s little more than an urban legend from a prior age…whoa…we’re getting meta here. Time to pull it back a notch.)
For another thing, Rosenthal learned all the wrong lessons from Sean Cunningham and Steve Miner. Gone is the lurking, methodical Shape of 1978. Instead we have Michael Myers as a sort of proto-Terminator. Nothing wrong with Dick Warlock’s turn under the mask. It’s his suddenly-varied choice of weaponry and tactics that I question.
Example: if Mike’s so hot on Laurie, why not trudge straight to her room instead of farting around with all these other dipshits? When did they yell 70s-era PSA slogans at you, Mike? You’re only padding out the running time, drawing attention to yourself, and ripping off your “competitors” (specifically, Friday the 13th Part 2 which also featured the murder of an idiotic authority figure with a claw hammer to the head, among other things). And then there’s the whole “Samhain” angle…which, in case you didn’t know, is Hollywood-Celtic for “bullshit.”
Where Rosenthal’s bits of film drag, Carpenter lingers on gore effects past the point of all reason. Long enough for someone like me to go, “Hey…there’s probably a guy sitting right out of frame pumping that puss out from underneath that needle.” Or, “Damn, I bet that was a six hour make-up job. Scalded flesh takes a hell of a long time to get right.” Long enough for anyone who doesn’t give a shit about special effects to use their instinctive “Eww, gross,” as a excuse to make for the exists.
Thankfully, Carpenter and Hill didn’t bother to study Victor Miller. They’re better writers by far, their dialogue richer in subliminal characterization. There’s a big hole in my head where the middle third of Friday the 13th Part 2 should be thanks to its utter ineptitude at defining any of its walking-dead characters. Here, I know Bud’s an asshole right off. I know Mrs. Alves, the Head Nurse, is a different kind of asshole, deploying her powers of assholery only in the service of her job. I know Jamie’s the Nice Guy, for all the good it does him. (None.) I don’t give a crap about any of them, or their fates, but I’ll remember the joy I took in their gruesome deaths for at least another day or so.
After that, Halloween 2 will slip back into my memory, safe for the next occasion I have to argue that the Slasher movie exhausted itself in its first year of existence. After 1980, the Great Wave rolled back and never achieved the aesthetic heights Carpenter managed to surmount with a nothing budget, a pile of fake fall leaves, and a spray-painted Shatner mask.
Jilted fans of the series probably expect me to talk about The Twist…that eleventh-hour revelation that does nothing at all to help the rest of the film (or its prequel) make any kind of dramatic sense whatsoever. That begs all sorts of inordinately-stupid questions the film’s not at all prepared to answer. Why do you think it waits until the eleventh hour, when the Final Girl confrontation is already well under way, before it drops this steaming pile of retroactive continuity into our laps? It’s the kind of twist Rod Serling would’ve looked at askance before derisively blowing cigarette smoke into its deformed, thalidomide face.
The Empire Strikes Back was a great movie. I’m glad John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and I agree on that point. It was also a good sequel, using its prequel as the backdrop to tell a new story, adding shading and depth to the universe in which both films took place. Halloween II adds nothing that makes the least bit of sense, populates its universe with unprofessional assholes, and tells a story that could’ve reasonably taken place in at least five other stamped-from-the-same-mold Slasher films…all starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
Imagine if some manner of Crisis on Infinite Earths force all of the Final Girls Jamie’s played over the years to unite in some Ultimate Final Girl Super Strike Force. That’d sure make Michael Myers poop his stolen tow-truck driver’s pants and I’d pay good money to see it. It’d certainly be a better movie than this.