Starting life as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts, Halloween is largely associated not just with ghosts, ghouls, and confectionery but also a long-running series of horror movies. Beginning with John Carpenter’s Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), the franchise is largely credited with birthing the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and has endured numerous remakes and reboots and is one of the most influential films in all of horror.
Released: 30 October 1981
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $2.5 million
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Lance Guest, Ana Alicia, Nancy Stephens, Hunter von Leerand Dick Warlock
Mere hours after narrowly surviving an attack by the merciless Michael Myers (Warlock), Laurie Strode (Curtis) has been taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to recover from her injuries. However, desperate to put an end to the missing killer, Michael’s psychiatrist, Doctor Sam Loomis (Pleasence), tries to track Myers down and, in the process, discovers a horrifying motive behind the Shape’s murderous rage.
Although largely dismissed upon release, John Carpenter’s Halloween was a financial success; its final box office gross of over $63 million against a paltry $300,000 to 325,000 budget made it one of the most successful independent films ever made and the film not only popularised the clichés of the slasher sub-genre but came to be regarded as one of the most influential movies of its kind and one of the greatest horror films of all time. This success meant that a sequel was all-but-inevitable but writer/director John Carpenter was, initially, less than enthusiastic at the prospect of a follow-up and, though he returned to write and produce Halloween II, he declined the director’s chair and struggled to formulate a compelling story, which led to a plot twist that he later came to regret. Although many of the cast returned from the first film, stuntman Dick Warlock replaced Nick Castle as Michael Myers/The Shape and was forced to wear a mask that had noticeably aged since the first film. Afforded a much bigger budget, on Carpenter’s suggestion the sequel also contained far more blood and gore compared to the first film, which irked director Rick Rosenthal. Critics also took issue with the rampant violence, though Halloween II was still a financial success; it made over $25 million and became the second-highest grossing horror film of 1981, and Myers’ popularity would ensure his eventual return to the franchise after a failed effort to turn Halloween into an anthology series.
Any true horror fan will tell you how influential John Carpenter’s Halloween was on the genre; thanks to Halloween and the relentless, emotionless void that was Michael Myers, an entire sub-genre of horror swept cinemas throughout the 1980s and directly led to the creation of similarly-themed films such as the Friday the 13th franchise (Various, 1981 to 2009). It’s not for everyone, and fans of faster, more visceral modern horrors may struggle to adapt to Halloween’s slow pace and the sheer randomness of Michael’s actions, but it was truly a benchmark moment for the horror genre. I can’t rightly say that I’ve ever seen Halloween II held in such high regard, however, and for the longest time it was one of the franchise’s many sequels that eluded me until I finally picked up the then-complete series boxset.
Halloween II begins by basically repeating the finale of the first film, picking up right as Myers attacks Laurie and is shot off a balcony by Loomis, with three noticeable changes: the first is the replacement of Carpenter’s iconic score over the finale’s recreation (which doesn’t kick in until the opening credits roll, and even then it’s a bit of a funky remix, which definitely robs the ending of its haunting power), the second is how poor the video transfer is on the 2004 DVD release I’m watching, and the third is that the film continues going after Loomis sees the Michael’s body has disappeared. In an attempt to recreate the memorable first-person opening of the first film, Halloween II then follows Michael through his eyes as he wanders around in the shadows of Haddonfield with the only sounds being his heavy breathing and Loomis’ near-maniacal screams that he “shot him six times!!” Much of the original film’s suspense was built around keeping Michael elusive and mysterious; he was seen stalking his prey from a car, peeking around corners, and in fleetingly appearances that definitely lent a lot of credibility to his allure as being pure evil. In Halloween II, this is completely thrown out of the window as, within about fifteen minutes, we’ve seen Michael walking around in the darkness, stealing a kitchen knife, and offing a random bystander in her home (with more blood appearing in this one kill than almost the entirety of the first film).
Injured, exhausted, and suffering from shock, Laurie is strapped to a gurney and taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, where she attracts the affections of paramedic Jimmy (Guest); considering the murder spree that just befell the town, the hospital is basically empty and staffed primarily by strict head nurse nurse Virginia Alves (Gloria Gifford), the promiscuous nurse Karen Bailey (Pamela Susan Shoop), and the crude-tongued staff paramedic Budd Scarlotti (Leo Rossi), so Jimmy definitely stands out as the more stable and kind-hearted of the hospital’s staff. However, he’s also a largely bland and one-dimensional character whose single defining trait is that he has a thing for Laurie; traumatised by her experiences, Laurie fears being put to sleep and is shocked to learn from Jimmy that her attacker was local bogeyman Michael Myers. Although bedridden for the majority of the film, and with much of her personality stripped away because of the trauma she suffered, we learn a little more about Laurie’s past in this film through her dreams, where it’s revealed that she was adopted and that she visited young Michael (Adam Gunn) while he was locked up. Realising that Michael will come for her, Laurie feigns a reaction to her medication and outwits the Shape, becoming a little more reminiscent of her adaptable and competent self about an hour or so into the movie, though her injuries and shock preclude her from being as capable as she was in the first film.
While Laurie recuperates from her injuries, Loomis continues his desperate search for his murderous patient; he finds Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), his reluctant ally from the first film, increasingly disgruntled with his’ abrasive demeanour but, already blaming Loomis for Michael’s escape, the sheriff abandons the crusade completely when he finds his daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis), dead at Michael’s hands. He’s replaced by the much more reciprocal Deputy Gary Hunt (von Leer), who orders the town’s police to continue the search for Michael, accompanies Loomis throughout much of his search, and even disperses an unruly mob who descend upon the old Myers’ house (though he largely fulfils the same role as Brackett from the first film as a sceptical sounding board for Loomis’ horror stories about Michael). However, there’s no question that Loomis has been driven to near-madness by his pursuit of Michael and the fact that the Shape absorbed six shots to the heart; this causes Loomis to become wild and paranoid during the search and, when he spots young Ben Tramer (Jack Verbois) dressed as Michael and walking through the street, he crazily chases after him with a gun and indirectly causes the young man’s sudden and explosive death! Considering the media circus surrounding Michael’s actions, and Loomis’ increasing obsession with the killer, the sanatorium orders Marion Chambers (Stephens) and a United States Marshal to escort him back to the facility to limit their association with the murders, though Loomis is able to overpower them both with his trusted revolver and hasten his return to Laurie’s aid for the finale.
I think one thing that definitely holds Halloween II back is how redundant a lot of it is; I can just about forgive the film opening with a recap of the first film, since it had been about three years since the last film and home video wasn’t exactly prevalent back then, but so much of the opening is just going through the same motions as in Carpenter’s original: Loomis is desperate to find and kill Michael, just as in the first film, and even delivers his famous speeches about Michael’s evil and patience almost word-for-word as in the last film, and the gaggle of interesting and colourful (if a bit underdeveloped) babysitters from the last film are replaced by bland paramedics and a number of nurses and hospital staff. While the film is definitely bloodier and a bit more explicit in its shocks compared to the original, it feels largely toothless because, rather than slowly build up to the reveal of Michael or see him lurking in the background, he just appears in a jump scare.
It’s therefore understandable that many bemoan Halloween II for destroying much of Michael’s mystique by providing him with a janky motive; while trying to track down Michael, Loomis discovers that the Shape randomly broke into the local school and scrawled the word “Samhain” on a wall, which I honestly feel would have been enough of a mysterious addition to allow audiences to speculate on the potential supernatural abilities afforded to the masked killer but the series wouldn’t circle back around to that for another few films so Carpenter instead shoe-horned in a familial connection between Michael and Laurie. Until Marion informs him that Laurie is Michael’s younger sister, who was put up for adoption after his psychotic break as a child, Loomis was completely unaware of this fact and, upon learning it, realises that Laurie was no random or coincidental target. Instead, the implication is that Michael is compelled (possibly by supernatural forces) to murder his teenaged siblings on and/or around Halloween, which is still a frightening concept but nowhere near as interesting as a young boy just snapping one day, biding his time for years as little more than a vegetable, and then exhibiting superhuman strength and tenacity in a random killing spree. Also, it doesn’t really explain why he didn’t just attack Laurie right away; after all, he didn’t kill his sister’s boyfriend as a boy, so it doesn’t make much sense for him to slaughter Laurie’s friends in his pursuit of her. Still, to play Devil’s advocate for a second, not every horror villain suffers from having clear cut motivations and backstories; it can help to make them a bit more sympathetic and to lend an additional layer of horror and madness to their motives, but I do think that expanding upon Michael’s motivations in this way diluted some of his horror. Yes, he’ll still kill you if you get in his way, but as long as you’re not related to him in some way, you’re probably okay, which makes him less a force of pure evil and more a focused maniac with a specific target in mind.
Halloween II not only ups the nudity and sexual content compared to the first film, it also ups violence, gore, and kill count from the first film, so it’s only fair that I talk about the kills on display in the film: Michael stabs a woman in the chest with a knife, delivers a sickening hammer shot to the head of security guard Bernard Garrett (Cliff Emmich), strangles Bud with a piece of wire while he’s tending to the hydrotherapy pool’s temperature controls, and then drowns Karen in the boiling hot water of that same pool in perhaps the film’s most horrifying and gruesome kill (but which, again, hearken back to Michael’s famous bedsheet kills from the first film). Michael also offs a doctor and a nurse with a syringe (with one stabbed in the aforementioned doctor’s eye!), goes to the ridiculous effort of draining Virginia of her life’s blood using surgical equipment, and impales another nurse through the back with a scalpel right before Laurie’s eyes, easily hoisting his victim up with one arm in the process. Unfortunately, Michael’s iconic mask, with its dark eyes and expressionless visage, leaves a lot to be desired; rather than create a new mask that actually resembled the one from the first film, the filmmaker used the same exact mask, which is noticeably aged and looks cheap and ugly as a result. While I appreciate the variety in Michael’s weaponry in this film, he only uses his trademark kitchen knife the one time and spends the majority of the film wandering the darkened hallways of a deserted hospital with a piddling little scalpel that is nowhere near as horrifying as a big, sharp knife.
Having tracked his long-lost sister to the hospital, Michael leaves a trail of bodies in his wake that is far more gruesome and creative than the comparatively tame body count and murders from the last film though, sadly, Jimmy escapes his grasp (however, he does appear to be dead after foolishly slipping on a pool of blood). As Michael prowls around the hospital, Laurie’s sole objective is to escape, so she stumbles and crawls around the place, hides, and generally spends most of the finale desperately fleeing from her relentless pursuer. While I won’t lie and say that Laurie was the most compelling and interesting character in the first film (she was basically a kind-hearted, if bland, bookworm), Halloween II doesn’t do her character too many favours and basically just paints her as a helpless victim for the entirety of its runtime. Luckily for Laurie, Loomis once again arrives in the nick of time to save her; however, as has been established throughout the movie, mere bullets can’t stop Michael and the Shape is able to shake off Loomis’ shots, stabs his former doctor, and corners the two in an operating theatre. Here, Laurie gets a very brief moment to be a proactive protagonist as she demonstrates her uncanny aim by shooting out Michael’s eyes (something every subsequent film has simply ignored), leaving him blind and swinging his “deadly” scalpel wildly. Loomis fills the room with flammable gas and orders Laurie to run before setting off his lighter, immolating himself and his disturbed patient in a massive explosion. Although Michael emerges from the blaze engulfed in flames, he quickly collapses to the ground and burns to death before Laurie’s eyes, finally ending his threat once and for all (or for about seven years…).
It’s tough to really find anything positive to say about Halloween II; yes, the gore and the nudity are a bit more pronounced and Michael is the same relentless killer he’s always been, but the whole film seems like such a waste of time and potential. It spends so much of its runtime trying to recreate or repeat the story beats of the first film that the pace meanders as a result; Michael wanders all over town, slowly making his way to the hospital, simply to add to the body count when we know he could easily just drive there. Setting much of the film in the hospital could have been a good way to make it visually distinct from its predecessors but the hospital is so barren and lifeless and full of throwaway, nothing characters that I just find myself bored watching it. Donald Pleasance remains a highlight, of course, but so much of his dialogue is lifted from the first film’s script that it feels like we’re just going over the same information again and again, though I did enjoy seeing how traumatised by Michael’s killing spree the doctor has become and the culmination of his guilt around the horrific events his patient has wrought (what better way to go out than in a literal blaze of glory?) The twist of Michael being Laurie’s brother was clunky, at best, and would go on to largely dominate the series for some time; I’m largely numb to it at this point and don’t really mind it all that much, but again the potential of this reveal is completely squandered and poorly implemented here (it would be incorporated far better in some of the sequels, and even then it could never have the impact the filmmakers intended because of the studio’s reluctance to end their profitable franchise). Overall, I feel like Halloween II really isn’t worth your time; you can just as easily skip from this film to one of the many sequels thanks to the numerous reboots that have diluted this franchise and it definitely feels as though this was thrown together simply because slasher films had become popular after the success of Halloween, resulting in a by-the-numbers slasher that lacked all of the nuance and subtle horror of the original.
Could Be Better
Are you a fan of Halloween II? What did you think to the twist that Michael and Laurie were siblings? Do you like horror villains to have clear motivations or do you prefer them to be more ambiguous? Which of the kills was your favourite and what did you think to the new characters? What did you think to Loomis’ maniacal obsession and his ultimate sacrifice? Do you think the series should have ended here or is one of the subsequent films a favourite of yours? How are you celebrating Halloween this year? Whatever your thoughts on Halloween, and the Halloween franchise, sign up to drop a comment below, or leave a comment on my social media, and have a spook-tacular Halloween!