Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The Dark Inside Ourselves
Some things in life are impossible to recreate. You come to a movie for the first time several years after it was first released and there might be some baggage, something about the film’s reputation that you’re automatically aware of. Seeing JAWS in a theater now can be wonderful but we’ll never be able to recreate the thrill of what it must have been like to see it brand-new in a packed theater back in 1975. But we can take that film by itself, discarding the later sequels if we so choose. With something like HALLOWEEN, it’s as if we don’t have that choice. Not in just how we can’t go back to the 70s to see it but the sequels, all of them, are largely where what we know of as the HALLOWEEN mythology really came from and those plot points are always going to be there in the back of our minds when we watch that original film. Whatever of John Carpenter’s classic 1978 original was meant to be a simple scary movie gets somehow lost in all that. Coming three years later, HALLOWEEN II is one of those sequels meant to begin immediately after the original as if the goal is to have both films play back-to-back and the conceit really does work about as well as it possibly could, even if there is an undeniable slickness to the sequel that indicates the bigger budget right from the start not to mention how the returning actors really do look a few years older. The thing is, as many who have seen HALLOWEEN II are aware, it’s nowhere near as effective as the original. Not as scary, not as potent. I doubt there was any way it could have been. Of course, I’ve still seen the movie plenty of times by now anyway and as much of a comedown it might be, as much of a cash grab as we all know it is deep down and even as puzzling as some of the story choices are, compared to plenty of other slasher movies made during the last thirty years HALLOWEEN II is flat-out elegant at times. Maybe that’s an odd thing to say about a movie where a beautiful topless girl is horrifically scalded to death but sometimes these things need to be pointed out and recognized.
On Halloween night, 1978 in Haddonfield, Illinois: Immediately after Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has shot the escaped madman Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) six times while attacking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) the doctor discovers that he has unaccountably escaped into the night. As the authorities are faced with who has been killed, Lauie is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital and Loomis continues his search, not knowing that Michael is already on his way to the hospital to finish what he started. But soon enough Loomis learns the biggest secret of all about Michael Myers, one that reveals why he really came back to Haddonfield and why Laurie is the one he’s been focused on.
The decision to stick to the same night without any sort of time jump probably placed some limitations on where the story could possibly go. But there’s also a mood to the original film which remains primal even today in how the killer in question is never a character named Michael Myers so much as The Shape or just ‘He’ as in ‘He came home’ when Dr. Loomis refers to him, somehow connected to that house where he grew up, somehow connected to Laurie Strode in a way that can never be put into words and his presence only has a power on this particular night. The film is so sparse in its design and Carpenter uses this to his advantage—in the daytime scenes the streets of Haddonfield with those leaves blowing along the ground feel emptier than even a normal street in a small town would ever feel and it adds to our sense of impending dread which continually lingers so we forget to watch for just how small scale the production really is, just a few locations and characters along with a top-billed actor who doesn’t do much more than wander a few streets while spouting off exposition.
Directed by Rick Rosenthal, HALLOWEEN II dispenses with this approach either knowing that it can’t be recreated or just willingly going along with the larger budget provided by Universal—it’s all much more kinetic and even the rendition of the famous theme is more hyper this time around which does effect the ongoing mood. It’s of course set later at night now but nevertheless there are more people out on the street, even more lights illuminating the sleepy town of Haddonfield. This is really the point in the ongoing series where the killer ceases to be The Shape and is very much Michael Myers—as if to underscore this, the slight recutting of the end of the first film at the start omits the glimpse of his pathetic face as if to keep ‘Michael’ that much more of a threat as time goes on. From here on his name emerges more and more, making him less of that Boogeyman Loomis once confirmed he was, represented by the human skull lying within the Jack O’ Lantern seen in the opening credits. And if Michael Myers kept his goals in the first film mostly limited to the characters somehow connected to Laurie Strode in this one he goes all over the place dispatching strangers and just random people in that deserted hospital while the star of the film lies catatonic for a fair chunk of the running time. In a weird way the not-quite-right recreation of the original film’s setting is part of the charm, as if wanting me to try harder in pretending that there really is a mythology to all this.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the script (they produced as well) and it’s hard not to think around the half-hour mark that very little has happened with the sparse plot causing too much to play as filler like a security guard’s interminable walk around the hospital that finally arrives at a predictable conclusion. Of course, the same thing could easily be said about HALLOWEEN, a film which was more about mood than anything else, including the plot, and one in which its lead character isn’t even put in any sort of jeopardy until the last fifteen minutes or so (that’s not a criticism of HALLOWEEN, for the record). But maybe that’s a trick which can’t be repeated, at least not in a way that can feel satisfying so maybe the clutter and sudden plot revelations of HALLOWEEN II almost overwhelm the simplicity, one of those cases where both too much and not enough is happening all at once. A big thing is made out of Michael stealing a knife early on but I don’t think he uses it once during the entire time at the hospital. And again, not much happens which involves Laurie until the last fifteen minutes. Loomis learns the secret truth about Michael’s connection to her while she just winds up getting chased around again and this endless night just goes on and on.
Much of the credit should certainly go to the great director of photography Dean Cundey for impeccably adding to that continuous sense of dread—one particular shot involving The Shape emerging from pitch darkness still gets a gasp out of me. And I will give the movie this: it has moments, whether in its use of deep focus in the gliding Panavision frame, displaying the dark humor of the holiday like the unexplained story behind the kid who has had an unfortunate accident with a razor blade or the odd touches that seem so correct in this context, the nurses’ shoes that drop to the ground as she dies, Lance Guest’s Jimmy slipping on that large pool of blood (I always find it hard to watch this, actually), the way The Shape’s Shatner mask seems to be getting more tattered as the night continues. The little touches involving the supporting characters don’t stick as well as they did in the other film but they’re there, like ambulance driver Leo Rossi offering love advice to Lance Guest in a way which recalls the conversations between the three girlfriends in the first film (there’s even a little pot smoking) along with a few touches involving people we only heard about previously like the fate of poor Ben Tramer. Plus the various swirls of red and green colors that turn up, giving the overall film a more fantastical feel than the original—the moment when Michael’s blade almost causes an elevator door to open back up again feels very Argentoesque.
The studio slick vibe, along with a certain occasional crassness, does give the film a feel that is more similar to the following year’s HALLOWEEN III than the original and even what we briefly see of downtown Haddonfield is a location reused in III (along with a few odd similarities—both share a deserted hospital where the doctor on duty has presumably just come from the bar). But there’s a reason why I keep watching at least some of this film every year along with the original and the non-Myers SEASON OF THE WITCH (but not the subsequent sequels, forget about those)—it’s that feel that John Carpenter and associates captured which always puts me in the mindset of films from that time, the shiver I gets whenever I see the Scope Universal logo from the period. It’s as if for a few moments I can forget that this story structure was slammed together to get a sequel out of nothing and accept it. That deserted hospital still doesn’t make much sense at all but the darkness stays with me and so does Michael swatting that scalpel with that whoosh in the air or the blood dripping down from the sockets of his mask even as we see the eyes. HALLOWEEN II went through changes in post-production which included some Carpenter-shot pieces so for all I know that’s why certain characters like Gloria Gifford’s sensible nurse just disappear and why certain threads like where Laurie’s parents are never get followed through on (I wonder if the novelization answers a few of these questions). The ending originally wrapped up the story of Lance Guest’s character, last seen in the release version having banged his head pretty bad and passed out with us never knowing what happens to him, but that was trimmed out too. So the film is a little sparse in closing out this long one night three hour story of Laurie Strode but the more I watch it the more it makes sense. There is no happy ending. This is one holiday that will never end and can never be fully explained, mysteries that only the Sandman will ever understand. Happy Halloween.
The lack of people to follow for us to care about almost makes the whole thing that much more clinical, as if it wants us to watch the movie from a distance. No longer being ‘introduced’ Jamie Lee Curtis gets top billing this time but doesn’t have much of a role to play at all, spending most of the movie either catatonic or just trying to get away, barely able to scream. At the very end she asks if she can ride in the front of the ambulance that’s taking her away, a nice touch which displays how much she’s refusing to remain a victim but it’s literally her only piece of characterization in the movie. Unlike P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis (briefly seen as her body is being wheeled out) they don’t feel as much like real characters just the slasher movie fodder familiar from so many of these films and not many of them make an impression. Leo Rossi and Pamela Susan Shoop do manage to stick out a little and enough time is spent with them that the timing of how fast they’re eventually done away with is actually a little bit of a surprise. There’s a slight feeling that Lance Guest is meant to be some kind of equal to Laurie, if not her full-on love interest but it ultimately comes off as half-baked so she’s really the one we care about. The returning Charles Cyphers, third billed as Sherriff Lee Brackett, departs early to tell his wife about their murdered daughter and is never seen again. Jeffrey Kramer from JAWS gets fourth billing for one tiny scene. Nancy Stephens appears again as Nurse Marion Chambers, not looking much like she did in the first film--“Oh, I didn’t recognize you,” says Loomis when she turns up even though he last saw her a day ago. Dana Carvey makes his film debut and seen a few times but is really just an extra. Donald Pleasence goes full throttle with the no break between movies conceit and while everyone talks about his hamminess, his speeches, his endless speeches, going on about the evil he’s pursuing long after everyone onscreen and in the theater has gotten the point, revisiting the film this time I found myself strangely drawn to his brief description of the festival of Samhain, referring to the end of summer and the meaning of Halloween. It really doesn’t have anything to do with anything but lends such weight, such gravity to it all that these few seconds alone manage to make the movie that much more haunting.
To be honest, when I sat down to write this I was approaching this film with an ‘it’s not very good’ approach but now that’s changed a little. Maybe because I don’t want to stop watching it, along with the first and third films, at least until the sun comes up on November 1st. It’s also one of those Universal movies that has such a pull for me from my childhood along with being one of the films they put out that like JAWS 2 includes an ‘ALL NEW’ on the poster for anyone still confused by the idea of a sequel and I have a fondness for that quaint notion as well. I always remember that it’s ‘just’ a sequel. By nature it’s not even really a complete movie. But it’s become more than that. I want films like this to be there. I need films like this to be there. Yes, it will always be unfortunate that we can never again look at HALLOWEEN as just HALLOWEEN. It really is a film where there should never have been a sequel, let alone many of them. And yet, no one ever said that the reasons why we can’t stop watching these things and continue wondering about those bogus convoluted mythologies ever had to make the slightest bit of sense. Maybe if they ever did that would take all the fun out of it.