Thursday, January 26, 2006

You don't know what death is!

"It's a little sad to witness a fall from greatness, and that's what we get with Halloween II." - Roger Ebert

In many ways, Ebert is right; Halloween II is a failure on many levels. The new characters are interchangable, and there are quite a few scenes that exist only to pad the film to ninety minutes. And yet on a purely visceral level, Halloween II is almost as effective as its predecessor.

The screenplay for Halloween II, which has Michael Myers stalking the halls of Haddonfield Hospital, was written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Carpenter has said more than once that he had no interest in directing a Halloween sequel, and that the screenplay was a rush-job (if I remember correctly, he did admit to stealing the central plot twist from The Empire Strikes Back). Yet the artlessness of Halloween II is partly why it works. In Halloween, as in all of John Carpenter's best movies, you find yourself comfortably resting in an auteur's good hands - while you may be frightened, you can rest assured that someone is in control. With Halloween II, nobody is in control; Carpenter's script is uncharacteristically mean-spirited and cynical, and director Rick Rosenthal is more interested in quick, brutal scares than sustained tension. Halloween took place in a warm suburban universe invaded by a purely evil presence; the Haddonfield we see in Halloween II is cold and vaguely depressing. The absence of an auteur results in cinema without meaning; it may not be the most elegant approach, but it does manage (albeit indirectly) to mirror the irrational malevolence of Michael Myers. In other words, it's dumb and empty, but that's paradoxically a good thing.

The film begins right where the last one ended, Halloween night, 1978, with Myers (played in this installment by Dick Warlock) still on the loose. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been taken to the hospital, and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is still trying to find his missing patient. The first reel is captivating because of its aimlessness - we follow Myers' POV as he wanders from house to house, collecting a knife and then dispatching a character we'd only just met. Warlock is one of the best Shapes to grace the series - Nick Castle's version in the original was chillingly dispassionate, but Warlock has a crueler edge (highlighted in the moments that we see Myers' eyes). The film eventually makes its way to the hospital for most of its runtime, introducing us to mostly forgettable characters, save for the totally unlikable ambulance driver Bud (Leo Rossi). Bud is sexist, irresponsible, and gross. So of course, he has a sex scene. I didn't say Halloween II was perfect.

So most of Halloween II alternates between effective scare scenes and disposable filler. But I can't emphasize enough how memorable its best moments are. The visual strategy of placing Myers in unexpected corners of the frame is repeated here, sometimes to better effect (see the early scene in the Elrods' home). And the over-the-top violence has the flavor of 1970's gialli (notably a hot-tub scene that pays homage to Deep Red). The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Donald Pleasance, one of the most underrated actors of all time. Even in the worst Halloween sequels, he never approaches the material with anything less than total conviction and commitment. The "Samhain" business here is pretty goofy, but Pleasance's delivery elevates it, finding spooky undertones in the mumbo-jumbo exposition.

Finally, the last twenty minutes, which place Curtis back in the center of the action (she's waylaid in a hospital bed for the first hour), are near-perfect. I'm increasingly certain that Tarantino had Halloween II in mind during the hospital scenes in Kill Bill vol. 1 - Beatrix Kiddo crawling along a hospital floor is identical to Laurie Strode here. The extended chase is a bit crude, but it's genuinely compelling; having seen this film dozens of time, it still makes me quite tense about the outcome. A lot of credit must go to cinematographer Dean Cundey, returning from the first film. The look of Halloween II, which ranges from sickly yellow and white light to rich shadows to bright red in the final scences, has the banal yet surreal feel of a nightmare. And while Halloween II is certainly a mixed bag, its best moments touch that nightmare.

A fun game to play during the film: John Carpenter shot some additional scenes to take the film to eleven after principal photography was completed. Try and guess which scenes are his. Of course, I want to credit him for the best bits, but then, you never know. Maybe he's just responsible for Bud.

No comments: