The Longest Night: The Original ‘Halloween II’ at 40

Horror

Halloween II has always stood in the long shadow of its practically perfect predecessor. In many ways, it is a meaner film than the original. While the first has more in the way of trick or treating, carving jack o’ lanterns, and teenage mischief, the sequel is the razor blades in apples, carved up bodies, and carnage following a drunken teenage party. Halloween begins as a long day’s journey into night. Halloween II is almost entirely the dark, seemingly endless night of terror. Even the horror film playing on television is darker—the brutal and visceral Night of the Living Dead as opposed to the more innocuous 50’s terror The Thing from Another World. While the first film is largely populated by optimistic teenagers and children with wild imaginations, Halloween II is filled with tired and cynical adults. This is Halloween after hours, and they are vicious hours.

It is this mean streak that many critics at the time and even some of the filmmakers connected with the original negatively responded to. Tommy Lee Wallace, a major player in the making of the first and eventually third films of the franchise, was originally hired to direct Halloween II, but was very unhappy with the script and decided to back out. “It felt like everything that Halloween was not,” Wallace said in an interview. “Where Halloween got it done with suggestion and shadows and true old school suspense technique, somehow to me Halloween II was summed up with that hypodermic in the eyeball.” Roger Ebert cited the exact same moment in his negative review of the film as indicative of everything he saw wrong with the film and the slasher subgenre. These criticisms may seem unfounded or excessive today, but they are not entirely unfair. It is a far more brutal and less suggestive horror film than the first. That said, most criticisms against the film stem from comparisons to the original. Taken on its own terms, Halloween II is one of the best slashers of the 80’s or indeed any era.

Halloween II is clearly influenced by some of Halloween’s imitators, particularly the first two Friday the 13th movies, Prom Night, and My Bloody Valentine. As a result, it is a bloodier film than the original, but still not on the level of many other slashers. Certain tropes like the “cat jump scare” and “opening a door to find nothing only to close it and reveal the killer” also found their way into the film. That said, it still feels like a Halloween film, a true continuation of the first. This is largely due to key players from the original returning for the second both in front of and behind the camera. John Carpenter and Debra Hill again co-wrote the script while the great Dean Cundey returned as Director of Photography, assuring a consistent look between the two films.

Unlike the only other major slasher sequel up to that time, Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II brings back several characters from the first film, which is necessary as it begins the moment the first film ends, also something of an innovation. Charles Cyphers as Sheriff Brackett only appears in a few scenes toward the beginning of the film. After seeing the body of his daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis) he leaves to tell his wife “before someone else does” in a powerful and emotional moment. Deputy Hunt (Hunter von Leer) then essentially takes over the role that Brackett played in the first film, assisting Dr. Loomis on his hunt for Michael Myers.

Donald Pleasance returns as Dr. Sam Loomis offering more of John Carpenter’s signature monologues about evil. This film features Dr. Loomis unbound, and more than a little unhinged, often wreaking almost as much havoc on Haddonfield as Michael. He is seen running down the sidewalk waving his gun, nearly shooting a teenager he suspects to be Myers before the boy is killed in a fiery crash (justice for Ben Tramer!), and firing a “warning shot” through a police officer’s windshield. This last scene also features Nancy Stephens as Nurse Marion who returns late in the film to reveal some shocking new information to Loomis.

We also get a number of new characters, many of whom work at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been brought for treatment for her wounds (more on Laurie later). Though they are largely destined to become victims, they are fully realized characters, fleshed out and very well performed even in relatively brief appearances. Jimmy (Lance Guest) and Budd (Leo Rossi), who offers a memorable rendition of “Amazing Grace,” are the paramedics who bring Laurie to the hospital with Jimmy fulfilling the love interest role. Gloria Giffords is formidable as Mrs. Alves, the head nurse, who is the only female character to meet The Shape offscreen. Ana Alicia as Janet, Pamela Susan Shoop as Karen, and Tawny Moyer as Jill all play nurses with memorable death scenes while Cliff Emmich as security guard Mr. Garrett and Ford Rainey as Dr. Mixter round out the hospital staff.

The ways each of these characters meet their end is another way that Halloween II was influenced by other slashers—the brutality and frequency of the death sequences. The deaths of women are particularly vicious and often protracted, especially when compared to the generally brief or offscreen deaths of Michael’s male victims. This reality is on full display in the sequence that serves as the film’s centerpiece, the hot tub scene. Budd is dispatched quickly by strangulation in the out of focus background, but Karen is submerged multiple times into the scalding water of the therapy tub until much of the skin on her face is burned away. The only exceptions to this are the offscreen death of Mrs. Alves, and the two male victims of Sam Loomis: Ben Tramer and Michael himself, who are both engulfed by flames in extended shots. This is more of an observation than anything as it was a very common element of most slasher films for a very long time, even those that tried to buck those trends like Scream.

In some ways, Halloween II continues, expands, and confirms the themes of the original, but in others undermines them. The opening sequences and the kills in the hospital all at least seemingly continue the random nature of death and evil, an important theme of the first film. After leaving the Doyle house lawn, Michael wanders into a house and steals a butcher knife, leaving the elderly couple that lives there unharmed, though shaken. In the next, he stabs a young woman in the heart after she has a phone conversation in which she is told about Michael’s escape. In these sequences Michael Myers is truly The Shape, the boogeyman, the embodiment of the uncaring, unstoppable force of fate that he was in Halloween.

Where the film diverges from the first is summed up in two important questions asked by Laurie that would shape the franchise from that point on: “why me?” and “why won’t he die?” In the opinion of many fans of the franchise, these questions are better left unanswered, particularly the first. Though the second question would not be explored for quite some time, the answer to “why me” became one of the more controversial elements of the film. Though Carpenter now blames a “night of heavy drinking” for the infamous “sister twist” it may also have had its roots in the zeitgeist of the era. Several early slashers include familial ties in the motive of their killers and the most successful sequel of all time, The Empire Strikes Back, released only the year before, features the most famous and effective use of the family twist. Whether these influenced Carpenter, consciously or unconsciously, may never be fully known, but making Laurie Strode Michael Myers’ sister certainly had lasting consequences. In one way or another, every other entry in the franchise (excluding Halloween III of course) deals with this issue, either by expounding on or erasing it.

Michael also becomes something different than purely “the boogeyman” when ascribed this motive of wanting to kill his other sister. At the end of the first film, the disappearance of his body followed by the sound of his breathing at multiple locations implies that Michael is not “anywhere” but everywhere. He is truly The Shape, unbound from a where, and there never was a why. Trauma visits some and not others, just like the force of fate discussed in the classroom scene of the first film. Just like The Shape. So, Laurie’s question of “why me” early in Halloween II is extremely powerful and very much in line with Halloween’s ideas of evil. The only answer in the original is that she is the one who dropped off the key at the Myers house, and Michael happened to see her do it. When Laurie becomes his sister, it brings purpose, reason, and a level of humanity, which Carpenter goes to great lengths to explain is not the case through many lines and monologues from Loomis. He “isn’t a man,” he is “purely and simply evil,” and has “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes.”

But despite some flaws that Halloween II has, it is still a great film and highly influential. As the original set the rules and the template of the slasher, this film sets the rules of a successful slasher sequel. To quote Randy Meeks from Scream 2, “the body count is always bigger.” Check. “The death scenes are more elaborate.” Check. And as revealed in the trailer for that film, “never, ever, under any circumstances assume the killer is dead.” Double check. This third rule is particularly demonstrated by the fantastic climactic sequence of the film which stands as one of the best of the series. After taking multiple shots to the heart from Loomis, the Shape rises to pursue Laurie and his former doctor, who escape into an operating room, where he is again shot by Laurie. Michael, blinded by her impeccably aimed gunshots to the eyes whipping a scalpel wildly through the air is one of the great moments in any slasher. Loomis then yells for Laurie to run, and he ignites the oxygen he has released from several tanks with a lighter. The image of Michael, engulfed in flames, walking toward Laurie before collapsing is unforgettable and a clear influence on unstoppable killers to come, including The Terminator and future iterations of Jason Voorhees.

As the film ends with its only daylight scene (besides a brief flashback/dream sequence) the film again confirms the fatalistic themes underlying both films. Laurie’s thousand-yard stare as she is being driven away in the ambulance is proof that she will likely never fully be free of these events. That stare has affected the series ever since. Even though the new Blumhouse films do not include Halloween II in their canon, Laurie in those films feels very much like the Laurie of that thousand-yard stare, determined that nothing like this will ever happen to her or anyone she loves again.

For me, Halloween II will always hold a special place. Not only was it my entrée into the Halloween franchise, but indeed to slashers period. As a kid, lurking in the horror section of my local video store, its poster art of a grinning skull emerging from a pumpkin emblazoned on the VHS cover haunted me more than any other long after we headed home with a handful of more family friendly fare. I did not know what to expect when I watched it with a group of friends at a sleepover a few years later but left the next morning knowing I had watched the scariest movie I had ever seen up to that point. Though that crown was transferred to John Carpenter’s masterpiece when I watched it a few days later, Halloween II remains a seminal film to me, to the Halloween franchise, and to the entire horror genre.

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