VHS Revival contemplates the night he stayed home, and the ramifications on the series at large
When is enough enough? In an era of reboots, prequels, sequels and expanding cinematic universes, it seems that the answer is never. Sequels have been around in some capacity for as long as mainstream cinema has existed. The golden age of horror would set the proverbial ball rolling, monsters such as Frankenstein returning time after time to meet popular demand. If something is marketable then let’s make more of it. It’s standard business practice. Inevitably, people would tire of Universal’s revolutionary monsters, and horror would become commercially passé. Still, the sequel template had been set, and Hammer Horror would soon take up the mantle, re-packaging Dracula and co and indulging us in a whole new era of returning characters.
Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula—coming up with a new title must have proven quite the headache for the decision makers over at Hammer, but the sequel had proven a winning formula, and other producers were beginning to take note. Still, not all genres could pull off such kitsch and elaborate titles, so a new creative direction would become standard sequel practice, and I use the word ‘creative’ in the loosest possible sense.
I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded numbered sequel. Excluding 1957’s Quatermass 2, a movie also known as Enemy From Space, the numbered sequel would begin in the 1970s, but those productions were few and far between. Interestingly, the first of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), is one of the few sequels that is actually considered superior to the original, a trend that would die a quick and brutal death as producers looked to cash-in rather than offer something new that would expand on the original narrative of the property. Throughout the years, a handful of sequels would be considered equal to or better than the original, but on the whole they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
By the late-1980s, sequels were not only everywhere, they were a given, particularly in the action and horror genres which dominated the home video market. For many low-budget filmmakers, sequels were a way to slash expenditure by saving on promotion and advertising. Thanks to the unbridled success of genre high-point Halloween, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a video camera was getting into the game, and investors were lining up at the prospect of stumbling on their very own commercial goldmine. For those who were lucky enough to make a connection with the movie-going public, sequels were the next natural step, be that making a sequel yourself, or, if you were truly lucky, flogging the rights to a major production company and reaping the financial benefits.
Perhaps the most successful franchise to come out of the VHS boom was the Friday the 13th series. A straight-up derivative of Halloween with more than a dash of giallo thrown in for good measure, the original movie would tell the story of Pamela Voorhees, a vengeful maniac who would slaughter a gaggle of promiscuous teens after her son Jason was left to drown by a group of negligent camp councillors. The movie was a financial smash, but for slasher fans it was the invincible masked killer who would prove the real breadwinner, a fact that saw Paramount dredge up the presumed-dead Jason for a copycat slaughterthon only a year later. For viewers who had been told that Jason had drowned, this development was rather perplexing. Where had Jason been hiding since 1957? How did he eat? Purchase clothes that fit his adult torso? How on Earth did he manage to suppress his pent-up bloodlust for almost a quarter of a century? All good questions, none of which would ever be answered, but it didn’t matter. Paramount had their own money-spinning colossus, one who would slash his way into the hearts and minds of a remorseless generation.
Doyle Neighbor: Is this a joke? I’ve been trick-or-treated to death tonight.
Sam Loomis: You don’t know what death is!
The ‘Friday’ series would resort to all sorts of underhanded gimmicks to stay relevant during that time, but as cheap and as cynical as it all was, it was all a part of the fun. The franchise would become nothing more than a platform for slaughter that would see Voorhees transformed from a fearsome monster into an eyebrow-raising quasi-protagonist, and more of the same was what audiences craved. It didn’t matter how ridiculous the concept became. Characters were applauded for their idiocy, their barefoot-in-the-woods contrivances allowing for the kind of commercial abattoir folks would flock to see in their droves. The series even had a seasonal gimmick that almost guaranteed fans a yearly, blood-soaked instalment.
As an exercise in slasher filmmaking, Halloween II is arguably better than all of those movies. In fact, it is probably one of the finest of the entire sub-genre. By the time the movie was released in 1981, Jason had already been unleashed on the cinematic wilderness, as had a seemingly endless parade of masked or heavily-scarred killers looking to make a dent in the market. Arguably the peak year for the slasher, 1981 would mark the release of My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, Happy Birthday to Me, The Burning, The Funhouse, Hell Night, and a whole host of sub-genre cash-ins that would saturate the video market and plant the seeds for censorship. So overwhelming was the sheer multitude of slashers at the turn of the decade that Student Bodies, released that same year, was a straight-up spoof which crudely lampooned the genre. Halloween II, it seemed, was late to the party.
Technically, its predecessor had hosted that party, but while the original is light on violence and high on foreboding, in some ways the sequel is inspired by its imitators. Most notably, the movie ups the violence with explicit kills that meet genre expectation, a decision made by Carpenter in order to maximise marketability. Unlike the majority of the genre’s sleazy Sean Cunningham-style clones, many of these instances are inspired—a scene in which Michael emerges from the darkness to plunge an epidermic needle into the temple of an unsuspecting nurse being a case in point—and, for the most part, the movie is able to evolve without jeopardising the Myers ethos. In this regard, the quality of Halloween‘s first sequel cannot be underestimated, but sequels that continue on in the same vein have problems that are woven into their very fabric, and unless you are able to reinvent to some degree, those issues will quickly become apparent. In the case of a mysterious character like Michael, less is most definitely more, and sequels are more by their very nature.
One of the major downsides of a direct continuation is that, inevitably, characters from the original movie are unable to learn from their mistakes. In order for the screenplay to provide us with another 90 minutes of the same stalk-and-slash formula, characters are forced to senselessly isolate themselves in the aftermath of the worst multiple murder in Haddonfield’s history. It is also necessary for the cops to become more negligent (just why was Laurie left unguarded at the hospital and drugged with Michael still on the loose?), and Dr. Loomis is forced into endless monologues which serve no other purpose than to dilute the mystique of the Myers character. Then there’s the movie’s decision to suddenly make Strode Michael’s sister. It just feels unnecessary and tacked-on, a decision made out of desperation. This kind of thing is not exclusive to Halloween II, but to all horror sequels that follow the same mode. That kind of thing may fly in a Voorhees-led franchise, but Myers has too much stature to survive the same treatment. Of course, if every character learned from their mistakes and applied just a little logic the movie would be over long before it got going, which begs the question: as good as the movie is in some regards, was it truly necessary?
Written and produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Halloween II does have a lot going for it, and compared with the majority of Halloween sequels it is a veritable masterwork in slasher filmmaking. Firstly, the movie benefits from a great setting, even if the original idea was to set the sequel in an apartment block in the same way as something like Demons 2, which could have been even better. Still, there’s something disconcertingly sterile and detached about the corridors of a hospital at nighttime. After all, that’s where people generally go to die. But much of the sequel’s creative success can be attributed to the fact that, for the most part, it stays loyal to the first movie, and is easily the closest we get to recreating the style and tone of the original. Legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey’s continued involvement helps to establish this, as does that of Carpenter, who would re-shoot several of first-time director Rick Rosenthal’s scenes after being unhappy with a film he would later describe as “an abomination,” and “a horrible movie”.
I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but I suppose that’s easy for me to say in hindsight with so many haphazard sequels to compare it with. Even so, for the most part Myers remains an intriguing figure in Halloween II—single-minded, yet patient, animalistic yet quietly intelligent. He is still the POV killer we know and love, still with all the mystique that set the original Michael apart. We hear him breathing on the periphery. We see him dissolving into darkness or lurking in open spaces where he should be identified but isn’t. He is an omnipotent force, effortlessly elusive and seemingly everywhere at once. There are moments here that could belong to the original instalment. It is a direct extension of the original formula that is true to our antagonist, but this comes with its own set of problems.
For one thing, it is so much harder to invest in the Laurie character, a fact that has less to do with her performance and more to do with the ingredients which combined to make her original struggles so heart-stopping. Halloween was imbued with a sense of community, but the suburbia here is largely peripheral. Replacing Laurie’s promiscuous friends are a cast of questionable doctors and nurses, a vacuous gaggle who are about as believable as Anna Nicole Smith in The Naked Gun, and when a nurse takes time out from her shift to free her gigantic bosom for a bout of late-night Jacuzzi frolicking, you may as well be back at Camp Crystal Lake. The teenagers from the first movie may have been thinly sketched, but they were relatable, a fact that made the Myers character a more believable threat. The absence of Tommy and Lindsey, the two questioning tykes whose ‘irrational’ fears about the film’s suburban boogeyman came true, also detracts from the Myers mystique. It was through that community and those characters that we were able to imagine those events happening in our own neighbourhood. It was fantastical yet tangible, fictional but not beyond the realms of plausibility.
In the end, it all seems just a little too long. Technically, Halloween II has a running time of only 92 minutes, but since we’re dealing with a direct extension of the first film it leaves you with a very different impression. The original narrative was horror perfection. It was sparse and meaningful without an ounce of fat. It gave us just enough of Michael, and a series of departing shots of seemingly innocuous locations around Haddonfield left you with the same unease that Michael’s almost hegemonic sense of control and ethereal elusiveness inspired throughout. But three hours is too long for any horror movie, and that is essentially what we get when the two are combined. Despite the movie’s admirable restraint and understanding of the Halloween formula, regardless of its often inspired action, how long can we watch the same character being pursued on the same night before it all becomes meaningless?
Sam Loomis: I’m sorry I left you. Are you all right?
Laurie Strode: Why won’t he die?
It’s a tricky one: what do you do with a character who thrives on mystery? Sure, Halloween II retains that mystery for the most part. It is an admirable effort, and as a standalone exercise is largely rewarding over 90 minutes. But the more we see of Michael the less engaging it becomes, and this movie is entrenched in the original’s formidable shadow. Sure, they’re different movies, and compare any slasher to the original Halloween and you’re bound to pick it to pieces, but this one doesn’t wind up in that shadow based on our affection for the first movie alone. It is submerged in it by being so closely related. In the end, Rosenthal, Carpenter and Hill did all that they could to make a Halloween sequel, but the act itself is enough to tarnish the Myers character, and in the end it just wasn’t necessary for any other reason beyond the financial, a point that Carpenter has been at pains to communicate ever since the movie’s release. The fact is, Carpenter never intended on making a sequel to his most famous creation. In Halloween he made a movie that was supposed to be definitive, and it was executed perfectly. But the Myers character was a force of nature. People wanted to see him in spite of the consequences, and several sequels, prequels and reboots later and they still want to see him. It speaks to the success and preciousness of the character. This was one mindless killer who came across as anything but.
Inevitably, Michael kept coming back for more. Over the years, Halloween fared less well as a horror franchise—both financially and creatively. After Halloween II came Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the only film to bear the marquee title that did not feature the presumed-dead Myers. In Halloween II Carpenter and Hill killed-off both Myers and Loomis so that no further continuation of the narrative could be undertaken, and when Universal inevitably came calling, Season of the Witch was what the duo proposed, a movie that Carpenter looks upon rather more fondly. The idea was for each instalment to have a new story and cast of characters, using the Halloween name to attract a yearly audience looking for a festive scare. The movie would prove a delightful oddity, but with the slasher genre running roughshod over the industry, people wanted a masked killer hacking beautiful people to death, and for many horror fans the character known simply as ‘The Shape’ was the original O.G.
But where to go from there? At the insistence of Carpenter himself, Halloween II had already shifted slightly towards another formula, and the only place the series could wander was deeper into the commercial mire. By the time the long-dormant Michael returned in 1988, Jason Voorhees was about to take Manhattan in the most mindless and watered-down entry to date, and the heavily censored slasher genre had grown moribund. A series of increasingly ludicrous sequels would only cheapen the franchise further, taking Myers to places where he didn’t belong. Aping Jason Voorhees was detrimental enough, but pagan cults, Kevin Williamson inspired Scream derivatives and reality TV massacres would rob the series of its identity. In the end, Halloween II is by far the best Myers-led sequel of a mostly counter-productive bunch. And for the most part it gets there on merit.