21 July 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IN WHICH JOHN HOWARD CARPENTER LOSES HIS FREAKING MIND

For this summer's slasher festivities, I selected the Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises for the most pragmatic of reasons: I'd already done Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I simply picked the next two biggest names in the subgenre. But as I reach Halloween II, I'm stunned by how many similarities can actually be drawn between this film and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2:

-Both follow seminal movies in the development of the slasher film that were released before the boom began in 1980; both were released after the boom. Yet in both cases, the first film is structured more like a slasher film.

-Both follow an ending that was left open, but clearly meant to stand without a continuation. Both were only released after the spring, 1981 debut of Friday the 13th, Part 2 ushered in the biggest wave of obligatory sequels known to cinema history.

-Both snagged the director of the first film in a major creative position.

-Despite this, both are pretty much useless.

Of course, by no means is Halloween II so very wretched as TCM 2 - it is not a "clever" attempt to muck about with the genre by adding "comedy" - but by the same token, Halloween wasn't such an anomaly in John Carpenter's career as the first TCM was in Tobe Hooper's. The one man also directed Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing. The other directed The Funhouse and Lifeforce.

"Oh, but Tim," you might well say, "John Carpenter didn't direct Halloween II! That schmuck Rick Rosenthal did." And yes, that is true: the film was directed by a man whose later career consisted almost entirely of journeyman work on TV dramas. But honestly, Rosenthal's work isn't all that terrible - certainly not very good, and he can't think of an imaginative composition to save his life, but with Dean Cundey coming back as a DP, the two men at least put some effort into retaining visual continuity between the two films. No, the real reason that Halloween II sucks gnat scrotums with quite such effortless flair is the dire, dire screenplay, with its flat logic and non-existent momentum and deeply ill-considered retconning. And just look at the screenwriters - John Carpenter and Debra Hill! Hey, you know what other movie they co-wrote?

Besides, if we're to believe the half-heard rumors that creep around the project's history, then Carpenter stole the director's chair away from Rosenthal for some last-minute reshoots. But not just any reshoots - apparently, Carpenter thought that the first cut was entirely too bloodless, and he personally oversaw some new gore effects; an ironic thing, given that one of the most common complaints about Halloween II is how much bloodier it is than the first film, with all of the mythic scariness getting chucked for mercenary concerns. And then twenty years later, Ghosts of Mars was released.

I don't mean to get ahead of myself. Let's start at the start, and the single finest decision made in the scripting of Halloween II, given the fact that the film shouldn't have existed in the first place: it opens in the same instant that the first film ended. Most slasher sequels, we should note, subscribe to only the loosest notion of "continuity," but the second installment in the Adventures of Michael Myers stands out, with much of the same cast and most of the same conflicts. And given that Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence are part of that returning cast, the film at least had a fighting chance, more than the endless Friday the 13ths with their brand-new slate of Meat could ever hope for.

Indeed, the new film starts a bit before the last one ended: Laurie Strode (Curtis) sends her babysittees off to the neighbors, while Michael lies dead on the floor. She stands whimpering, he slowly rises, chase is given, Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) bursts in and fires seven shots from his six-round revolver (a lovely continuity gaffe to open a film with, and dialogue later refers to him shooting six bullets), Michael falls, "It was the boogeyman", "As a matter of fact...", the body is missing. Then the new stuff begins, as Loomis bursts out of the front door to look at the spot where the killer should be (it was the backyard in the first movie), and runs next door to beg the neighbors to call the police. The neighbor fella is dubious, asking if this is a Halloween prank, claiming that he has been "trick-or-treated to death". Loomis's response is awesome - as he will have much cause to do over the next 90 minutes, Pleasence takes one look at his character's overwrought dialogue, and chews the shit out of it: "You don't know what death IS!"

Notwithstanding what I said about Rosenthal not being all that poor a director, the opening few shots give us an excellent chance to see otherwise: with compositions that are mostly identical to the ones Carpenter already executed, three years earlier (and with one of those being among the first film's most iconic shots), Rosenthal can't quite manage the same level of Baroque uncanniness. I'm not certain that I could explain why, exactly. It's much akin to the feeling you get when you're listening to a cover of a song that's being played the same way that it was originally, but there's just something really, really wrong about it.

Speaking of which, this is right when the credits begin, and we get to hear a piece of music being played the same way it was originally, but really wrong. Yes, Carpeneter's marvelous score is back, and it got fucked with. Since it was already performed on synthesizers, I can't claim that the problem is how electronic it sounds. I'm not certain what the difference is, honestly, though I think it might be that the new version has a more prominent bassline, and the effect is kind of discoey. A common ailment of the early '80s slasher. The credits themselves are also nearly identical: a jack o'lantern on the left, the titles on the right, the camera slowly moves in on the pumpkin. Which, this time around, splits open to reveal a human skull. Everything we've seen and heard so far contributes to the overwhelming sense that what we're about to watch is so very close to the last film, except that it's lousier.

So, out of the credits, and into a POV shot that is sort of like the one that opened Halloween, except clumsy, and just not as good- okay, you know what? Typing "like the first time, but shittier" is going to get very tough on my fingers, so just assume that it happens over and over again throughout the movie. So POV-Michael stalks his way into the poor part of town, where he sneaks into a house where two unpleasant old people are watching Night of the Living Dead - not content to resemble its much superior predecessor, Halloween II is now actively trying to piss me off by bringing up as many better movies as it can think of - to steal a kitchen knife. He then walks across the yard to a house where a young woman named Alice (Anne Bruner) is talking on the phone and learning of the slaughter of three teens just a few blocks over. She turns on the radio, which helpfully recaps the last film - apparently, three teens have just been slaughtered - and Michael kills her, in a tremendously bad gore effect highlighted by an obvious cut to a fake head a fraction of a second before he drives the knife into her jaw.

Back at the scene, Laurie is loaded into an ambulance, and driven to a building that is always referred to in dialogue as "the clinic," but says on its side, Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, and is a giant structure that looks to be the main medical center for the whole county. Thereon hangs a tale.

It is a fact undeniable even to the film's staunchest defenders that the depiction of Haddonfield Memorial is tremendously botched: in this whole big building, there seem to be five employees, one patient (Laurie), and a nurseryful of newborns. To say that this is unconvincing is underselling it something fierce. But suppose, for a moment, that this wasn't supposed to be a hospital; that it was meant to just be an emergency clinic like you could actually find in a drowsy Illinois town like Haddonfield is meant to be (I say "meant to" for the same reason it was "meant to be" Illinois before; ignore those green trees and short-sleeved teens in the Midwest on October 31, please). That tiny staff and that utter lack of patients makes a touch more sense, maybe? And it just happened that they found an abandoned hospital, soon to be torn down, and it was easier to shoot there than to rig up a clinic set, maybe? Or maybe not, given the large number of facilities the "clinic" is seen to have, including a classic thriller-style hot tub that can be turned up to fatal temperatures. That is to say, 125º Fahrenheit, somewhere between "a hot shower" and "a hotter shower," but maybe the girl who gets scalded to death just has sensitive skin.

Before Laurie can be admitted to the emergency room, Carpenter, Hill and Rosenthal treat us to one of the sweetest images ever: a little boy (Ty Mitchell) with a giant razor blade stuck in his mouth, blood gushing from the wound. This little boy appears in three shots: once when he gets introduced, once when his mother (Leigh French) is arguing with the admitting nurse about finding a doctor, and once when he leaves, all healed up. He serves exactly no plot purpose whatsoever. Whatsoever.

It seems like an annual thing for me to defend whatever outrageously gory horror flick just opened from the legions of moralistic critics who think that showing people dying in pain is the sure sign of a depraved sociopath behind the camera and/or in the audience (meanwhile, Wanted currently enjoys 73% on Rotten Tomatoes). But there's moral indignation and there's moral indignation, and there is simply no excuse on Earth for putting that little bit of nastiness in the movie. It smacks of the screenwriters' distaste for their project - though I should hasten to mention, I have no outside reason to believe that either Carpenter or Hill had any such distaste. It's a sour moment, one in which all the fun of the first movie (assuming that it can be called "fun") and even the fun of the more giddily stupid slashers (ditto) is sucked out in a mean-spirited gag.

So let's see...Laurie ends up in the hospital, as EMT Jimmy (Lance Guest) flirts with her a little bit before she gets drugged. That takes care of her for a while. Meanwhile, we revolve back to Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers, another actor returning from the original), driving around in the sheriff's incredibly green car - all of the police cars in Halloween II have shockingly green dashboard lights - and we're treated to the one completely human moment in the film, as Brackett learns that his daughter was one of the victims in the massacre (a callback to an ironic scene the original, when he frets over her safety shortly after her death), rebuking Loomis with the words "Damn you", delivered with all the rage and pain in the world. That kind of emotion has no place in a tawdry slasher, and we're well on our way to Tawdry Slasherland, so Brackett is whisked from the film, and Loomis is set free to wander around Haddonfield alternately screaming that Michael is an animal! and that we must stop Michael!

When we're not chasing Loomis, we're wandering through the ludicrously empty halls of the hospital, and Halloween II stops being anything other than a cheap slasher film, though at least one with decent actors and great cinematography. Michael knows that Laurie is in the hospital, and he jets right off to find her, but before he can go there he has to sneak around the perimeter, slaying guards and nurses in inventive ways, including the dumbfounding scene where he siphons all the blood out of Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford), whose role in the hospital is a bit hard to identify, but she is extraordinarily competent at it. So I imagine that it's a sign of respect, or something, that she is given such a European death, but it's staged like somebody who knew only that "a puddle of blood siphoned out of a body" sounds European, but never actually saw a giallo. And the moment is ruined anyway when Jimmy comes in and slips on the blood, sort of Keystone Kops-like.

There are so many differences between a pre-1980 slasher film and a post-1980 slasher film, but I think the one that might be the most remarkable is that, après Pamela Voorhees, it was no longer enough for a psycho killer to kill teens. He had to kill them in the most Rube Goldbergian way possible. Think: in the first Halloween, Michael had his kitchen knife. Leatherface had his chainsaw and hammer. They killed. But Mrs. Voorhees, she garroted kids, she stabbed them, she slit their throats, and her son!...It would take more than I have in me to list the ways that Jason thought up to butcher people. At any rate, Michael learned something from them in the brief span between movies, because other than the siphoning, we get to see stabbings, slittings, drownings, chokings, burnings, and poor Ben Tramer, Laurie's crush in the first movie, gets smashed by a truck, but not by Michael. The reason for all this is simply that it was How Slashers Were Done in 1981, and the reason for that, I think, is that audiences were much more interested in gore voyeurism than being scared. We'll be here all day if I try to make good/bad arguments about that development, but let me be content with saying that Carpenter and Hill didn't seem to like it, because in trying to make Halloween II a new-phase slasher movie, they destroyed everything about the property that was worthwhile in the first place. Along the way, Rosenthal manages to steal that classic "Michael just sort of appears from a dark space" trick, in a scene where he jabs a syringe into a woman's forehead.

So, okay, it's about 70 minutes in, and almost everybody is dead, and Laurie is creeping around the place. She didn't do much in the first film, mind you, but it's quite infuriating how much of Curtis's performance in this film is lying in a bed or looking very tired. She's managed to hide in a car, biding her time, and there we may safely leave her for Dr. Loomis, who is being escorted out of Haddonfield in a state marshal's car on the governor's orders, and in short order the writers play the dirtiest pair of cards they had, and start outright pissing on our memories of the original. Now, about twenty minutes earlier, Loomis had found the word "Samhain" written in blood at the local elementary school (I forget why it makes sense that Michael would have gone there, so it probably didn't). Loomis absently mentioned that Samhain would be Catholicised into All Hallow's Even, or as we like to call it, Hallowe'en. Now, he launches into the full-on crazy version of the same: in a monstrously purple speech, delivered by the delightful Pleasence like he was playing Richard III's drunk brother, Loomis more or less says that Michael kills on Halloween because of the druidic traditions of sacrifice on Samhain. Which he keeps pronouncing "Sam-hain" and now "Sa-win," like it's supposed to be. Also, there's no reason to believe the druids did that. But let's not quibble! The first seeds of Michael Myers's transition from Absolute Evil to Druidic Antichrist have just been planted! I hope I didn't just ruin the rest of the series for you. Ah, fuck it, the series was ruined ages ago.

Seconds later, in the very same scene as this bombshell, Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), the nurse who rode with Loomis to the asylum in the opening of Halloween and came along to escort him back to Smith's Grove, drops a bomb of her own: according to the Supa-Secret Myers File, he had a little sister, two-years-old when he was commited...who was adopted by a Haddonfield family when the Myers died in an accident when she was four...and now goes by the name "Laurie Strode," not aware of her adopted origins.

I must pause for a moment to collect my breath.


GODDAMMIT.


In the whole history of sequeldom, has any choice so entirely, self-evidently wrong ever been perpetrated on an unsuspecting masterpiece? I can't even imagine something that terrible - Michael Corleone was Vito's clone, Han Solo was Luke's father, Superman is actually from a race of space cannibals, Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was a little boy, I can't even make something up as terrible as: "Laurie Strode is Michael's sister". I knew it going in - I knew it before I ever saw Halloween - but that doesn't stop it from fucking with everything that made the original so utterly successful: Michael stalks Laurie for no reason. Now it's because he was out to finish the job he started 15 years ago, to become a druid fortune teller or some FUCKING THING, OH MY GOD, FUCK YOU JOHN CARPENTER AND FUCK YOU DEBRA HILL.

There's still a healthy chunk of movie to go, during which Laurie never finds out, and during which there are a few false scares, gory deaths and one tremendously satisfying shot of Michael appearing in a pool of red light. Then Loomis blows up the hospital with himself and Michael inside, and Laurie escapes just as Michael storms out of the flames to fall down "dead". And I don't care about any of it. Halloween II commits a single narrative sin that does the worst thing any sequel can ever do: it retroactively taints the original and makes it less interesting. We hates it, we hates it forever.

Body Count: Well...Dr. Loomis and Michael both sure seem to die, but we know better. Given that, the number usually put forward is 11, but it's not remotely clear what happens to Jimmy, so I'm going to run with more conservative 10.

Which number, by the way, is more than any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, or any of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films other than the most recent.

It ties the lowest-end of the Friday the 13th series.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

2 comments:

Chris said...

There’s another continuity gaffe at the beginning of the film that’s more than just a simple goof as the 6 vs 7 gunshots was; it’s actually damaging to the film.

Loomis, having just blasted Michael off the balcony of the Doyle house, tears as downstairs to find a matted, blood-stained patch of grass where Michael had just landed. The look on Loomis’ face upon seeing this is one of shock, but this doesn’t gel with the ending of Halloween. For one, the preceding film ended with Loomis peering over the balcony and discovering that Michael had indeed survived the gunshots and disappeared. Why would Loomis now act surprised at this once he gets downstairs?

Even more importantly, though, is that this reaction is not nearly as chilling as Loomis’ matter of fact, “I saw this coming” reaction at the end of Halloween. In fact, it was at Pleasence’s recommendation (according to the making of documentary) that Carpenter shoot two separate reaction shots: a shocked, “oh my God” reaction and a “I knew this would happen” reaction, and decide later which one to use in the final cut. Carpenter made the wise choice by going with the second reaction, because it was this that reinforced the notion that Michael was an unstoppable force, pure evil that only possessed the barest of human qualities. Michael shaking off his ballistic injuries and walking away only confirmed what Loomis had known all along, so of course he wouldn't be surprised. Changing his reaction at the beginning of this film dilutes Michael’s menace considerably.

Villain612 said...

In addition to your comment about the changed expression, why, after shooting Michael, would Loomis leave Laurie all alone in the house till cops/paramedics arrive?

He assumed Michael just takes off. But hell, let's say Michael just hid in some bushes in the backyard, and then Loomis jets off. Bam - easy access to a helpless Laurie and he finishes the job. Movie over.

With that said - and while I agree that pretty much all or most of your criticisms are valid - I still enjoy this film a great deal. Perhaps part of it is nostalgia, but even though Halloween 2 is a barebones slasher film, it still has a touch more class than the rest of the slasher genre. The continuity between the first and second film is heads and shoulders above the continuity of the Friday the 13th series, even in her comatose state Jamie Lee Curtis is still good, Dean Cundey's cinematography is excellent, and Donald Pleasance steals the show. Seriously, Dr. Loomis carries this film.