Sunday, November 1, 2015

John Carpenter, part VIII: HE'S NOT HUMAN!


HALLOWEEN II

Turns out the most important stuff happened on November 1st.

1981
Directed by Rick Rosenthal ft. John Carpenter
Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter
With Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Donald Pleasence (Dr. Samuel Loomis), Hunter von Leer (Officer Gary Hunt), Lance Guest (Jimmy), Charles Cyphers (Leigh Brackett), and Dick Warlock/Adam Gunn (Michael Myers)

Spoiler alert: largely inapplicable, but "severe," I suppose



Okay, some housekeeping: obviously, Halloween II wasn't directed by John Carpenter.  But it was produced by Carpenter, alongside Debra Hill; it was written by Carpenter and Hill; the score was composed by Carpenter with Alan Howarth; and finally—according to rumor that bears the imprimatur of accepted fact—Carpenter did in fact direct enough of Halloween II, and was sufficiently involved in shaping the footage that credited director Rick Rosenthal delivered, that we can say, without any fear of stepping on Rosenthal's toes, that John Carpenter is at least as much the author of the film as he is.  Therefore, any JC retrospective would frankly be incomplete without taking a good look at it.

Of course, the most important reason that we're reviewing it today, on the 34th anniversary of the morning Michael Myers went to the hospital, is that I watched it and I loved it, and now I need to tell you how much, because this world has been too cold to Halloween II for too long, and someone needs to push back against that.  That someone might as well be me, the only person on Earth who likes it more than the cherished 1978 original.

So, yes, I realize that Halloween II is somewhat disfavored, and I know the biggest reason why: to paraphrase the consensus, it takes a shit on what everyone else apparently thinks is the crucial feature of Halloween, Michael's lack of motivation.  There are other reasons, but since I consider them to be strengths, I'll deal with them later.  The sticking point is the revelation that Laurie Strode is Michael Myers' little sister, too young to have more than vague memories of her brother, and eventually adopted into the Strode household, where she was raised as their own.  Thus, the first Halloween becomes a tale of one family, split between light and dark, rather than the theoretically-scarier story of the Shape that killed anyone it happened to see, just because they were alive and it was Evil.

I assume that everyone also hates The Empire Strikes Back, since it ruins the elegant simplicity of Darth Vader.

I'm here to tell you that there's a better way to watch Halloween II, and though it may be so unique to my situation that it holds no currency, well, I'm going to tell it to you regardless.

We can know, intellectually, that it was just a studio cash-in; and further, we can know that the gulf between Halloween and its sequel is the fissure first cracked open in 1980 by the blood, tits, and dumbassed twists of Friday the 13th, and then widened into a yawning chasm by such beautiful slasher nightmares as My Bloody Valentine and The Burning—not to mention all the equally-gruesome fare from outside the pigeonhole of the slasher subgenre, like Evil Dead and Scanners.

I am Johnny Slasherfan, and I am part of the problem.

And we can, if we prefer, let the very obvious tonal differences between the first film and its follow-up overwhelm us.  But we don't have to let any of these things bother us if we don't want them to, because most of us weren't even born when Halloween hit big in '78.  Myself, I didn't watch it till three decades later.

Thus, for me, the three years between it and its sequel collapse into an eyeblink of my own prehistory, while through the power of cultural osmosis I already knew everything important about the Halloween franchise before I'd seen the first frame of any of the actual movies: Laurie is Michael's sister; Dr. Loomis has gone mad in his pursuit of his personal white whale; Michael himself is some kind of magic pagan assassin; and sorry, there's no character in this franchise with a pumpkin for a head, that's something else.

So when I sat down last weekend to watch Halloween for only the second time, and Halloween II for the first, nearly back-to-back, I stumbled upon the well-kept secret to enjoying both of them at their very highest level: I pretended that they're just one movie.

If you could only see the world through my eyes...

And Halloween II makes it easy to do exactly that, and not just because it picks up its story the very instant Halloween ends (in fact, a few instants before it ends, but that's why you have to pretend).  It's also because the continuity of style is absolutely flawless—cinematographer Dean Cundey returns, and, if anything, Halloween II is even more gorgeous than the first.  But even if it's prettier, there's no mistaking this for anything but the same world as Halloween, not with all those deep, deep blacks serving as the Shape's native habitat.  Meanwhile, when you watch both films in quick succession, especially if you've never seen the sequel, the laborious quotations from the first film never feel like auto-plagiarism, but rather the deliberately-chosen echoes of everything cool about Halloween—only louder, upon their return, than they ever were at their source.

The only real, fundamental difference between the two films visually is that the sequel is rather more varied in its design, and indeed somewhat more interesting: there are fewer suburban homes under Haddonfield's blue moon this time, but a lot more vivid red elevator doors and pools of blood, as well as a generally more industrial feel, owing to its setting.

Also there are more explosions—two, as opposed to none—but all in good time!

The plot remains defiantly simple: following the events of Halloween, Laurie is sent to a hospital, called "the clinic" in the script, but rendered as a giant facility with virtually no staff and even fewer patients.  (This is sometimes called a flaw, but isn't one of Carpenter's most noticeable signatures as a filmmaker the agoraphobic eeriness he creates by deliberately emptying communal spaces of their inhabitants?)  Anyway, we do meet the staff of this underpopulated hospital, though I am pleased to note that—in the presumably-superior theatrical cut—not one of them matters beyond their function as organisms full of blood.  (Whereas only one of them, Jimmy, matters in any cut.)

Back at the scene, Loomis and Sheriff Beckett are pursuing Michael, who did not die when Loomis "shot him six times!"  Beckett taps out quickly, in a nod to continuity (his daughter was one of Michael's first victims), and he is soon replaced by Officer Hunt, who will serve as Loomis' sidekick as they blunder disastrously through Haddonfield—Laurie's heretofore-unseen crush Ben Traemer makes his first appearance, only for Loomis to accidentally kill him so suddenly that it's frankly hilarious.  At one point, they follow Michael's tracks to an elementary school, where he took the time to utter his only communication in either film.  Upon the wall, he's written in blood the word "Samhain."  Primarily, this is a justification for Loomis to ramble on about Druids, in that same endlessly compelling manner that Donald Pleasence had last time, except now even more floridly than ever before.

As for Michael, he trudges through the suburbs, collects a weapon and another teenaged victim, and heads to Haddonfield Memorial to complete the mission he started earlier this fateful night.  Once there, he first occupies himself with the staff, perceiving them as obstacles to the annihilation of his bloodline (or, in any event, live people that he would prefer to see dead).  And thus by the middle part of Halloween II about twice as many folks have died than did in the entire hour and a half of Halloween.

Oh, right, that makes Halloween better.  I forgot.

Eventually, Loomis makes his way to the hospital, where the electricity has been cut either through Michael's action (in the TV cut), or by dint of the cinematographer's wish (in the theatrical version).  Laurie, in a drugged-out stupor, has contended with Michael, and so far escaped.  Ultimately, all three converge, and that's when then things really go insane, and it is amazing.

Most of the details (such as they are) fade quickly—I could not relate to you a scene-by-scene breakdown of Halloween II a week out—but what remains is the most intense feeling of sheer entertainment that I've ever experienced while watching a purebred slasher movie.  Halloween II goes beyond campfire stories and urban legends, even when an early scene pays playful homage to the tall tale about Halloween treat razor blades.  No, while this one's never afraid to get ridiculous and weird, through some mysterious alchemy, it still maintains that rather serious tone—or at least a properly mythic tone—no matter how unsupportably cartoonish the action gets, and does it ever get cartoonish.  (Young James Cameron might've been taking his cues from slasher cinema generally, but I doubt there could be any slasher film that prefigures The Terminator more clearly than Halloween II, because The Terminator basically is Halloween II, except with one more set-piece at the end.  That, and Loomis never impregnates Laurie with the messiah.)

What happens when you sit down to Halloween and Halloween II as a single three-hour slasher epic is that you realize, almost without knowing it, that II doesn't represent any kind of break from the original: instead, it's a continuous and nearly-flawless escalation of the third act of Halloween—a theme best conveyed by the balls-out opening credits that take us beyond the infinite and into a realm where the sublime meets the gloriously absurd.


But Halloween, you'll say, earns its bonkers ending, with the Shape proving invulnerable to all manner of stabbing attacks, and bullets too, after apparently hefting a 300 pound gravestone up a flight of stairs that would not obviously be able to support that weight, all so he could remake a gravesite for the benefit of nobody but Laurie, whom he could not know would come into that bedroom.  (This is the movie that is widely hailed as "elegant" in comparison to Halloween II's "excess.")  But if that's the case, if Halloween earns it, then it earns it for Halloween II, which is naught but the extension of that ending into a long and endlessly climactic chase.  And, no, it doesn't need to make perfect logical sense: this archangel's coming has caused what amounts to a rupture in reality itself, and while I never see anyone respectable ever complain about this kind of shit when it happens in an Argento movie, it is all you ever hear about when it comes to Carpenter and Rosenthal's.

So it's Italian, but in the best way—by which I mean "it's American, and you can tell because it's never boring and it mostly makes sense."

If Halloween II thereby becomes more of a brazen action-thriller with slasher-style super-murder interludes, rather than a "proper" horror film, then that transformation nevertheless seems to me incredibly correct: the intensity of such a legendary tale deserves that scope.  (It deserves that 'Scope, too!)  Indeed, there are but two reasons I can't call the thing perfect.  The first is a continuity error in the hot tub kill scene, where the female victim is clearly wearing a towel, then clearly not, all so that the camera can leer at her tits whilst she is in the middle of being sex-murdered; and this bothers me in a way that I'm not even sure it would've if she'd been topless the entire time.  The second is Michael's hand getting caught in an elevator door, which doesn't stop the door (or crush the hand); it's the unwelcome reassertion of the intermittent awkwardness of Halloween.  Both of these flaws hurt, because the sequences they belong to could each be argued to be the film's second-best setpiece.  (The best, of course, must be the fiery finaleby leaps and bounds the best slasher movie ending that yours truly has ever seen.)

Now, I could add a third flaw: the score isn't quite as lethally good as the original's.  (There, I said something was better about Halloween.  And I hope this placates you.)

This puts me in a bit of an awkward position, too: it forces me to conclude that the best movie of John Carpenter's career so far was one he isn't credited for.  But when Rosenthal's original cut was too tame for Carpenter the producer, Carpenter did what he did to his own work on The Fog: he realized the mistake, and added in several extra helpings of awesome brutality.  (And then he excised large swathes of "character development" for characters who didn't matter in the context of a movie about three people we already knew.)

For me, Halloween II is a miracle: the sequel that makes the original better.  By turning Halloween's weaknesses into something like strengths, it permits the first film to exist as the necessary preparatory ritual for the true guignol still to come.  My friends,  Halloween is the overture; but Halloween II is the fucking opera.


Score: 9/10

4 comments:

  1. I feel so spoiled this week.

    I must confess I was secretly hoping that your beloved slasher revelation would be Killer Party, but the universe is not that amusing. Halloween II is good too.

    I'm so glad you brought up Ben Traemer's death, because it is my absolute favorite scene in possibly any Halloween movie. It's just so absurdly unnecessary, both in execution (pun intended) and the fact that he's Laurie's crush from the first film. It's exquisitely inexplicable.

    Also, I'm pretty sure Michael's hands are indestructible. He doesn't scald them in the hot tub, either. If he ever dies by explosion, his hands will almost certainly come back for more killing, and we'd have a 50's B-movie on our hands. Full circle!

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    1. Hell, I'm amazed that's not in one of the Halloween sequels.

      I kind of suspected that this movie was going to get gonzo from the get-go with the opening credits--I mean, who even comes up with that idea? A pumpkin opening up to reveal a skull? Seriously? But when Traemer eats it when that car teleports in front of him, then things just explodes because it's 1981? That's when I knew that this would be special.

      After having thought about it, I did have to append the "purebred" qualifier on there. I mean, there are a couple of slasher-like movies to which I'd give 10/10s: Blow Out, of course, is more or less a slasher movie without even reaching for it, even if it's a paranoid thriller first (but seriously, besides the fact it's freaking great, I'd think it would find a nice home in Census Bloodbath); and then there's Death Proof, but I don't know if that totally counts, since while five women are sex murdered and all, and three more attempted sex murdered, it's all done with a car, and all five murders happen all at once. It's not really structured, formally, like a slasher film. (Well, maybe like Psycho?)

      Brennan, what's your favorite one? Going by the numbers, it's Nightmare on Elm Street, right? (And of course, I've never been sure if that one should count, except by tradition.)

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    2. EVERYTHING explodes in the 80's. I've seen exploding graves, exploding parakeets, I've seen it all. An entire gas station explodes in Halloween 4. The decade was wild.

      And yeah there's a lot of half-breed slasher flicks out there, including one that I watched for the first time last night (because my boyfriend has no idea what movies are appropriate for Halloween): Julia Roberts' Sleeping with the Enemy. It was pretty good!

      And my favorite slasher... That's a tough question. One that I'm trying to answer with my overly massive project that I need to kick it up a notch on so it doesn't last me a decade and a half. Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are up there, definitely. But although both certainly count, they're not exactly "pure."

      I'd have to say my top 5 bona fide slashers would have to be The House on Sorority Row, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Terror Train, The Slumber Party Massacre, and Night School. Though that list is subject to change with the winds. I'd also like to throw a bone to He Knows You're Alone, which is certainly second tier, but I adore it. Also Tom Hanks is there! And Visiting Hours, which I just saw for the first time this month, so I'm hesitant to accord it classic status just yet.

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    3. Slumber Party Massacre's on my "need to watch at some point" list because of the call-out De Palma gives it in Body Double. I should get around to Visiting Hours soon too. (Why, I can't even listen to the podcast until I do, because it's spoilerific.)

      Anyway, one final (maybe) thought about HII: yeah, everything explodes, but something I really love and wasn't able to get to about the movie (in the theatrical cut) is a small thing. It's that HII is one of the, what, maybe half-dozen pieces of media on Earth that will tell you that if you fall down and hit your head sufficiently hard, yeah, dude, YOU CAN DIE.

      Whereas Nolan's Totally Realistic Batman gives people subdural hemotamae all day, but, you know, they're just fine.

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