[review by JA Kerswell - updated 2023]
Rick Rosenthal’s HALLOWEEN II (1981) is a lot better than it has any right to be. The belated sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic that started it all, rises from the ashes of meddling, reshoots, apathy and critical drubbings to be a successful continuation of the ‘Night HE came home’. Indeed, it was the most financially successful slasher movie of 1981. The seemingly invincible Michael Myers tracks down Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to finish what he started. Despite some shortcomings, this sequel more than delivers the scares and continues to be the best film in the series next to the original.
Regardless of being shot six times by Dr Loomis (a returning Donald Pleasence) and falling from the first floor, Myers has slipped quietly into the night and the suburban moonlit shadows of Haddonfield. However, his night of terror has only just begun and, hiding behind the spooky hoopla of the occasion, he visits more houses and the killings continue. Meanwhile, Loomis tries to convince the police that Myers is still a deadly threat - as he becomes increasingly unhinged himself. Laurie Strode, the lone survivor of the night, is taken to the hospital for treatment and - against her protestations - is placed under sedation. The murders have already attracted the attention of the media, who swarm around the houses where Myers stalked his prey. And it is a media report that tips off ‘The Shape’ that Strode has been taken to the hospital …
HALLOWEEN II will always have a special place in my little black heart. It was the first adult horror film I saw way back in around 1983. Watching it with a school friend on the family’s Betamax video player, as his Mum brought us beans on toast, was a formative experience for me - and one that has reverberated over the decades. I was transfixed. After years of childhood longing to see all those horror movies that passed quickly through the local cinemas, the dawn of video and a lax approach to parental supervision meant a whole new, previously forbidden world opened up to me. Now I saw first-hand what all the fuss was about. It didn’t really matter that I hadn’t seen the first film by this point. My furtive imagination had already filled in the blanks.
The sight of Michael Myers descending slowly down the steps to the hospital basement, scalpel in hand and in pursuit of an injured and terrified, but still defiant, Laurie Strode gave me goosebumps - and still does. I still think that, in these back-to-back films, Myers is the scariest slasher movie villain of all time. Slow, methodical, silent and relentless. He just won’t stop coming for you. Dick Warlock - who replaced the original Shape Nick Castle - admitted that he was simply impersonating Castle’s performance from the first film. Yet is still highly effective. The hospital - despite it being so ludicrously deserted - is the perfect setting for a slasher movie.
HALLOWEEN II was an infamously troubled production. Carpenter passed on directorial duties but was presumably contractually obliged to deliver a script. Originally, the sequel was due to take place several years after the events of the first film - and the idea was for Laurie Strode to once again be menanced by Myers, but this time in a high-rise apartment block. This approach was far along enough for promotional artwork showing Myers looming over a tower block to be produced. Executive producer Irwin Yablans was disappointed in how the film was developing and called the initial script “pedestrian”. It was decided to expand the events of that night in 1978, but Carpenter and Debra Hill still struggled for inspiration. The first film was so perfect and lean that they couldn’t see how to sequelise it effectively - until Carpenter infamously cracked open a six-pack of beer and bashed out a script. Controversially, this included the plot twist that Myers and Strode were linked by blood - in fact, brother and sister. This gave the story a twist but dissipated the random nature of evil that made the original so scary.
Carpenter also borrowed elements from the novelisation of the original HALLOWEEN written by Curtis Richards. Notably the references to the pagan festival of Samhain. We see the word written in blood - presumably by Myers - on a chalkboard at a nearby school. The suggestion is there that something other than pure bloodlust is driving Myers. Conversely, HALLOWEEN II flirts less with the supernatural than the original did - apart from the suggestion that Myers is somehow invincible. After all, you can’t kill the Boogeyman.
Tommy Lee Wallace, the art director from the original, passed on the chance to direct the film. Carpenter and Hill took a chance on the relatively unknown Rosenthal after seeing his short film THE TOYER. Jamie Lee Curtis rightly felt that she owed the duo for her big break and agreed to reprise the role of Laurie Strode as a footnote to her horror movie roles. Curtis was already in the process of moving on, and had to wear what has now become the infamous wig due to her now shorter hairstyle. In a press interview from the summer of 1981 she said after finishing filming the sequel: “I went back to my manager and said, ‘Now what are we doing?’ We’d vowed that was the last horror film I would ever do and I’m adamant about that.” Despite her belittling her slasher films in the press - she referred to PROM NIGHT (1980) as “disco death” - she was still a professional and if she resented doing HALLOWEEN II you would never know it given her performance. I’d previously agreed with the common opinion that Curtis was largely wasted in the film - but it is oddly refreshing after years of Uber Final Girls to have a character respond to their life being turned upside down in a semi-realistic way. The fact that Laurie has been rendered barely mobile only adds to the slo-mo, but surprisingly effective, cat-and-mouse chase scenes.
The delightfully macabre opening scene - with the carved pumpkin slowly opening to reveal a skull beneath - is brilliantly accompanied by the driving and iconic score. Carpenter composed and performed the music with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth. The skull/pumpkin combo was utilised in the equally effective poster art.
Hill had entertained the idea of shooting HALLOWEEN II in 3D, but it proved too costly and the bulky cameras would have been difficult to utilise in the cramped hospital setting. It was filmed over a six-week period from April to May 1981 at two hospitals in Los Angeles and Pasadena. Sure, the hospital is unrealistically deserted and its horny orderlies and nurses wouldn’t pass muster in a modern inspection. Still, those clinically anonymous corridors are the perfect hunting grounds for Myers.
Carpenter archly quipped the rough cut of HALLOWEEN II was “as scary as an episode of Quincy.” Rosenthal had purposefully set out to make more of a thriller than a horror film, but Carpenter - acutely aware of how the horror landscape had shifted since 1978 - got further involved in post-production. He actually filmed and added several scenes (including the murder of the teenage girl on the phone near the beginning) and beefed up some of the murders. The irony is that FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) was inspired by the financial success of HALLOWEEN - but now the former dictated the tone of the sequel. It is not entirely clear how much extra was shot as Rosenthal’s original cut has never been released. However, the scene where a nurse (Pamela Susan Shoop) has her face badly scalded in a super-heated hot tub appears to reference a similar scene in Dario Argento’s DEEP RED (1975) and has Carpenter’s fingerprints all over it.
Rosenthal was understandably upset at the critical reaction suggesting that HALLOWEEN II was merely a copycat of the copycats that the original had birthed. However, ultimately, this upping the level of gore distinguishes the sequel from its predecessor and makes it arguably the quintessential slasher movie of 1981. As ever, John Carpenter isn’t only a great director but he’s a consummate businessman, too.
The reviews were mixed. Although a few bright spots included a surprise rave by Janet Maslin in The New York Times. She said “Halloween II is good enough to deserve a sequel of its own. By the standards of most recent horror films, this - like its predecessor - is a class act.” Mike Deupree in The Cedar Rapids Gazette said: “ … it tops its imitators.” “Of all the clones surfacing since John Carpenter’s low-budget 1978 thriller Halloween began hauling in its millions, there’s little doubt that the best so far is the movie’s own sequel.”
However, the negatives outweighed the positives. Steve Fogarty in the Chronicle-Telegram said: “Save your money, avoid ‘Halloween’” “Curtis is wasted in this film, given little to do besides look frightened and confused in a hospital bed, and hobble around, trying to keep out of the killer’s clutches.” Famous critic Rex Reed said that if there was a HALLOWEEN III he might burn his press card! Michael Maza in The Arizona Republic accused the film of “… perpetuating the slashing gore genre.” “As is the fashion, the hit list is heavy on teenage girls - especially those enjoying newfound powers of sexual allure.” Which makes you wonder if he’d even seen the film at all.
Some of the nastiest criticism was reserved for Jamie Lee Curtis. Carol Wallace in the Daily News called her “The Queen of Crud”. Bill Nichols in the Clarion Ledger went further: “Miss Curtis gives an interesting performance in that she looks to have gone from age 16 to 40 in the space of the several seconds that elapse from the end of Halloween to the beginning of the new film. Her frosted hair makes her look like Joan Crawford playing Jamie Lee Curtis. It is almost a laughable image.”
Despite the naysayers, released in time for Halloween 1981, the film was a big hit for Universal Studios (who picked it up for release). With Variety>noting it did five times the business of its nearest competitor in its first week of release. It outgrossed FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 with a domestic take of $25.5 million (around $86 million in today’s money). Only John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON made more money in the horror sweepstakes that year.
It is difficult to improve on perfection - and Carpenter’s original remains the perfect slasher movie in every way. However, against the odds, HALLOWEEN II somewhat finds its own voice and is very nearly the perfect horror sequel. Less successful was Carpenter’s intention to lay Michael Myers to rest once and for all. As we know, that didn’t quite work out.
Keep Hysteria Lives! alive. Donate: https://paypal.me/hysterialives.
female: 5 / male: 5
2) Male hit by a car and burnt to death
3) Male hit on the head with a pick axe
4) Male garroted
5) Female scalded to death
6) Male found with syringe sticking out of his eyeball
7) Female has syringe pushed through her temple
8) Female bled to death
9) Female stabbed in back with scalpel
10) Male has throat slit with scalpel