Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Halloween 2 (1981)

Being threatened in a supposedly safe place is a classic and effective horror trope, and one that, being set largely in a hospital, Halloween 2 exploits as well as its predecessor did with the domestic setting. However, while capably shot, directed and acted, the script, (written, like the first, by John Carpenter and Deborah Hill) is something of a let down. By showing too much of the killer and his back-story, we lose the ambiguity that gave the previous effort an unsettling depth beyond the surface shocks.

Continuing directly after the events of the first film, the murderous Michael Myers is still on the loose in the city of Haddonfield, despite being shot six times by his psychiatrist -turned-nemesis Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Myers heads to the hospital where one of his targets, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been taken, and we now find that there is a reason why he is after her - a chilling reason, of which both Laurie and Dr Loomis are completely unaware.

As mentioned, compared to the first film, Halloween 2 sees Myers take a more central part of the story, both in terms of his increased screen time, and some revelations about his past. This, however, is a mistake, as showing more of him diminishes his mystery and power, while the confusing back-story, with hints of links to the supernatural and ancient pagan rituals, feels poorly and barely thought out. It eventually becomes something of an irritating distraction, and the big shocking twist, the reason Michael Myers is stalking Laurie, ultimately feels shoehorned in, as another afterthought.

Ironically, some of the best and most effective elements are those that feature Myers in the background or do not feature him at all. By about half way through the film, jittery townsfolk are seeing his shape everywhere, and a lynch mob (another classic horror trope) is trying to smash up his old family home. Here, we realise, once again, how much more effective a monster Michael Myers is, when we do not see him, only the consequences of his actions. 

For example, in one of the best scenes in the film, a nurse runs to the hospital car park to try and get away, only to find the tyres on her car slashed. As she looks around, she sees another car with slashed tyres, then another, and another, and with mounting horror, she realises that every single vehicle in the car park has been sabotaged. What kind of person could do this? Someone unhinged or somebody supernatural? It is this sort of behaviour, bewildering, almost impossible to believe, and largely unseen that works best, and would be spoilt by having too much explanation. 

The other significant change is how much more explicitly violent this film is compared to the first. This, presumably, was done for commercial reasons, with the flood of slasher films released in the three years between Halloween 1 and 2, continually upping the gore ante, and, more importantly, the audiences lapping this up. This is not a criticism of cinema violence itself, as that is often the whole point of the slasher genre, to entertain (or offend, depending on your viewpoint), with ever more elaborate and imaginative killings. However, when everyone is doing that, it is the one who is not who stands out, and in that respect, Halloween 2 remains merely a part of the crowd.

However, in other respects Halloween 2 does stand out from other slasher films of the time. For all the flaws and half thought out ideas in the script, it does try to something different and a bit more complex, by having two story arcs, that of Laurie and Loomis, run separately throughout, only bringing them together at the end. In addition, director Rick Rosenthal does take time to set up some of the characters and situations, which stops it becoming a conveyor belt of killings.

Halloween 2 also invites some interesting thoughts on two subjects that inevitably crop up in Horror – sex and death. Firstly, although it might on the surface look like one of the inevitable slasher movie clich├ęs, I was fascinated by how slowly Myers stalks Laurie through the hospital corridors. Granted, she is heavily sedated for a lot of the film, which stops her from running very quickly, but other times she could get away easily. Why does he not walk any faster? In that respect, Myers becomes, like the zombies in George Romero films, a symbol of death and our own mortality – slow but inevitable, no matter how fast you run.

Secondly, a frequent criticism levelled at slasher films is misogyny, and while there may be a debate to be had about other films, particularly the linking of female, often teenage, sexuality and violent death, there is little of that in Halloween 2. Admittedly, the main female character is largely passive and has to be rescued by men, but there is a crucial difference between this film and Halloween, or, indeed, its many imitators. 

In the original, where his motives are more ambiguous, and all of the victims are teenagers who engage in drug use or premarital sex, it is possible to see Myers as some sort of force of Puritan vengeance, punishing people for their sins. However, here, there is no suggestion of a sexual agenda to either the killings, or the stalking of Laurie Strode.

Conversely, however, it does mean that Halloween 2 lacks some of the sense of danger, and even the uncomfortably perverse streak that other slashers have. Watching these films does not automatically make you a misogynist, and they can raise, sometimes uncomfortable, questions about the attitudes of the characters, the film-makers, and perhaps ultimately you, the viewer.

Lacking these sorts of extreme elements, what is left with Halloween 2 is a competent, workmanlike slasher film that, aside from the unique elements of the franchise, has little to heavily distinguish it from the scores of others in the genre.