Halloween II (2009) Halloween II (2009) ***

     Rob Zombie’s brief tenure at the helm of the Halloween franchise is just full of surprises. First he gave us a “who asked for this?” remake in which what should have been far and away the worst idea produced far and away the best part of the film. Then he followed up with a sequel to his remake that, despite getting off to an extremely rocky start, eventually coalesces against all odds and expectations into the first solidly good picture that I’ve seen from him. This despite an unrealistic production schedule, an uncooperative shooting environment, and constant interference from the usual pack of studio munchkins at Dimension Films! It may be overlong and self-indulgent (especially in the director’s cut), but Halloween II rewards the patience that it so often taxes with a bracingly bleak (especially in the director’s cut!) meditation on the cycle of violence, putting even the silliest aspects of its uneven predecessor to effective use.

     The aforementioned rocky start takes the form of a 25-minute riff on the previous Halloween II, some large but irritatingly unknowable fraction of which is actually a dream sequence. Not long after her narrow victory over Michael Myers (Tyler Mane, hereby becoming the second person to portray Myers in more than one film), the virtually indestructible homicidal brother whom she never knew she had, teenaged Laurie Strode (a returning Scout Taylor-Compton) is picked up on the streets of Haddonfield, Illinois, by a team of sheriff’s deputies. Badly wounded and deep in shock, Laurie looks like something straight out of a nightmare, but at least she’s alive. So, it turns out, are Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell again), Michael’s former psychiatrist, and Annie Brackett (still Danielle Harris), Laurie’s best friend— neither one of whom looked like a good bet to make it through the night when last we saw them. Unfortunately, Myers is apparently immune to having his fucking brain shot out the back of his skull. He regains consciousness when the meatwagon carrying him to the county morgue rather absurdly hits a cow standing in the middle of the unlighted road, and after finishing off the two stereotypically gross Horror Movie Coroners (Dayton Callie, of The Devil’s Carnival, and Richard Brake, from Death Machine and Doom) transporting him to what was supposed to be his penultimate rest, Michael… Well, it’s hard to say exactly what he does at that point, because of the transition into dream sequence. Despite what we see, he probably doesn’t really make a beeline for the hospital where Laurie, Annie, and Dr. Loomis are undergoing emergency treatment, or massacre the strangely sparse overnight staff, or chase Laurie all over Hell’s creation on her newly attached orthopedic boot. But since Zombie doesn’t pull the plug on the chase until long after it makes any kind of sense to do so if the whole thing is just one of Laurie’s subsequent PTSD nightmares, maybe we’re supposed to come away with the impression that something at least broadly analogous to some of it really did happen.

     In any case, two years later (just one in the theatrical cut), nobody who survived the ordeal of that Halloween is dealing with their trauma in a remotely constructive manner, except perhaps Sheriff Lee Brackett (Brad Dourif once more), Annie’s father. Since Laurie’s parents were among those slain in Myers’s rampage, Brackett has taken her in, but the girls are finding foster sisterhood more challenging to navigate than friendship, despite— indeed, because of— everything they both went through the year before last. Each time Laurie sees the spiderweb of knife scars that Michael made of Annie’s face, every moment of that awful, harrowing night comes back to her. Annie, for her part, is nearing the end of her ability to take Laurie’s outbursts of senseless, misdirected fury in stride, and each girl is combatively upfront about believing that the other has completely lost track of the fact that Myers shattered both their lives, in fundamentally the same way. Perhaps Annie would find some comfort, if she knew about it, in Laurie’s comparably irrational hostility toward her psychiatrist, Dr. Barbara Collier (Margot Kidder, from The Clown at Midnight and The Amityville Horror), whom she treats as little more than a hookup for psychoactive drugs— which, by the way, she’s been taking lately in significantly greater quantities than Collier would ever prescribe. After all, it’s October 29th, so we should probably expect Laurie to be crazier than usual for the next several days.

     As for Dr. Loomis, he may not have gone bugshit, but he has turned into a complete and utter bastard. His attitude toward the Halloween before last is that the universe owes him for it big time, and he intends to milk his near-death experience for every ounce of fame and fortune that he can extract. His new book, The Devil Walks Among Us, is a sequel of sorts to his earlier case study on Myers, dealing specifically with Michael’s escape and subsequent reign of terror in Haddonfield. It’s also much more lurid and sensational than its predecessor, with a promotional campaign to match. Indeed, some of the stunts that Loomis and his publishers have devised— the photo op in the front yard of the house where Myers grew up especially— strike even the doctor’s publicity agent, Nancy McDonald (Mary Birdsong, of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), as beyond the pale of acceptable seediness. Even so, there’s one bit of potential ballyhoo that Loomis not only refuses to exploit, but consistently pushes back against in all his lectures, interviews, and television appearances. Although Myers’s body disappeared under bizarre circumstances to say the least, Loomis is adamant that the Boogeyman of Haddonfield is dead, dead, DEAD.

     Of course, we know that isn’t true, but what’s he been up to these past two years? Incredibly, Michael seems to have been leading a peaceful existence as a woodland hermit, causing no more trouble than to help himself to some of the neighboring farmers’ crops whenever they’re in season. He’s even stopped wearing his masks! But as this third Halloween of his life outside of Smith’s Grove Sanitarium approaches, Michael begins receiving visitations from the ghost of his mother (Sherri Moon Zombie, without whom hubby Rob just can’t seem to make even a single movie), telling him to go collect his baby sister so that the three of them can be a family again at last. Naturally these visions or hallucinations or whatever trigger the reemergence of Michael’s homicidal proclivities, and the next time one of the neighbors objects to his trespassing, the confrontation goes very badly for Farmer Floyd (Mark Boone Jr., of Ghost House and 30 Days of Night), his daughter (Besty Rue, from My Bloody Valentine and The Hospital 2), his son-in-law (Duane Whitaker, of Tales from the Hood and Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), and even his goddamned dog! Then once Michael returns to Haddonfield, things will go badly for Lee and Annie Brackett; for Dr. Loomis; for the owner (Daniel Roebuck, from Cavegirl and Bubba Ho-Tep) and staff of the Rabbit in Red Lounge, with whom Myers has unsettled accounts from his childhood; for Laurie’s new friends and coworkers, Harley (Angela Trimbur, from Brotherhood of Blood and The Final Girls) and Mya (Brea Grant, of Battle Planet and Ice Road Terror); and of course for Laurie herself— to say nothing of a few barely-involved bystanders along the way.

     Precisely how badly things go for Laurie depends on which cut of Halloween II you see. The theatrical edit, which Rob Zombie has since disowned, has a bummer ending, but a bummer ending of a conventional sort. In the manner of Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, it implies that the rigors of Laurie’s second clash with Michael— and perhaps even more the revelation of her true connection to him contained in Loomis’s new book— have finally broken her, and that she’ll be the one wielding the knife in any notional Halloween III. The director’s cut is a great deal darker even than that, ending with the Myers family reunited in death. That is, it comes to Michael’s idea of a happy ending, or at any rate, the closest thing to one that the killer himself is still capable of imagining! What’s more, there’s nothing edgelordly about the way Zombie presents that denouement. Far from gloating over his power to shock or reveling in the triumph of evil, he treats the whole thing as just unutterably sad. In his preferred version, Halloween II becomes the abuse-awareness slogan about hurt people hurting people writ large, and a cry of despair for the prospect of anyone ever really recovering from the kinds of psychic wounds that the whole Myers family has both suffered and inflicted across two generations.

     That’s an exceedingly heavy thematic burden for a mere slasher movie to carry, let alone for the sequel to a dodgy remake of one of the genre’s few genuine classics. Halloween II bears up under it ably, however, not least because now that the remaking of Halloween was over, Rob Zombie was free to take the story in directions all his own, without reference to any imagined checklist of scenes that fans of the original would demand to see replicated. It didn’t hurt, either, that Malek Akkad had a much lighter touch as a producer than his father, and didn’t saddle Zombie with great masses of counterproductive rules designed to keep the Halloween franchise going in perpetuity. Paradoxically, by showing Michael Myers doing things that old Moustapha would never have allowed— unmasking, speaking, and most of all, finally and decisively dying— Zombie was able not merely to make the best Halloween movie in roughly a decade, but also to give the first hour of his own Halloween the culmination that it both needed and deserved.

     One of the ways he accomplished that was by giving Myers back some of the interiority that he’d had as a child. Unlike any previous film in the series, Halloween II frequently shows the adult Michael’s point of view, not just in the conventional slasher movie sense of the killer’s-eye camera, but in the deeper sense of cluing us in to what he’s thinking and feeling. Sometimes these sequences are as simple as a long, silent shot of Myers tensely regarding a roadside billboard advertising The Devil Walks Among Us. Most of them, however, make us directly privy to the distortions imposed on the world by Michael’s insane mind. That includes his conversations with his dead mother, of course, but also subtler tricks like fantastical lighting schemes that downplay the very existence of the surrounding scenery, or set dresssings representing unreal objects of apparently symbolic significance to the killer. Most importantly, Michael in these subjective interludes is always shown bifurcated into his adult and juvenile selves, with the latter being the persona through which he interacts with his phantom mom. To his great credit, Zombie initially wanted to bring back Daeg Faerch to portray this manifestation of Michael’s inner child, but the kid had grown like a weed in the year that elapsed between Halloween’s release and the start of serious preproduction on the sequel. The young Michael had to be recast, and although Chase Vanek is a noticeable step down from his predecessor, I can’t really fault him for failing to match Faerch’s uncanny perfection in the part.

     The central irony of Halloween II is that of all the returning characters, the homicidal maniac is arguably the one who’s enjoyed the greatest success at putting himself back together after the events of the preceding film. The returning castmembers, meanwhile, all hurl themselves into the rich acting opportunity which that irony presents, with results more broadly successful than anything we saw in Halloween. Malcolm McDowell, who was one of Halloween’s major assets to begin with, now gives us a Loomis who has surrendered to all his worst impulses and most craven weaknesses, visibly relishing the challenge of a performance at once antithetical to his previous interpretation of the character, yet also a natural outgrowth of it. Brad Dourif, freed from merely following Loomis around, scowling with disapproval and mistrust, reveals a Sheriff Brackett whose quiet courage, compassion, and decency are downright shocking coming from an actor best known for playing slime monsters like Charles Lee Ray, Grima Wormtongue, and Piter De Vries. Danielle Harris gets to show a lot more of the steel that she brought to the part of Jamie Lloyd 20 years earlier, even if it’s no easier the second time around to accept her as a girl literally young enough to be her daughter. Even Tyler Mane uncovers a startling amount of nuance in a role that outwardly seems to give him nothing to do beyond being huge and intimidating. But the biggest turnaround is Scout Taylor-Compton’s. Whereas two years before, she demonstrated little more than an ability to scream at impressive volume, Halloween II shows her in full command of an extremely tricky part. In the sequel, we’re supposed to like Laurie and to root for her, of course, but we’re also supposed to pity her, to recognize her behavior as self-sabotaging and unreasonable, and to mourn in advance the increasingly obvious doom bearing down on her from within as well as without. It’s become fashionable of late for any and every horror movie to claim to be “about trauma,” but in Halloween II it’s just the plain and simple truth, and Scout Taylor-Compton is little short of brilliant as the film’s most traumatized (or maybe only second-most traumatized?) character.

     Of course, I found plenty to praise in the last movie, too, but found that the bad in it ultimately outweighed the good. Halloween II has its problems as well, to be sure. It’s just that the sequel’s list of demerits is shorter, and encompasses altogether more forgivable sins. Also, it naturally helps that this movie gets better as it goes along, rather than starting strong only to disintegrate in the second half. Indeed, Halloween II commits its most serious blunder right up front, with that pointlessly drawn out prologue. Although it sounds like an interesting experiment to begin a slasher movie with the Final Girl sequence, it turns out that the necessary level of intensity can’t be sustained for more than a scene or two without the buildup which the conventional structure provides. Do what Rob Zombie does here, and all you get is 25 minutes of hectic noise. I could also have done without quite such an involved detour through the psychobilly show that Laurie attends with Harley and Mya in the second act. It has way too much of the same time-killing vibe as the party and rally sequences in Halloween 5 and Halloween 6, and the attention that Zombie lavishes on both Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures and the between-sets “comedy” “stylings” of Seymour Coffins would have been far better invested elsewhere. Still, these are minor annoyances, especially in proportion to the failings of most of this movie’s predecessors.



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