Halloween (1978) was not the first holiday-themed slasher movie, but its success triggered a slew of identikit festival fright flicks called things like April Fool’s Day, Silent Night Deadly Night and The St. Swithin’s Day Massacre. Ok I made that last one up.
Michael Myers’ (Nick Castle) story begins on Halloween 1963 when he murders his sister and is sent to a sanitarium, only to escape 15 years later, return to Haddonfield, steal a William Shatner mask and butcher some babysitters. Although it follows the Black Christmas (1974) template, Halloween is executed with a level of craft that makes it as effective as Halloween II (1981) is boring. Continuing immediately from where the original left off, the sequel has the same characters, writers and music but falls flat as a babysitter.
One difference is the directing, with Rick Rosenthal stepping into John Carpenter’s sizeable shoes and doing such a bad job that Carpenter was apparently called in to salvage this soporific sequel. That he failed suggests the problem goes deeper than the execution and points towards an overall lack of inspiration. In Halloween, Carpenter goes so far as to namecheck his influences: he names Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) after a character in Psycho, which also featured the mother of his star Jamie Lee Curtis; and has his characters watch The Thing from Another World, a film he’d remake in 1982.
The only inspiration behind Halloween II was that Halloween had kickstarted a lucrative slasher movie cycle (many of which starred Curtis) and the studio wanted a slice of that pumpkin pie. The irony is that the subtle, standalone suspense movie Halloween inspired the gory body count approach of Friday the 13th which in turn inspired Halloween II, reducing a horror movie masterpiece to a box-ticking exercise. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill did not want to make a sequel and it shows, and if the people behind the film don’t care then why should we?
Nothing even happens in Halloween II, making it one of the most tedious films I’ve ever sat through (twice). There’s no story to speak of and Laurie Strode doesn’t even fight Michael Myers, she just sits there immobilised. It introduces the idea that Laurie is Michael’s sister but this does nothing to advance the plot, and was also rendered non-canon by last year’s reboot which ignored all the sequels. The hospital setting (where Laurie appears to be the only patient) is particularly sterile, and the film looks horrible despite its $2.5 million budget.
By way of contrast, Halloween cost just $300,000 and still looks fantastic. Carpenter’s use of shadows, shards of light and patient camerawork create an airtight ambience, enhanced by his iconic score (arguably the best theme tune in 5/4 time since Mission: Impossible). It’s a masterclass in tension, pacing and suggestion, building from the bright, leafy suburbs of Haddonfield into a dark, violent nightmare without overplaying its hand; there’s a reason Michael Myers is credited as “The Shape”, appearing in silhouette one moment and disappearing the next.
There’s also a reason Carpenter and Hill ditched the stalk-and-slash formula for Halloween III (1982), even if they never recaptured the thrill ride sensation of the original. If Halloween is a rollercoaster, Halloween II feels more like a queue.