When visiting family, I was given the opportunity to rummage through some old boxes of movies from back in the days when I watched grainy Betamax movies on a discarded small set and a since-replaced with something better video player, having repurposed a to-the-garage sale assembly to my bedroom. As a result I have a peculiar sense of the 1980s being grainy, strangely colored and slightly fizzy. And an older relative had had the genius to dub Halloween and Halloween II together back to back - with a slight "jump" but close enough that you could almost imagine it as a three hour epic when taken together.
Few people realize that the original Halloween was the progenitor of the modern slasher film. So many things clicked right, from a fantastic script to evocative locations to brilliant performances by all major actors concerned. And they had a stroke of luck in that a prop buyer found a weird, distorted face that was supposed to be a William Shatner mask but was further made creepier by removing its eyebrows and spray painting the face part white. Though the first person POV killer trick had been done in the underrated Black Christmas, the film that launched Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Groundhog Day, the Freddy Krugers, the Jasons, the dozens of slasher flicks and the whole genre itself - was in fact Halloween.
And the script was novel. A guy escapes from a hospital after being locked up there for stabbing his sister (for having sex). The psychiatrist who was going to move him from one facility to another happens upon an obvious escape - and ends up having his car stolen by the man he was supposed to be supervising. Thankfully he knew exactly where the man was headed, and races after him - to arrive in time to save the Final Girl, but not her friends. Who the killer is is revealed in the opening pre-scene credits. It's telegraphed that he's going home. There is literally no mystery to who he's obviously going to stalk. You'd think a film that tells all right at the beginning would be boring - but his arrival is less like a murder mystery and more like a force of nature - like people on a beach unaware an unthinking, unfeeling tsunami is about to hit shore. And we never know at the end of Halloween why Michael came back to Haddonfield, Illinois. At the end of the first film we have all the answers, but we end up with more questions. Why is Doctor Loomis not surprised when he looks down at the man he shot multiple times off a second storey balcony - and finds he's not there. (It was actually Donald Pleasance's improv moment that rewrote the script and solidified the sequel hook).
All of this meant that whatever was going to happen in the sequel was going to have some pretty large shoes to fill, with a very, VERY good chance of a sophomore curse.
The choices that the filmmakers made didn't make everybody happy. Many think that the sequel didn't live up to the original one bit, and were upset that what they feel should have ended at the end of the first film was dragged out just to make a buck. They saw nothing but limitations in the sequel, but they were very much forced by the circumstances of the first film. And to my mind, the filmmakers made some choices that made perfect sense.
Halloween II starts right where Halloween left off. There's a killer on the loose, Laurie Strode (the final girl from part 1) is injured and being taken to hospital, and the police show up too late and start counting bodies from the original. Michael Myers has escaped, and is walking around in a mask on the worst possible night - try finding a masked man in a crowd of masked men.
The plot can be summarized as follows: Laurie is taken to hospital and sedated, meanwhile the police finally understand the threat in Haddonfield but are thwarted when a young man matching Michael's description is hit by a Ford Pinto style vehicle that conveniently explodes into flames, torching the man. They try to identify the body as quickly as possible from dental records, and that costs them precious time. The police are convinced they have the right man in the morgue, but meanwhile Michael has tracked Laurie down to the hospital and is quietly killing people therein. Laurie comes to groggily, and sees Michael coming for her. The last third of the movie is a positively nerve-wracking extended chase in which she barely escapes. Finally the three meet again in the hospital, the psychiatrist Dr. Loomis having shown up like the cavalry once again. He shoots Michael in both eyes, and then traps him, blinded, in a room with flammable gas. Discharging his firearm one last time, Dr. Loomis performs a heroic sacrifice, but Myers uses the last of his Rasputin-style constitution to stalk Laurie, blind and in flames, before finally succumbing to the fire seemingly for good.
Consider that the movie was set in the night after the events of Hallowe'en, so they couldn't use the daytime shots and nighttime shots of sleepy Haddonfield, which people found lacking in the sequel. Constraining it to interior night shots, and especially a hospital was seen as a step backwards - but then again the filmmaker's choices were constrained by the fact that Halloween ended with a night shot. So rather than set atmosphere with falling autumn leaves and the slow descent into night, they set it with darkness.
Others complained that the Shape had been turned into yet another slasher: that it didn't make sense for him to go around killing peripheral people by dunking them in hot tubs and injecting air into their temporal arteries. But they forget that Myers killed a few people around Laurie before finally going after her, and staged a morbid scene complete with her mother's headstone in the first. The director's cut in theory should have expanded that thesis (e.g. why he didn't just kill her while she was asleep) - editorial meddling screwed with what the auteurs intended. Myers' plans were interrupted by Laurie coming to and trying to escape - we'll never know what he was actually planning.
But if you think about it, the horror of the second movie really wasn't about the Shape at all. They couldn't rely on the mystery of the first - what would Michael do? Who will he go after? We knew that already. They couldn't rely on it being about a killer hiding in the shadows - that only really works when you're unaware - though they did replicate that with Myers walking through a nursery, past sleeping babies. It had to be some kind of rapid-fire, reacting to the situation horror. It was no longer "we don't know he's coming" (if you're Laurie) it's now "we don't know where he is". Michael went from planning through and evaluating killings to actual killings. Of course he'll continue like he did, and that pattern will look more like a slasher pic than the first. By definition.
You also can't run the "you'd better give me better answers, because this is a sleepy town and nothing happens here" police trope when the chief's daughter is hauled away in a vinyl bag with a tag on her big toe. It isn't that the Halloween franchise played "catch up" to the slasher genre - the change in tone had to happen by a natural evolution of the story.
So what movie did they make? They looked at the cookie cutter "unaware kids smoke dope for three quarters of the movie, and then there's a ragged chase" situation out there, and did it better. By having Strode sedated (against her will) at a hospital, they put her in a situation where not only people are naturally nervous, but also put her in extreme peril.
It works on the principle that Alfred Hitchcock expounded on in an interview. He said if you had a film where two people are talking about baseball, it's a boring scene. Show the audience that there's a time bomb under the table, and then have them talking about baseball, and it becomes nerve wracking. Given Myers is out there, the fact that Strode is unconscious in a sleepy rural hospital is not settling at all.
The second round of critiques against the movie is about the choice to put it in a seemingly abandoned hospital. Most people, used to very busy city ERs with police and security everywhere are dumbfounded at the idea that a hospital building would seem to have a skeleton crew and be mostly abandoned. They forget that hospitals at night generally look deserted given the inmates are usually recuperating and taking on badly needed sleep, that rural hospitals generally aren't that busy (otherwise the town would be decimated within days) and that on days that just about everyone wants to take off (Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas) it's usually a smaller crew of hapless volunteers or people who asked for time off last that got stuck with being there.
Given that the police chief in the first movie describes Haddonfield as a small town where nothing happens, it stands to reason the only part of the hospital that sees any real use is the maternity ward, and presumably palliative care. As to why Strode isn't being guarded, they think they have the guy in the morgue, and they don't know for sure it's just Strode he wants. It makes more sense for police to be out looking for him, either to confirm his death or stop him killing again, rather than stacked around someone in a hospital. After all, it would take some kind of haunting supernatural ability to know where they took her to.
And then there's the chase. For my money, it's one of the best that's ever been done. The Shape comes into view behind a staggering Laurie, still trying to shake off the effects of her sedation. A nurse orders her back to bed and dies when the Shape takes her out because she's standing between him and Laurie. Then you get one of Carpenter's incredibly effective minimalist scores, an urgent sounding series of Morse-like staccato bass piano notes accented by a weird 13th note pattern played staccato on a tinny, harsh sounding synth patch.
It's particularly effective because Laurie can barely move, and Myers is in no rush to kill her. He's very calmly walking behind her, having waited over a decade to come back to kill her and being in no hurry now. The chase is nonstop until the end of the movie, and is one continuous escape maintaining the same tension throughout, as opposed to someone running away and hiding, "is he gone?" (pitchfork through window) "No he isn't! Run this way!". It is positively harrowing, and maintained by the chase leitmotif.
Which leads me back to two briliances of the filmmakers, they executed what was brilliant about the first film in the second, only most people didn't notice.
The first film inverted the rules. With a murder mystery or horror you had no idea who the killer was until the big reveal - and in the first you knew who it was from the very first scene. The maddening thing was, you didn't know WHY he was doing this, so there was no closure in knowing the who. The second movie had the doctor give you "an explanation" when the police, finally having seen the threat first hand - demand one. "Well you see, Laurie Strode was adopted by the Myers family. She's his younger sister." The fridge brilliance there is that you accept that in the midst of the action, and only later realize "well wait a minute, that doesn't explain anything at all." Friday the 13th and other franchises lost something in the fact that by the beginning of the second movie you understood the entire mythos and were just there for the body count. In Halloween, you still didn't know, and this movie was supposed to end the entire story with Myers burning on the floor, Dr. Loomis exorcising his own feelings of guilt in torching them both fatally.
This film also inverted the rules in terms of how to pace the movie. It starts on a high note with the police frantically trying to chase down Myers, and maintains a level of tension from Myers' unseen and possibly everywhere presence until the final chase. It starts tense, gets tenser and ends more tense. Unlike other movies in the genre, there isn't the temptation to fast forward through the first two thirds of the movie where it's just counsellors goofing off and okay, it's sunlight out, nothing's gonna happen (pausing where they throw in a few standard 1980s issued pre-silicone naturally bouncy breasts) to get to the "good part". The whole thing's a "good part".
Carpenter and company wanted to end the story there. Their original idea was to make a series of stories around the theme of Hallowe'en, and the next film took a completely different set of choices with "Season of the Witch". Suffice it to say it was about as well received as Ted Nugent at a PETA meeting, and they went on to desecrate the story with a few more cash-in sequels, before truly ruining the story by letting Rob ("Yeah, but what if the guy carving young women up is just, like, misunderstood, man?") Zombie rewrite the narrative.
John Carpenter went on to remake "The Thing", and Moustapha Akkad cashed in on the franchise he financed until his death in 2005 in a terrorist bombing in Syria which also killed his daughter. But they made two films which, when watched together, set a bar for an entire new genre of film that none to date has managed to reach.