Rosenthal: Halloween II (1981)
The second film in the Halloween cycle, Halloween II was originally intended to be the end of the Michael Myers story, rather than the beginning of a horror icon that would endure, in one form or another, for the next thirty years. After this point, John Carpenter and Debra Hill had planned to turn the series into an anthology franchise, devoting each new pair of films to a different take on the meaning and power of Halloween in American popular culture. For that reason, Halloween II often plays as an intensification and culmination of Halloween, rather than a conscious effort to expand or extend the Michael Myers narrative, although that very gesture also makes Halloween II remarkably true, at moments, to Carpenter’s original vision, despite not being actually directed by Carpenter himself. For one thing, the entirety of the film takes place on the same night as that of Halloween, despite early plans, on Carpenter’s part, to set the sequel a few years later, and shift the action from suburban Haddonfield to an inner city apartment complex, where Laurie Strode would now find herself stalked by Myers in a more vertical residential environment. For another thing, Halloween II picks up precisely where Halloween left off, playing more as a continuation than as a sequel per se. Finally, director Rick Rosenthal beautifully incorporates Carpenter’s Steadicam signature into his sequences and vistas, most spectacularly in the abbreviated opening act, which takes the form of a POV shot from Myers’ perspective as he roams the neighbourhood in search of new victims before setting his eye on Laurie Strode once again.
What ensues is a riff on the spatial scheme of the original film that would continue, in one form or another, right up until Rob Zombie’s remakes in the late 2010s. In this case, Rosenthal remains very close to the spaces of Carpenter’s vision, but splinters the tight focus of the original, which is almost entirely confined to a small cluster of houses, into two more expansive backdrops. On the one hand, the street of Halloween not only expands out into a broader panorama of Haddonfield, but grows more chaotic and unruly as news of Myers’ crime and presence sweeps across the neighborhood. On the other hand, the action is equally preoccupied by the Haddonfield hospital, where Laurie is swiftly escorted after escaping from Myers. Connecting these two spaces are the plethora of broadcasts about Myers’ killing spree that are disseminated through radio, television and word-of-mouth, and which effectively transform the events of the first film into a media event that gradually becomes synonymous with Haddonfield itself. As a result, as the town converges on the hospital, and the hospital expands out into the town, the film increasingly feels as if it is situated at the cusp of these media announcements, partly because they’re where Myers chooses to take most of his initial victims, catching them unawares as they’re entranced by the fleeting impressions of him that are being broadcast across the towns various interfaces.
In that sense, Halloween II often plays like a slasher version of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which also juxtaposes a media event with the picaresque furore that it produces. In both cases, the event in question is sequestered from the rest of the film in what initially seems to be a privileged space of its own – the cave in Ace in the Hole, the hospital in Halloween II – but which is gradually abstracted into the spatial substrate and vocabulary upon which the more specific and concrete spaces surrounding it can be articulated. Put another way, the hospital in Halloween II, like the cave in Ace in the Hole, quickly comes to represent the point and process of mediation itself, rather than a discrete space or situation in its own right, leaving Laurie Strode with nothing to do when she arrives except grow more immobilized, debilitated and prone in her postures, until she is barely in the film at all except as the still point around which the escalating hysteria of Haddonfield is orchestrated.
Much of the originality of Halloween II thus lies in Rick Rosenthal’s efforts to visualise the process of mediation as a space, and to articulate a sub-spatial vocabulary that underpins the more familiar spatial scheme of the slasher genre – a gesture that ensures that Halloween II is almost as integral as the original in laying the foundation for the horror lexicon that would dominate the 80s and 90s. That process starts with the hospital simply incorporating and internalising the suburban spaces that we saw in the original film, until it feels as if the entire town is being conceptualised and visualised within its walls. Once he’s contained the town in this way, Rosenthal quietens and mutes the hospital, until its all-night hum and ambient murmurs subside right to the threshold of perception, and any conceptions of regular spatiality and temporality are absorbed into its odd dream-like atmosphere. Finally, the hospital starts to migrate into the hallucinatory industrial coordinates that would become so critical to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and the later installments of Halloween itself, along with all the other 80s horror franchises that were influenced by them. At first, this manifests itself mainly as a heightened attention to the mechanical equipment and medical procedures of the hospital, but it gradually balloons out into a sustained chase through the hospital’s basement, a clear forerunner to Freddie Krueger’s boiler room. Once we arrive in this climactic space, the register shifts from horror to fantasy, as Rosenthal outlines a magical industrial spatiality as a way of evoking the spatial conditions of production needed to bring the slasher into existence in the first place.
In that sense, Halloween II is as much a deconstruction as a continuation of the original, presenting the slasher as a figure who is both demanded and disavowed by suburban America – a balm to paternal anxiety that is so pronounced that he exposes the monstrosity of paternal anxiety at the very moment that he appears to be consoling it. Even more so than in the first film, Myers doesn’t manifest as a person, or a psychology, but as the self-destructive principle of the nuclear family writ large, producing an even more histrionic delivery from Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis, who insists that Myers simply can’t be understood in terms of subjectivity, if only because American subjectivity is itself defined in terms of suburban family values. By the end of the film, the Haddonfield hospital has migrated into something like the ideological motor engine of suburbia itself – a site in which suburban normality is maintained, in contrast to the anarchic and promiscuous energy that spreads out over the streets in the wake of Myers’ killing spree. Fulfilling his perverse paternal function therefore requires Myers to adopt an even stricter mode of regulation in the hospital than in the houses of the original film, resulting in a much broader arsenal of weapons, as well as a much more paranoid response to perceived sexual pleasure, as even the slightest unruliness or libidinal excess on the part of the hospital staff is quickly and clinically subsumed into Myers’ hyperbolic arrogation of paternal pleasure and omniscience.
If Halloween depicts the build up and early part of the Halloween holiday, Halloween II thus depicts the final hours of Halloween, and the culmination of what it is the holiday stands for in American culture, at least according to Carpenter, Hill and Rosenthal. With Laurie only barely alive the following morning and still haunted by visions of Myers’ body surviving the flames that finally engulf the hospital, the Halloween holiday remains posed at the cusp between the hospital and the town that has preoccupied so much of the film so far. In other words, Halloween remains a site of mediation, much as it was in pagan times, when it was considered the day of the year when the threshold between the real and supernatural worlds was at its most permeable. In this case, Halloween is also presented as a threshold-experience, but it’s the threshold between the fantasies of the nuclear family and its inherent drive towards antisociality that’s most permeable here, as the continuous movement between the hospital and town collapses Michael and the chaos he’s left behind into an amorphous, perverse and ballooning chaos that he provokes as much as he contains.
It’s not surprising, then, that Carpenter and Hill thought that this might be the start of an anthology franchise, since Halloween II is effectively an incitement to discourse, a challenge to think through ways of envisaging this permeable cusp, just as the cusp itself seems to promise an endless and indefinite extension of the events of the film itself, which never quite seem to end so much as simply be absorbed back into the broader logic of Halloween. Not only do the escalating POV shots gradually absorb Laurie into Myers, but Myers himself is much more of a background presence and potentiality than in the first film, to the point where he becomes coterminous with the sheer fact of the background itself, not unlike the entity in It Follows. Beyond a certain point, every figure or object in the background feels continuous with Myers, especially in the hospital, which is regulated by its sight lines but also designed to be navigated by multiple people at once, producing a spatial surplus that gradually settles into a looming sense of the background even in scenes where there is relatively shallow focus. By the time the film ends, Myers has almost ceased to exist as a discrete presence, and has instead simply become the spatial ground and connective tissue of the film itself, producing a propensity for brutal eye violence that turns the very act of looking at the spaces he constitutes into both a complicity in his acts and a disempowerment at the hands of his acts. Over the rest of the Halloween franchise, that effort to understand Myers as the spatial substrate of suburbia would produce ever more flamboyant and unusual aesthetic visions, but none of them could have come into existence without Halloween II, and its brilliant riff and remediation upon the events of the first film.
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