John Carpenter’s Halloween was one of those movies that, in retrospect, fell into a surprisingly common category in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It had a ridiculously low budget, a cast of mostly unknown actors, director and producers who’d yet had a big hit, and it was done on the belief that this group of people could come together and make something special. Yet Halloween went on a journey from almost certain failure to movie masterpiece, and the influential starting point for four generations of horror movies to come.
So, when it came to talk of a sequel, obviously Halloween II would be another runaway success, with its returning cast, story continuation and, compared to the 1978 original, a mega budget. However, despite having the involvement of John Carpenter, as writer and producer only this time, Halloween II was a critical failure and a financial disappointment. As the movie celebrates its 40th anniversary this Halloween, we look at how the film managed to follow its processor as a trend setter, only this time as the precursor to many horror films that would fall into the category of “diminishing returns sequels.”
In 1978, John Carpenter brought Michael Myers to the screen in a film that would famously create a tense and terrifying horror movie that, despite later being seen as a godfather of the slasher movie, had very little graphic violence, almost no blood and didn’t see any main character deaths until pretty much the last reel. While the ending of the movie was left open for a sequel, it was three years before Michael Myers returned, and when he did the movie picked up in the immediate aftermath of the original, even featuring the ending of Halloween as its opening sequence.
Halloween II features the on-going story of Dr. Sam Loomis’ attempts to stop the killing spree of Michael Myers, while Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Stode recovers in hospital from her ordeal. Over the course of the movie, Michael continues his murderous rampage, this time killing anyone who gets between him and Laurie. During the movie, it transpires that Laurie is actually Michael’s sister, with her having been adopted after the death of their parents not long after Michael’s original arrest as a child. While this creates a new angle for the movie to explore, the film doesn’t really delve too much into that side of things as soon we are in the final reel where Dr. Loomis takes drastic action to end Michael’s reign of terror and supposedly that was to be the last of both Michael and his nemesis, with Laurie alive and able to live her life without the fear of being pursued by her brother.
Halloween pulled in over $47 million at the domestic box office, with an additional $23 million internationally, on the back of its $300,000 budget, but Halloween II struggled to a domestic gross of $25.5 million a mere ten times its $2.5 million budget. While there is no single point of failure for the movie, there are a myriad of reasons why it couldn’t manage to live up to the expectations set out for it by its predecessor.
Foremost in that list, is the loss of John Carpenter as director and his reluctance to have much involvement in the film at all. According Tommy Lee Wallace, who was on the Halloween II crew and would go on to direct the next movie in the series as well as the Stephen King 1990 mini-series IT, the feeling towards the movie was bleak from the start, with very few of those involved excited by the sequel, least of all Carpenter, who many years later would recount that writing the movie screenplay “mainly dealt with a lot of beer, sitting in front of a typewriter saying ‘What the f–k am I doing? I don’t know.'” Many would say this is not the best basis for any movie script, and considering the director also has said that the introduction of the brother/sister connection between Michael and Laurie was “purely as a function of having decided to become involved in the sequel to the movie where I didn’t think there was really much of a story left.”
Where the movie really met its downfall was a change in tone and pace from the original movie. In part this was in down to the timing of the movie rather than an intended plan to move firmly into the bloody and gory “slasher” genre. Since the arrival of Halloween, horror movies had found their taste for blood, and therefore so had the audiences paying to watch. Friday the 13th was released in 1980 with the intention of cashing in on Halloween’s success, but to differentiate themselves they wanted to make their kills as bloody and gory as possible. When Friday the 13th became popular at the box office, although certainly not with critics, many horror movies abandoned the slow, building terror of Halloween in favor of explosions, decapitation and an increasing body count, along with gratuitous sex and nudity as an added bonus.
By the time Halloween II came around a year later, this was the new horror benchmark and it felt like it had to follow suit to please audiences. The film does keep some aspects of the original, such as the first person camera angle when Michael is on the prowl, but in general the brief glimpses of his white mask lurking in the shadows, the use of music to build tension and the subtler “let the audience imagine it” deaths are mostly out. Michael’s first kill in the movie happens in the first fifteen minutes and sees a woman having her throat cut in close-up, another victim is stabbed in the eye with a syringe and a third is boiled alive in a water therapy room. All of this is offset with explosions, fire and all of those other grand and flashy special effects that look good but don’t particularly instill fear in an audience.
Halloween II’ s main problem is that it offers very little in the way of scared, unless you really have an aversion to that William Shatner mask, and instead relies on the visual horrors of gory and stomach-turning injuries. There is not a great amount of tension, as Michael doesn’t spend ten minutes stalking his victims but just seems to appear and dispatch them in the bloodiest way possible then move on to look for his next kill. There is also little seen in Halloween II that hasn’t been replicated and referenced in countless movies since, so someone somewhere liked what they saw enough to do it all again, and again, which led to a whole decade of copycat, formulaic horror movies that pulled in the same crowd time and time again, but offered nothing new or memorable to the genre.
With all that said, Halloween II does the job of creating a definite ending to Michael Myers story, and for all its faults does have the saving grace at not attempting to drag it out any further. While all of this would be dismissed by the time Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers came around, and Michael would suddenly become a supernatural, seemingly immortal being, removing the final threads of credibility from what began with the masterpiece of Halloween, at least it can always be argued that Carpenter at least attempted to save us from some of the horrors that would follow in numerous churned out sequels.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.