I find horror sequels endlessly fascinating. Specifically, I find first sequels passed off to a new director fascinating (not that I don’t have a soft spot for sequels like Evil Dead II or Hostel 2 made by the original director, or the gems that pop up late in a franchise like Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI). The kind of horror movies that are successful enough to warrant a sequel tend to possess a sort of purity; purity that their progeny invariably pollute. This tends to fail as often as it succeeds, with notable failures like Return of the Living Dead Part II and Piranha 3DD squandering everything that made their predecessor work.
But there are countless examples of horror sequels whose directors take the fundamental framework of the first film and twist it into something entirely different. The best example is perhaps Aliens, which changed genre altogether. One of my favourite second films in a horror franchise is Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, which improved upon the simplistic first film – redneck survival horror with a respectable cast and gruesome gore – by embracing a completely absurdist, almost comedic approach in a reality TV setting. Director Joe Lynch takes only a germ of an idea from Wrong Turn and sets out to make his own kind of film – an unapologetic, gloriously fun B-movie.
There plenty of other great examples, many of which are straight-up better than their predecessor. Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou transformed a forgettable high school slasher into a silly supernatural romp-slash-Carrie-pastiche. Friday the 13 Part 2 set the franchise in motion proper with the introduction of full-grown Jason Voorhees (complete with the kind of backstory that’s ubiquitous – and mostly unnecessary – in horror sequels). Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge upended the first film’s dreamscape to provide a possession narrative that double as an addiction/homosexuality allegory.
What makes these sequels so interesting to me is that they rarely feel beholden to the films they’re following. Unlike, say, Marvel Studios’ recent output, most of these horror sequels feel like they have a distinct personality behind them. That isn’t always a good thing – Sleepaway Camp 2, for example, is an entirely acceptable slasher that loses all the queer subtext that made the first film so memorable. But the truly mediocre horror sequels are the ones that try – and fail – to emulate the first film. Films like Paranormal Activity 2 operate as beefed-up clones to their detriment.
That’s pretty much what I expected from Halloween II, the first shot in a franchise that would eventually rack up double digits (if you count Rob Zombie’s remakes, anyway). From what I can gather from interviews, no-one even wanted to make the damn thing, especially not John Carpenter, but it apparently came about as the result of a lawsuit regarding the rights to Carpenter’s follow-up, The Fog. Inexperienced director Rick Rosenthal was tapped to helm the sequel, and set about trying to hold as closely to the original as possible. “My first goal,” Rosenthal explains in the documentary The Nightmare Isn’t Over – The Making of Halloween II, “was to make it feel as much like the first one as possible … So, it would feel, when you saw the film, that it was a continuation of Halloween. If you liked Halloween, you’re going to like Halloween II.”
It’s safe to say that Rosenthal’s end product, which primarily centres on Michael Myers stalking through a barely-occupied hospital, is no Halloween. But, then, very few films are. His attempts at mimicry are clumsy at best, especially in regards to camerawork. Carpenter’s classic is a masterclass in careful use of negative space to create suspense. Michael Myers is consistently placed at the margins of the frame, emerging from darkness with such consistency that you begin to see any composition with an uninspected background as threatening. Rosenthal continually places Myers dead centre, an implacable, inevitable force. Carpenter’s camera glides through an antiseptic, chiaroscuro world (in my head, Halloween is a black-and-white movie); Rosenthal merely uses Steadicam a lot.
Yet it’s within Rosenthal’s failure to emulate Carpenter that Halloween II redeems itself. The sequel’s most memorable moments are stylistically distinct from anything you’d find in the original. A hypodermic needle protruding from an eyeball. A dark hospital room floor covered with an impossible amount of deep red blood. Hospital hallways lit only with stark crimson lighting. It’s as though Rosenthal began with Carpenter homage and ended up producing an Argento homage; finding something different despite starting with something very much the same.
Not all of these flourishes work – a traffic accident concluding with an absurdly large fireball is unintentionally comical – but there’s a sense of style here that elevates Halloween II above inept imitation. The net effect isn’t chilling at all, rather a unique combination of antiseptic otherworldliness and gothic, almost theatrical excess. It’s peculiarly anti-comedic, with scenes that play like self-parody – Loomis’ (Donald Pleasence’s) increasing mania, a character slipping and falling in the aforementioned puddle of blood, a blinded Myers stumbling around ineffectually swiping a scalpel – but without ever threatening to earn a laugh.
To credit this to Rosenthal alone is a mistake. As he himself admits:
“Halloween II had a lot of cooks, a lot of chefs. I was hired to direct it, but we also had a director before me – John Carpenter – who … in many ways had a very strong opinion. Moustapha [Akkad] was the producer of record but, y’know, DiLaurentiis was also the financier and, also, producer. There were times where they wouldn’t agree on things.”
Watching the special features on Shout! Factory’s Halloween boxset release, it becomes clear that while Rosenthal is capable of producing some indelible imagery, his instincts aren’t suited to creating a feature-length narrative (at least, at this stage in his career, though his résumé thereafter remains undistinguished). Rifling through the deleted scenes – a bunch of pedestrian conversations between hospital staff, an unnecessary explanation as to why the hospital’s lights went out, etc – suggests that Rosenthal’s understanding of how to develop character is anaemic at best.
As suggested by Rosenthal’s quote above, there’s no one author – or auteur – of Halloween II, but Carpenter deserves a fair amount of credit for reworking Rosenthal’s work into something that, against all odds, works. Carpenter shot some additional scenes as well as excising those deleted scenes, and the result is that the hospital set feels unknowable, hellish. As narrative coherency and spatial geometry are obscured, the sense of Myers as an implacable force of nature is emphasised. The hospital feels less like a physical space than an arcane labyrinth.
I don’t agree with all of Carpenter’s decisions – his choice to add an expository scene that clarifies why Myers knows Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is at the hospital cuts against what he seems to be trying to achieve with his cuts to the hospital scenes – but it’s clear that Halloween II works despite itself. Rosenthal set out to emulate Carpenter’s work and failed, but Carpenter managed to unearth the unique elements of his approach and cobble them together into a film that, paradoxically, distinguishes itself from the original Halloween. Intentionally or otherwise, Carpenter seemed to understand that good horror sequels need to set themselves apart. Halloween II is a bad clone of Halloween, but it’s an enduringly, cultishly weird film in its own right. Like the horror sequels I mentioned before, its success lies in how it sets itself apart from the film that inspired it.