In retrospect: Rob Zombie’s Halloween II — monstrous, or misunderstood?

With a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween arriving later this year, now’s as good a time as any to revisit the most recent part of this 40-year-old franchise’s puzzle: 2009’s Halloween II, which itself is a direct sequel to Halloween — Rob Zombie’s Halloween, not Carpenter’s. (Confusing, eh?)

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“I know he’s not gonna come back just because of some stupid holiday!” declares a disheveled Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) during a session with her shrink. She is, of course, referring to Michael Myers: the hulking homicidal maniac that butchered half of Haddonfield, her hometown, one year ago. C’mon, Laurie, you didn’t really think the boogeyman was dead, did you?

Much like his first foray into sequeldom (the blistering Devil’s Rejects), Zombie’s second assault on the Halloween series — a continuation of his ’07 remake — sticks a great big middle finger up to its predecessor, establishing its own unique set of rules while tearing off down a perilous path of destruction. It’s a grindhouse picture with arthouse ingredients, blending the raw brutality of the director’s back catalogue with spatters of Lynch-lite surrealism.

By sidestepping the traditional story beats of exploitation fare, Zombie’s focus on character development — specifically, his heroine’s mental disarray — lends a certain level of gravitas to the grisly goings-on; it’s rare to see a genre piece tackle PTSD with such earnestness (the superior, pathos-laden Director’s Cut expands on this), and Taylor-Compton emotes admirably. As the town’s sheriff and Laurie’s father figure, chameleon Brad Dourif also brings weight to the table, his poignant performance demonstrating that he’s truly one of the industry’s finest. But it’s the metamorphosis of Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) — now a cutthroat media whore — that proves the film’s masterstroke, and McDowell relishes the opportunity to play him as an egotistical arsehole. (“I’m not going in there until you get me a cup of PG Tips with a splash of milk… and I want it sizzling hot!” he barks during one exchange with his PA).

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On the visual end, sequences starring snowy cemeteries, pumpkin-headed demons and a spectral Mother Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) provide bucketfuls of unearthly eye candy; Brandon Trost’s 16mm lensing, all shadows and grain, is exquisite. More irksome is the recurrent image of a white horse, described in the pre-credits opener as being linked to “instinct, purity, and the drive of the physical body to release powerful and emotional forces”. An arresting motif it may be, but the underlying pseudo-psychology feels contrived.

As you’d expect from a Rob Zombie film, over-the-top violence — of which there’s plenty — far outweighs any true terror (he explored the art of suspense a little more adroitly in his subsequent feature, Lords of Salem), and his notoriously colourful dialogue leaves much to be desired. Yet, nine years on, Halloween II remains a singular work of imagination from the mind of one of this genre’s bravest auteurs, and it’s the refusal to conform to tired tropes that has cemented its stature as the series’ most outlandish — and divisive — segment to date.

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