Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Dante Quartet (1987)

*. Film presents the illusion of continuity through the rapid projection of consecutive images. In this experimental work by Stan Brakhage there is no continuity, at least of this type, as it is composed of stretches of film that have been hand painted and otherwise altered in a way that can’t really be called animation because of that missing sense of flow. But then, the images aren’t static either. As you might imagine, it’s a weird experience.
*. Is there a linear progression to the imagery? I won’t say narrative, but what I mean is that if you rearranged the images in whatever random way you wanted would it make a difference? I can’t imagine anyone outside of the most devout students of such a film as being able to notice the difference. The different sections have some common characteristics, but there’s no sense of a direction to any of it.
*. That might seem kind of obvious, but the allusions in the titles and Brakhage’s own thoughts on the subject of Dante suggest that he thought there was some kind of narrative, or at least argument, here at work, however condensed or metaphorical. From hell (Brakhage’s own break-up) through purgatory and onto a sort of heaven. I confess it’s a movement I have trouble seeing, and I don’t think anyone not so alerted to it would be able to identify any such connections, beyond perhaps the “Hell Spit Fluxion” section being darker and more circumscribed (because presented on a smaller film stock).
*. At best what we’re getting here are colours that may be taken as corresponding to emotional states. Chaos reigns throughout. It’s a silent film, but I find a soundtrack helps. Though isn’t introducing music cheating a bit? Without continuity or representation, isn’t a visual rhythm all this movie has?
*. Perhaps the meaning is all subliminal, in the ghosts of images that some see lurking beneath the shapes of paint. It’s not entirely random, or shouldn’t be, seeing as Brakhage apparently spent six years producing these six minutes. But while it’s very pretty, and evocative of lots of things, it stops short of the goals I think it set for itself. I really enjoy it, but like any work of art without direction it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

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L’Inferno (1911)

*. I suspect it’s true that most people who set out to read Dante’s Commedia only read Inferno. While scholars and Dante aficionados will insist that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are equally as interesting and rewarding, for popular tastes nothing quite beats a tour of sinners being tortured in hell. So it’s understandable that this film, which might have been the first part of a trilogy, had no sequels, despite being a big box office success.
*. The fact that Inferno has rarely received this kind of epic treatment — this film took three years to make and was the first feature film to be shown in its entirety in one screening, which allowed theatres to boost ticket prices — suggests the difficulties involved. But in 1911 these weren’t insurmountable. A long movie could be nothing more than a series of vignettes with only a loose narrative structure, since all the audience really came to see was hell’s greatest hits.

*. The visuals didn’t have to be wildly original. In fact they leaned heavily on the popular nineteenth-century illustrations of Gustave Doré, which is what the audience would have been expecting. Given its reception I think people who went to see L’Inferno in 1911 probably felt they got their money’s worth. Viewing it today, can we say the same?
*. The general structure works. Dante’s hell is a theatrical sort of place, with Virgil taking the pilgrim from stage to stage or level to level, presenting him with various tableaux of the damned. So it doesn’t matter that it looks stagey, as all the underworld’s a stage anyway. And the framing of many of these scenes, with the use of arcs and vanishing lines and other theatrical tricks is surprisingly effective. This looks like Doré come to life, those writhing naked bodies as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and pools.

*. Somewhat surprisingly, the big spectacle moments and monsters are the weakest links. The three beasts who confront Dante in the first canto are a silly-looking leopard and lion and a positively playful she-wolf (a friendly and unthreatening dog). Perhaps the rule that you should always avoid working with animals hadn’t been learned yet. The pack of hounds in the forest of suicides also seem as though they’re just looking for a good time (or some treats). But given the primitive stage of creature effects they didn’t have a lot of options.
*. Otherwise, Minos is just a fat guy with a tail, Cerberus a puppet, and Geryon is only briefly seen as a model being lowered on a string. The giants Plutus and Antaeus come off the best, with the giant effects being reasonably well handled by split screens and false perspectives. I appreciate their trying to represent the most CGI moment in Dante’s poem, the transformation of the thieves into snakes and lizards (and vice versa), but that part is not very impressive.

*. Where L’Inferno really scores is with the human-scale renderings of pain and suffering. Somewhat oddly, the longest episode we have is the tale of the suicide Pietro della Vigna (a story I couldn’t even remember from the poem). His blinding is one of the highlights, a moment whose violence still has the power to disturb. Also effective are the mutilated bodies amond the sowers of discord, like Muhammad with his chest torn open and Bertrand de Born carrying his own head like a lantern. And only the film’s eschewing of close-ups (not remarkable at the time) makes Ugolino’s gnawing of Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull while stuck in a skating rink up to his chest less shocking.

*. One of the reason Dante’s poem has survived so long is because of its low and high-brow appeal. It’s a complex work of massive learning and a freak show written in the vernacular. As a blockbuster the effect here is definitely more of the latter, though credit must be given for what is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the poem.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period the question of what has held up is coloured by how much you enjoy the silent-film aesthetic. I find these movies charming, even to the point where corruptions in the film only add to the effect, like the pops and hisses that were a part of old vinyl recordings. In fact, there are scenes here where some of the artifacts on screen do seem an aid to the effects, making the storms seem worse and hell more hellish generally.
*. Obviously the state of the art at the time it was made limited what they could do, and what you should expect. Really there’s not much acting here aside from the usual oversize silent-film gestures. Sweeping arm motions and the like. That does, however, fit with the rest of the presentation, where Virgil seems always to be saying “Lo!” and “Behold!” to the pilgrim (and to us).
*. But perhaps what surprises and impresses the most is how it was borrowed from so often by later movies for its depictions of hell while Dante’s poem was never again attempted on this scale. Either the vision or the ambition may have been exhausted, as much as they were made obsolete.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

*. The Night of the Hunter is a movie that a lot has been written about, and a lot that has been written is very good. There’s no need to go over all of it again here. For example, I think everyone knows the story of how it was Charles Laughton’s only turn as a director, with the response being so disappointing he never directed again.
*. There was plenty of blame to go around for its not being understood at the time. Just look at the theatrical release posters and you can see the studio didn’t have the faintest idea what the movie was about or how to promote it. I wonder, however, if there was any chance of it ever being a hit.
*. The thing is, it’s a great movie but it’s not addressed to a mass movie audience (of the kind that existed then or exists now). The look is self-consciously stagey and lyrical, anti-naturalistic and artificial in its effects. This is something I think everyone can appreciate, but is it the sort of experience many people are looking for in a movie? I suspect not.

*. “It was the public that was wrong,” David Thomson concludes, “and no condition is more alarming.” That’s a judgment worth dwelling on, but I won’t. I’ll just say that it may not be a question of being right or wrong but only be a matter of taste.
*. It should have always appealed to critics though, as it’s a veritable anthology of different styles, bringing in a silent film aesthetic, noir, expressionism, and other forms of theatricality. Just look at the way those blossoms are arranged around the children as they are introduced. That’s not a yard, it’s a stage.
*. And it’s not just the film’s visual language but how well that language is being spoken. It’s a movie filled with fantastic visual elements but most of them are nearly static, thus making it a mine of memorable stills. I think this goes with how Laughton was inspired by silent film and its overly dramatic gestures and isolation of dramatic moments. The way Mitchum’s Preacher holds the knife up in the weird chapel of a bedroom, and keeps holding it as though turning into a statue. For audiences in 1955, and even more so audiences today, I think that comes across as weird.

*. Then there is the matter of tone. Is it a horror movie with “peculiar overtones of humor” (Pauline Kael), or a comic fairy tale with jarring notes of horror? It probably doesn’t make a difference as they’re all in the mix. I don’t think it upsets any kind of thematic unity because fairy tales are scary and funny and fanciful all at the same time. Still, you can understand the confusion people felt. There have been other screen villains who have performed comic bits, but the Harry Powell is slapstick most of the way through. Even at his most menacing there’s something phony about him, like he’s only playing a bad guy.

*. It’s a movie of favourite moments, most of them characterized by their staging and the dramatic photography of Stanley Cortez. Willa as Ophelia underwater. The Preacher silhouetted on horseback. The duet between the Preacher sitting outside and Lilian Gish inside with her shotgun. But I think my favourite is the look Shelley Winters gives Mitchum when she comes in to the house after hearing him threatening Pearl. What she does with her eyes there is remarkable.
*. That’s a model of Winters in the underwater shot, by the way. But damn does it look convincing. I always thought it was really her holding her breath.
*. Willa is also the most interesting psychological study in the film. She actually makes a good match with Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) in the way they are both taken in by Powell. Only where Willa surrenders herself to her fate, becoming whatever he wants her to be, Icey represents the furious backlash, standing at the front of the mob screaming for Mitchum’s blood at the end. Such people are always swinging from one extreme to the other. Poor Ruby, looking for love in all the wrong places, is the one true believer left carrying a torch (and not a pitchfork).

*. I mentioned the photography by Stanley Cortez and I will again. Of course light and shadow are two of the key ingredients to the art of photography, but you have to wonder if they’ve ever been as well employed as they are here. The shadows and blacks have an almost tactile silkiness to them, while light has a corresponding glow and texture. And it’s not just for show. The light and shadow have a real purpose.
*. In fact I think it’s a great movie in almost every department. Something in the editing seems hit-and-miss to me though, as the timing is badly off in several scenes, mainly in terms of what appear to be awkwardly delayed reactions. I also think the river journey with the foregrounded animals is presented in too crude a manner. I find this part of the film alienating.
*. Still, it’s managed to last. You’d think that melodrama wouldn’t, being so fixed in contemporary sentiment, but there’s something about such stories that abides and endures.

American Animals (2018)

*. A group of young men try to steal some expensive books from a university library. Why? That is the question.
*. The answer is that there’s not much of an answer. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the most mysterious. He wants to experience life intensely. He wants to suffer for his art. He wants to do something, be something. He’s bored. Take your pick from the thin pickings.
*. One of the quirks of American Animals is that it dramatizes the crime and the events leading up to it but intercuts interviews with the actual figures involved (writer-director Bart Layton’s previous film was a documentary). Trying to understand Spencer I found myself focusing on his interview segments. This may be in part because I really don’t like focusing on Barry Keoghan. I don’t think I like this actor much. He was very unlikeable in The Killing of a Sacred Deer but I put that down to the part and the film’s director. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t want you to like his actors. But I find Keoghan just as unlikeable here, despite the attempt to establish some sympathy for his character.
*. And it’s not just a question of liking or not liking him. I feel like I don’t get any insight into Spencer, or understand his motivations at all.
*. Warren (Evan Peters) is the easiest member of the gang to come to grips with. He’s from the a rougher neighbourhood, for starters. He’s phony, and slightly psychopathic. A young man, not very bright but somewhat charismatic, full of himself and on the make. When we see the real Warren he’s a familiar face.
*. I am baffled by the other two burglars. How they thought this was a good idea is beyond me. Perhaps they all saw themselves as the star of the movie and were as surprised as anyone at being relegated to supporting roles, albeit with the same 7-year sentence at the end.
*. Naturally enough, they seem to have been thinking in terms of a heist picture. The go to Blockbuster to do research, watching The Killing for tips. Their planning sessions mimic, pointlessly, Reservoir Dogs. Warren imagines the end of their story being like the fantasy ending of The Shawshank Redemption (something else that dishonest movie has to answer for). The film does not, however, invoke its two closest analogs: The Bling Ring and the Ocean’s movies of Steven Soderbergh.
*. I’ll start with Soderbergh. As I’ve said before, Soderbergh is maybe the slickest director around, and American Animals imitates that slickness with nearly every shot. It’s a movie that throws every visual trick in the book at you. Part of the title sequence, for example, comes at us, for no reason at all, upside-down. This trickiness doesn’t play in the chaotic, clashing manner of an Oliver Stone, however, but with Soderbergh’s trademark smoothness. We shift from different points of view using all sorts of graceful elisions and sleight-of-hand. Even when the trick makes itself obvious — switching to black-and-white, using split screens, rewinding the film, and introducing impossible characters into scenes — nothing ever seems out of place. Throw in a retro soundtrack of pop rock (that, like the upside-down shots, makes no sense to me) and you’ve got Ocean’s Kentucky.
*. With all this gimmickry you have to wonder what the point is. To appeal to an audience that can’t focus on one thing at a time? To distract us from a not very interesting story? To provide a distraction? To be emotionally expressive? I think it’s very well done, or very slickly done, but I don’t see where it lends itself to drawing a fuller or deeper portrait of Spencer and Warren. Which, I believe, was the goal.
*. The connection to The Bling Ring is more thematic. Both movies deal with gangs of relatively affluent suburban young people who adopt the gangster lifestyle and found themselves, not ironically, the stars of their own crime film. But in The Bling Ring the motivation is more to the point, while in American Animals . . . well, as I began by suggesting, perhaps the lack of motivation is the point. Either way: kids today.
*. For me it’s a frustrating film. It’s well produced and sometimes quite clever, with the heist itself being a suspenseful set piece. But it also fails to live up to its potential. It’s a true story that gives itself an opportunity to really open up that story for further investigation, or moral or social inquiry, and it doesn’t go there. Instead it settles for being a movie about a bunch of young people who wanted to be in a heist movie, and that’s exactly where they ended up.

The Bling Ring (2013)

*. The Bling Ring was a name given to a bunch of young people who broke into celebrity homes in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2008-2009. I feel I have to begin by mentioning this because ten years after their crime spree, a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales that inspired both a TV movie in 2011 and this film in 2013, and a book-length treatment by Sales that came out the same year, I imagine the actual events that started the ball rolling have now been forgotten. The Ring’s fifteen minutes were up a long time ago.
*. One may wonder, as I did, why a dramatic film (much less two) was necessary. Of course anything linking crime and celebrity will have an audience, so instead of necessary perhaps a better question would be who would find such a story attractive. What, for example, would attract Sofia Coppola to such a project?
*. Item: During the “Making of” featurette included with the DVD production designer Anne Ross has this to say about her reaction when Coppola told her that she was keen on doing it: “I was completely uninterested and I couldn’t believe she wanted to spend all this time living in this world, because it was so repellent to me, and it was repellent to her too so I was very confused about it.”
*. I feel the same way. I enjoyed Sales’ book, but I didn’t think a movie was necessary. What would be the purpose? Satire? But the funniest parts in the movie are things that the gang actually said and did and all the best lines are verbatim quotes. And in any event you can’t satirize this sort of behaviour. It’s self-satirizing.
*. I also wonder what the purpose was in changing all the names. No doubt some legal consideration was involved, but since the individuals represented are easily identifiable anyway I don’t know what the problem might have been. I mean, any resemblance to persons living or dead was not only not coincidental but purposive and precise.
*. One of Mark Kermode’s most violent takedowns on his review channel is of the film Entourage. What he seemed to hate the most about it was the message that everyone in the audience would like to emulate the bros in the movie. That’s not Coppola’s point here, but it is an opinion we hear expressed by Marc, who says that celebrities like Paris Hilton live “the lifestyle everybody wants.” That seems to me to be a litmus test for movies like this. Perhaps not so much whether you would want to live this sort of life, but can you even relate to someone who would?
*. Put another way, just how offended are you by these people? Kermode thought Larry Clark or Harmony Korine would have made the same film in a nastier fashion, and he thinks that would have been a bad thing. On the other hand he can’t find much to praise in Coppola’s “terribly lightweight and terribly affectless” portrayal of a world that is equally vacuous. Ross says she found the Ring repellent, but Kermode found a “kind of engaging sympathy” in their portrayal.
*. Saying that I really don’t care much either way may be a cop out, but it’s how I felt. Fifteen minutes in (I looked at the clock) I wrote a note to myself asking “Why is this movie so dull?” Was Coppola really that interested in the story? It doesn’t seem to have inspired her. Anyone could have made this movie, and probably already had.
*. After reading the book I wondered if the gang members were really as stupid as they seemed to be or if they were just acting stupid. They did think they were reality TV stars, after all (and in the case of a couple of them they actually were). Where Coppola’s film falls down, I feel, is that she gets no closer to answering this question. We just never get the sense of the characters as having any depth or inner life, which makes it impossible to care about them. It seems to me that a dramatic film would allow a director the opportunity to be more creative or personal or suggestive in this regard, but we remain in the land of surfaces and the superficial.
*. Where are they now? Do you even care who they were then?

Naked (1993)

*. I saw Naked back when it came out, and to be honest it wasn’t a movie I was eager to return to. What memories I had of it weren’t fond. In fact, I seem to remember hating it. But I’m glad I did give it a rewind. I like it a lot more today.
*. I’m nervous that the reason I initially disliked it had to do with my not liking the character of Johnny (David Thewlis). It wasn’t so much that he was a heel, I could roll with that, as it was a response to his physical and moral collapse at the end. He is beaten in an alley and crawls back to his girlfriend(s), who are, in turn, being terrorized by their landlord. And what does he do? Lies on the floor crying gibberish. I really was expecting more out of him. Apparently Mike Leigh thought of having him do more, but found that all “uninteresting.” I think what he ended up with is the one really false note in the film.
*. Of course passing moral judgment on a fictional character is a terrible thing for any critic to do. Just because you don’t like a character doesn’t mean you can’t like the novel or film they appear in. And yet with Johnny the question of whether or not we can like him, or to what extent he has redeeming personal qualities, does seem to be a big part of what the movie is about.
*. On the commentary track both Leigh and Thewlis try their best to defend Johnny. Thewlis: “on the one hand he is very compassionate . . . obviously in relationships he’s not very compassionate but he cares a very great deal.” I don’t get this. Johnny hurts and uses everyone he can. Where does he show that he cares about anyone or anything? Sure he’s not as odious as Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), but it’s hard to say much more than that for him.

*. As for why women like him, that seems more a sad commentary on the women in the movie than any indication that there’s something loveable in Johnny. Oh, but the women in Naked are a sad lot. Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) seems nearly catatonic, having perfected the art of speaking without moving her lips. She also turns into a clinging harridan after a quickie. Meanwhile, the woman in the window and the waitress at the diner are both drunken zombies. And though we expect Sandra to introduce some kind of normalcy if not authority when she returns (she’s a nurse!), instead she turns out to be a comic figure who runs around waving her hands in the air, unable to cope. A strange look for a nurse. And why was she in a relationship with Jeremy anyway?
*. The one exception to these pathetic women is Louise (Lesley Sharpe), who is also the one who is most suspicious of Johnny. But even she gets taken in by him at the end. He fooled her twice.
*. So, no, I don’t think there’s any way of redeeming Johnny. He is what he is, and he isn’t much. He just possesses some superficial charm to go with his superficial learning and sheepdog good looks. But just because he’s a bad man doesn’t mean Naked is a bad movie. Nor does the fact that it details such a misogynistic world mean that it is misogynistic.
*. This latter is a point that has really, really exercised critics, to the point where everyone on the DVD commentary track has to directly respond to the charge. This I find they do in a very unpersuasive way.

*. But first let’s present the case. As I’ve said, the women in Naked, with one exception, are dopes. The men, meanwhile, are all verbally and physically abusive toward women. The movie begins with Johnny raping a woman. (As an example of the special pleading Johnny’s case attracts, here is Amy Taubin’s take: “Is this a rape? Not exactly — more like consensual rough sex gone wrong — although, pragmatically, if a woman believes she’s been raped, then she has.”) Jeremy meanwhile, is a sexual sadist, as well as the more general type of sadist as well. He seems to especially have it in for women though. Archie wants to find his Maggie just so he can kick her ass. Even lonely Brian is a creepy voyeur who is divorced from his “whore” of a wife.
*. Is it any wonder that Suzanne Moore had this to say: “What sort of realism is this? To show a misogynist and surround him with such walking doormats has the effect, intentional or not, of justifying this behaviour.”
*. Is the misogyny justified? I think the response to calling the film misogynistic would be to say that while it’s about women being abused that’s not the sort of thing it endorses or justifies. Its defenders, however, have an awkward time addressing this.
*. Leigh himself is dismissive of the charges. Here he is on the DVD commentary: “When critics and others say, as they did, things like that I’ve suddenly become misogynist or that I’ve suddenly done this that or the other I just think it’s very silly and very naive and on the whole I don’t trust it much. I think it’s just journalists being smart for the sake of it.”
*. Also on the commentary Cartlidge “completely disagrees” with those who found it a film about men hating women. Instead she figured it just reflected reality. Thewlis also sees such charges as missing the point somehow, since it was the women actors who created their characters (through Leigh’s program of rehearsed improvisation), basing them on women thy knew.
*. And here are some critical voices. Derek Malcolm: “Is the film misogynist? No, because it is as deeply critical of the men as it is of the women.” And, tying himself in knots, here’s Neil LaBute: “I think it would be very hard for someone to honestly say that he’s creating something that is, um, that is not true. Not true in the sense that it happens, that people, both men and women, are mistreated in relationships, um, not all women, not all men, um, that’s the beauty of fiction, it only has to be true for the little part of the world that you create. The women in this picture certainly give as well as they get.”
*. I don’t throw all this out here to make a case pro or con (and to be honest it’s not something that interests me that much) but only to demonstrate how hard a time people have talking about such matters. As I’ve said, there’s a pretty easy defence to the charges of misogyny, so why is it so hard to make? Why, instead, is such a dismissive attitude taken? Because there’s no denying that men abusing women is a big chunk of what Naked deals with.

*. Maybe it’s just defensiveness on the part of Leigh, wanting to take exception to anyone offering an interpretation of what the film is “about.” For some reason, to take another example, both Leigh and Thewlis on the commentary track stress that Johnny isn’t homeless. I think this is because some people saw it as a movie about homelessness. But their insistence that Johnny has a home in Manchester isn’t made out in the film. Is he leaving his home at the beginning, or just some place he’s flopped in? Is he going back to Manchester at the end? I doubt it. He seems more like Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, running away from the girl who loves him and going nowhere.

*. Five Easy Pieces is an interesting analog. Another is Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a movie that came out just a couple of years earlier. Johnny is in many regards a textbook slacker: a reader and a talker but not much of a doer. He has lots of ideas but they’re all half-baked. He can fall into bed easily enough but can’t handle relationships. He complains about how everyone around him is bored (“You have had the universe explained to you, and you’re bored with it”), but he, in turn, finds all of them boring. And of course he has no future. I mentioned in my notes on Slacker how this was the last gasp of an analog culture about to be swept away by the Internet. It’s hard to imagine someone like Johnny today. Instead of a bag of (stolen) books he’d just be walking around town hunched over his cellphone. So few young people read in our own time that Johnny must seem to them like the cultural equivalent of Piltdown Man.
*. This may be one of the reasons I like the movie more today. I still don’t like Johnny, but I have more sympathy for him. I also appreciate how well made a film it is. All the rehearsal time, and the endless takes, give it a paradoxically rough and polished texture. The colour feels drained of life, without having anything documentary about it. It always feels like a work of art, but genuinely grounded as well. Where it slips, only slightly, is when it seems to aim at comedy, in part because it makes us feel as though Leigh is making fun of these people, which is something some critics have suspected him of. I don’t think he is (he’s not as patronizing as the Coen Brothers, at least), but I do get that feeling in some scenes.
*. Overall, however, it’s a movie that’s grown on me. In fact, I’d call it a great movie. Parts of it are always going to be stuck in my head now, for better or worse.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

*. OK, you probably know the story behind this movie. Michael Myers seemed to have died pretty conclusively at the end of Halloween II, so John Carpenter had the idea of making subsequent films as stand-alones that would present scary stories with a Halloween theme. The series would take on the character of a horror anthology, of which Season of the Witch was to be the first instalment. As things turned out it would also be the last, since audiences just wanted more Michael Myers. Even critics were mystified, and perhaps, without admitting as much, disappointed.
*. Sticking with that critical response for just a second, Roger Ebert made a howler of a mistake in his review, saying that the lab technician is sifting through the ashes of Michael Myers (incinerated at the end of the previous film) when in fact she’s going through the ashes of the robot who blows himself up after killing the toyseller. Overall, Ebert missed the boat badly here, calling it “one of those Identikit movies, assembled out of familiar parts from other, better movies.” I don’t think this is fair at all. There are certainly homages present, particularly to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I would rate this as about original a horror film as you could get at the time.
*. The original screenplay was written by British legend Nigel Kneale but he wanted his name taken off of it when they added a whole bunch of gore he hadn’t wanted (Kneale’s brand of horror is decidely lower key). Oddly enough, Rick Rosenthal was also upset when more gore was added to Halloween II. What did these people thinking they were getting into?
*. I actually like the gore in this movie. The kills are extreme, but they make a point about the supernatural strength of the killers by having them tear people’s heads off or crush their skulls with their bare hands. Later we will find out that they are robots. Then, the way that the heads melt down and spawn various bugs and snakes evokes the supernatural in a different way, while providing the movie (and indeed the entire Halloween series) with one of its most iconic moments.

*. I remember shaking my head when Tom Atkins chucks his mask neatly over the security camera. What are the chances he could have made such a throw? As it turns out, the chances were very poor. It took them more than 40 takes to get the shot.
*. I wonder how many real people there are living in Santa Mira. The bodyguards are all robots, as is everyone working at the factory (Conal Cochran’s imported labour force is what the town drunk complains of). I suppose the cops are too. But if everyone in the town is a robot they wouldn’t need to announce a curfew, would they? This is probably not a point worth puzzling over, but it made me curious.
*. The plot is bananas, which bothers some people. I found it . . . different, and just shrugged at its implausibility. I mean, a druid (Dan O’Herlihy) who has a town full of androids steals one of the megaliths from Stonehenge and brings it to the U.S. so that he can put pieces of it into Halloween masks? I wasn’t taking any of this mix of “advanced and antique technology” seriously. How could anyone? You just have to go along with it.
*. If you do go along with it I think it moves pretty well and provides decent entertainment. I enjoyed all the parallels to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I thought using the captured family as test subjects was hilarious. The corporate satire worked well, reminding me of what would be done a few years later in The Stuff (1985), with the robots in gray flannel suits being an especially nice touch. I liked O’Herlihy as the villainous CEO wishing Dr. Challis a happy Halloween. And finally I loved the ending, with the way Atkins roars into the phone recalling “Look to the skies!” or “You’re next! You’re next!”
*. In brief, I can say without hesitation that I liked Season of the Witch a lot more than Halloween II, which was just a bore. In fact, I might even call this my second-favourite instalment in the Halloween franchise, rating it only below the original. But really such a ranking is meaningless since this is the one Halloween movie that isn’t like any of the others, to the point where many people don’t consider it to be a Halloween movie at all. Which is fair enough and not a judgment I’d disagree with. I’d just call it cheap and silly but still more interesting and at least as well done as most of the other generic horror crap that was being made in the ’80s. Though not a personal favourite, it is a movie that I’ve found worth watching again, which is more than I can say for most of its peers.

Halloween II (1981)

*. John Carpenter didn’t want to make a sequel to Halloween. However, since it was one of the most profitable films of all time, and he felt he hadn’t seen enough of those profits, he signed on. Unfortunately, he felt “there was no more story to the idea,” and basically just put together what he felt, justifiably, was an inferior script while drinking a lot of beer. He didn’t direct, passing the reins to Rick Rosenthal (whose first feature this was), though he was involved a lot in the production.
*. Even with a better script I think this movie was doomed. It’s not just the story here that’s tired. The direction is utterly lifeless. I can’t imagine a horror movie feeling more inert. Even the jump scares (a cat leaping out of a dumpster, the old hand-on-the-shoulder gag) fail. There’s no attempt at building suspense. Michael just looms up behind people and kills them. That’s it.

*. The dialogue is drippy, with the leering by-play between the ambulance medic and the nurse being bad even by the low standards of the genre. Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis repeats, several times, the same vague diagnosis of Michael’s evil he made in the first movie. Jamie Lee Curtis spends most of the movie asleep or huddled in a fetal ball. She also inexplicably loses her voice at an inopportune moment.
*. None of it works. I don’t think Rosenthal was the right fellow for the job, as he just seems to have the timing all wrong. That’s why the jump scares don’t work. Or look at how long the camera just sits on Jimmy as he lies in that pool of blood. It’s a nice shot, sure, but why hold it for six seconds? It stops the movie in its tracks.

*. Worst of all is the way Michael’s invincibility has become a bad running joke. “Why won’t he die?” Laurie complains at one point. Good question. Go ahead, shoot him as many times as you want. He’ll just get back up again. Hell, even drilling him with bullets through both eyes only temporarily blinds him.
*. There was some conflict over the amount of gore that Carpenter felt had to be added in order to keep up with what was going on in the genre post-Halloween. Despite this, I wasn’t that impressed by it back in the ’80s and it strikes me as a remarkably tame movie today. Inflation has that effect.
*. Look, Halloween II isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just that I can’t think of a single good thing to say about it. It’s a big yawn. The franchise ball was rolling though, and there were going to be a lot more.