Rob Zombie’s musical career has always been rooted in carnivalesque cartoon horror, which is why after tapping a similar vein for his directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, it came as such a shock to the system when he shifted gears into full-throttle death metal for his underappreciated The Devil’s Rejects (still a modern genre classic) and unjustly maligned redo of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Eschewing spookshow jokiness, Zombie had crossed over into squalid terrain where the humor was black and the violence was blacker, his deceptively smart aesthetics further amplifying a caustic worldview in which ugly is mankind’s true color and the nuclear family—generally of a twisted, psychobilly sort—a fundamentally important unit under constant siege. Out of step with modern PG-13 horror in the best way possible, Zombie’s films frighten less with juvenile jolt tactics than by positing a world in which sadistic kin are one’s only salvation from a universe gone insane. Alas, with Halloween II, the director goes nightmare-grim to the point of losing his franchise-remake’s thread, plunging down a vicious vortex like a metal band following up an acclaimed release by simply going “heavier,” a desirable quality that nonetheless comes at the expense of what energized its predecessor.
Replacing cinematographer Phil Parmet with Brandon Trost, Zombie drenches action in grainy, claustrophobic 16mm darkness to express the now virtually absent line between sanity and madness within Laurie Strode (Taylor Scout-Compton), who a year after the first film’s events lives with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and friend Annie (Danielle Harris) and is plagued by nightmares about bro Michael (Tyler Mane). Zombie’s visual schema, which includes an even greater than usual fondness for tight, jittery compositions, works thematically but fails otherwise, turning the killshot-happy proceedings murky and incomprehensible in a manner more one-note ho-hum than thrillingly gritty. Admittedly, Zombie is deliberately moving past his prior Halloween’s form-and-content dualities (light and dark, internal and external physical and mental spaces, a bifurcated narrative) for a full-throttle one-way descent to hell. His sequel’s unerringly bleak directorial approach, however, soon proves enervating. And that single-mindedness parallels the go-nowhere course of the plot, which in charting Laurie’s healing process and Michael’s concurrent efforts to find her—a goal spurred by visions of both his younger self (Chase Wright Vanek, a poor substitute for Daeg Faerch) and his mom (Sheri Moon Zombie) dressed in all-white and dragging around a pale horse—eventually winds up chasing its tail right back to its original starting point.
Zombie’s recurring fixation on families fending off threats (from within and outside) is again ever-present, and aside from a clunky prologue flashback to Momma Myers telling young Michael about the aforementioned steeds, is initially invigorating, as Laurie’s attempts to move on with her life are complicated by the same disturbing hallucinations that beset Michael—a hulking, bearded hobo in a hooded sweatshirt who haunts the countryside. In at least one of these sequences, full of schizo screaming madness, upside-down forehead crosses, and Sheri Moon Zombie looking like an ethereal albino version of Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele, the director rides a nasty groove. Similarly, his prolonged intro (shouting out to 1981’s Halloween II and repeatedly filmed through rainy windows) and use of jump-fades and heavily backlit silhouette shots create a dreamlike atmosphere in sync with his dueling portraits of psychological disintegration. Still, no striking, idiosyncratic flourishes or brutal money shots can offset the fact that the film’s arc is—spoiler alert—a duplication of its predecessor’s: Michael strives for familial reunion, which in turn results in Laurie being corrupted by her demented heritage. Halloween’s pitch-perfect climax of bloody baptism brought its story full circle, and thus what this sequel delivers isn’t so much a further fleshing-out of its predecessor’s dynamics so much as a crueler and more clumsily literal repetition of it.
Treading well-worn ground to diminishingly creepy returns is a bone-deep problem for Zombie’s latest, especially with regard to his characters. The director’s knack for both rollickingly grotesque caricatures and empathetic everypeople is largely undetectable thanks to an ungainly script that unintentionally mirrors the stitched-together Frankenstein monster to which it often alludes—via a strip joint owner’s costume and Laurie and Annie’s sewn-up facial wounds. Those references also include Dr. Loomis (a campy Malcolm McDowell), now an egomaniacal profiteer on a book tour, who’s accused at one point of being the doctor responsible for the monstrous Michael. Such suggestions, however, are overshadowed by a tale that jumps between focal points to the detriment of protagonist development. The well-defined personalities of Laurie, Michael, and Loomis are reductively defined here by stock signifiers: Laurie’s hand tattoo and rock-chick friends indicate she’s troubled; Michael’s chats with dead Mommy and kid-Michael mean he’s crazed and homesick; and Loomis’s sunglasses and swank hotel confirm he’s a cold-hearted narcissist. Without a new path for its central trio, Halloween II merely rehashes in quick, distracted swipes, in the process making it the first Zombie effort to feel purposeless, as well as short on the filmmaker’s own distinctive personality.