Monday, May 9, 2016

Halloween II

I've been writing fairly extensively over at Letterboxd, but in conversation with a friend, the spectre of that site's disappearance reared its head. I thought perhaps I need to start editing and reposting the reviews that I'm interested in preserving for all time (it's less likely Google will disappear before Letterboxd). In this case, a stray thought I had about stealth video games and Michael Myers turned into a longish piece about morality and affect. In this newest permutation, I also consider the film's thematics of chaos and order.

I watched this film on the Scream Factory Blu-ray. The transfer looks good, maybe not great, but I was quite irritated that no subtitles were included. I watch everything with subtitles as I don't like to miss any dialogue. Also, maybe my hearing has gone.

Halloween II was released in 1981, but still seem to used the same Panavision cameras that the original used (these Panavision cameras and lenses were an industry standard for decades). I can't find the exact film stock for the original, but Halloween II was filmed with Eastman 100T 5247, which was widely used in the late 70s and early 80s (eg Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining). The combination of this particular film stock and the Panavision lenses seems to produce more frequent lens flares when the camera captures artificial light. Halloween II apes the original and really, Carpenter's stylistic tic of highlighting lens flares, possibly exaggerating them. A major difference between the first film and its sequel appear to be one of more grain: Halloween II is distinctly grainier, judging by this Blu-ray and the 35th Anniversary Digibook edition of Halloween. Not a criticism, simply an observation.

The stealth game is one of my favourite subgenres of video games. I do not have amazing reflexes but I do have lots of patience. Stealth games reward the players that are not impulsive, but methodical, the players that can observe the patterns and make their move with little room for error. Stealth games often task the player with entering a location undetected, avoiding guards, accomplishing whatever the mission asks, and then exiting without detection. If faced with the inevitability of violence, the game rewards those who can dispatch enemies without a sound, without a witness. Stealth games asks the player to become hyper-vigilant of their movement, their sound, their position relative to enemies' sight and hearing. Often, the player is rewarded for listening to the conversations between guards, between non-playable characters, as information overheard can often be useful. In most stealth games, the player is the hero (in all cases, the player is the protagonist), which does pose its own ethical quandaries (in video game criticism, this is called ludonarrative dissonance: when the player is asked to make his avatar behave differently than the narrative demands). The guards are part of the antagonist's party; the missions have the villains dispatched in often bloody and violent methods.

Michael Myers is perhaps the finest stealth game protagonist that has ever existed. His ability to move silently and without observation is unrivalled in horror filmdom, I believe. While Freddy Krueger demands an audience (so much so that his usurpation of the "screen" of a dream is his modus operandi), and while Jason is a force of nature, Michael stalks, observes, and plots. He sets traps; he uses tricks; he listens and changes tactics like the good strategist he is. Halloween II seems more interested in the Shape as a character than the first film, which features him only as a presence. I find it a terrific shame that Michael Myers hasn't made it into the 2010s with his dignity intact (cough Rob Zombie cough) as his story style lends itself to constant reimaginings. Michael Myers is beautifully simple as a narrative device: arrive, stalk, murder, get shot. He is not tied to a specific location such as Jason (camp) or Freddy (dreams). His zone of action is in the suburban sprawl. In fact, it is the cell-like nature of suburban homes that provides Myers with the opportunity to execute expertly his stealth skills.

What makes slasher films so interesting to me is the audience's tendency to root for the antagonist, to become invested in their journey, their murders, the skill with which they pull off these amazing feats of murder. Slashers are exquisite technologies of death and there is beauty in their terrorism. However, it's the moral dimension that intrigues me. Watching Halloween II for the first time (maybeI can't remember if I saw it the same weekend I watched the first film on VHS, but maybe I did), I was struck by the similarity in tactics used by Michael and those I use in my stealth video games, especially in this sequel. His silent creeping, his methodical patience, the nervy tactician all reminded me of myself. What sort of moral position does that put me in, I wonder.

Other critics of horror have written, quite intelligently, of the moral dissonance required to enjoy the violent (often sexualized) deaths of innocent people. I won't rehash their arguments here. Suffice it to say that horror films ask many emotions of the viewer, just as video games ask many emotions. Sometimes these emotions are contradictory. The pleasure and thrill of watching somebody dies butts up against the empathy and humanizing labour the screenplay asks of the audience. It's all rather uncanny.

The uncanny, in the Freudian sense, is very cinematic right from the beginning. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud provides a very cinematic image with which to understand the concept:
I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own refection in the looking-glass on the open door.
Movement and the subject’s unfamiliarity with his own body sustain the uncomfortable and anxious feeling of the uncanny. It is his body that he sees and it is not his body that he sees. Cinema itself plays on the uncanny effect of seeing a two dimensional picture move as if a three dimensional event. This affect of the uncanny works in cinema through the audience’s doubt, their uncertainty at the real on the screen. Cinema challenges the strict division between the animate (the bodies of reality) with the inanimate (the bodies of the two dimensional). The inanimate yet still living body and the animate yet dead body present a crucial problem for the spectator. The latter, the moving dead body, fascinates and horrifies audiences still and always will. These are “narratives in which the dead return to the world of the living as a ghostly apparition: inorganic but animate” (Mulvey 38), sometimes literally, more often figuratively.

What is the story of Michael Myers but an animate inorganic killing machine? Constantly in Halloween II, Loomis keeps telling people he shot Michael 6 times. He keeps shooting the Shape but the Shape never stays down. He looks uncanny: he has a face which is not a face. He moves uncannily: he is slow, inexorable, he sits up effortlessly. He cannot be killed. He cannot be stopped. Even a gunshot to the face barely slows him down. He is also motivated by a return to the source. The uncanny is effective, Freud argues, because “for an emotional effect to have a relation to the unconscious mind, it must have undergone a process of repression from which it may return” (Mulvey 39). Myers is compelled to return to Haddonfield; he is the death drive incarnate.

As I mentioned earlier, Michael is the pre-eminent stealth protagonist in that he is ruthless and excessively skilled. In another instance of the uncanny, the audience is asked to identify with him, through his first person perspective (the camera is his eye in many instances) and through our investment in his campaign of death. If Michael is a technology of death in the Foucauldian sense, and cinema is a technology of death in the Freudian sense, what effect does that have on the viewer? What position are we asked to take? Are we to be like the stealth video game protagonist, exercising an illusory power, achieving the goals set out by programmers/directors? Or are we the product of these technologies enacting their power upon our bodies? Art, as I've said many times, is transformative, literally and figuratively. The transformation comes from the physiological changes wrought by shifting emotional states while figuratively, our brains are irrevocably changed by the new memories. The cultural object elicits an affective response; we are victims of a technology of emotion. Michael Myers elicits a complex emotion, exerts a force upon our bodies, both literally and figuratively. Though, in an odd way, his calmness and stealth-protagonist steeliness stands in opposition to the hysteria of Haddonfield.

The chaos of Halloween II strikes me as more thematically intriguing than the hunter-prey simplicity of the first film (though don't mistake me for not believing Halloween is a far superior object in totality). The narrative device of the town's violent reaction allows for a surface examination of the inextricable cyclical nature of retributive justice. It might be a stretch to claim that Halloween II offers a sympathetic portrayal of the failings of the mental health apparatuses of 1970s America, but perhaps it does timidly suggest that institutions really struggle with how to repair damage that's impossible to see. Michael's motivation is left aggressively opaque; Loomis offers the possibility that Michael is just pure evil, unrelenting, inexhaustible evil, and maybe in the cartoon world of slashers (a world of immortals and resurrections) this could suffice, but the first two films are grounded in a reality distant (but not too far) from the caricature Earth depicted in Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street films. Similarly, the town's reaction to Michael is an investment in retributive justice as rehabilitation appears out of the realm of possibility for Michael Myers. An illustrative scene has the town throwing bricks and other projectiles at the old Myers house, as if this act of mass revenge could exorcise themselves of Michael. Or perhaps, the citizens are struggling with guilt, knowing that locking Michael away, trying to erase him, trying to suppress him, was never going to work.

At the risk of verging into cliché, I could propose that Michael functions as Haddonfield's id, in the Freudian schema that includes the ego and the super-ego as the other two points of the subconscious triangle. The id is the unrestrained instincts, the primal urges that contain the drives. The super-ego could be the Law and other institutions, the hyper-rational utterances of authority, with the town's denizens acting as the mediator in the ego role.

But there is a chance that I've read this wrong. Perhaps Michael is not the id but the ego and he is mediating between the id, the denizens of this suburb, and the super-ego of the Law. Instead of allowing their id to run unchecked, Haddonfield elected Michael to make sure that sex and immortality and licentious behaviour would not go unpunished. Or, maybe, instead of being elected to this position, figures such as Michael are organically produced when the population of a group reaches a high enough number. Michael is a necessary byproduct of civilization. He is, again, the Foucauldian technology of death. He is the necropower.

It does make a bit of sense that during all this, Michael seems to be the only calm person in the whole film. Loomis seems positively detached, ranting and raving at anybody who will listen. Laurie is clearly suffering from some post-traumatic stress and can barely put a cogent thought together. The sheriff is incapacitated by grief. The nurses and EMTs are distracted by lust, by fear, by other primal urges. Nameless citizens gawk at the television, or they ignore the danger that the super-ego represents. They are driven by affect and affect only. Michael stands in opposition to this wild abandoned Bacchanalia of emotion; he is cold, calculating, but still with some of the passions of humanity, such as pain and anger. When hurt, he recoils. When angered, he reacts. He is a thinking machine, after all.

Haddonfield doesn't know what to do with Michael other than to destroy him, obliterate him. All evidence of his existence must be eradicated: his body, his childhood home, the relationship between him and Laurie. That they share parents is a fact erased by the paternal hand of a collective that thinks it knows better than the super-ego. The chaos of Haddonfield stands in, then, for the unhinged reaction against this unthinking, uncaring horde. They must be punished. Thus, Michael is the avenging angel.

As for the film itself, I thought it was a smidge above satisfactory. The director has an eye for composition, but obviously not to the same degree as the great Carpenter. Rick Rosenthal tends to more medium shots, more typical framing than the "Vistavision" widescreen panoramas that Carpenter so carefully apes. Where the first Halloween is slow and dreamy, full of repetitions, the second is chaotic and haphazard, reflecting the town's reaction to the events of the first. The story lacks a clear protagonist, preferring to float around in search of one, but this didn't irritate me as it did others. I found the film's refusal to stick with a protagonist to work thematically, as Halloween II is preoccupied with a larger, messier canvas. I really enjoyed the new mask that Michael wears (despite taking place the same night) and I quite liked the hospital setting. I could have done with more Jamie Lee Curtis, but then again, every movie could do with more of her. She's such an irresistible force. On the whole, a movie I'd be glad to rewatch.

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