Comparing Halloween to Halloween II is a little bit like debating the comparative value of two bowel movements. Both are equally worthless, but the first was excruciating while the second just uncomfortable—although it's unclear whether there's an actual difference, or you were simply prepared for the pain after having gone through the experience once already.
That said, Halloween II is in fact better than its predecessor, which means that the series went from abominable to merely unwatchable, and which means that "fans" of the 2007 reboot may indeed enjoy it. But anyone uninitiated with Rob Zombie's brand of grainy hillbilly brutality would be better served by eating a bran muffin and steering clear of this particular horror film, because it's a compliment to call it a piece of crap.
Picking up more or less immediately after the events of the first film, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) is taken to a hospital after killing Michael Myers (Tyler Mane), only to discover that her brother has revived himself, escaped a coroner's van, and is dead-set on tracking her down. As he swings his axe down atop her already bruised body, she awakens to discover that a year has passed, although she is clearly still haunted by the memories of her traumatic confrontation with Myers. Now living with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter Annie (Danielle Harris), Laurie ekes out a living at a local bookstore and tries to keep her demons at bay.
Unfortunately, Michael's not only loose, but in full control of his actions; his dead mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie) communicates with him through his adolescent self (Chase Wright Vanek), and informs him that it's his responsibility to bring the family back together. Before long, Michael's destructive rampage has begun anew, and Laurie unwittingly finds herself on a collision course with her brother, with only Sheriff Brackett and the opportunistic Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) standing in the way of their potentially homicidal family reunion.
The irony of Halloween II is that Zombie has noticeably improved as a director since the first film, and demonstrates a real ability to create interesting imagery, even if he still isn't able to marry it to compelling characters or a remotely satisfying story. There's an early shot where Michael stands immobile over one of his victims in a nurse's station, and it's one of the few moments that echoes the haunting terror of John Carpenter's original film; but even when he's indulging his own idiosyncratic and generally vulgar impulses, Zombie composes several shots that possess a dreamlike quality that evokes the filmmaking of folks like Dario Argento—that is, if Argento was weaned on American exploitation films from the 1970s and a steady musical diet of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nazareth.
But the movie itself doesn't come together for a second, or have any idea where dream logic ends and reality begins; for example, is it part of Laurie's flashback, or an actual event, that places a cow in the road where Michael's van is driving, offering him a chance to escape? Where is everyone, much less anyone, when Michael visits Laurie's hospital, or the strip club where his mother used to work, or any of the other places where he strikes down humping teens, vigilant cops, or passersby? And why does everyone blame Loomis for the deaths that Michael caused? Most of the answers to these questions are probably available to anyone already giving the film the benefit of the doubt, or perhaps the extended-cut DVD provides a few additional details. But the convergence of story strands and character developments feels clumsy or rudimentary at best, and Zombie's title-card explanation of Michael's visions (in particular, the white horse his ghost-mom has at her side) reiterates that the filmmaker is grasping at concepts rather than truly mastering them.
In fact, the number of half-formed ideas is what frustrates the most, because it's as if Zombie hasn't thought at all what they mean or why they're included. In Carpenter's original, Michael's mask was this smooth and emotionless façade, and now it's ripped and contoured to resemble a real face; mysteriously, however, Michael doesn't wear the mask all of the time, grows a beard that looks like Zombie's real one, and wanders the countryside like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk TV show, or in a best-case scenario, Robert De Niro's version of Frankenstein's monster in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. Meanwhile, Annie has recovered completely from Michael's attack in the first film even as Laurie struggles on a daily basis, but when Annie is attacked again, in a matter of seconds Laurie overcomes a night of binge-drinking and surprise trauma in order to take care of her.
The fact that there's anything redeeming to discuss in this film at all is an indication that it's a better movie than Zombie's other Halloween. But it's also a sure sign of desperation that the only moment in which the writer-director really references Carpenter's films is in the final scene, when he uses the original's familiar piano refrain to emphasize a character's deteriorating sanity, and unfortunately, underscore the difference between jarring shock-exploitation and genuinely disturbing suspense: no matter how graphically one can depict a scene of violence, its impact will never compare to the lasting effect of an image, much less an entire film, in which a palpable mood is created and then successfully communicated to its audience.
Given the turnout at a midnight screening on Thursday in Los Angeles (there were no press screenings for critics, so yes, I paid for a ticket), there is evidence that suggests people do in fact want to see more of this kind of film. But when "not totally sucking" has become any measurable standard for the entertainment value of a moviegoing experience, and in fact the level known as "totally sucking" has been firmly established by a film's predecessor, it's a sad indication that audiences just aren't thinking at all about what they watch—even enough to suggest they know the difference between the two—which accounts for, if not excuses them from indulging their appetite for this kind of material.
But then again, maybe it's no less than what we should expect, since the filmmakers clearly aren't doing much thinking either; in any case, let's hope that Halloween II is the final installment, if only to make sure that at least one crappy horror series stays off the big screen. Because Rob Zombie may have brought Michael Myers back from the dead twice now, but what he really did was kill the franchise for good.