Halloween II (1981)

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He became an obsession with me, until I realised that there was nothing within him – neither conscience, nor reason – that was even remotely human. An hour ago I stood up and fired six shots into him. He just got up and walked away…”

 

Director:  Rick Rosenthal

Starring:  Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers, Hunter von Leer, Lance Guest, Nancy Stephens, John Zenda, Leo Rossi, Gloria Gifford, Pamela Susan Shoop, Cliff Emmich, Ford Rainey, Lucille Benson, Nancy Loomis, Dick Warlock

Screenplay:  John Carpenter and Debra Hill

 

 

Synopsis:  Rushing to the rescue of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) fires six shots into her assailant, Michael Myers (Dick Warlock), sending him plunging from the second-storey balcony of the house. However, when he goes to inspect the body, Loomis finds nothing but a bloody imprint upon the lawn… While its occupants are distracted by a news bulletin, someone enters a house. When Mrs Elrod (Lucille Benson) returns to the kitchen, she finds her knife missing and blood on her bench-top. Shortly afterwards, the young woman in the house next door discovers that she is not alone… At the Doyle house, Laurie is lifted into an ambulance by two paramedics, Budd (Leo Rossi) and Jimmy (Lance Guest) – the latter of whom has a crush on her. At the hospital, Dr Mixter (Ford Rainey) declares that Laurie’s shoulder wound requires stitching and, ignoring the girl’s pleas that she not be made to go to sleep, he orders her sedated. Meanwhile, Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) continue their search for Michael Myers. Loomis sees a masked figure and runs towards it, drawing his gun. The Sheriff must wrestle with Loomis to prevent him from firing. The figure crosses the street, only to be struck by a speeding police car, slammed into the side of a parked van, and incinerated as both vehicles explode. As Loomis and Brackett contemplate the horrifying scene, Deputy Gary Hunt (Hunter von Leer) comes running up with the tragic news that the dead bodies of three young people have just been discovered – and that one of them is the Sheriff’s own daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis). Having identified Annie’s body, the grief-stricken Brackett goes home to his wife, leaving Hunt in charge. Loomis insists that Michael Myers may still be alive, and asks that Hunt arrange for a dentist to meet him at the coroner’s office, where the incinerated body has been taken. Nearby, a second masked figure hears on a radio news report that Laurie has been taken to the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital; the figure heads in that direction. At the hospital, security guard Garret (Cliff Emmich) fails to notice that his monitors have picked up the approach of a shadowy figure in a mask. Garret releases the electronic doors to admit Nurse Karen Bailey (Pamela Susan Shoop), who is late for her shift, and is reprimanded for it by her supervisor, Mrs Alves (Gloria Gifford). Meanwhile, disturbed by the news reports of the three murders and by his partner’s callous reaction, Jimmy goes to visit Laurie. He tells her all that is known so far about the killings, including the name of her assailant. Laurie recognises the name “Myers”, but can only ask in a mystified tone – “Why me..?

Comments:  Even as Halloween II opens with a replay of the climactic events of its predecessor, I thought it might be not inappropriate to open this review with an observation made during the final section of my review of Halloween:

“What is truly startling when watching the film these days is how patently its open ending was not intended to set up a sequel, but rather, merely to leave the audience with the uncomfortable feeling that ‘the evil’ was still out there.”

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And in spite of what history has given us, and in spite, too, of John Carpenter’s cryptic on-set remark to Donald Pleasence, “Would you believe Halloween II?”, I still believe that initially there was no real intention in anyone’s mind of producing a sequel to Halloween. Let’s not forget that twenty-five years ago, the film industry was a very different place. It had not yet degenerated to the point where even a very minor degree of financial success is deemed sufficient to justify the production of a sequel; where films are expected to end with a sequel-set up, instead of just ending; or where, in certain cases, sequels are put into production before their forerunners are even released.

Prior to October of 1978, I don’t think anyone would truly have contemplated the making of a Halloween II. For one thing, whatever John Carpenter may have said at the time, there is no way that even in his very wildest dreams, the writer-director could have envisioned the magnitude of his little independent film’s ultimate success.

More importantly, however, Carpenter knew very well that although “the evil was still out there”, the story of Michael Myers was over – done with – told. There was no call for a sequel to Halloween, because there was nowhere left for such a film to go. And so things stood for another three years.

In the meantime, the world of the horror film was undergoing a profound – and profoundly depressing – revolution. Halloween’s success sent low-budget film-makers into a frenzy; and one of them, Sean S. Cunningham, hit upon a formula that could generate a maximum of profit with a minimum of effort and ability. With its brutal simplicity, its general disinterest in story and character, and its unapologetic emphasis upon the bloody details of human death, Friday The 13th is, in essence, Halloween stripped to the very bone; and it proved to be a watershed in the evolution of the horror movie.

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When John Carpenter and Debra Hill finally gave in to the various pressures being exerted upon them and began production of Halloween II, they found themselves working in a very altered cinematic atmosphere. And in response, the two of them made a critical decision: not to challenge that atmosphere, but to become a part of it.

Of course, the tragedy is that we will never know whether that decision was right or wrong. Perhaps a Halloween II made in the spirit of the original could have held its own against its savage competition; perhaps it could even have helped stem the flood of Friday The 13th imitations; or perhaps Carpenter and Hill were entirely right, and the movie world no longer held a place for a simple fright-film like Halloween. Their sequel, when it appeared, was expressly designed to compete in the increasingly bloodthirsty marketplace of the early nineteen-eighties. Halloween is a horror movie; Halloween II, in contrast, is a slasher movie.

Now, I want to be quite clear about something: when I use expressions like “horror movie” and “slasher movie”, I am doing so not as a form of judgement, but merely as a form of classification. I, for one, don’t considered the expression “horror movie” to be a derogatory term; and in fact, few things tick me off more than film-makers who do verbal somersaults in order to avoid calling their works “horror movies”, even if that’s clearly what they are. Furthermore, I don’t consider the expression “slasher movie” to be derogatory, either. I do, however, use it to convey that a film has certain characteristics.

Thus, the moment that John Carpenter and Debra Hill made the—well, I hesitate to use the phrase “artistic choice”; “commercial choice” is more like it—anyway, the choice to make their sequel a slasher movie, certain aspects of Halloween II were guaranteed: a sharp rise in the body count, for one; the concomitant introduction of a myriad of minor characters who have no purpose but to die, for another; and perhaps most of all, the ever-increasing extravagance of the manner of those deaths.

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In this we have a manifestation of what I would consider another slasher movie “given” on display in Halloween II,  its overall attitude. Horror movies are, of course, perverse little beasts. As any fan of the genre could tell you – and as non-fans usually fail to understand – there can be a world of difference between the content of such a film, and its tone. It is quite possible for a film to scrub the entire human race and yet remain an essentially good-natured work; while conversely, there are films in which no-one dies, and yet leave the viewer feeling in urgent need of a rub-down with a strong disinfectant.

The disparity in attitude between Halloween and Halloween II could scarcely be greater. The former, in spite of its dead teens, is basically a fun little exercise in fright and suspense; the latter, one of the most mean-spirited slasher movies of my admittedly limited experience. Indeed, the film as a whole seems infected with the resentment and negativity with which Carpenter and Hill undertook the project.

The fact that the events of Halloween and Halloween II are supposed to happen consecutively only serves to  emphasise this shift. Nothing in the sequel feels quite right; nothing is quite the same. Above all, I think, Michael has changed. Dick Warlock’s performance is quite different from Nick Castle’s: his Michael feels older, and angrier, and somehow—I don’t know if this quite conveys what I’m trying to say—more solid than Castle’s Michael. Between films we have lost both the sense that Michael is a child in a man’s body, and that elusive, dark-fairy-tale quality about his behaviour. He is no longer The Shape, but merely a psychopath. The later film’s reproduction of two of the original’s most justly celebrated moments, Michael’s head-tilt and his fade-in out of the darkness, makes the change painfully apparent.

Hand-in-hand with this altered conception goes the shift in the kill-scenes. Halloween‘s Michael was content to strangle and stab, resorting to the murder methods most readily to hand; but here, although stabbing and strangulation are still on display, there is also a rapid escalation through scalpel and hammer and syringe, to the outlandishness of death-by-hot-tub and exsanguination.

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For conceptual absurdity, I’m not sure the film exceeds the extreme neatness with which the draining IV has been inserted in Mrs Alves’ arm; while for sheer nastiness, nothing beats the hot-tub boiling of Karen Bailey. This sequence is truly ugly, with long, loving shots of Ms Karen’s hideously blistered face interspersed with equally loving shots of her bare breasts—which, by the way, shouldn’t be bare: when Michael enters the room, her towel is beneath her arms; when he grabs her, it’s mysteriously around her waist. Also disturbing here is Michael caressing Karen before he gets to work, another action at variance with the child-man concept of the first film.

But there are two other moments that serve even better to highlight how far off the rails Halloween II has run. One is the fiery demise of the unfortunate Ben Tramer, which is everything that the death scenes in the original Halloween were not: contrived, grotesque, and needlessly cruel; similarly, the lingering close-ups of Ben’s incinerated corpse are only there for their gross-out value. The best that can be said for this interlude is that it serves a purpose, of sorts, in both temporarily diverting Sam Loomis from his pursuit of the real Michael, and in illustrating, in its lead-up, just how unhinged his non-fatal encounter with his quarry has left the good doctor.

But even this pales besides the touch that for me, sums up in a single shot everything that is wrong with Halloween II: a close-up of a small boy who has a razor blade embedded bloodily in his mouth.

While I know there are such incidents on record, surely much of the horror of Halloween has its basis in the fact that Haddonfield is the kind of place where that sort of thing wouldn’t happen? Be that as it may, in a film that offers no less than ten freakish and bloody deaths, this intrusion of real-world horror is completely gratuitous.

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But even aside from these scenes – and granting that my reaction to them is largely a matter of taste – Halloween II has a number of serious problems. One of the things about this film that annoys a great many people intensely is that it commits the prime sequel-sin of re-writing its predecessor.

The whole point of Halloween is, after all, that its events have no point. There is no real motive for what Michael Myers does. Laurie and her friends are targeted not because of anything they do, or anything they are, but simply because Laurie happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this works wonderfully, both because the very randomness of it is frightening, and because we know only too well that this is often the way things happen in real life. Laurie Strode’s plaintive, “Why me?” is a question that never should have been answered.

But the beautiful simplicity of Halloween has since been retrospectively tainted, by its sequel’s insistence that Michael’s pursuit of Laurie is motivated by the fact that she is actually his sister, who was adopted in early childhood by the Strodes, and whose origins were kept a strict secret from everyone, including Sam Loomis – and Laurie herself.

There is, truly, no way to quantify the sheer wrong-headedness of this idea—which I can readily believe was the result, as John Carpenter claims, of an attempt to overcome terminal writer’s block with the help of a six-pack or two.

(While it is customary to talk about the influence of Friday The 13th upon Halloween II, I can’t help wondering whether Friday The 13th Part 2, which was released early in 1981, wasn’t just as influential. John Carpenter may well have thought that if horror fans were prepared to swallow that film’s 180-degree about-face, they’d swallow anything.)

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And in fact, this particular “twist” does just as much damage to Halloween II itself as it does to the original film. The shadowy characterisation of Michael in the first film – and the fact that we get much of that characterisation via the obviously unbalanced Dr Loomis – allows his actions to pass without attracting too much critical scrutiny; but once they start broadening Michael’s background, he becomes too concrete, and just too much of a contradiction. Either Michael is an essentially supernatural entity, “the Boogeyman”, or he is Judith Myers’ psychotic and sexually outraged younger brother—but not both at once, surely?

And if it is as the latter that he is stalking Laurie Myers Strode specifically, how could he possibly have known that Laurie was his sister in the first place? And are we then to assume that the encounter of Laurie and Michael in Halloween was not random, was not simply a tragic coincidence? It is possible that Laurie coming to “the Myers house” – and by this time being Judith’s age – made Michael somehow confuse her in his mind with Judith; but the alternative interpretation which Halloween II now offers, that Michael came to Haddonfield looking for Laurie specifically, puts an untenable weight of contrivance upon that first “accidental” encounter.

Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that Michael’s body is “inhabited” by something, that he is indeed “both at once”—yet this does not satisfactorily account for his behaviour across the two films. The Michael who now goes out of his way to slaughter random strangers in grotesque ways and the Michael for whom his pursuit of Laurie was a perverse sort of game – the Michael who stalked Laurie, and toyed with her, and the Michael who (he thinks) stabs her savagely as she lies helpless in her hospital bed – are simply not the same—well, not person—let’s say “entity”.

But as thoroughly as I disagree with the question of Laurie Strode’s secret identity, at least I can see what might have put it into the film-makers’ heads, and where they were trying to go with it. What on earth, though, were they trying to achieve with the introduction of Samhain? – which, by the way, is a festival, not “the Lord of the Dead” (one associated with sacrifice, which you’d think would be sufficiently dark). It is somehow ludicrously fitting that it is this throwaway detail, this sign of desperation, that later film-makers would pick up and run with in the Halloween franchise.

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But there’s no excuse for the carelessness that mars the construction of Halloween II—and it wastes no time warning the audience what it’s in for, either, with two flagrant continuity errors in its opening sequence. Dr Loomis spends a considerable amount of time in the early section of the story wailing to anyone who will listen, “I shot him six times! Six times!” The good doctor underestimates himself: despite wielding a revolver, he actually shoots Michael seven times—thus precipitating his dramatic plunge off the balcony of the Doyle house, which happens at the front of the house, not, as it was in Halloween, the back!

Worse is to follow, with what looks like another continuity error, but isn’t. Michael’s first act upon shrugging off his bullet wounds is to invade a neighbouring house and steal a knife. The absence of the knife, and some shed blood, are discovered by an elderly housewife, who screams. This in turn is heard by the woman’s young female neighbour, who will shortly become the film’s first victim. And pointless as this killing is, this is not my objection to the scene. We first see the neighbour, Alice, as she is learning about the murders, first from a friend over the phone, then via a radio report.

The trouble is – the bodies haven’t been discovered yet. The actual discovery occurs simultaneously with the roasting of Ben Tramer; it is immediately subsequent to that event that Sheriff Brackett gets the dreadful news about his daughter.

(And a shout-out to Nancy Loomis for being good sport enough to return for a cameo as Annie’s dead body!)

It is fairly obvious that the stealing of the knife, and the killing of Alice, were initially intended to occur later in the film – probably after Michael hears about Laurie being in the hospital – and that the scenes were transposed into the opening sequence during post-production. The question is, why?

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My guess is that it was done to get the film’s body count kick-started. Compare this approach with that of Halloween itself, which was confident enough simply to tell its story. There was no perceived need to throw in some meaningless violence to spice things up; and consequently, after the discreetly-staged shocks of the opening sequence, there is a considerable passage of time before the first onscreen killing, which does not occur until about halfway through—when it is dramatically valid. Halloween II, on the other hand, has no real story; it has only dead human beings to offer the viewer, and so naturally wants to get down to business as quickly as possible. The film concedes its own hollowness by trying to keep the viewer’s attention via a smorgasbord of improbable kills.

And I haven’t even touched upon the film’s single biggest idiocy – well, second biggest, after Samhain: the world’s darkest, emptiest, most under-staffed hospital! Even the people who like Halloween II, and manage to overlook what I consider to be its flaws and shortcomings, usually have a tough time swallowing the Haddonfield Memorial Clinic, which seems to have no patients at all beside Laurie Strode – except for a nursery full of newborns, and even they don’t seem to have parents.

It’s the kind of hospital where the lights don’t work, the phones are out of order, the doctors (both of them) are either drunk or dozing in front of the television, and where nurses figure that if they leave a door open, they’ll be able to hear any (non-existent) patient who calls for help while they’re romping naked in the hydrotherapeutic hot tub with their sleazy paramedic boyfriends. Puh-leese!

Theoretically, I agree that a hospital is a fabulous setting for a horror film. Who isn’t, deep down, scared of hospitals? But to make the setting work, you have to get around the fact that hospitals never truly shut down; that they are lit, and populated, and busy at all hours of the night and day. Typically, Halloween II doesn’t even try.

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Now – I’ve said that I consider Halloween II to be a slasher movie. I should reiterate that I have no blanket objection to the genre, even if in some cases I have very real objections to some of their specifics. I also concede that most slashers, though they may not work for me overall, generally offer up something to make them worthwhile; and so it is here. The one thing that I truly like about this film is the contribution of Donald Pleasence. Melodramatic? Yes. Over the top? Absolutely! But, dammit, it’s also fun!

The one positive aspect of the screenplay of Halloween II is the number of quotable lines it serves up for Sam Loomis, and what Pleasence manages to wring out of them (“You don’t know what death is!”). Like many British actors, the man was simply a pleasure to listen to. His work in Halloween II is, to me, rather reminiscent of that of Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch: dubious films, both, but close your eyes and open your ears and they very nearly work.

In fact, Pleasence’s verbal performance is so engaging, he almost manages to sell that idiotic “Samhain” speech (mispronunciation and all). I like that Halloween II puts so much emphasis upon Loomis as a character, and that at the end, he gets to be a hero. Pity that another bunch of sequels had to come along and spoil it.

(I also really, really hope that the hospital operating theatres are nowhere near the nursery…)

But this change of focus to Sam Loomis means, of course, a movement away from somewhere else – which brings us to the problematical contribution to the proceedings of Laurie Strode herself. Emotionally drained by the horrifying events of earlier in the evening, and pumped full of drugs despite her pleas not to be sedated (and I’m sure that the sloppy needle-sticking in this scene is, for some people, the most horrifying thing in the film!), Laurie is the most passive of heroines, and spends most of the film just lying around waiting to be attacked.

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The only real moment of character continuity is when, despite her sedation, it is Laurie, not the hospital staff, who reacts to the fact that there’s something wrong with the phones. But while she does finally manage to drag herself out of bed, and to play a crucial role in the film’s climax, for about three-quarters of the film Laurie might as well not be there at all. After the energy and commitment of Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance in Halloween, this is a bitter let-down.

And even when Laurie does rise to the occasion, the staging is botched: one moment she’s catatonic after suffering a reaction to her medication, the next she’s limping down the corridor with Michael in pursuit.

(And, oh! – that wig!)

Being predominantly a body-count film, Halloween II doesn’t provide its supporting cast with many opportunities for actual acting, but a couple of good performances manage to sneak through anyway. Charles Cyphers’ reprisal of Sheriff Brackett is sound, and his retirement from the proceedings after the discovery of Annie’s body rather moving. I also like Hunter von Leer’s contribution as Deputy Hunt, a man swiftly realising that he is way out of his professional depth but doing his best nevertheless.

Nancy Stephens’ return as Marion Chambers is welcome; Gloria Gifford is convincingly authoritative as Mrs Alves; and John Zenda offers a nice turn as the Marshall with the unenviable job of removing Sam Loomis from Haddonfield – and who makes the fatal error of assuming that a psycho killer is dead just because he should be…

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The decision to have Halloween II pick up exactly where Halloween left off turned out to be a double-edged sword. The return of the major players and the immediate continuation of Laurie’s story ensured the audience’s initial emotional investment in the project, even as its change of thematic direction risked provoking alienation and anger. But whatever its failings (real or perceived) in this respect, one point of continuity gives Halloween II a genuine touch of class. This film’s outstanding virtue is Dean Cundey’s cinematography: it looks fabulous, probably better than it has any right to.

The opening sequence, documenting the pursuit of Michael through the dark streets of Haddonfield by Loomis and the Sheriff, as trick-or-treaters continue to go about their business, is full of atmosphere – as are the climactic scenes at the hospital. The shadowy corridors of Haddonfield Memorial might be ridiculous in practical terms, but Cundey wrings the maximum amount of eeriness out of them. Everything about the film’s closing scenes is geared towards exploiting the fear and paranoia of the viewer.

Otherwise, Halloween II is, technically, a mixed bag. John Carpenter’s seminal score from Halloween itself makes a reappearance, but it’s been souped-up electronically, and isn’t so effective.

(Speaking of which— “Mr Sandman”!? What was that about? Now, “Enter Sandman”, possibly…)

The actual direction of Halloween II is a real point of contention. It is evident that for the most part, Rick Rosenthal tried to duplicate the visual style of the original film; he probably thought it was the most artistically valid thing to do. How angry and frustrated he must have been, then, to have John Carpenter declare that it wouldn’t do, and to re-shoot chunks of the film himself! – particularly after, supposedly, Rosenthal was hired because he and Carpenter were “philosophically compatible”.

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Nevertheless, despite the re-takes, and the gruesomely emphasised murders, there are some effective visuals here—like Michael “weeping” tears of blood during the film’s climax. However, this time around I would nominate as the best touch the scene in which Mrs Alves is reprimanding Karen Bailey for being late: it takes place near the hospital’s nursery, and with the two women well fore-grounded – so much so, you nearly don’t notice that Michael is inside the nursery. It’s a beautiful, eerie moment – and then Rosenthal all but ruins it by cutting to Michael’s point of view.

And this brings me to the one thing above all else that struck me most forcibly upon this viewing of Halloween II: not just its shift in attitude, but its shift in perspective.

Though I’ve spent considerable time dwelling on the conceptual and artistic differences between Halloween and Halloween II, perhaps the most fundamental, and damaging, difference between the original film and its sequel is that “the evil” is no longer something outside the characters – and by extension, us. Whereas the story of Halloween is told primarily from the viewpoints of Sam Loomis and Laurie Strode, the former as he pursues that “evil”, the latter as she becomes aware of it, in Halloween II, large stretches of the action are seen exclusively through Michael’s eyes.

Though I disagree with the contention of some critics that the killer’s POV shot in films such as these is intended to encourage the viewer to identify with the killer – that is, to side with the killer against the victims – I do agree that such a choice alters the emotional landscape of the film by creating a distancing effect.

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In Halloween, John Carpenter allows us to know Laurie, Annie and Lynda before Michael sets to work; he wants us to be affected by the violence that follows. But when a kill-scene is its own justification, the last thing a film-maker is likely to want is a connection between viewer and victim. The transference of perspective from that of the victims to that of the killer, the parallel movement from a limited number of believable characters in the original film to a collection of expendable non-entities in the sequel, places Halloween II firmly on the darker side of horror’s philosophical divide.

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4 Responses to Halloween II (1981)

  1. therevdd says:

    Very nice piece. I can’t compare notes with you as I haven’t seen this, or indeed most of the series. Other than the first I’ve only seen H20, which was okay, and Resurrection, which I ended up enjoying more than I expected (to damn with faint praise), no doubt due to everyone saying how godawful it was. That especially surprised me considering how pissed off I was at the opening act.

    And, of course, I’ll soon be seeing the third one… 🙂

    Like

    • lyzmadness says:

      Thank you! I find this a very unpleasant film, so I’m not going to encourage you to see it particularly. Unlike the third one, which is completely bonkers. 😀

      Like

  2. Dirck says:

    I’ve seen this one a couple of times, and I was only consciously aware of about half the things that bugged me about it. You’ve illuminated the whole unhappy nest, and I can now say, “No, let’s not watch that” with a proper arsenal of reasons– thanks for the grand review.

    There is one thing, though: “…Laurie is the most passive of heroines, and spends most of the film just lying around waiting to be attacked.” How is this particularly different from Walter Scott’s eponymous hero in Ivanhoe? That’s a grand literary tradition, that is– protagonists flat on their backs, waiting for the cue to lurch into action! 😉

    Like

    • lyzmadness says:

      Thank you. 🙂

      Yes, I’ve had the same experience, of feeling, “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” but not being able to put my finger on it. Watching them close together and critically this time made the shift in Michael really apparent, and everything else flows from that.

      Laurie = Ivanhoe, Dr Loomis = Rebecca? Works for me!

      Like

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