Let’s get one thing straight — Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is not great moviemaking. Hell, for the bulk of its 85 minutes, it’s not even very good moviemaking.
But H20 has two things going for it. One of them is a powerhouse performance by one of the great icons of contemporary horror film, Jamie Lee Curtis. And the other is the wordless presence of the bulky, bemasked heavy known as Michael Meyers.
John Carpenter’s Halloween suggested, more forcefully than any movie since The Exorcist, that unspeakable evil was lurking in the dark corners of the American suburbs. But while The Exorcist finally put the Catholic Church in control of unspeakable evil, suggesting that there was life after demonic possession after all, Carpenter’s film refused that reassurance. Few movies end on such a disquieting note as Halloween, with Donald Pleasance searching the darkness for evil embodied, but losing Michael Meyers to the shadows.
So the smartest thing about H20 is that it has a singular, humbling reverence for the original Halloween, the horror-movie equivalent to an enduring campfire tale. The film opens with a so-so preface that dispatches a handful of characters in low-grade slasher style, which may be a cut-rate reference to the phenomenally successful Scream movies. The director is the old horror hack Steve Miner, who helmed installments two and three in the Friday the 13th slasher cycle before finding respectability as a director of TV fare. His camera moves ape those of Carpenter, including the choice of the widescreen frame, but his eye is nowhere near as sophisticated. The original Halloween was a film of uncomfortable situations that were underlined by striking, disturbing imagery. The 1998 model is a pokey lead-up to a balls-out deathmatch that draws its stylistics from recent action movies as much as from horror film.
In the opening credit sequence, H20 establishes what it’s really about, showing us news clippings that recount the story of the first two films and running snippets of dialogue from those films on the soundtrack. Like the underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, H20 is about resurrecting a demon from the past in order to put it down for good.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the haunted one, the former babysitter so memorably terrorized in the first film in the series (and, to a less memorable extent, in the second). In H20, she’s changed her name, changed her identity, and become the headmistress of a private boarding school. Nice idea for a slasher film — Laurie is charged with protecting exactly the sort of teenage flesh that tempts these ageless, deathless slashers. She’s got a drinking problem that has its roots in her trauma. She’s also got a teenaged son, who’s getting fed up with her zealous protectiveness. It’s when she finally starts to ease up on her obsession that Michael Meyers crashes back into her world, threatening not just her life, but also the life of her son. Reprising the role she long ago left behind, Curtis turns in a very strong, utterly credible performance that will, if there’s a god, close the door on one of the most overextended franchises in contemporary horror film.
In the slow, mostly somber expository scenes, H20 treats the Strode character more carefully than you might expect, which is to its credit. But it also makes the mistake that the Scream movies avoided so effectively — it thinks that teenagers are boring. Four of the students, two boys and two girls (including Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams), scheme to stay home from a planned trip to Yosemite National Park for an evening of sex and alcohol somewhere on the deserted campus. While the actors are appealing enough, this time-honored slasher film device falls flat because, in time-honored slasher film fashion, the characters are too interchangeably vanilla to be worth caring about.
Of course, the point of Miner’s Friday the 13th films wasn’t so much the cat-and-mouse games that they played with young, dumb teenage victims as the payoff — a gruesome, usually imaginative and occasionally spectacular make-up effects showpiece. (I still remember a showstopping scene in Friday the 13th Part 3 where a kid was literally ripped in half, cleaved into two pieces by Jason’s machete, and I know that the MPAA would never allow that to happen in today’s horror movies.) Looking back at Halloween, which has a reputation for inaugurating the whole slasher movies cycle, the big surprise is how little gore was involved. Halloween is a very violent film, but the violence is conveyed in the staging and editing of each murder scene, as well as in the gruesome tableaux that a malevolent Michael leaves behind. The Friday the 13th films, by contrast, were very gory, but hardly seemed violent at all. (They weren’t very good, either, but that’s another story.)
The murders in H20 might have benefited from a little more gore. Miner directs them in a casual, color-by-numbers fashion, like he’s making one of those Gap commercials where he’ll declare at the end, “This is too easy.” They’re anything but scary, and I didn’t even find them menacing. But the film rachets up little by little in preparation for the final showdown between stalker and stalkee. And from the moment when Laurie Strode finally locks eyes with her long-lost brother (the shot reminded me of those scenes in the Alien movies when Ripley comes face-to-face with the creatures), H20 becomes the hardest-working film of the year.
Particularly effective is the moment when Laurie decides not to make an easy exit from the scene. Instead, she blocks off the only egress and finds herself a big axe. The camera cranes overhead and an orchestral version of the electronic Halloween theme swells on the soundtrack as she strides back into the darkness, crying shrilly, at the top of her lungs, Michael! Michael! All the conversation earlier in the film about Laurie’s need to confront her demons is here given specific cinematic form, and it raised my gooseflesh. Evoking a sense of destiny and finality that harks back to the beginning of a 20-year-old nightmare, horror fans may well find it to be one of the most stirring scenes of the year.
Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Robert Zappia & Matt Greenberg and Kevin Williamson
Cinematography by Daryn Okada
Edited by Patrick Lussier
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1