Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later
Dir. Steve Miner
With a new name and life in California, Laurie Strode still can’t escape the ghosts of her past and is haunted by the memories of her bloody ordeal 20 years ago, when her deranged brother Michael Myers tried to kill her. Working as the prim headmistress of an exclusive boarding school, she spends her days ostracising her son John, and her nights swigging booze and tranquilizers in an effort to forget her traumatic past. Since she faked her own death and went into hiding to escape her maniacal brother, she lives in constant fear of him ever finding her.
It’s now Halloween 1998, and the waiting is finally over…
With the twentieth anniversary of John Carpenter’s classic slasher movie approaching, and Michael Myers AWOL amidst a dirge of increasingly poorly executed and cumbersome sequels involving druids, curses and constellations (oh my!), it was left to actress Jamie Lee Curtis to pitch the idea of an anniversary film to both Dimension Films and the director who launched her career, John Carpenter. With the success of Scream, which had explicitly referenced Halloween, the bar had been raised for horror films – particularly slasher films – and the time was right to reunite slasher cinema’s ultimate scream queen with one of its most enduring bogeymen for one final showdown. Initially intrigued by the prospect, Carpenter eventually washed his hands of getting involved with a franchise long out of his creative control. Producer Moustapha Akkad also balked at Carpenter’s asking price, so it was left to Dimension to source a new writer and director for the film. Enter Kevin Williamson, the man who singlehandedly redefined horror for a cine-literate generation. Acting as an executive producer, Scream scribe Williamson drafted a treatment eventually written by Matt Greenberg (The Prophecy II) and Robert Zappia in which Laurie Strode, now living with a new name (Kerri Tate) and life, must confront her traumatic past once more when her psychotic brother Michael Myers finally tracks her down.
To its credit, Halloween H20 essentially ignores all the sequels after Halloween II, which frees it up from the increasingly supernatural and ludicrous direction the series had been heading in since Part 5. It was mentioned in Part 4 that Laurie Strode had been killed in a car accident resulting in her daughter Jamie being adopted by the Carruthers. In H20 it is revealed that she faked her own death and went into hiding. No mention is made of Jamie – though in the initial draft of the screenplay, one of Laurie’s students working on a project about serial killers, details Michael Myers’ killing spree and several key points from the sequels, including Jamie’s death, thereby acknowledging the character and her role in the Halloween canon. This was eventually dropped in rewrites though in a move that while daring (and ensuring H20’s close association with the story told in the original film and its sequel), arguably a tad infuriating (I sat through Parts 4, 5 and 6 when I could have just skipped ‘em!?).
At the heart of the film is a fine performance from Jamie Lee Curtis as the long suffering Laurie Strode. Laurie was an admirable character and it was Curtis who bestowed her with such strength and relatability. While she is now a traumatised, paranoid, barely functioning alcoholic, Laurie still retains her resourcefulness and strength. By making her the focus of the story, Halloween H20 sidesteps the usual cliché of a slasher story revolving around teenagers. This is the story of a woman consumed by the darkness of her past, who has gone through hell in her youth and still bears the scars. That the protagonist is a nervous, booze-swilling, pill-popping, bordering-on-domineering mother is one of the film’s most refreshing aspects. We can understand her torment though, and it adds to the overall satisfaction of the story to see Laurie regain her strength as time goes on and finally make a crowd pleasing stand against her homicidal sibling. Curtis had championed H20 from the beginning and felt it was of the utmost importance that Laurie finally confronts Myers after years of hiding from him.When she does, it is worth the wait.
Okay so there are some teen characters here too (well, Laurie is the headmistress of a boarding school after all), but they’re fairly inoffensive as they go about their mundane routines – oblivious to the peril they’ll soon find themselves in. Much like Scream, the younger cast members are all harvested from hip TV shows, including Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett and Joseph Gordon Levitt. Molly (Michelle Williams) would have been the 'final girl' in any other film as she is the only one to show any sort of gutsiness and resourcefulness, aside from Laurie, when looking danger in the face. The school’s counsellor (Adam Arkin) and security guard (LL Cool J) round off the minimal cast.
Director Steve Miner was no stranger to the horror genre having already helmed titles such as Friday the 13th Part II and III, House and Warlock. Miner adopts the same slow-burn approach Carpenter utilised so masterfully in Halloween. For lengthy periods of time, nothing happens onscreen, but the sense of impending doom is effectively realised. In taking the time to establish characters and create a suitably menacing atmosphere, he ensures H20 is an involving, taut and compelling film. Unlike the sequels, H20 takes its time getting to the bloody mayhem and Miner knows all too well that it’s the anticipation of violence, not violence itself, which is key to creating tension and chills. In terms of look, tone and atmosphere, H20 resembles Halloween more closely than any of the sequels that came before it. Miner also uses the original Panavision widescreen format that Carpenter deployed in his film which establishes a visual echo. While he relies a little too heavily on jump scares – usually false alarms at that - Miner also manages to create several stand-out sequences that rely on moody suspense and the crafty subversion of audience expectations – namely the opening scene in which Loomis’ nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens reprising her role from the first two films) does everything right (gets the hell out of there, calls the cops and seeks safety in numbers) and still winds up dead, a mother and her daughter’s creepy encounter at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere and an edge of the seat chase scene involving a dumb-waiter…
That the film is pretty self-referential comes as no surprise. It openly acknowledges a dept not only to the original Halloween, but also to Psycho and, as it came in its wake, Scream. It is worth noting that Carpenter’s original was also pretty playful on a reflexive level, and director Miner is as careful not to overdo the knowingness, thus never risking the suspense he so carefully constructs. A number of memorable moments and shots from Carpenter’s original are effectively recreated here without seeming overly parodical or in-your-face. Amongst the more obvious nods to Psycho include a wonderful cameo from the original slasher victim Janet Leigh – Curtis’s mother - as the school secretary Norma (complete with offering ‘maternal’ advice to Laurie, the car her character drove in Psycho and the faintest swelling of Bernard Herrmann’s famous score accompanying her departure) and the unhealthy relationship Laurie has with her son John, which stems from her over protectiveness of him.
By going back to basics with a minimal cast, limited locations, pared down script, loads of menace and tension, H20 has everything that made the original so memorable. That it also features Jamie Lee Curtis in a story really worth revisiting in the form of Laurie Strode’s victimisation, struggle with her past and determination to confront it once and for all, is the jewel in the crown.
Halloween H20 is an uncommon thing – a decent sequel that, while honouring the original film it follows on from, has a story of its own to tell, too.