[ONE MORE SCARE] REFLECTING ON HALLOWEEN H20 (1998): TWENTY YEARS LATER

 

 

When I was a younger horror fan, I was afflicted with sequel stigma. You know, the ridiculous stigma that the sequels could never be as good as the original? My uncle, my gateway to horror films, would walk through the Video Express with me – “No, see, the first three are great, but the rest suck.” See also: remake stigma. I’ve since grown out of this train of thought, as most rational horror fans do, discovering that just because FRIDAY THE 13TH is the first in its line, doesn’t mean there’s a sequel that does it better (SPOILER: It’s not the best one). In some cases, though, this is true. No sequel to John Carpenter’s majestic HALLOWEEN could ever achieve what he managed to pull off with a suburban neighborhood, talented actors, a spray-painted Shatner mask and a generously small budget – but they certainly tried to. Even its sequel, the 1981 hospital horror, HALLOWEEN II somehow managed to retain its gritty, independent spirit despite being made by a major studio, Universal. After HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, the franchise left its home at Universal, went back out into the independent wild – in this case, Salt Lake City, shepherded by Moustapha Akkad and knocking out three sequels that alternated in quality, before finding a new, seemingly inescapable home at Miramax’s DTV destination for horror, Dimension Films (no, not that one). While Dimension’s first entry to the franchise, HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS still retained the garage band energy of the other films, their next entry, HALLOWEEN: H20 felt like the original lineup returning to the stage to show the newcomers just how it was done, namely by bringing original star Jamie Lee Curtis back to the fold. Curtis’ prestige drew a murderer’s row of talent like Adam Arkin and even her mother Janet Leigh (working with her daughter again after THE FOG), ensuring that any stigmas towards later sequels would all be extinguished. Adding the hip new talent like Michelle Williams, Josh Harnett, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Adam Hann-Byrd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and LL Cool J would just give Dimension a way to draw the young audiences in as well.

 

 

Jamie Lee Curtis’ return to the franchise was a cause for celebration in many ways. She hadn’t been involved in a HALLOWEEN film since SEASON OF THE WITCH (albeit a voice-over) and hadn’t physically been in one since HALLOWEEN II. So, to see her return to the franchise that made her a star was reason enough for a horror fan to perk up their ears and pay attention, especially considering it was the seventh film in the franchise, a time when most franchises had run out of gas and were sputtering towards the finish line on fumes. This would be a creative spark to ignite interests in a seemingly dead franchise. It would allow for the audience and the creative talents behind the camera to explore the psychological scars that Michael Myers caused his prey all those years ago. One imagines this was the lure that drew Curtis reprise her role as Laurie Strode. Rare is the slasher film that follows up the trauma of the final girl. Most of the time, they’re dead in the beginning of the sequel. The writers and Curtis imbue Laurie with just the right amount of trauma to effectively sell the damage that Michael Myers caused. She’s surly, she drinks, and she battles with her son but has her shit together, just enough, to show that on the surface she’s managing to work as the headmistress of a posh school and hold on to something resembling a relationship. That’s the key to exploring trauma victims in the filmic medium. Don’t show that it’s all wine and roses, nor are they going to be the most sympathetic character. They shouldn’t be, because they experienced a horrific thing in their lives. This invariably leads us down the path that trauma victims bury their shame leading them to hide happened to them. Laurie’s secret life is known to her son, and her husband but heretofore unknown to her beau, Will (a game Adam Arkin) – she’s never told him her real story, her real name. The way she reveals it is almost like pulling off a Band-Aid. “One, two … here we go!” The way Curtis plays Laurie’s haunted reluctance to own up to her past; to make it real is masterful:

 

 

She faked her death… and, now, she’s the head mistress of a very posh, secluded private school in Northern California … hoping and praying every year… that her brother won’t find her.”

 

 

I dearly wished they would’ve explored Laurie’s relationship with Will a little further, or his past or even Laurie’s past with her husband because there’s a neat wrinkle to how trauma survivors live in relationships. The horrors of how spouses will respond to victims’ past traumas is a truly scary thing and perhaps giving Will something similar would’ve cemented the foundations of their relationship a little stronger. When he’s killed (in a nice homage to HALLOWEEN II), she doesn’t mourn his loss, he’s merely another body on the pile that’s finally given Laurie enough courage to face her past once and for all. Also, for a film so intent on connecting to the past through references and homages, they leave out Laurie’s daughter, Jamie. I’m not ragging on it from a pure continuity/canon place, mind you. I’ve got no problems with ignoring certain elements of a franchise’s history – like how 2018’s HALLOWEEN is doing. But this is an egregious oversight especially considering that a) Dimension produced the previous sequel and that featured her daughter in a prominent, and icky role a b) it would’ve hammered home all the loss that she’s encountered over these past twenty years. I know they had it written into the script that the Haddonfield Murders would’ve been covered, but its absence does more harm, because the biggest unexplored avenue of guilt is the fact that Laurie left her daughter, one who ended up dead at the hands of the very man she’s running from and that she has to live with that every day of her life.

 

 

The dialogue could be a little grating on the ears (really, you tell your girlfriend that her sister getting murdered is “sucky?”), particularly in regards to the coitus obsessed teens, Charlie and Sarah but there’s still some nicely biting dialogue courtesy of Josh Harnett’s John Strode – “Oh, we’ve got a psychotic serial killer in the family who loves to butcher people on Halloween, and I just thought it in bad taste to celebrate,” that feels like remnants of Kevin Williamson’s part in the script more so than the credited screenwriters, his treatment seems to have been the only thing left in the final product. Though looking at what Williamson’s treatment apparently involved – it felt like the best and worst of both worlds. It had the stuff involving Laurie’s daughter, but featured an action packed climax that sounds like the ending of a big-budget action movie, not a modest horror film. A downed helicopter does not belong in the world of The Shape, sir. I also enjoy the harmless little subplot with LL Cool J as an aspiring romance novelist and his cheeky off-screen wife. As much shit as LL Cool J gets for this film, he acts circles around Mr. Rhymes in the next sequel. I wish the film had been a little longer, there are quite a few avenues they could’ve explored, and though the body count nicely reflects the original films’ – they could’ve bloodied up the show a little. Also, the Creed song is mighty enjoyable!

 

 

I will admit I love the little references peppered throughout, especially since they feel less like greatest hits fan service and more like meaningful echoes of the past   – like bringing back Loomis’ nurse pal and caretaker, Marion Whittington, née Chambers, for a perfectly, tense seasonally appropriate opening sequence (when Marion waves her flashlight over Loomis’ photo and the snippet of Carpenter’s score kicks in, I get chills). Or having the detectives call Haddonfield … just in case Myers decides to show up, a small thing that feels like an appropriate adjustment for the modern age. Elsewhere, you get PSYCHO references, similar to the original film both visually (yeah, it’s obvious, but Janet Leigh walking to Marion Crane’s car with the PSYCHO score buzzing in the background is cool) and in dialogue: “twenty years from now, you’re still gonna be living with her, probably running some weird motel, out in the middle of nowhere.” Throw in the “one good scare” line and the “go down the street to the McKenzie’s” (a line itself referenced in SCREAM and obnoxiously renamed to reference that film) and of course, “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes (it would have been more meaningful to have “Don’t Fear the Reaper” playing on Laurie’s radio when she goes to town after lunch). I would however like to address the complaints about SCREAM 2 showing up in the film. Yes, I know it was probably the Weinsteins’ brutish, grotesque marching orders to make their franchises all swirl indiscriminately into one another on their quest to make all the old horror franchises as hip and fuckable as they wanted their real-life worlds to be (how these perverts could have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the horror genre, a genre that gave them their first glimmers of fame with THE BURNING, I’ll never comprehend. Fuck ‘em either way). And yes, I know that the original HALLOWEEN showed up in the original SCREAM, but the original HALLOWEEN showed up in SEASON OF THE WITCH and Jamie Lee Curtis was in both… so there.

 

 

The direction by Steve Miner fares well, after all he’s done some great under the radar genre work (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3-D, HOUSE, LAKE PLACID), but I wish we could’ve seen some of the wild camera work and scares that he pulled off when guiding Jason Voorhees in the 1980s. The roving camera at the start of the film, banking down the dark school halls is something I wish the film had more of. The scares come off a little flat, often Michael just stands behind someone unseen and then disappears. There could have been more variety to it, more a sense of Michael being around, even if we don’t see him. He practically doesn’t appear in the movie at all! In Carpenter’s original, Michael Myers hid in plain sight, jarring the viewers when the camera glimpsed him – think Annie in the kitchen. Hell, the maligned HALLOWEEN 5 has some all-timer stalking scenes (Jamie in the basement of the hospital or Rachel in the house). Now, in HALLOWEEN H20, it’s run around a corner – oh, fuck who’s that? This is disappointing considering that Miner directed one of the best jump-scares in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 – Ginny reaching for the window. That being said, the opening scene is pretty scary and as soon as Michael is finally at the school, the film moves along at a deft thrilling pace (unlike this article).  His collaboration with Patrick Lussier as editor gives the film some taut, suspenseful play, in particular, the opening kills, cutting from the cops investigating outside to Michael menacing Marion inside. I also love John Ottman’s orchestral score for HALLOWEEN H20, as it adds some flavor to the familiar tones in a way that Alan Howarth did with each incremental sequel. It also matches alright with Marco Beltrami’s score snippets though they feel a little too out of place and mostly serve to bog the film down into SCREAM-rip-off territory and comes off similarly to the way Harry Mandfredini and Fred Mollin’s work on FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE NEW BLOOD did.

 

 

The final act, where Michael and Laurie go toe to toe is wonderfully savage and satisfying, especially for people who have lived through a trauma similar to Laurie’s. It’s brutal, well-constructed cat and mouse stuff that still gives me chills (Michael hanging from the pole and silently lowering behind Laurie, only to get an axe in the chest). But the ending is beautiful. After Laurie crashes the coroner’s van, it rolling downhill and pinning Michael against a tree, we get Laurie having a moment of silent sincerity towards Michael. Her brother, a person related to her for her life, having nothing but violence in his heart towards her. To see this woman who has lived her adult life in fear of her brother, look to him with sadness in her heart is quite sorrowful. When Laurie reaches out to her brother, her small hand nearly touching his meaty, murderous mitts, you feel a pang of remorse. Jamie Lee Curtis is a woman who is so tall in the ways she carries herself, somehow makes Laurie feel small for an infinitesimal moment. Then, she cuts off his head (one last stinger from the Carpenter score vault) and breathes in the night air. Her fears finally vanquished and the nightmare finally over. I personally leapt back in shock seeing Michael Myers decapitated. They never did that to horror icons. There was always a door left open for them to come back. They ended it here. That was a pivotal moment for the franchise.

 

 

Except, not, it would seem, as they managed to fuck over this moment with HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (apparently the body switcheroo was planned for H20 by Akkad), effectively robbing Laurie of her beautiful redemptive moment and audiences of seeing Michael Myers finally ended once and for all. In removing Laurie’s triumph over her traumatizer, they robbed the impact of the victim’s agency over their attacker.  So, by the time, RESURRECTION rolls around, Laurie’s now killed by her attacker, her defining moment where she becomes victor instead of victim, cruelly torn away in the name of monetization, and she dies a pitiless, pitiful death. Not to mention, it nullifies the metaphor that H20 sets up, positing that Laurie’s (Dr. Frankenstein) reticence to confront her fears (Michael) will lead to her losing all her loved ones, a fact she’s hit with when Will (Elizabeth) dies at Michael’s hands towards the end of the film. But it also nullifies the theme of fate – that Laurie was always destined to kill Michael – something that’s been taught to her since their first fateful encounter in 1978.

 

 

In summation, fuck HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION and every single stupid moment about it. All the dumbass kung-fu moments with Busta Rhymes, the Michael-on-Michael action, Dangertainment, the internet messaging between a high schooler (?) and a college girl – goes nowhere for what it’s worth, the pretentious psychobabble, those guys that kidnapped the actress in the movie, Tyra Banks, the multiple endings, and most of all, for disrespecting the character of Laurie Strode.

 

 

Here we are – twenty years after the release of HALLOWEEN H20, a film I proudly saw opening weekend, August 6th, 1998 (right before I witnessed Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES). HALLOWEEN H20 was meant as an anniversary present for longtime fans of the franchise, and now forty years removed from Carpenter’s original, we’re getting another HALLOWEEN film with Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead and David Gordon Green at the helm. This film, as you’re all aware now, takes its own continuity lineage, removing II, RETURN, REVENGE, CURSE, H20 and RESURRECTION and taking its own path. I have no problem with this, as I’ve mentioned many, many times before.  What I lament is that we didn’t try this more with other horror franchises, like revisiting Tommy Jarvis in FRIDAY THE 13TH (okay they sort of did it with Kirsty in HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER), instead of creating a whole new continuity, pedaling against the current that’s already naturally there. Twenty years later, sequels are interesting when done right, and I wish we would’ve leaned into that more. In the meanwhile, I’ll light a candle for the first time Laurie Strode came back into our lives, but thankfully not the last time. Happy 20th, H20!

 

 

 

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Dallas-based writer of both films and of Internet goings-on. He's also in a movie on Netflix, but won't tell you the title, for fear of transmitting a RINGU-type curse into your home. He can be found on Twitter as @madmanmarz81.
Nathan Smith

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