Earlier this month when I reviewed HALLOWEEN II I wrote that it was “easily one of the best or the best HALLOWEEN sequel they made.” I was being a little cagey, saving it for today to reveal my opinion that the actual best sequel is 1998’s HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER. First I watched it again and verified that the verdict still stands now that we’re only a couple years away from being able to make HALLOWEEN H20-20: HALLOWEEN H20 TWENTY YEARS LATER. Also this time I learned that it plays even better when watched immediately after II.
It seems designed for that, because it begins with “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, the same thing that played as Laurie rode off in the ambulance at the end of II. Unlike the other sequels it leaves Loomis dead after blowing himself up with Michael (Donald Pleasance had passed away by this point anyway). But Laurie isn’t the only major character to survive II: there was also Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), Loomis’s nurse colleague. That’s who Michael comes after first.
Marion’s still working as a nurse, and still chain smoking. She comes home to her house in a different Illinois suburb besides Haddonfield and finds it broken into. The police take their sweet time coming, but two neighbor boys (one played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, SHADOWBOXER, KILLSHOT, LINCOLN) keep her company while she waits. I like that because in HALLOWEEN Laurie tried to run to a neighbor’s house for help and they turned off the lights and wouldn’t answer the door. Marion does have helpful neighbors, but things don’t turn out any better.
Of course this is the opening kill scene, but it’s also a strategic move by Michael, who ransacks Marion’s office, searches her files and leaves an empty one labeled “Laurie Strode,” signaling that he’s figured out the whereabouts of his sister (a triumphantly returning Jamie Lee Curtis), last survivor of the Halloween Murders. She’s in California, working as headmistress at a boarding school attended by her 17 year old son John (introducing Josh Hartnett) under the assumed name Kari Tate.
I forgive the corniness of Marion being obsessed with the past and having a wall covered in articles about the murders because it makes for a great opening credits montage/visual explanation of the backstory. And another little touch I like is that she’s referred to as Marion Whittington. In interviews with Stephens it sounds like she’s supposed to have changed her name like Laurie did, but since she stayed nearby and in the same profession that seems a little too Skywalkery. I prefer to think that she got married at some point, but since she’s alone and accustomed to the help of these neighbor boys that must’ve ended a long time ago, either in heartbreak or tragedy. Just the changed name tells us she’s been through some things since those Michael Myers days that still clearly haunt her.
Laurie has explicitly had that type of troubled past. That she lives a pretty good life anyway is a further act of Final Girl survival. She’s traumatized, overprotective and on edge about Halloween coming up, but she has lived through not just The Shape, but also a husband she describes as an “abusive, chain-smoking methadone addict,” and doing a good job of raising a son on her own (even when his dark Hartnetty eyes remind us that he’s related to The Boogie Man of Haddonfield).
She tries to let go of some of her fears, and for the first time reveals her traumatic past to her boyfriend, school counselor Will (Adam Arkin, Justified). But of course that nagging fear of hers was actually correct. Michael Myers is coming. It’s the night he came. To California.
We meet Laurie’s son, his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams, SPECIES) and their friends (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe and Adam Hann-Byrd), who all decide to stick around to enjoy the abandoned school while everybody else is on a trip to Yosemite. If you don’t want to see another slasher movie about teens you’ll be happy to see how quickly it zips through this part of the story. At a brisk 80 minutes H20 is very economical in setting things up and then literally cutting to the chase, with the surviving adults protecting the surviving kids as Michael comes after them.
Director Steve Miner and cinematographer Daryn Okada (PHANTASM II) came up with a good visual style, paying homage to Dean Cundey’s wide, gliding cameras. There’s no Michael Myers P.O.V. scene as in I and II, but we get a scene floating through Laurie’s office and into its closet, which dissolves into the famous closet attack scene from HALLOWEEN, and then into Laurie’s POV during what of course turns out to be a nightmare.
Miner was brought in by Curtis after Carpenter decided not to do it. She knew him from when she co-starred in FOREVER YOUNG in 1992, but he brought with him his meat and potatoes slasher movie chops, as demonstrated in my two favorite FRIDAY THE 13THs, parts 2 and 3D. He knows how to throw in those important beats – a knife just missing and sticking into wood, for example – that make a cat and mouse chase thrilling, and he stages many scary location based scenarios, like when Laurie crawls under a row of cafeteria tables and to taunt her Michael first walks over them, then walks along and casually flips them over. My favorite is when John and Molly are penned inside a small gated entrance, backed up against the door, the keys to which they dropped outside of the wrought iron gate, which Michael is reaching through, slashing around with his knife, just barely unable to reach them.
Setting the movie in a boarding school was a masterstroke, because it’s a perfect location both for character and for horror. Of course Laurie would want her son nearby, under her watch, even when he’s in school, inside a self-contained community with a gate and a security guard (LL Cool J, I should mention) keeping people out. But once everybody leaves for a field trip it transforms into a spooky place that we know is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods. It becomes a ghost town, eerily quiet, and startling when you come across one of the handful of people who are still inside. It also is perfect to become a contained area where Michael can cut the phone lines and chase Laurie through various buildings and obstacles with no one around to intervene.
In a way this is all designed to string together two great moments:
1) Laurie coming face-to-mask with Michael. After 20 years of hiding and worrying and hallucinating, she’s standing here looking him in the eye, only a circle of glass separating them. (The oh shit moment.)
2) Laurie getting John and Molly outside of the gate, telling them where to go to get help (just like she did Tommy and Lindsey when she was babysitting 20 years ago), then locking herself in, getting an ax and yelling “MICHAEL!” She could’ve gotten away, but then what? Fake her death again? Make up a new name again? No. She doesn’t want to run anymore. She wants to go get that fucker. (The oh shit it’s on moment.)
And from that point on it’s a series of fighting and chasing until Laurie takes that fucker out. I remember seeing this in the theater and being thrilled by the conclusion. It’s a good “That’ll do, pig” ending and perfect finale to the series.
The script is credited to Robert Zappia (Team Knight Rider) and Matt Greenberg (CHILDREN OF THE CORN III, PROPHECY II, REIGN OF FIRE, 1408, SEVENTH SON). Zappia came up with the boarding school location for a different script that was going to be DTV and not have Laurie in it. Meanwhile Curtis had been discussing a 20 year reunion movie with John Carpenter and Debra Hill, and continued with the idea even after they opted out, so Dimension had Zappia start over.
Though only credited as a co-executive producer, SCREAM writer Kevin Williamson is described on the Miner/Curtis commentary track as the writer of the movie. If so he didn’t bury it in postmodernism and references and shit, as his naysayers might’ve expected. There’s only one scene that I think overdoes it with the winks and nods. Laurie is frightened by her secretary, who says “Well, it’s Halloween, I guess everyone is entitled to one good scare,” a reference to the original HALLOWEEN, where Sheriff Brackett said almost the same thing to her. Then the secretary wants to give Laurie some “maternal” advice, a reference to the fact that we’re looking at the actress Janet Leigh acting with her real life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. Then she says that “We’ve all had bad things happen to us,” which is a nod to the fact that she is famous for playing a character who was killed by Norman Bates in PSYCHO. At the end of the scene she walks over to her car, which is the car from PSYCHO. And in case you didn’t get those two previous “she was in PSYCHO” nudges, the score quotes the theme from PSYCHO.
That doesn’t ruin the movie by any means. It’s cute. But that’s way too many layers of reference there. There’s also a scene where SCREAM 2 is playing briefly on a TV. It seems like a bit of Dimension Films pride and in retrospect a handy marker of where we were on the timeline of horror history when this movie came out. Also Chris Durand, the stuntman who plays Michael in H20, also played the killer in that movie. But if you start thinking about it too much you’re in trouble because you realize that Molly is watching the sequel to a movie that discussed and heavily incorporated footage of her boyfriend’s mother being attacked by his uncle. The SCREAM movies can’t exist in the world of HALLOWEEN because the HALLOWEEN movies exist in the world of SCREAM.
Maybe the real threat here is if they go back and watch SCREAM 1 then the whole universe will implode. But maybe when these kids watch it it’s an alternate dimension version where Randy and the others are watching some other movie at the party. Come to think of it, there’s a tape of Wayne Wang’s SMOKE sitting on top of the TV in that scene. I bet that’s what they’re watching in the SCREAM that exists in the HALLOWEENverse.
In 1998 I think some horror fans looked down on H20 for being made in the ’90s and not the ’70s. Back then people who were no longer teens would get mad at the SCREAM-inspired horror movies for still being for teens, and casting “WB actors,” people who were or looked like they were from a teen soap opera. Williams, for example, became one of the stars of the Williamson-created, Miner-produced Dawson’s Creek before H20 was released. This was a silly thing to hold against it though, because Curtis herself had only done TV before HALLOWEEN, primarily Operation Petticoat. Lance Guest of part II had only done an episode of Dallas and a couple of TV movies. Now that H20 itself is old it’s easier to look past that dumb hangup, especially since Hartnett and Williams went on to have legitimate movie careers. Hartnett has since been directed by Robert Rodriguez, Sofia Coppola, Ridley Scott, Brian DePalma and, uh, others. Williams has racked up Ang Lee, Todd Haynes, Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, Charlie Kaufman, Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi and been nominated for best actress three times. So fuck what you think.
I suppose it’s normal, especially among horror fans, to prefer the old style and have a loathing for the contemporary. That’s the cool thing about this movie being old. Now it finally seems like the good old school days instead of the stupid slick new shit that they do.
Here’s one quibble. I’ve always been a little bothered by the mask in this one. It’s always frustrated me that Michael’s mask changes in all the sequels. I had the impression they just couldn’t figure out how to make it look the same, but of course Rob Zombie got it to look exactly the same (but battle damaged) in his remake. For this one, Miner filmed for about three weeks using a very different version of the mask, which he wanted to look fairly featureless. The Weinsteins disagreed with this choice and commissioned new masks. I agree with them, but they should’ve fuckin figured it out before they started filming! Reportedly they spent a few million dollars in reshoots for all the closeups of the mask, and even still there are changes between one that John Carl Buechler molded from the part 6 mask, and another variation apparently made by Stan Winston. The original mask can be seen when Michael is in the distance, as well as in the main publicity still that was released early on.
Here’s the original mask that Miner wanted to use, followed by the one that ended up in the movie after reshoots:
I don’t know. I don’t think either of them look right. The worst part though is the shot where they weren’t able to reshoot so they decided to digitally touch up the Miner mask!
I actually never knew that was why this shot looked like that until recently. I thought it was airbrushed or something. It just looks weird, and not really in a good way.
To be fair, though, alot of us sported looks in the ’90s that seem embarrassing now.
Although I don’t like how the mask looks in alot of the movie, the continuity issues sort of fit in with Miner’s approach. In the scenes before Michael makes it to the school Laurie keeps imagining that she sees him. He’ll appear in reflections, or he’ll be walking toward her and she’ll keep closing her eyes until he disappears. In the scene where Will thinks he’s shooting at Michael but it’s really Ronny the security guard, the first shot of the sequence is Michael. So the movie is presenting a subjective reality, it’s showing us what people think they see. With that in mind an ever-shifting mask kinda makes sense.
There was also some disagreement over the score by John Ottman (THE USUAL SUSPECTS). His most impressive contribution to the finished movie is the sweeping orchestral version of Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN theme that plays over the opening credits. His vision was to approach the score more like PSYCHO, but with references to Carpenter’s cues. Apparently the studio liked his keyboard demos but then when they heard the finished recordings with the orchestra they got confused and frightened or whatever. Bob Weinstein wanted it to be like SCREAM so he got Marco Beltrami to compose some “original music” and also edited in cues from SCREAM and SCREAM 2. That movie they were watching earlier.
I don’t know. They might’ve been right. The Blu-Ray/DVD presents a few scenes with the original Ottman score, and they do feel weird. On the other hand they don’t have the sound effects and stuff, so it’s hard to be sure. At any rate his parts of the score are the most memorable parts. I actually have his original score on CD, it was released under the secret code name
Portrait of Terror.
* * *
And now let’s discuss the ending and its unfortunate retroactive undoing. Here’s a rare case where I’ll side with the Weinsteins. According to one of the extras on the blu-ray, they wanted this to be the end of a trilogy – HALLOWEEN, HALLOWEEN II, HALLOWEEN H20, the end. Moustapha Akkad, original HALLOWEEN producer, disagreed, and didn’t want Michael’s head to be chopped off. Luckily the Weinsteins won. Then allowed it all to be undone in the execrable HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, which pretended Michael had pulled a slick Ethan Hunt move where he switched clothes with a paramedic and that was who Laurie killed. Ironically, H20 had paid maximum respect to Rick Rosenthal’s work on part II by treating it as the only canonical sequel, the middle part of a solid trilogy. Then Rosenthal undid it himself by directing RESURRECTION and turning it back into an endless series of mostly crap tacked on after Carpenter’s masterpiece.
This was an honest-to-God shocker for me: we learn from the interviews and the commentary track that RESURRECTION’s asinine workaround was actually planned from the beginning and known by everyone. Curtis only wanted to do the movie to kill off Michael, but Akkad would not do the movie if Michael was killed off. Kevin Williamson came up with the “she kills Michael Myers so the audience can enjoy a good ending but later we will ruin it with a terrible piece of garbage movie where it turns out she murdered an innocent paramedic” idea as a compromise to keep Curtis on board. They all filmed it knowing that was the idea, so what play as Michael’s vulnerable, brotherly last moments can also be read as a guy who wakes up smooshed with a weird mask on.
Curtis was only in her early 40s at the time, and if you do the math she’s playing 37, but in Final Girl terms this is almost an UNFORGIVEN or ROCKY BALBOA type of role for her. The teen responsibility of babysitting has turned into the adult responsibility of being a single mother and having a job as a school administrator, but in fact her kid is taking care of her. In high school she stayed out of her friends’ beer drinking and pot smoking for fun, but after surviving she becomes a functioning alcoholic just to deal with the trauma. She knows how to chug a glass of Chardonnay and order another one while her date is in the bathroom; she keeps a bottle of vodka in the freezer and uses mouthwash to hide that she’s drinking from it. (This on top of the jam-packed medicine cabinet.) If we believe Randy from SCREAM and she was a virgin in HALLOWEEN then clearly that wasn’t the case for long, as she had a kid 3 years after the incident and now gets frisky with her boyfriend.
H20 turns Laurie into more than just the survivor of one skirmish. She becomes a metaphor for anybody who has had a rough time early in their life and tried to move beyond it. It doesn’t matter what kind of trauma you had, whether you were the victim of a crime, or an abusive situation, or a disease, or even if it’s just that you saw HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION. You can survive it, because Laurie Strode can. Except for that last one.
Happy Halloween, everybody. Part 8 never happened.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.