Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

D: Steve Miner
S: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett

Twenty years after the events of Halloween and Halloween II, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has changed her identity and moved on with her life. She's now the head of an exclusive Northern California boarding school where her seventeen year old son (Josh Hartnett) wants to make a life for himself. Meanwhile Laurie must deal with her inner demons; the memories of her evil brother who tried to kill her after butchering all of her friends. She is now an obsessive 'functioning alcoholic' and still sees visions of Michael Myers everywhere she turns (though curiously this does not seem to affect her ability to administrate or teach). But on Halloween night, 1998, Michael returns for real and it's time to face the demon for real.

Great premise and great to see the original scream queen playing one of her most celebrated roles. Ignoring the events which transpired in the latter part of the Halloween series (separated from the timeline of this film by the largely unconnected Halloween III: Season of the Witch), this film tantalisingly offers us some terrific trailer-made scenes such as Curtis responding to the question "What do we do?" with "Try to live," and nicely lit scenes of her roaming the corridors of her deserted school holding an axe and screaming "Michael."

Alas Steve Miner is no John Carpenter (but you knew that), and certainly no John Carpenter at the peak of his form. One of the disturbing things about Halloween was its clinicism. As one critic put it, it was one of the cinema's most perfectly engineered devices for saying "Boo!" and it went about its business efficiently, effectively and with a minimum of deference to concerns such as psychology and motivation. Miner comes to the tale after the horror genre has transformed the simple concerns of affect and abjection into questions of postmodern disaffection and dysfunctionality. It is no longer sufficient or even effective to let the stingers rip and try to tap into the inner fear of the dark by putting a masked bogeyman in it. Largely because of Carpenter's use of the generic formula and awareness of structuring conventions, Halloween sparked a wave of largely inane by-the-numbers imitations including the legendary Friday the 13th series (part two of which was directed by Steve Miner). The sheer familiarity of the formula is by now its greatest weakness rather than a great strength, and in the wake of Scream and Scream 2, it would seem that Halloween H20 had nowhere to go except backwards. The parody of formula has left the formula unable to respond, and all the film can do is retread familiar territory with some minor variations (no 'final girl/virgin', low body count, no foreboding of doom character, no scientist, etc).

It also attempts to incorporate some layers of psychological detail which have now become the arena of interest for the apathetic and unshockable millennium generation. We enjoy seeing people as screwed up and impotent as we are trying to fight their way past the nasties with some clever winks to the audience. Though it is interesting to catch up with Curtis' character in time and see just how things have gone for her, it is not convincing. There are too many unanswered questions about her capacity to deal with and not deal with her life and her son and still hold down such a responsible job and though Curtis plays it well, the part is not quite what it might have sounded like on paper.

The film is even less effective in its attempts at knowingness, including featuring a clip from Scream 2 and Scream composer Marco Beltrami's momentary musical citation of Bernard Hermann's score for Psycho when Janet Leigh is on screen (playing her daughter's secretary). Halloween had its in-jokes too, but the biggest joke of all was how straight it played in order to completely disarm would-be sophisticates in its audience.

Halloween H20 is at its most effective when all pretence of depth is abandoned in favour of similar old-fashioned scares and the inevitable final showdown between Laurie and Michael (which is protracted as it should be with multiple "here he comes again" moments). But Miner never succeeds in generating the kind of tension at which Carpenter once excelled, and the climax cries out for superior direction. As it is it is workmanlike enough, and though there is a fitting resolution, one is left with a feeling of disappointment and emptiness rather than catharsis.

Like Blues Brothers 2000, this is a case of an idea which sounds good and which fans of the original would dearly love to love, but which in the final event turns out to prove that the things you loved about the original were so specific that they are unrepeatable and outdated.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.