Carpenter meets Craven, but not as you’d hoped
Back in the mid-90s, Wes Craven‘s Scream changed the face of horror cinema. In 1994, the cult director would test the meta-concept with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a movie which saw pop culture farce Fred Krueger return to the dark side and cross over into the realms of reality. The idea of Robert Englund‘s ‘bastard child of a thousand maniacs’ stalking the cast of the original movie was enough to salvage the once fearsome character’s languishing credibility, but the concept wasn’t enough to catch mainstream fire all by itself.
Two years later, Craven would expand on that same concept, wrapping a tale of horror movie obsession in a cute, commercial bow. Recycling what the previous decade had taught us, he would pit his cast of boxfresh characters against each other in a battle of wits, giving birth to a horror creation as iconic as any of those who went before. Scream smartened-up its doomed cast of delectables, cranking the irony by making them aware of their futility. This time, Craven’s hormonal cast of victims only had themselves to blame.
So on-the-money was Craven’s latest creation that as well as reviving the moribund slasher with its self-reflexive wit and scholastic attention-to-detail, it would give the entire genre a facelift, but not necessarily for the better. In 1978, Carpenter’s own ghost-faced killer, Michael Myers, had spawned an entire decade of sleazy Friday the 13th imitators, movies which exhausted the stalk-and-slash concept into an early grave. Many of those efforts would fall short of the Carpenter template thanks to a legion of potshot filmmakers and the kind of low-budget producers looking to cash-in on their progenitor’s success any which way they could.
Norma Watson: Oh. Miss Tate. I didn’t mean to make you jump. It’s Halloween. I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare.
Laurie Strode: I’ve had my share.
The majority of those other directors lacked Carpenter’s keen eye and creative instincts—vital elements which made up for low production values and paltry resources. Like Halloween, Scream would spawn a commercial movement of its own, and while those like-for-like imitators lacked the crummy charm of their predecessors, technology and filmmaking had come a long way, and studios were able to churn out slick productions by the bucketload. It didn’t matter that the majority of those movies lacked any kind of originality. The product looked great, the marketing familiar, and a deftly edited trailer is enough to convince even the most cynical moviegoer that something is worth a shot.
Movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend would quickly dilute the meta-experiment while retaining those surface elements that fuelled the commercial machine, loading their movies with a newly cynical cast of teenage fodder and the kind of mid-90s pseudo-rock soundtracks that would herald an era of airhead reality television. The production was slicker, and everything seemed sprinkled with a touch of celebrity stardust—a far cry from the low-budget drudgery of the ‘video nasty‘ era.
In 1998, director Steve Miner would resurrect the moribund Halloween series as horror reached a new commercial zenith. Miner had previously helmed superior Halloween derivative Friday the 13th Part II, and his appreciation and understanding of the Carpenter blueprint made him the perfect candidate after the man himself turned down the movie due to long-running financial disputes. Perhaps as a way to legitimise Myers and return credibility to a waning franchise, Halloween H20 would cast Jamie Lee Curtis in a reprisal of the Laurie Strode character, and would discount the previous four instalments and all that they stood for.
Sensing that the Myers story had run its course, Season of the Witch had already ditched the concept six years prior in favour of an annual event that would feature a new story and cast of characters, but a sci-fi oddity involving Halloween masks plunged the franchise into commercial purgatory. Season for the Witch wasn’t a bad movie—far from it, in fact—but the Myers character was where the big bucks lay, forcing our elusive monster out of retirement for a series of increasingly convoluted affairs that killed his mystique. Introducing a narrative that saw Laurie fake her own death after Halloween II in order to escape the stigma of the original Haddonfield massacre, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later promised to eradicate all traces of telepathic daughters and superfluous pagan cults. Halloween, it seemed, was about to rediscover its serious side.
It did so by introducing real-life themes that audiences could relate to, especially given their history with the Laurie Strode character. Using the name Keri Tate, Laurie is a headmistress dealing with alcoholism relating to post-traumatic stress syndrome, and is understandably a little overprotective since her teenage son attends the same private school and the shadow of a return looms large. This leads to obvious quarrels regarding independence—it has been twenty years after all—and a mother who couldn’t have picked a worse day to relent as a secret party quickly becomes the killing ground for a familiar cast of cutesy headliners. That cast includes an exceedingly young Josh Hartnett as faux-rebel John Tate and Dawon’s Creek’s Michelle Williams as girlfriend Molly Cartwell, the latter of whom already a popular mainstream TV star, another commercial choice that detracts from any and all attempts at authenticity. Casting mainstream rapper and bit-part Hollywood player LL Cool J as a security guard with heart is also a questionable move for a movie that turned to the low-key roots of the original narrative.
Rather than being the Carpenter-led revival it was originally promoted as, it seems that producers were still caught up in Scream fever, a safe-than-sorry approach ensuring a rather impressive US gross of $55,041,738 and an opening weekend that would cover the movie’s entire financial outlay. Another in a long line of increasingly stale Craven clones, Halloween H20 is Scream 101, opening with a like-for-like set-piece and never letting up, with by-the-numbers jump scares, slick production values and an overly orchestral score that drowns out the authenticity of Carpenter’s original theme. It even has the impudence to prematurely interrupt that theme with a post-credits flavour of the month wuss-rock tie-in that all but seals its commercial aspirations. As Curtis herself would state in an interview with Variety “’H20’ started out with best intentions, but it ended up being a money gig. The film had some good things in it. It talked about alcoholism and trauma, but I ended up really doing it for the paycheck.”
For a movie which attempts to undo the largely bad work of those bewildering earlier sequels, introducing an even more elaborate backstory seems a rather strange decision, while a ‘back for ten more scares’ finale only adds to the movie’s reputation as an illegitimate second cousin to the all-too-knowing Scream. One thing that struck me while watching this movie was the contrast between how much I wanted the original Laurie Strode to survive, and, as time went by, how much I wished for Myers to get his brutal hands on her middle-aged incarnation, if only to stop a movie which transforms the inimitable ‘shape’ into a bog-standard baddie of banal proportions.
Before H20, Michael was an omnipotent monster who clung patiently to the shadows. Carpenter’s use of space and subtlety in unleashing one of horror’s most cherished creations is the stuff of legend, but here, Myers is closer to Ghostface when it comes to the pursuit of his victims. Remove the mask and this is I still Know What You Did Last Summer, a meaningless sequel to one of Scream‘s original imitators, which incidentally is not as bad as what Dimension Films did to the Halloween franchise in the summer of ’98. So close to their 1996 smash is H20 that they even have the gall to turn temporarily meta as a cheap parody of Ghostface plays on the television during a sequence lifted straight out of the movie. A brief cameo from Psycho‘s Janet Leigh (the real-life mother of Curtis) is the only other notable venture into the self-reflexive, a creative element which seems completely at odds with Laurie’s darker characterisation.
Ultimately, Halloween H20 fails to retain even a semblance of its own identity, and apart from the appearances of Michael and Laurie, in many ways it isn’t a Halloween movie at all. The presentation of the Myers character is so shallow, the actor portraying him so inadequate as the physical menace we have come to fear and respect that it is hard to care about anyone involved with the movie, and that includes arguably the most emblematic final girl in the entire slasher canon. The movie’s resemblance to the rest of the franchise is tenuous at best.
Is Halloween H20 a bad film? Technically, no. It is ruthlessly adequate, and production-wise a far sight better than the majority of ’80s slasher fodder. But while those movies retain a semblance of charm thanks to their humble roots and cavalier approach, H20 proves utterly charmless—just another in a long line of cookie cutter productions that leaves absolutely nothing to chance, and in doing so becomes the department store generic brand that lays waste to the kitsch flea market treats of previous years.
John: Mom, I am not responsible for you. That’s it, I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore mom. He’s dead. Michael Myers is dead.
The late 90s were responsible for a great many crimes as the corporate machine oiled its inner-workings and put the squeeze on independent creativity, particularly in the music industry. That may sound like adolescent hyperbole from a pimpled teenager with a grudge to bear, but while the working class flags of Britpop flailed, Kurt Cobain chose suicide over corporate submission, and a deluge of off-the-conveyor-belt boy bands took over the airwaves, transforming popular music from an image-led bastion of independent songwriting into an industry concerned only with image, one that put all creativity and songwriting royalties in the hands of the top brass.
For me, the post-Scream era of mainstream horror filmmaking is tarred with that very same brush, and no one was sacred, not even the character who sparked the independent revolution that put the power in the hands of the budding filmmaker almost two decades earlier. Even more infuriating was the hype surrounding the movie, and the false promises it seemed to offer. Halloween H20 presented itself as the saviour of the franchise, a continuation of the original narrative designed to hack away at the convoluted weeds of mythology that would mar the series into near extinction.
In doing so, it proclaims to live up to the Myers legacy. But it doesn’t even come close. And nor does it really attempt to.