Carpenter meets Craven, but not as you’d hoped
I have a real issue with Halloween: H20, several in fact, but the most pressing is its use of the Michael Myers character, who for my money doesn’t suit the hip, self-aware horror of the late-90s. The movie came two years after Wes Craven’s meta-infused Scream, and this being a Dimension Films production that particular film’s legacy looms large. The slasher sub-genre had been edging towards the self-reflexive ever since early-80s ‘video nasty‘ censorship cut out its still-beating heart, the likes of Jason Voorhees abandoning the dead-eyed killer motif for knowing, gimmick-laden outings that Paramount and the MPAA censored beyond recognition. By the early-90s, the slasher was dead on its feet, but Craven’s self-aware splurge completely revitalised the sub-genre, leading to a half-decade of like-for-like concepts that upped the production values and freshened the horror genre for a new generation of teenagers.
For many, Halloween: H20 was their first experience with Michael, but for some who were already familiar with the character, this didn’t feel like a Halloween movie at all, more a Scream derivative featuring the notorious ‘Shape’. It’s exceptionally well-made from a production and technical standpoint. Director Steve Miner, who already had two of the best Friday the 13th instalments under his belt in Parts 2 and 3, had learnt a thing or two about making slasher movies, and he no doubt gave the studio exactly what they wanted, but taking a unique and iconic figure like Myers and thrusting him into a postmodern environment comes with its own set of problems. Self-reflexive humour may have worked for the likes Fred Krueger and Jason Voorhees, who very quickly wore it on their sleeves, but Myers had always been a more serious character. Any humour experienced had been subtle and never at the expense of horror.
It’s ironic really. I remember when Halloween: H20 was announced. I was 16, still in my horror indulgence prime, and the fact that events were set to pick up where the original narrative left off, completely disregarding failed spin-off experiment Halloween III: Season of the Witch and the bloated shenanigans of the Jamie Lloyd narrative, was music to my ears. Not that I didn’t enjoy those movies for their audacious digressions, including the wholly ridiculous ‘man in black’/cult of thorn debacle, but it was nice to finally see the series lifted out of the bargain basement doldrums, and with Jamie Lee Curtis back onboard to beef up the characterisation, I quickly bought into the idea that H20 was set to be the series saviour, the sequel we had all been waiting for that would stay true to the origins of the series and deliver the conclusion we all deserved. I’m not knocking late-90s slashers. I usually enjoy them, even if everything after Scream feels just a tad diluted and superficial, but Halloween: H20 failed to deliver on its promise. Instead we got another in a long line of Kevin Williamson knock-offs. It should come as no surprise that Williamson himself was instrumental to the final product.
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.
For those who are unaware, Williamson was the writer behind the deliciously self-fulfilling Scream, and he immediately became hot property in horror circles, quickly penning the thoroughly enjoyable I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2 and The Faculty in the wake of his newfound status, and when Curtis expressed an interest in reviving the Laurie Strode character, Scream distributor Dimension Films approached Williamson to pen a treatment that incorporated the Laurie character. With Curtis’ input, Williamson came up with a radically different ending that was ultimately never used, but he was responsible for several on-set rewrites that were central to the final product, so much that both Miner and Curtis credited his input as being vital to the overall quality of the film. Williamson went unaccredited in accordance with Writers Guild of America (WGA) rules, which state that additional writers must be responsible for at least 33% of a script to receive an on-screen credit. So enthusiastic were Dimension to have a talent of Williamson’s stock on their marquee that they even offered writer Robert Zappia more money to share the writing credit. In the end, Williamson would have to settle for an Executive Producer credit, but his fingerprints are all over this movie.
Halloween: H20 was originally set to be a sequel to 1995‘s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers that acknowledged the previous Jamie Lloyd instalments, which is why Williamson was tasked with writing Laurie back into a series she’d been comprehensively written out of. Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers had attributed the Strode character’s previous absence to a fatal car crash as Curtis looked to branch out in Hollywood and shed her scream queen stigma. Williamson would pivot by having Strode fake her own death in favour of a life in the Witness Protection Programme, which made perfect sense until all references from previous sequels were culled entirely in favour of a bare bones story, meaning Halloween 4‘s car crash no longer existed in the world of Halloween: H20. If Laurie’s decision to fake her own death and adopt the name Keri Tate seemed just a little extreme, now you know why.
To be fair, Laurie’s troubles with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and general paranoia make for a welcome and believable sub-plot. Strode, or Tate, has been living in fear of a Myers return ever since she escaped his clutches in the sterile corridors of the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital in Halloween II. Laurie’s son, John, has been forced to endure his mother’s ostensible irrationality his entire life, and by now he’s a hormone-ridden teenager who’s had just about enough of her overprotective ways. Curtis is typically brilliant as the overbearing maternal presence battling personal demons, both physical and emotional, though the movie’s love interest and how her relationship is affected by those demons often seems like an afterthought. Partner Will (Adam Arkin) spends most of the movie simply trying to get inside Laurie’s pants, and when he is ruthlessly murdered in the worst way imaginable it lightens the load considerably. I should also add that this is no reflection on Arkin, who has proven himself a more than capable TV stalwart over the years. Ultimately, Halloween H20 has no room for a strong male character. This is Curtis’ show.
Another thing that rankles is the film’s use of celebrity, a product of self-aware filmmaking that also detracts from the Myers mystique. Stars, both future and present, were queuing up to take part in the chic horror revolution during the late-90s, which is why those films are usually crammed with familiar faces. A young Josh Hartnett plays the role of John, with future Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, who had just landed a big role in the hugely popular teen drama Dawson’s Creek (Miner himself was about to shoot the pilot), playing high school sweetheart Molly. There is also a brief cameo from an exceedingly young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is quickly disposed of in the movie’s pre-credits prologue. The poor youngster gets a rather brutal ice skate blade in the face in a movie that pulls no punches in terms of violence, but more on that shortly.
The movie’s most notable celebrity is international rap sensation LL Cool J, whose presence was enough to kill the film as a legitimate Halloween instalment. Again, this is no fault of the actor. In fact, his character Ronny, a comic relief security guard and aspiring erotic novelist, is arguably the most likeable character in the entire movie. Even his wife, who you never actually see but hear on the phone a few times, is a hoot, but LL Cool J vs Michael Myers is too much self-awareness for a film that expands on the original series narrative. The film even casts Curtis’ real-life mother and Psycho alumni Janet Lee. It’s great to see her back on the screen even in token role, but her only purpose is to provide a series of unnecessary meta moments that further ape the Scream formula. I’m sure this is what audiences wanted at the time but it hasn’t aged well. At one point, John’s school chum Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) even quips, “20 years from now, you’re still gonna be living with her, probably running some weird motel, out in the middle of nowhere.”
Halloween: H20 is chock-full of Williamson self-awareness, with all kinds of in-jokes and genre nods, so much that it often seems like Myers has wandered onto the set of a Scream movie, and it doesn’t stop at meta. The pre-credits sequence is straight out of the Williamson handbook, a less creative, less engaging version of Scream‘s iconic opening in the way it is shot and paced. Beautifully orchestrated by Miner but a diluted imitation of a seminal film that treats Myers as something of an afterthought. They’re not catering to the character as much as the character is catering to the formula. Carpenter ― who was originally scheduled to direct H20 until money issues and the refusal of a three-picture deal saw him pull out ― has consistently gone on record as saying that the Myers character thrives on less-is-more mystique, and we see so much of Myers in this movie. There are few steady reveals or slow-building subtleties. They lay it all on the line in the first ten minutes.
Miner attempts to emulate Carpenter’s use of space and shadows, but it’s all a bit staged, a bit urgent. There are too many vibrant jump-scares, the kind designed to inspire a Scream-style thrill by encouraging a collective gasp of wink-wink relief. There is even a clip from Scream 2 playing on the TV at one point in the movie. At times it’s as if Myers is simply being used to promote the franchise as the third instalment loomed. Again, it’s all executed beautifully, but it doesn’t suit to the nature of the Myers character. The film offsets this with what appears to be a loyal nod to the original movie. The opening credits use that iconic Halloween text, and there are even a series of soundbites from series stalwart Donald Pleasence, an actor who was fundamental to the success of the series. A nice touch, I thought, until later discovering that, instead of utilising the original audio, the studio decided to use an impersonator named Tom Kane to provide the voice-over, presumably to complement the film’s clean as a whistle aesthetic. I can’t unhear that. It further detracts from the film’s authenticity as a Halloween instalment.
Then there’s the Myers character himself. Boy, oh boy does The Shape cut an underwhelming figure in Halloween: H20! Stuntman Chris Durand doesn’t have the mystique, stature or understanding of who Michael is, how he moves, what he stands for. Again, that’s not a knock on the actor. It all seems designed to fit the Williamson formula. In line with the writer’s outsourced re-imagining, Myers is quick, frenzied, often flailing, and the Halloween theme isn’t used nearly enough. When it is, it’s an elaborate orchestral version, not the primitive, grimy synth version that is still one of the most effective themes the genre has ever known, which is less polished but infinitely scarier and in-tune with a killer of Michael’s stature. The mask doesn’t help either. For the film’s prologue, the similarly underwhelming mask from The Curse of Michael Myers was used until an original one was sculpted. Well into production, Miner decided to go with a different mask, resulting in re-shot scenes, including one in which Michael is seen wearing two different masks. Sometimes the mask’s hair is so shaggy it makes Michael look more like a stoner who has just awoken from a particularly deep sleep rather than a cold and remorseless killer. One particularly jarring shot was even the product of lousy CGI tampering.
Other than the film’s finale, which is actually a lot of fun despite everything, most of Myers’ hunting happens at the school that John and his chums attend. John, Molly, Charlie and Sarah (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), the latter of whom originally had a meatier role relating to the proposed, sequel-incorporating version, sneak into the building behind Laurie’s back and inevitably pay the price. Those scenes, which are tense and bloody and often exhilarating, are beautifully orchestrated by Miner, and some of the movie’s kills are just brutal, but again it’s all very direct and fast-paced. The kind of ominous foreboding and patient builds that set the Myers character apart are painfully absent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a traditionalist who has to compare every attempted update to the original movie. Cinema evolves, and handled well characters can adapt to changing times (as proven by 2018’s reboot), but something just doesn’t quite fit with H20, which instead seems intent on imitating another franchise entirely. I can still enjoy Halloween: H20 as a fun 90s slasher, but I would have respected it more had it not been attached to the Halloween brand.
Curtis was rather dismissive of a movie that was rushed out in time for the original Halloween‘s 20th anniversary, one she was originally excited about taking part in. “H20 started out with best intentions, but it ended up being a money gig,” she would explain. “The film had some good things about it. It talked about alcoholism and trauma, but I ended up really doing it for the paycheck.” Reactions to the movie were mixed, but mostly critical about the movie’s quick descent into the modern slasher formula. Handling Myers has always been difficult because of the respect fans and critics have for the original movie and the unique character it forged. But fans will always want more Michael, regardless of how it effects the character’s legacy, a fact that was reflected in the film’s $55,000,000 domestic gross. With the majority of slashers, fans and critics have low expectations going in, but Carpenter’s Halloween is one of horror’s truly seminal pictures. The shadow of that film has and always will loom large.
Laurie Strode: My brother killed my sister.
Will Brennan: How did he do that?
Laurie Strode: With a really big, sharp kitchen knife.
One thing we can assume, particularity in light of Dimension’s refusal of a three-film contract, is that Halloween: H20 was meant to be the definitive end for Michael, and anyone who has witnessed the character’s fittingly brutal demise at the hands of nemesis Laurie will attest to that. Four years later, Dimension would find a ludicrously convoluted way to bring Michael back from the dead for reality TV debacle Halloween Resurrection, a movie that is universally reviled by Halloween fans for obvious reasons, and the franchise has and will continue to be revisited time and time again thanks to a character with a seemingly endless commercial shelf life.
As far as I can tell, Michael’s shift from omnipotent horror icon to pop culture derivative is more to do with executive parenting than those involved with the creative side of things, who in terms of executing a very distinct formula deliver the goods and then some. Carpenter’s Halloween was a DIY film that exceeded all expectation by connecting with audiences on its own merit, but by the mid-90s the whole commercial landscape had changed. Everything was much more polished and in the hands of corporations, which was the death knell for the slasher as cold-blooded exploitation. The music industry was no different. In 1994, Kurt Cobain chose suicide over corporate submission, and the days of working class bands making it on their own folded in the face of reality TV and wholly manufactured acts, a deluge of off-the-conveyor-belt boy bands taking over the airwaves and transforming popular music from an image-led bastion of independent songwriting into an industry concerned only with image, one that put all the creativity and songwriting royalties in the hands of the top brass.
As much as I enjoy 90s slashers, for me the post-Scream era of mainstream horror 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 frustrating 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 the weeds of mythology that had marred the series into near extinction. In doing so, it proclaimed to live up to the Myers legacy, but it didn’t even come close, and nor did it really attempt to.