Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

After the Halloween franchise had diminished beyond recognition by the sixth outing in the franchise, it needed a new spark. Some fresh blood, if you will. Who better to bring that than, well, the franchise’s old blood: Jamie Lee Curtis, whose presence was so sorely missed after Halloween II. She tried to lure in John Carpenter and Scream wunderkind writer Kevin Williamson to make the new entry. Neither recruitment panned out, though Williamson reportedly punched up the dialogue, and, more importantly, the influence of Williamson’s Scream script is palpable.

Before Curtis got involved, one writer had pitched ramping up the government agency element of The Curse of Michael Myers to create a full-on conspiracy thriller/slasher hybrid, with all of Haddonfield a part of the conspiracy. It sounds like a wild and nonsensical film that’s fascinating on paper but, based on the last two entries, a film likely to have crashed and burned in execution. The idea shifted to a boarding school murder spree — a much more manageable logline for a slasher — and that idea stuck around as Curtis joined and reworked the material.

I’d read multiple places that H20 retcons the previous few Halloween films, which is not entirely accurate, by my reading. It doesn’t toss those films to the bin so much as it places them gently to the side and pretends they aren’t there. What we see is not, on the surface, incompatible with the other films (though I should caveat that I’m horrible at remembering continuity details, so there might be something I’m missing). In fact, Laurie’s off-screen car crash alluded to in Halloween 4 is transformed into a faked death as part of a victim protection program, and apparently some script drafts included references to Jamie, Laurie’s lost daughter. But H20 sure feels nothing like any of Halloween 4-6, with their curses and spiraling lore and grim austerity. If it’s not a true timeline reboot, it’s certainly a spiritual reboot.

All this change is for the better, in my eyes. This is the best Halloween movie since the original. Curtis’s appearance is an immediate adrenaline injection into the formula. She is so charismatic and badass, but also a flat-out good actress. The violence and character drama mirror each other, with real human stakes — Laurie is afraid to let her adolescent son out into the scary world because of her own PTSD, only for that trauma to rear its masked head. Take away the bloody butcher knives, swap in some other demon that wreaks havoc (alcoholism, abuse, etc.) and it’s the skeleton for a decent drama.

The rest of the cast is fairly talented and charismatic, too. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears briefly as a teen who gets killed with an ice skate. Josh Hartnett is solid enough as Laurie’s son. LL Cool J and a young Michelle Williams play supporting roles, and Janet Leigh makes a cameo. It’s simply the most talent that Halloween has ever had in front of the camera, and it makes a difference. Scene-to-scene, the movie is more watchable than any since the original.

The dialogue is crisp and bantery in a way that the series never had been before. It feels very much of-its-era, but works in the movie’s favor: After five movies of Donald Pleasence’s ominous ravings, I’ll happily take some goofy teen quips.

The aesthetic reboot extends to the film’s visuals, which are competent but unremarkable. This is clean and crisp late-90’s cinematography; never murky and smudgy like Dean Cundey’s work in the first three films, but also less dreary than the following three films.

One significant mark against the film is that it leans far too heavily on fake-out scares. The ratio of fake jump scares to real jump scares is pretty perilous, to the point that I started expecting each creaky noise or lurking shadow to be LL Cool J or Michelle Williams rather than Michael Myers. And, speaking of Myers, his mask has never looked worse than it does here. His eye sockets are supposed to be gaping holes of death, not just some dude’s confused eyes.

The story itself is also slight, to the point that there isn’t really a story. Just a scenario that rapidly unfolds; the runtime is listed at 86 minutes, but that includes credits. This film moves briskly.

The ending of H20 supplants Halloween 4 as my favorite closing scene of the whole series. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect capper on the Halloween series than this film’s final shot, which is practically sequel-proof. But, as we know, many sequels would come — one directly following this, and plenty more on different timelines. I’m grateful to see the ship righted after a couple of dreadful outings, and I hope the series can keep the momentum, though I admit my optimism is not too high.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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