Monday, October 19, 2015

Die Hydrogen Monoxide

Year: 1988
Director: Steve Miner
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Let’s not pull any punches here. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is the single most asinine title ever inflicted upon an innocent horror movie. The core concept makes sense (this – the seventh film in the franchise – was released twenty years after the original and brings back many of its characters and themes), but the execution is downright execrable. This film has nothing to do with water, and the needlessly hip, hopelessly confusing title is just another outgrowth of the pop postmodern horror flicks that sprouted like kudzu in the years following the success of Scream.

Yes, we’ve finally reached that fabled genre-savvy period of the late 90’s, where slashers could be slashers and teens could be overwritten. While I’m on the subject, let’s take a moment to appreciate how much the Halloween franchise adheres directly to the historical development of the genre as a whole. It’s uncanny, really. The whole thing is like a road map of the dominant trends of each era. Halloween exemplifies the proto-slashers of the 70s, Halloween II the gory killfests of 1981, Halloween 4 the quasi-supernatural bent of the post-Nightmare period, Halloween 5 the soul-sucking crappiness of 1989, and Halloween 6 the bleak desperation of franchise filmmaking in the early 90’s. Then it would move on into the no-man’s land of the early 2000’s slashers and stand at the forefront of the remake boom, but that’s a story for another time.

Halloween H20 upholds the tradition, providing a textbook example of the self-reflexive slasher. Normally this wouldn’t bode well, considering that it’s in the company of mediocre films like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, but the film was assigned a dream team of slasher bruisers, including many veterans of Scream itself. Along with the guidance of Screamsmith Kevin Williamson (who isn’t credited with the script, but according to the hot Hollywood gos, probably should be), we have Scream editor and composer Patrick Lussier and Marco Beltrami, as well as Friday the 13th Part 2 director Steve Miner. The cherry on top, naturally, is the return of reigning Scream Queen Jamie Lee of House Curtis.

Long may she kick ass.

Of course, there’s the nasty little wrinkle of Laurie Strode having been killed off in Part 4, but that’s nothing a little ignoring the last three sequels can’t solve. H20 is a direct continuation of Halloween II: Keri Tate (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the headmistress of a prestigious Southern California boarding school, but she has a secret. Back in 1978, her brother (yeah, that’s still a thing) Michael Myers (Chris Durand) killed a lot of her friends, then vanished in a hospital explosion, presumed dead. After that she faked her death and changed her name, living constantly under the fear that Michael will return once more.

This paranoia has led to some glam alcoholism (there’s nothing like shotgunning chardonnay in a chic cream sweater) and damaged her relationships with her son John (Josh Hartnett) and her boyfriend, guidance counselor Will Brennan (Adam Arkin). On Halloween night 1998 (helpfully proclaimed by a condescending title card that reads “October 31st – Halloween”), John ditches out on a school field trip in a rebellion against his overprotective mother, throwing a party with some Meat friends. He, his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams), and their horny mates Sarah (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) and Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) sneak into the school building for some illicit merriment.

Of course, a little thing like an exploding hospital can’t stop Michael Myers, and he shows up to wreak havoc once more, though he must have lost his mask at some point over the years and had to make do with a Sideshow Bob wig.

You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to replicate the original mold, but you would be wrong.

The thing about Halloween H20 is that there’s a character named Brennan, and I only allow my namesake to be used by good films (for the record, there’s a Dr. Brennan in The Exorcist). Ergo, Halloween H20 turns out to be the best sequel of the entire franchise, in a close race with 4. Some might argue that bringing Jamie Lee Curtis back pretty much earns the movie a free pass, but some probably haven’t seen Halloween: Resurrection.

Halloween H20 is short and sweet. It gets in, does its job, and books the hell out of there, and I greatly admire it for that. The story it tells is simple and taut. A trauma victim must survive one more trial to wipe her slate clean and get her life back on track. It’s surprisingly poignant, and the return of characters we actually give a flying hoot about bumps up the scare factor something fierce.

Obviously, H20 couldn’t dream of matching the elemental terror of the original. Steve Miner is a competent workhorse at best, not a Carpenter-esque auteur. But after a couple dozen years in the business, you learn how to stage a scene, and he certainly horses his work. Scenes like the opening kill, where the police are called to one house while the murder occurs next door, are genuinely thrilling. It’s the first actually tense Halloween in a decade. In the later scenes especially, the film uses parallels with the original film to crate expectations and repeatedly thwart them.

It is in these moments that Halloween H20 truly works as a self-referential piece. There are several not so subtle nods to other films (like Curtis’ actual mother Janet Leigh being cast as her assistant whose every line is a veiled Psycho reference), but the canny Williamson humor doesn’t quite strike up a meaningful relationship with the narrative. In the Scream films, the characters are aware that they’re living out a horror film, hence the references, but when our H20 teens pop on a DVD of Scream 2, it’s only a leering pat on the back. Their knowledge of horror doesn’t influence events in any way. Most of the humor is totally acceptable and amusing (especially LL Cool J as a security guard/budding romance novelist), but a lot of it just sort of aimlessly drifts across the screen like an errant balloon at a Fourth of July picnic.

One day I’m going to gather up all these magnificent similes and write the great American novel.

While we’re on the complain train, I have one last grievance to air, which is again the fault of one Kevin Williamson. He certainly does adore writings teens who speak like overly trendy mini Rhodes scholars, and the non-Strode kiddos are irritating as balls. Or, as K-Dubs would say, more painful than Titus Andronicus’ tongue piercing. Sarah especially is a one woman quip machine, with a groan-worthy line constantly at the ready for any situation (“Inconsiderate, party of one!”). This archetype is what really dates this movie, even more so than Josh Hartnett’s haircut, which looks like it was chewed into shape by a rabid dog.

But lo and behold, H20 leaps those hurdles like it was born to do it. The most irritating parts are hardly onscreen longer than you can say “ixnay on the ipsquay.” This is a movie that has Laurie Goddamn Strode in it, and she isn’t about to let no pockmarked whippets ruin it for her. Jamie Lee Curtis is just as subtle and illuminating as ever, bringing her natural charm to the far meatier role of a Girl Next Door gone sour. She’s a vodka-pickled, snarling survivor with a plastic smile that’s all bared teeth and hard edges. Her performance really picks up on the nuances of a genuinely good girl closed off to the world, and it reinforces the strong emotional throughline that the film boasts.

A little loopy but always fun, a little gritty but always exciting, H20 is a massively entertaining entry in the franchise. Coming hot on the heels of the atrocious Parts 5 and 6, this was a much-needed breath of fair to allow me to regroup and keep on plowing full steam ahead. On to 2002 and the film that completely undermines this one’s climax! Hooray!

Killer: Michael Myers (Chris Durand)
Final Girl: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)
Best Kill: Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets an ice skate buried in his face.

Sign of the Times: John’s shirt is about fifteen sizes too big for him.

Scariest Moment: Charlie drops a corkscrew in the garbage disposal and reaches in to get it.
Weirdest Moment: Another Halloween tradition this film follows is that the local kids go trick or treating absurdly early. They can be seen wandering the streets at the explicitly mentioned time of 1 PM.
Champion Dialogue: “I’d rather have my eyes pierced.”
Body Count: 6; not counting Michael Myers (whose head is chopped off), who always seems to find his way back home.
  1. Jimmy is stabbed in the face with an ice skate.
  2. Allegre is stabbed in the back.
  3. Nurse Chambers has her throat slit.
  4. Charlie has his throat slashed.
  5. Sarah is stabbed to death.
  6. Mr. Brennan is stabbed in the back.
TL;DR: Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is a brilliant rejuvenation of the franchise through the lens of the post-Scream era.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1547
Reviews In This Series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chappelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)
Halloween (Green, 2018)
Halloween Kills (Green, 2021)

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