Wednesday 7 December 2011

Nor any drop to drink

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was the last gasp of the old franchise, or so it appeared: the low point of the series in every way, there seemed to be no possibility of another film. Just a year later, though, Scream made slasher films fashionable again, and so, from a story by Kevin Williamson, the man behind Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, we get Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998).

That clumsy title hides one of the better films of the series: the best, certainly, since 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Damning with faint praise seems the appropriate response, for 'better' does not mean 'good': and if the film is superior to its dismal predecessors, it's also chock-full of nineties 'irony'. It's an entire film of screenwriters Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg giggling while doing air quotes.

It starts right, though. We're in Langdon, Illinois, on 29 October 1998, and the use of 'Mr. Sandman' on the soundtrack already tells us what ponderous exposition will establish later: H20 follows Halloween II, ignoring the preceding three films. This isn't really necessary: the diverging timelines are quite easily reconciled, although we'd then have to explain why Laurie abandoned her daughter, Jamie Lloyd, to be attacked by Michael. But I won't blame the film for pretending the druidic silliness of The Curse of Michael Myers never existed: I've been there.

Anyway, we meet Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), Loomis's colleague from Halloween, who has just discovered her house has been broken into. The long and short of it is that someone has taken all the information on Laurie Strode, revealing that Laurie faked her own death and moved to California. Stop right there, H20: if Laurie was so keen to assume a new identity, then why does Chambers have all that information on file, including Laurie's current address? Presumably Loomis knew, but why tell Chambers? (The answer, of course, is that Donald Pleasence had died in 1995, and they needed a replacement character.)

Before Chambers can fully process the implications of all this, she discovers that Michael Myers (Chris Durand) has already murdered two annoying teens (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Branden Williams - one of these is more famous than the other) and, in short order, our villain murders Marion herself, in a shockingly bad throat-cutting effect. (In Hollywood, severing someone's carotid instantly causes them to shuffle off the mortal coil rather than bleeding to death for several minutes.) Michael then gets in a car and drives to California - hang on. So two days before Halloween, Michael Myers, who's been out of commission for twenty years, commits a triple homicide in Langdon, and Laurie, who's later shown to be paranoid and thus likely follows Illinois news, waiting for just this sort of thing to happen, is totally surprised by Michael's appearance. I suppose plot holes are one thing the franchise didn't abandon along with the Curse of Thorn.

The police appear and spout some exposition: apparently Michael is believed dead in the hospital fire at the end of Halloween II, but they never found the body. (He was on fire and would have surely died with medical attention or without, but I'll let it slide.) Then we get the credits, over news clippings and Tom Kane reciting Donald Pleasence's speech about pure evil from Halloween; and I must say that apart from the horrid font in which the title is presented, this sequence is really quite good. Compared to the nonsensical tilts and flash cuts Joe Chappelle saw fit to inflict on us in The Curse of Michael Myers, director Steve Miner, a horror veteran, is a massive improvement: his camera moves a lot - forwards and sideways - but never in an incoherent manner.

So it turns out that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, very much the single best element of this project) is now headmistress of a boarding school in northern California under the name of 'Keri Tate', has a seventeen-year-old son, John (Josh Hartnett), and carries on a clandestine relationship with the school's guidance counsellor, Will (Adam Arkin). It seems that the entire school is going on a trip to Yosemite over Halloween. Laurie won't let John go at first, but following one of those classroom scenes in which students offer opinions on characters' actions for symbolism's sake instead of ever discussing the technical aspects of fiction, she's convinced to be less controlling. However, Will secretly stays behind for a secret Halloween party in the school's basement with his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams) and his friends Sarah (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) and Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd).

With virtually everyone having left for Yosemite, the following people are left at the school: Laurie, Will, John, Charlie, Molly, Sarah and Ronny (LL Cool J), a porter with aspirations to be a romance novelist. I've been to boarding school and don't find this 'everyone's gone except for a bunch of expendable meat' scenario too credible, but whatever. Laurie, telling Will about her past, suddenly realises that John is the same age she was at when Michael attacked her and panics, fearing Michael is after her son. Recall, if you will, that at this point Laurie has absolutely no concrete reason to fear any Myers-related mayhem is afoot; recall further that Michael was unaware Laurie even had a son until two days ago, so the whole creaky edifice of H20 requires some serious suspension of disbelief. Anyway, Michael appears and murders Charlie and Sarah (the former off-screen, the latter in a shockingly brutal scene, smashing her leg with a dumb waiter and then stabbing her), and the night takes its course.

After Scream, horror films felt the need to be 'ironic', turning the exercise of watching a horror film into a game between screenwriter and viewer. Can you decode all the clever references Zappia and Greenberg are throwing your way? H20 is full of this stuff, especially in the first act, but let's single out just a few. Remember the characters in Scream were watching Halloween and commenting on it? Well, in H20 Molly and Sarah are watching Scream 2 on the telly! The character of Norma, Laurie's secretary, really takes the cake, though. Norma, you see, mentions a problem with blocked drains in the girls' showers when she first appears; and a little later she begins a speech to Laurie with the words, 'If I could be maternal for a moment...' I will now adopt H20's idea of subtlety and explain the joke. Norma is portrayed by Janet Leigh, who is famous for a little film called Psycho. In Psycho, her character, Marion Crane, is murdered in the shower by Norman Bates. Janet Leigh is also Jamie Lee Curtis's mother. There you have it.

If the film is burdened by the writers' insistence on a hamfisted tongue-in-cheek tone, it's much helped by Daryn Okada's cinematography, emphasising ochres and browns in a way the franchise hadn't done before; and although it's mostly quite boring, none of the padding approaches the inanity of The Revenge of Michael Myers. Michael looks annoyingly different again (the eyeholes are much larger, and he has no burn scars from the hospital fire), but Chris Durand does a fine job with the character, perhaps the best since Nick Castle in the original. Most of all, H20 wrapped up the fine franchise in a satisfactory way, ensuring Michael Myers would never return to haunt another sequel. Hang on...

In this series: Halloween (1978) | Halloween II (1981) | Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1988) | Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) | Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) | Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) | Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) | Halloween: Resurrection (2002) | Halloween (2007) | Halloween II (2009)

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