For a while this looked like being the best Halloween sequel yet. It's certainly the best-made, looking as if it got a budget hike to celebrate the return of Jamie Lee Curtis and a semi-reboot of the franchise. The opening sequence ladles on the darkness and music right from the start, giving us real suspense again for the first time since Halloween II. We even get proper acting from a teenager! You could have knocked me down with a feather. He's bloody good actually, probably my favourite character in the film. Shame he doesn't live long. There's a real spark in those opening scenes, which have an oomph that this series had almost forgotten. At last, I thought, Halloween's got its shit together again.
The studio clearly thought so too. This was the first Halloween film since Carpenter's original to be shown outside America and the first to outdo its raw box office takings, although it's still a million miles behind if you adjust for inflation. To date it's still the best-performing sequel, although Rob Zombie's 2007 remake did very slightly better on the raw figures only. Of course none of that matters when you're actually watching the film, though.
The director Steve Miner has a horror pedigree. He got his start doing crew duties on the infamous rape-revenge nasty The Last House on the Left (1972). There was a time when Wes Craven had balls, you know. Miner's also the only person to have directed two Friday the 13th instalments, although we're living in a strange topsy-turvy world when that's a recommendation. Halloween H20: Water is a slick, professional-looking film that knows what it's doing and is completely in control of itself. It feels classier than any of its predecessors, including the original Halloween. It has characters, not placeholders. It has dialogue that you can remember in a good way. It has a proper script with character beats and everything, not just a random patchwork of gore scenes cobbled together by the office monkey.
Unfortunately that's its problem.
I've mentioned before that the peculiar characteristic of slasher movies is mindlessness, which is what made John Carpenter perfect for the original Halloween. Look at its plot. There isn't one! Stalk stalk, kill, stalk, kill, credits. Point at a director better suited to that kind of material and I'll call you a liar. For me, there's something hollow about many of Carpenter's early classics. They just blast ahead on pure adrenaline and don't stop until both you and they have dropped of exhaustion. There are exceptions, like the gleeful communist propaganda of They Live (note: this is an exaggeration) or the unexpected thematic depth of The Thing, but look at films like Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13. Brilliant, yes, but do they have even a single thought in their heads? (In fairness I used to think The Thing fell into this category until I was convinced otherwise, but these are not films whose chief virtues are cerebral.) This brings us to Halloween, which pretty much invented the slasher genre with its single-minded focus on fear, fear, darkness and more fear. This makes it hard to review, being so perfectly designed for what it does. In every way that matters it's flawless. That's why it's a masterpiece of cinema, in a manner curiously resistant to analysis from the Robert McKee Story crowd. It's easy to design a fish that's prettier, cleverer or more elegant than a shark, but you just try designing a more efficient killing machine.
Which brings us to Halloween H20. In the end, it's just too damn polite and well-bred. Michael Myers never stalks anyone! This might be considered a prerequisite for a slasher movie, but no. He kills a few folks on the way to Haddonfield, no, sorry, California, but one doesn't sense any malice in it. Sometimes he even lets them live! I quite liked that, actually. I call it the Jaws effect, that being the best example I know of a film that has fun terrifying you with people not getting killed. Meanwhile Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode) is a single mother, a functioning alcoholic and the dean of a private school in California. We get a good look at her life. Eventually Michael arrives and kills one (one) teenage couple before suddenly we're into action sequences and eventually Jamie Lee Curtis's Ripley moment as she deliberately goes back to deal with Michael once and for all. Not all of the killings even happen onscreen! On a Robert McKee level, this is good stuff. Laurie's choices are extreme, but understandable. It's a clever script, but unfortunately horror needs more than that. We need suspense and dread, which the film can only do in isolated scenes.
I'm not just being Neanderthal here, incidentally. This is a horror film. Fear is its job. That's what it says on the tin. What's more, the script regards itself as horror and has built its entire third act on that assumption. Laurie Strode's choices would have carried more weight had we been scared out of our skins, convinced that what she was doing was suicide. Unfortunately (and oddly) Michael Myers himself isn't particularly scary in this film. His knife, sure. A few of his appearances, absolutely. There are some terrific set-pieces, which had me several times on the edge of my seat. Skill, craft and care went into making this film. There are some great moments, but that's all they are. Michael Myers doesn't have that aura of indestructibility, but is just an ordinary man again. Bullets could presumably kill him and we're not particularly scared for Laurie when she takes him on. Could she win? Against this version, sure she could. She's not up against the boogeyman, but just a man in a mask. His kills are all soft targets and there aren't even that many of them. He doesn't get much screen time! Instead the film puts its faith in an endless string of false scares, which work better than you'd think but still end up suffering from the law of diminishing returns. All this is particularly unfortunate since I think one more scene could have made all the difference. We know he's a killer. Just giving him one Terminator moment might have been all we needed to charge up that final act.
I like the cast. The only weak link is Josh Hartnett as Laurie's 17-year-old son, who doesn't embarrass himself but just doesn't have enough range. Well, this was his first film. Jamie Lee Curtis makes the most of what's ultimately her signature role. She's good. Like Sigourney Weaver, she can do hard scary face. The film undermines her Act Three heroics, but that's not her fault. We even meet her real-life mother, Janet Leigh, in a homage to two generations' scream queens. Leigh drives off in the car she drove in Psycho, complete with Norman Bates number plate, to the sound of music from that film. Even the casting of one "LL Cool J" turns out fine. I'd been worried about that, I'll tell you.
Other stuff I liked:
- 1. The extraordinary image of Laurie Strode stabbing Michael Myers with a kitchen knife, which I'd have enjoyed seeing them play with a little more. Unfortunately it's all gone a bit action-adventure by that point. Mind you, the series has dabbled before with the idea of other people becoming monsters like Michael.
- 2. Michael catching a knee in the happy sacks. He hardly flinches, but I laughed anyway.
- 3. Michael having to use the toilet is also something that had never been put in my mind before. Imagine standing next to him at the urinal.
- 4. "Mr Sandman" by the Chordettes. Gotta love tradition, eh?
The film sometimes underlines things a little too hard. I admire their full-blooded approach to their set-pieces and admit that the results are scary, but every so often I caught myself wishing they'd left off the music and just let the camera linger very slightly longer than you'd expect. That's what the first two films did and it worked a treat, letting you wonder if it was just your imagination. There's less room for paranoia if the music's telling you what to think all the time. Similarly the dialogue can be a little too clever, with Buffy-level repartee between the teenagers. Are they supposed to be Oscar Wilde or something? Oh, and it's hard to make claims of subtlety for the scene where one of Laurie's students unknowingly psychoanalyses her during a class discussion of Frankenstein. Uh-huh. Cute.
Continuity-wise, it's frustratingly close to being compatible with 4-6. Originally it was meant to be. Laurie having faked her death and moved to California is a holdover from that draft of the script, but then they changed their minds and did a reboot for simplicity. Thus Michael's been missing presumed dead since 1978, but one could perhaps handwave this as a cover-up from Halloween 6's Thorn cult. Oh, and it's interesting to note that the Halloween series has stuck to the rule of "one year in real life = one year within the fiction". Each film (bar Halloween II) has been set in the year in which it's made, with the characters' lives and backstories moving on accordingly. I like that. I only have one continuity grumble, that the Dr Loomis voiceover at the beginning isn't from the original soundtrack with Donald Pleasence but instead a soundalike who's less good.
At the end of the day, this is a good film. No, really. It's too vanilla for its own good, but it's a sincere, respectful film that avoids the obvious traps you'd expect of the seventh in a series. It'll seem a bit plain when you think about it afterwards, but that's because your memory is papering over all the good bits. Michael Myers gets some of the best scenes he's had in years... he just needed more of them.