This was my call. I wanted this.
- Jamie Lee Curtis, "Fangoria" interview
In 1978, director John Carpenter ("Escape from New York") unleashed a low-rent horror film (made with a paltry budget of $300,000) on American audiences. While reaction to this member of the slasher genre was initially muted, strong positive word-of-mouth began to build, and thus "Halloween" became one of the few contemporary horror films to be heaped with critical praise. In addition to earning a handsome return at the box office, "Halloween" began the "Scream Queen" career of Jamie Lee Curtis, started a horror franchise (which comprised of five sequels), and inspired a new generation of teen horror writers, with the most prominent being Kevin Williamson (the writer of "Scream", "Scream 2", and "I Know What You Did Last Summer"). Unfortunately, the string of sequels was mediocre at best, and the "Halloween" franchise eventually turned into its own worst enemy, and sank into cinematic obscurity.
Fast-forwarding a couple of decades later, Curtis contacted the franchise's producers in 1997 and expressed her interest in reprising her role as Laurie Strode, the virginal babysitter she played in the first two films. Working with Kevin Williamson, they drafted a brief seven-page treatment that caught up with Laurie Strode twenty years after the events of the first film. With the help of screenwriters Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg ("Mimic"), this treatment was transformed into "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later", which wisely ignores films three through six, making it a direct sequel to 1981's "Halloween 2". And while it does not top the original "Halloween", it certainly outshines the rest of the series on the strength of the character dynamic of its protagonist, Laurie Strode.
My brother killed my sister.
How did he do that?
With a really big, sharp kitchen knife.
It is a couple of days before Halloween night of 1998, and the hideous events of Halloween 1978 are still very fresh in the mind of Laurie Strode. Having faked her own death in an automobile accident, she is living under the assumed name of Keri Tate in a small California town. And though she seems to be doing well working as a headmistress at a private school, her life is far from idyllic.
Oh! Miss Tate! I didn't mean to make you jump. It's Halloween... I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare.
I've had my share.
Troubled by recurring nightmares stemming from her ordeal with Michael Myers, Laurie is a functioning alcoholic with an unhealthy addiction to prescription drugs. Her 17 year old son John (Josh Harnett), the product of a failed marriage, is growing increasingly rebellious and resents having to put up with an overly-protective mother who will not even allow him to leave school grounds. Even her relationship with the school's guidance counselor (Adam Arkin of "Chicago Hope") is strained by the memories of her traumatic past. Not surprisingly, Laurie becomes edgy every Halloween, even to the point of hallucinating Michael Myers' visage everywhere she looks.
Has anyone ever told you second-hand smoke kills?
Yes... but they're all dead.
However, this Halloween, Laurie's paranoia is justified, with Michael Myers learning of Laurie's whereabouts after breaking into the home of nurse Marion Wittington (Nancy Stephens, who played the same role in the first two films), the assistant of the late Dr. Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance). As Halloween night rolls around, Laurie finds herself trapped in the school's empty corridors with her boyfriend, John, John's girlfriend (Michelle Williams of "Dawson's Creek"), and the school's security guard (rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J).
What should I do?
Try to live!
One of the interesting things about the original "Halloween" was what it didn't show. Instead of relying on graphic violence gross-out thrills, John Carpenter scared his audience with the judicious use of suspense and tension-building atmosphere. Unfortunately, "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later" comes in as a product of the post-"Scream" era, where suspense has given away to upping the gore score. Despite this reliance on visceral thrills, this latest sequel succeeds due to its character-centered script. In most films of the teen horror-slasher genre, the protagonists tend to be uninteresting folk whose only purpose is to be cut-down by the masked villain in creatively gruesome ways, severely limiting the ability of the audience to identify with them. This is not the case with "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later".
In the first two films, Laurie was a shy and indecisive teenage girl who often wound up being taken advantage of by others. Even at the end of "Halloween 2", Laurie relied on the deus ex machina efforts of others to save her from Michael Myers, instead of taking matters into her own hands. At the beginning of the latest installment, Laurie is still a very flawed character, using alcohol and drugs to block out the memories of her past. As the film progresses and it becomes apparent that Michael Myers has indeed returned, an increasingly-assertive Laurie is forced to make her own decisions in order to protect her friends and family. Instead of being frozen in terror or running away (which she often did in the first two films), Laurie finds the strength to face her demon and regain control of her own life, leading to an emotionally-satisfying resolution. With this type of transformational character arc, "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later" is not your archetypal slasher film.
In addition to having a narrative unbecoming of your generic teen horror film, the script constantly defies expectations at every turn. A number of scenes are set up with the expectation of something ghastly happening, only to do a refreshing about-face when you expect all hell to break loose. For example, the notorious 'four-second rule' of horror films is violated on numerous occasions. For those of you unfamiliar with it, in your typical horror film, an onscreen character will hear a noise and then investigate its source, which usually turns out to be nothing (such as a cat). At this point, start counting from 'one'-- by the time you reach 'four', something horrible will happen. In "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later", this rule doesn't always apply.
Performance-wise, Curtis exonerates herself quite well in reprising the role of Laurie Strode, and it is very easy to sympathize with her, despite her obvious faults. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who wind up being poorly-drawn caricatures to be thrown into harm's way. One notable bit of stunt-casting would be the cameo by Curtis' mother, Janet Leigh, whose claim to fame was the slasher film that started them all, "Psycho".
While this entry into the genre is far from perfect, such as providing a credible explanation why Michael Myers would be back after such a long absence, it does pretty well. If you are a fan of the teen-horror film, you will certainly enjoy "Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later", which breathes some life back into the faded franchise. For those who don't find slasher films that interesting, there is still enough in this effort to make it worthy of a look.