Why it’s Better than the Original
Halloween H20 (1998) Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jodi Lynn O'Keefe, and L.L. Cool J. Directed by Steve Miner. Written by Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg. Produced by Kevin Williamson.
- Teens fall victim to The Shape only after they have committed some anti-authoritarian crime, usually have sex, but occasionally boozing or smoking dope. It was [director John] Carpenter's counter-intuitive discovery that adolescents, at whom the film is squarely aimed were, by the late 70s, a deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgression.
- — a critic praising the original Halloween.(1)
Halloween H20 is technically an installment of the Halloween series that began with the 1978 classic and continued with a number of inferior, low-budget sequels. Halloween H20, however, is very different from the others.
The best qualities of the original are missing here. The killer, for example, is not so scary; he now resembles the lanky member of Laurel & Hardy. He also is not a very interesting character.
But while the film lacks the best qualities of the original, it also corrects the biggest mistakes and compensates for them. In the original, the killer was the only interesting character. He was a curious, sexually-dysfunctional, even shy peeping tom who acted out his problems through murder and then proved in the end to be supernatural. The teenaged victims, on the other hand, were two-dimensional, crude dorks. This, some believe, was a deliberate choice by filmmaker John Carpenter. He did not want audiences to empathize with the victims. He wanted us to enjoy watching the teenagers die. He wanted us to give our empathy instead to the killer, showing us many scenes from the killer's vantage point and having us hear the breathing sound we would hear if we wore the killer's mask.
After the success of Halloween, this enjoy-watching-teenagers-die strategy was employed by the producers of Friday the 13th and a myriad of other low-budget slasher films where the hero is the killer and teenagers exist only to be snuffed.
In Halloween H20, however, the teenagers are likeable, even cool. We empathize with these characters, not because they are like us, but because they are like we want to be. Hollywood has always offered this to adults. Finally, filmmakers are offering this to teenagers as well. The young actors here are good-looking and charismatic. They dress sharp; and they deliver great dialogue, articulating themselves in ways we all wish we could.*
The older characters are just as likeable. Halloween H20 is one of those rare films where teenaged characters and older characters can co-exist, drawing the audience's empathy equally and being treated with equal respect by the filmmakers. Usually when a film has characters of different ages, the story falls into one of two categories:
- The story of the sweet, patient parent saddled with ungrateful, malicious, or stupid children (although the children shape up once the parent starts bullying them).
- The story of the cute, clever youth saddled with bungling parents.
The film's best scene, in fact, has nothing to do with horror. The scene is a confrontation between mother and son, a confrontation in which we feel deeply for both parties. Jamie Lee Curtis, the main victim from Halloween and Halloween II, is now living with her son in a secluded boarding school where she works, a virtual fortress where she thinks they will be safe. The killer reportedly died 20 years earlier. (These filmmakers ignore the several installments since Halloween II where the killer was up and making headlines; pretending instead the killer has been quiet ever since "that night." They can get away with this since most movie-goers bailed out on the series after number II.) But while the killer is supposedly long-dead, Curtis is an emotionally shattered bundle of paranoia; and her paranoia in not only hurting her, it is hurting her son (Josh Hartnett). She knows it. In one good scene, she confesses to her love-interest (Adam Arkin) that her son "is finally tired of my bullshït." We like her because she recognizes her shortcomings as a parent. She does not pretend, nor do the filmmakers pretend, the parent is perfect and the child is ungrateful for it. She wants her son to be safe, but she also wants him to be happy and she struggles to keep her emotional baggage in check.
In the film's best scene, her emotional baggage gets opened and flung across the room. She finds out Hartnett has snuck out of the school and gone into town. Worse yet, he has done so on Halloween, the day the killer likes to strike. She confronts him — a sharp clash between the wounded and worried parent and the son who is tired of bearing the burden of her emotional problems. "Can't you just give me one day?!" demands Curtis. And Hartnett replies, "I've given you seventeen years!" The scene doesn't ask us to root for one character against the other. It asks us to feel for both. While Curtis may see her son as her subordinate, the film treats them both with respect.
The scare scenes are somewhat routine. Yet nicely enough, the victims come in different ages. Usually in horror films, only teenagers get killed. In the original Halloween, for example, Michael kills his teenaged sister (while she shows us her boobs so we will be in a good mood while watching this teenager get stabbed), but a moment later, he meets up with his parents and, though he still holds his knife, he makes no effort to harm these adults. In Halloween H20, adults are almost as likely as teenagers to be stalked and killed; though, admittedly, the most brutal and gruesome murder is still reserved for a teenaged woman.
Traditionally in these horror films, the teenagers are horny and crude. In Halloween H20, the teenagers are horny, but also tender and affectionate with each other, and their sex is in the context of committed relationships. The raunchiest couple, in fact, have an exchange about food where Jodi Lynn O'Keef tells her boyfriend, "I love to eat. I hope you won't mind if I get fat and dumpy." Clearly they are planning a long term commitment.
The adults here are equally horny and equally affectionate with their lovers. Whether it is Curtis and Arkin unable to keep their hands off each other, or the school's security guard (L.L. Cool J.) on the phone with his woman reading her the erotica he has written while bored on duty.
In the climax, Jamie Lee Curtis is the heroine, risking her life to face the killer mano-a-mano and protect the others. But the teenagers get their moments of heroism, too. In one scene, Josh Hartnett and his girlfriend (Michelle Williams) are attacked by the killer. The killer grabs Williams, but before he can kill her, Hartnett punches him in the face until the killer lets her go and decides to kill Hartnett instead. Williams then returns the favor, bashing the killer's head with a rock. This is much better than those 80's horror films where, when a young couple was attacked, one teenager would simply watch his/her lover get killed, would scream helplessly, and would then try (and fail) to run away.
Finally, teenagers get to be heroic.