H20 (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Has it really been twenty years since John Carpenter's low-budget chiller, Halloween, hit the nation's screens and paved the way for a decade's worth of bloody slasher movies? To date, the original Halloween has been one of the few entries into its gory genre to inspire praise from critics, rather than the scorn reserved for most of the so-called "splatter films." There's good reason for that: Halloween is a well-crafted excursion into terror, where the focus is on shivers, not fake blood and gross-out wounds. It's too bad the movie's numerous sequels didn't follow in their inspiration's footsteps. While one could argue that Halloween 2 was campy fun, it was down a steep slope from there. The final indignity was The Curse of Michael Myers (the sixth picture), one of the most atrocious films I have ever endured. It seemed a safe bet that H20, the seventh (and probably final) Halloween, would have to be better.

It is, and considerably so, almost to the point where it's worth watching even for non- Halloween aficionados. H20 is the second-best entry into the series, and, although it's nowhere close to the level established by Carpenter's classic, it avoids the excesses that ruin many would-be horror movies. H20 takes the time to develop an ominous atmosphere, and, although the plot is a little on the thin side, the film doesn't fall back on the standby of a high body count. Instead, it cuts the running length short and tries to imitate the original by downplaying the gore and ratcheting up the level of tension.

I wish I could say that H20 was entirely successful in that area, but, after so many on- screen appearances, Michael Myers just isn't as scary as he once was. The most recent batch of sequels (numbers 4, 5, and 6) have transformed him into a parody of his original self. In the first Halloween, the sight of "the Shape" moving slowly, inexorably down a darkened hallway was enough to send chills up the spine. Now, twenty years later, it barely causes a shrug. Myers is passé, and, as hard as director Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Parts 2 & 3) tries to re- create the icon he once was, what emerges is just a shadow.

The story makes the interesting choice of ignoring everything after Halloween 2, creating a double time-line for anyone who cares about such things. Laurie Strode (once more played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is still being haunted by her experiences from October 31, 1978, even though twenty years have passed and she is living under a new name, Keri Tate, in a small California town thousands of miles away from Haddonfield. Laurie has a 17 year old son, John (Josh Harnett), a boyfriend (Adam Arkin), and a job as the headmistress of a private school. But every Halloween she gets edgy, and this year, she has a reason.

After having disappeared off the face of the earth following the inferno at the end of Halloween 2, Michael is back. When paying a visit to nurse Marion Wittington (Nancy Stephens, reprising her role from the first two films), the late Dr. Loomis' assistant, Michael learns of Laurie's whereabouts, and, within the span of two days, he is stalking his quarry again. Anyone who gets in his way has a nasty encounter with the sharp end of a knife, but it's clear that Michael's real goal is the death of the two people with whom he shares blood ties.

Although Dimension Films has requested that critics "keep…many, if not all, of [the film's] exciting plot developments a secret", it's worth noting that the final scene of H20 represents the most emphatic conclusion to any of the Halloween movies, and works well not only as the finale to this feature, but, if it turns out that way, to the series as a whole. There's also a moment when, for the first time in two decades, we see Michael as something a little different than an impassive, demonic figure. It's an interesting and effective choice on the part of Miner and his screenwriters.

It's largely because of Scream writer Kevin Williamson's championing of this project (in addition to exec producing, Williamson wrote the original story treatment) that H20 became a reality. The other reason is the return of Jamie Lee Curtis, whose absence was keenly felt through the litany of mediocre-to-awful sequels that appeared during the late-'80s and early-'90s. Curtis' performance here isn't eye opening, but it gives us an opportunity to catch up with Laurie twenty years later, and to see the new, harder edge that her experiences with Michael have given her. Laurie is a "functioning alcoholic" who finally gets a chance to confront the figure who has stalked her nightmares for the past two decades.

Most of the rest of the cast is comprised of young faces, few of who were even born when the original Halloween was in theaters. There's newcomer Josh Harnett as John, Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams as his girlfriend, and Adam Hann-Byrd and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe as a pair of friends. Rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J has a small part as a security guard, Chicago Hope's Adam Arkin is Laurie's co-worker/boyfriend, and Janet Leigh is on hand to spout references to Psycho and offer motherly advice to her real-life daughter. The only one missing from this ensemble is the late Donald Pleasance, who, during the latter years of his life, became as synonymous with the Halloween movies as Michael himself. But Pleasance isn't entirely absent: a speech he gave in the original movie is used as a voiceover during the opening credits. ("I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what lived behind that boy's eyes was, purely and simply, evil.")

Miner references the original Halloween early and often, frequently going so far as to frame sequences in ways that echo similar moments in Carpenter's feature (characters trying to get past a locked door, a girl looking out the window during class, Michael crashing into a closet, etc.). He also makes judicious use of the signature theme song (although, in my opinion, it could have been played more often, rather than relying so heavily on the generic strains of John Ottman's score). And, while the film is more serious than Scream or Scream 2, Miner enjoys toying with some of the conventions of the genre, including a sequence with a garbage disposal that doesn't turn out exactly as we anticipate. And, as expected, the lights don't work, the car won't start, and a fall off a balcony can't keep Michael down for long.

For H20, the bottom line is simple – if you enjoy horror/slasher films in general and the Halloween movies in particular, this picture offers solid (although not tremendous) entertainment. Everyone else will probably be better off staying away. Now that they have produced something vaguely enjoyable, hopefully the film makers will let the series rest in peace. Halloween, like Michael Myers, is long overdue for the grave.

H20 (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 1998-08-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1