First of all, we know: the “Casper” mask from H20 is terrible. Laughable. Burn it. Take an axe to it. Erase it from existence like so many subpar Halloween sequels. So bad is the mask, in fact, that the filmmakers decided to do multiple reshoots with a different mask for various close-ups, and altered some shots with CGI, meaning that keen-eyed fans can spot two different kinds of Michael masks throughout the film. Very, very, very bad.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, though, hear us out: Halloween: H20 – mask issues aside – is really rather excellent.
With a new 40-years-later Halloween sequel getting attention and acclaim, we’re feeling nostalgic for the 20-years-later Halloween sequel that hasn’t quite gotten the kudos it deserved. The movie, released in 1998 as part of the post-Scream slasher renaissance, has many of the elements that make the original film so memorable: solid scares, an extension of the Laurie-Michael story, and Jamie Lee Curtis in full-on broken badass mode as a Laurie Strode who goes by a different name and has escaped Illinois to become a private school principal.
It is also, in many ways, a complete mess. What started as an idea from a meeting between then slasher king Kevin Williamson and perennial slasher queen Curtis, with John Carpenter kinda-sorta on board to direct, would evolve into an 86-minute mishmash of meta ’90s horror quips and ’70s-style chills, with a score literally recycled from Williamson’s first two Scream movies. Steve Miner would direct (Carpenter, out!), while Williamson’s script and story work is uncredited. Curtis has said the project started with good intentions, but she ultimately did it for “the paycheck.”
Twenty-one years on, we think it was a paycheck well earned. Halloween H20 may be a mess, but it’s a mess worth your time. Here’s why.
The ultimate scream queen – and that’s a fact now – made a triumphant return to the franchise that launched her career with the 20-years-later sequel. And for all the critical acclaim that Curtis is earning for her turn as a very damaged Laurie Strode in this year’s Halloween, it’s worth remembering her incredible work as, well, a very damaged Laurie Strode in H20. While she may not have been living in a compound and hadn’t had her kid taken away from her, H20’s Strode – known as Principal Tate to her students – is a brutally scarred survivor: She still sees the Shape in reflections and down dark alleys, she guzzles white wine in mammoth gulps (as she orders another), and she’s stiflingly overprotective of her 17-year-old son – at least every October 31st. In the first hour of the film, Curtis is terrifically nervy as the stern headmistress about to crack, one moment jittery, the next moment pure ice. When she finally comes face-to-face with Michael, she’s a woman transformed. The terror in her eyes is now determination, the wine glass in her hand replaced by an axe. This is her night. She’s been waiting 20 years. And she’s going to finish it. As we said: paycheck well earned.
Michael Myers is given a relatively big-name cast to potentially pick off in H20: there’s a broody Josh Hartnett in his first feature film, Chicago Hope’s Adam Arkin pops by – briefly – as Strode’s lover, and a Dawsons’s Creek-era Michelle Williams is along for the ride, too, playing one of those too-wise, too-articulate ’90s teens killers had a taste for. Still, in the movie’s super-short runtime it’s LL Cool J, as the private school’s gate attendant, Ronny, who leaves the biggest impression. Ronny is an aspiring romance novelist too busy reading his latest work to his girlfriend over the telephone to notice Michael sneaking into the school, and Cool J is great in the role – spot-on comic timing, but with a genuinely caring side when showing the real fondness he has for kids who are partially under his charge. It’s a great first taste of the comic-sidekick schtick Cool J would perfect a year later, playing a chef with a real fondness for his bird in shark flick, Deep Blue Sea.
The movie’s big showdown is more satisfying than terrifying, with Strode turning the tables – after hiding under them – on her bloodthirsty brother. But up until then the movie is stuffed with some genuinely chilling, and inventive, slasher moments. The kitchen scene stands out in the back half of the film, with some playful misdirection – that garbage disposal never does get used – and squirmy grisliness: if you don’t like seeing bones being graphically snapped, avert your eyes. The opening scene, however, as with so many late ’90s horror films, is where the true action’s really at. It’s vintage Halloween, with Michael, mostly unseen, stalking Dr. Loomis’s former coworker, Marion Chambers, and her teenager neighbors – one of them played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. By the time someone’s got an ice-skate buried in their face, it’s clear that Michael’s is back – and the years have not softened him.
How can something be a Scream knockoff and a sequel to the film that Scream knocked off? Let the Weinsteins and Dimension Films show you how. Capitalizing on the success of Scream (and the wave of imitators that followed), the film’s writer, Kevin Williamson, was brought on board to write H20. And while he is uncredited, and his script was never used, it is reportedly his story upon which the foundations were built. But also, it seems, his spirit. Note the self-referential, super-meta touches: At one point the kids even sit in a bedroom watching Scream 2, which was released about half a year before, and is a sequel to a movie in which kids sit in a living room watching the first Halloween. Note, too, the unnaturally witty teenage repartee (it’s reported Williamson was brought in again to add a bit of polish to the final screenplay). And note the music. Really note the music. While composer John Ottman gets the credit for his score, a kind of adaptation of and expansion on John Carpenter’s original theme, during crucial chase scenes it’s actually Marco Beltrami’s music from Scream and Scream 2 that is used. Literally. Cut and paste – or whatever the composer equivalent is. It could have all been quite the disaster, and yet, somehow, it works. And in the pantheon of Scream knockoffs – among them such not-so-seminal works as Urban Legend and Valentine – H20 stands tall.
The movie is full of Easter eggs for horror fans, even if many of them are Scream in-jokes (“the Beckers” down the road, to whom Strode tells her son to go for help, are in fact Casey Becker’s parents from the opening scene of Scream). There are references to the original film, of course, as when Strode considers hiding in a closet. The best of the lot, though, is the casting of Janet Leigh – Curtis’s mom, and Psycho’s Marion Crane – as Norma, Principal Tate’s secretary. She gets the movie’s best line, and one given an extra kick because it’s shared between the mother-daughter scream queens: “I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare,” says Leigh, to which Curtis’s Strode replies, “I’ve had my share.” When Leigh drives off after the exchange, she does so in a 1957 Ford Cedan, the exact same model Marion Crane drove in Psycho. As she does, the score to Hitchcock’s film begins to play. Not exactly subtle, but beautiful nonetheless.
Halloween: H20 was released August 5, 1998