From the opening shot, it’s clear that Halloween H20 is anxious to recoup the reputation and cohesion of the Halloween franchise in the wake of Halloween VI. Where the sixth film was splintered and fragmented between a number of a different directions that the francise could have taken, Halloween H20 restores Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode to pride of place for the first time since 1981, and doubles down on atmosphere and tonal consistency. Similarly, where Halloween II was the most televisual film in the franchise, full of subplots and asides that virtually demanded the rhythms of primetime television to make their ambience felt, Halloween H20 is the film most suited to VHS, exuding a lush spatiality that exceeds even the first film, full of small details and easter eggs that are designed to be rewound and rewatched over and over again. Suffused with glossy, tasteful, highbrow production values, the action picks up pretty much where Halloween II left off, although not without a sufficiently dignified sense of the twenty-year interim. This takes place by way of an extended prologue in which Michael Myers appears at the home of a former colleague of Samuel Loomis in Langdon, Illinois, where he manages to access Laurie’s new address and take out a couple of suburbanites in the process. As we return, seamlessly, to the Steadicam porosity of the original, director Steve Miner also manages to invoke the last twenty years of slasher films in a deft and offhand way, from Friday the 13th to Scream, evoking the deep past as the camera pans over images and objects once associated with Laurie and Loomis.
That prologue paves the way for one of the most unique horror films, tonally speaking, to be released in the 90s, as Miner simultaneously buys into the ironic sheen of 90s slasher revisionism, but also insists on a more serious horror pedigree in order to situate the return of Laurie Strode with the dignity that it deserves. On the one hand, the teenagers in the film are every bit as knowing and self-aware as those of Scream or Urban Legend, as evinced in a scene in which John Tate (Josh Hartnett), Laurie’s son, is informed by his friends that his protective bond with his mother turns him into an “Oedipal enabler” of precisely the kind that appear in horror films. At the same time, however, the fact that Scream 2 appears on a television in the background makes it clear that Halloween H20 is not completely a part of the ironised world of 90s slasher reboots, even if it draws upon many of their motifs. As knowing as the teenagers in this world may be, their ironic distance is offset by an especially sombre performance from Curtis as Strode, who is now living under the name of Keri Tate, and has become the principal of an exclusive, gated private academy in northern California, where she lives on site with her son. From the allusions to Frankenstein, to the presence of Janet Leigh as Laurie’s secretary, Halloween H20 continually grounds the motifs of the series in a broader and more classical lineage of horror, in which Bernard Hermann-esque phrases flit in and out of Carpenter’s more synthesized score, and a series of different model cars seem to detach the events of the film from any one horror period or any one horror style.
While Halloween H20 may be somewhat ironised, then, it’s never completely ironised. Instead, Miner replaces ironic distance with his trademark deep focus atmosphere, both spatially and temporally, constructing yawning vistas and tableaux that seem to gesture somewhere outside the here and now to the events that took place twenty years ago. In one particularly eerie scene, Molly (Michelle Williams), John’s girlfriend, looks up from her school desk and out the window, where, at the very edge of the school property, she glimpses Myers’ face through a grille in the garden gate. It’s the first point at which we see Myers in any proximity to Laurie, who is teaching the class, and one of many moments at which the spatial scheme of the film is distended until it almost reaches temporal proportions, gesturing towards a twenty year horizon that can’t be contained or captured by space alone. At these moments, Halloween H20 could almost be directed by Carpenter himself, since among other things, Miner is a brilliant horror classicist, and peculiarly talented at remaining truer to the vision of horror auteurs than even their original creations.
In other words, Halloween H20 is great in the same way that Friday the 13th Parts 2 and 3, which are also directed by Miner, are great, since in both cases Miner consummates, rather than simply extends, the aesthetic of the original film. Whenever I go back and watch Halloween, I’m always slightly surprised by how much my perception of it has been shaped by Halloween H20, as well as the extent to which I’m expecting it to live up to Halloween H20. No doubt, that’s partly because Halloween H20 was the first film in the franchise that I ever saw, but it’s also a testament to the way in which Miner captures not only the atmosphere of the original, but the atmosphere it has accrued in the intervening twenty years – the atmosphere it has generated amongst the memories that it has created. At their best and most atmospheric, 90s horror films took this mnemonic texture as the atmospheric basis of their creations, offsetting their ironic distance with the prescience that the collective memory of horror icons, and the way horror icons had settled into and been domesticated by the collective unconscious, was itself even eerier than their original incarnations. So it is with Halloween H20, which builds much more luxuriously and languorously than even the original, making you wish there was a three hour director’s cut out there somewhere. Apart from the prologue, the first kill scene doesn’t occur until sixty minutes in – and the film is only eighty-five minutes in total – since the real focus is in creating a mood piece, and a study in cohesive and immersive atmosphere above all else.
That delays the introduction of Laurie until about a quarter of the film has passed, finally presenting her in the guise of Keri Tate, the single mother of John and ex-husband of “an abusive, chain-smoking methadone addict.” Yet while Halloween H20 may be grounded in a more naturalistic family structure than any of the previous three films, Miner shows that he’s just as alive to their increasingly Gothic sense of space as to Carpenter’s original. Since Laurie lives on site, domestic and campus space quickly fuses into a voluminous, wind-blown, over-reticulated hyper-space, in which the sense of imminent nightfall so precious to 90s horror is internalised as a function of the space itself. No matter the weather outside, it’s always crepuscular in the halls of Hillcrest, always on the verge of dusk, meaning that the film, which rarely leaves the compound, is also suffused with a kind of perpetual twilight that works quite beautifully with its melancholic orientation towards the past. Of course, nightfall has been a trope as long as horror films have existed, but it takes on a new inflection in 90s horror, where the last rays of the sun don’t simply signify the emergence of evil forces, but the emergence of a social media network that only flourishes after dark. While this network may have been nascent in 1998, at least by contemporary standards, it’s most permeable at nightfall, and especially permeable on Halloween, as Halloween H20 once again remediates the original film’s message by presenting this most American of all holidays as the point where the digital future is most permeable and available to the senses.
For that reason, the descent of nightfall in 90s slasher films, and Halloween H20 in particular, uniquely captures the strange feeling of realising that evening would bring a second, socially mediated, artificially backlit day, so it’s apt that Halloween H20 takes place at the nexus between suburban home and college campus so precious to 90s slasher films, which typically gravitated towards ivy-covered halls and repositories of knowledges as a way of gesturing towards this incipient network of knowledge that was somehow both comprehensive and arcane at the same time. In that respect, Halloween H20 is very much of a piece with 90s films like Scream 2, Urban Legend, The Skulls and, above all, The Faculty, which, along with Halloween H20, formed Hartnett’s 1998 debut. In the case of this film, that sense of the campus as a looming character in itself is only enhanced when the students and staff at Hillcrest take a trip to Yosemite for the summer break, leaving only the over-protective Laurie, her son and a few other students and staff to deal with Myers when he eventually and inevitably arrives for a last Halloween rampage on his remaining family.
For all the atmospheric intensity of that prospect, however, Halloween H20 also has a different sense of humour from its predecessors, as well as a different comic prescience of the extent to which the figure of the slasher is inherently bound up with white privilege and anxiety. Unlike any of the other films in the franchise to date, the seventh features a black character amongst its main cast, in the form of Ronny Jones, a security guard played by LL Cool J, whose job is to monitor who comes into the Hillcrest compound and, just as importantly, to make sure that John never goes out without his mother’s permission. In a comic riff on suburban horror, Ronny acts as the gatekeeper and protector of suburban sanctity, but simultaneously inhabits this role in a parodic and irreverent way, spending more of his time in the gatehouse writing erotic fan fiction rather than keeping a proper eye on who is entering and leaving. The point is only enhanced by his phone conversations about his fan fiction with his wife, Shirl, played by LisaGay Hamilton, who had appeared only the previous year in Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation pastiche Jackie Brown, and whose tone and manner here often recalls Loretta Devine’s depiction of Reese Wilson, the security guard assigned to the body-riddled, exclusively white campus of Urban Legend. In both cases, a black figure not only works as a gatekeeper for the space in question, but for the whole genre of suburban horror, comically exposing the way in which the very sanctity the suburban spaces being invaded depends on the invisible labour of black bodies and affects.
That said, for much of the final act, that comic impulse is subordinated back into Laurie’s agon with Myers, since it’s clear from very early on that she’s tried everything to deal with the psychological impact of 1978, and that only confronting and destroying Myers will allow her to properly recover. Concomitantly, Myers is much less of a figure or entity in his own right and much more a projection of Laurie’s trauma and and history than in any of the other films in the franchise. When the requisite slasher climax does come, then, it’s quite abbreviated, only lasting for about fifteen minutes but compensating for its brevity with some gruesome kitchen violence, including a dumb waiter scene that has haunted me ever since I first watched it, and which distills the sustained suspense sequences of the franchise into a more compressed and vertical sense of momentum, with most of the horizontal activity reduced to crawl spaces and arm-length’s movements. In these short scenes, you can really see a 90s slasher influence at work, from the rabid prevalence of wounds and drawn-out kills, to Myers’s pleasure in theatrically displaying his victims, to the movement of Myers himself, which is much more rapid, or at least more sudden, than in earlier films.
Following on from that abbreviated third act, the remainder of the film focuses on Laurie’s emotional exchange with Michael, and the lengths she is prepared to go to in order to achieve that, up to and including total self-destruction. After she’s safely escorted John and Molly out of Hillcrest, the film takes an original final turn in which Laurie seeks out Myers herself, and Carpenter’s original theme peaks for the first time since the opening credits, but in an orchestral version that entirely sidesteps the synthesised, skeletal substrate of the original in favour of a broader and more expansive horror lineage. In the wake of that shift, we’re presented with one inverted echo of the original film after another, from Myers falling out of a window but into another room, to a series of scenes in which Laurie’s regains the phallic agency that Myers has always arrogated as his own, starting with her impaling him with a California Republic flag in the Hillcrest dining room. For the most part, the violence in this final third is driven by impaling and chest-height horror, where it enables Myers and Laurie to find one contorted way after another to look other in the face, in a series of locked gazes that give the film a quite distinct melodramatic energy from that of the previous films, including those in which Curtis actually appears. In the final set piece, the police and ambulance drivers arrive and clear things up, only for Laurie, who knows the ending of Halloween II all too well, to abduct Myers in the ambulance and abscond from the compound, leading to a windy solo driving sequence that has more than a touch of Psycho about it, especially as our last glimpse of Janet Leigh was as she turned into this same road in the same 1957 Ford Sedan model that made her an immortal in Alfred Hitchcock’s film.
In these final moments of the film, everything is elided except for Laurie and Myers. Not only is Laurie’s romantic interest killed early on, but her ex-husband never returns to save the day, while her son John is never seen again. In fact, no other characters are seen again from this point on, with only the distant approach of police lights signifying the outside world after Laurie intentionally crashes her car against a tree, impaling Myers in the process. Hence the final face-to-face encounter between the two, a plangent emotional moment that Laurie cuts short by beheading her brother, at which point the film comes to a halt just as abruptly. It’s a powerfully heightened vision of the agon between paternal authority and everything seeking to elude, and has a weighty conviction to it, and yet paternal maleficence is never really dead in this particular franchise. Earlier in the third act, it appears that LL Cool J’s Ronny has been one of the first victims of Myers’ rampage, and that his blackness has functioned as mere collateral damage for the real focus of the film. In a last twist, though, he comes in to save Laurie just before she abducts Myers, while her theft of the ambulance takes place as he is planning his next project – a romantic thriller – based on the events that he has just witnessed and experienced. While the film might end with Laurie and Myers in splendid isolation, then, Ronny also gestures towards a different kind of serial continuity, one in which blackness forces the franchise to revise itself in yet another way, which is precisely what will occur in Halloween: Resurrection, which is both the most comic and irreverent of all the Halloween films, and the only one to acknowledge and incorporate the presence of black America in any kind of sustained or systematic way.