The Night He Came Back – Revisiting Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago, Laurie Strode faced Michael Myers for the “final” time. We take another look at Steve Miner’s supposed series closer. 

The Halloween series was well and truly running on fumes when Scream satirised the slasher genre to highly-successful effect in 1996. Just like John Carpenter’s 1978 milestone, Wes Craven’s Scream ushered in a wave of sub-par imitators and killed the genre’s resurgence almost as quickly as it had started. The spectre of that 1970s classic was all over the new contender; Craven stole liberally from Carpenter, with screenwriter Kevin Williamson even writing the fabled film into the script’s climax. With such flattery, is it any wonder that Dimension would resurrect Michael Myers next?

The awkwardly-titled Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (there wasn’t even a cross-promotion with Evian) jumped on the renewed interest in screen slashers by bringing back series mainstay Jamie Lee Curtis. Her star was made with the original, and despite appearing in bigger films of classier types, she never shied away from her exploitation roots and was justifiably proud of the original. Having last played heroine Laurie Strode in 1981’s Halloween II, a film that took place on the same night as the first, it was her intention to get the band back together for a twentieth anniversary to remember and, more importantly, to end the franchise once and for all. They sort of made good on the first part.

Twenty years after Michael Myers offed her friends on Halloween night, his sister Laurie is now living with a new identity far away from Haddonfield, Illinois. She’s also the headmistress of a very posh boarding school in California, and if that wasn’t enough, she also has a son, John (played in his screen debut by Josh Hartnett). Scarred by her close call with a butcher knife, Laurie still fears Michael’s return, and on the weekend of John’s seventeenth birthday – which just so happens to coincide with Halloween – his uncle has returned to help cut up the cake. And some co-eds.

Despite being the seventh entry in an exhausted franchise, H20 had plenty to recommend it in 1998 and is still a sharp slasher treat in 2018. David Gordon Green’s upcoming sequel/reboot will likely surpass it, but having given it another go, I find Twenty Years Later to be a more than adequate “finale” to the original series. It is certainly better than its troubled production would attest; Carpenter was slated to step back into the director’s chair until producer Moustapha Akkad balked at his salary demands, and Miramax were so particular about Myers’ iconic mask that they used several… noticeably. There’s also the matter of John Ottman’s score being dumped only to replace it with tracks from Scream, but these popular pet-peeves were not quite enough to ruin H20‘s good intentions.

Director Steve Miner is no visionary but he was a dependable choice, having helmed the first two sequels to Friday the 13th and more “competent” mainstream fare like Forever Young. His handling here is workmanlike but solid, and like Carpenter, he chooses suspense over ultraviolence, spending over half the film building up to Michael and Laurie’s reunion. He also presents the best opening of any of the follow-ups in my opinion, killing off a familiar character (and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a cool efficiency. This prologue is made all the better by a frankly fantastic title sequence, which accounts for the passage of time and even takes the opportunity to correct a continuity error presented by a previous entry.

Much of H20 is certainly contrived from a screenwriting standpoint (a script doctored by the aforementioned Kevin Williamson), but the narrative problems seem more like genre requirements than anything else. A camping trip to rid the school of students – and therefore extras – rings a bit hollow, the teenspeak is largely dreadful, and Laurie’s mental scarring is probably laid on a bit too thickly by that fourth glass of wine. But all of it is just an engine for the slaughter, and the pacing builds wonderfully to the moment when Laurie and Michael come face-to-face. This particular sequence could very well be the most iconic moment in a Halloween film outside of Carpenter.

The cast seem to be treating this material with a certain level of respect… or more respect than the enterprise probably deserves. Hartnett does a fair job on his first try, clearly relishing the chance to play opposite Curtis, and the brilliant (and future Oscar-nominated) Michelle Williams manages to be convincingly terrified as his girlfriend. I guess you could say LL Cool J’s nightguard is the weak link, but even he is just likable enough to worry about. We’re not in Busta Rhymes country yet.

They’re all marching to Laurie’s tune, however. Curtis ably carries the film and we’re cheering her on when she finally takes the fight to Michael. Where else could the character go, really? She had to face her fears and become the series’ Ellen Ripley. It is a testament to Curtis’ underrated talents that her arc from terrified former babysitter to axe-wielding badass lands as well as it does. I always smile during the finale when an ambulance arrives to take care of a supposedly dead Myers, only for Laurie to steal it and make sure this sucker’s toast (she must have seen the sequels). It will be interesting to see if the forthcoming “revisionist sequel” covers this ground any better.

Halloween H20 is short, glossy and occasionally a bit too 90s for its own good, but I liked it when it came out and still do. It is far and away the strongest sequel to date for me, even surpassing the popular Halloween II with its modest accomplishments. This is a series that set itself an increasingly low bar, but the filmmakers knuckled down and tried to deliver a product that did the name justice. It isn’t even close to that original masterpiece, of course, but sometimes noble aspirations can go a long way. The only question you need to ask yourself is this: If H20 was the end of the Halloween saga, would you be satisfied? For me, I believe the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Before he knew Jamie Lee Curtis was involved, Josh Hartnett wasn’t sure he wanted to audition. “Halloween 7? Is that going straight to video, or is that going straight to hell?”
  • There is a cameo from Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh, as Norma. She even stands next to the same car from Psycho (1960), which was a great influence on the slasher genre and the original Halloween.
  • During the credits in the prologue, Dr. Samuel J. Loomis’ dialogue from the first film about Michael’s incarceration is heard. The studio, instead of recovering the original audio of Donald Pleasence, decided to use a sound-alike actor named Tom Kane.
  • In certain scenes, Michael can be seen wearing two different masks. The director decided well into production, to go with a different mask, so certain scenes were re-shot. Some scenes with the original mask can still be seen, and in one shot it had to be altered with CGI to replace Michael’s old mask with the new one.
  • The shortest Halloween movie in the series with a runtime of 86 minutes.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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