Feature Article

How Halloween H20 Saved The Halloween Series (Before They F***ed It Up Again)

Twenty years later.

If the direction and timeline of the DC and X-Men superhero universes often seem contradictory and confusing, they have nothing on the big horror franchises. With the rights passed between studios and producers and the interests of horror fans constantly shifting, there is often little continuity or consistency between sequels, especially for those franchises that have been running for decades.

The Halloween series is perhaps the worst example, not least because the movie that kicked it off was so good. John Carpenter's 1978 original might not have technically been the first slasher movie--that honour arguably belongs to Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) or possibly Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (1971)--but it was the film that made this subgenre a serious commercial force and inspired dozens of copycat movies over the following years. Inevitably there was a 1981 sequel, which, while not a patch on that tense, stylish first movie, was at least written by Carpenter and saw Jamie Lee Curtis return as Laurie Strode (now revealed to be the sister of the franchise's masked killer, Michael Myers, aka The Shape).

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983) was a standalone movie that had nothing to do with the saga of The Shape. Carpenter considered that story done, so his plan was to launch an anthology movie series that would revolve around the holiday itself. But Halloween III's financial failure led to 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers; from this point on Carpenter's only involvement was an executive producer credit, cashing the checks but having no creative influence.

Halloween 5 followed in 1989 and part 6 in 1995. But by this point, even the most devoted fans were losing interested in this once great slice of iconic horror. Michael was no longer the terrifying presence of the first two movies and the films' increasingly modest box office returns showed how little fans were starting to care.

So hopes weren't high for Halloween H20, which was released 20 years ago this summer. At one stage, Carpenter was set to make a return to the series, at the request of Jamie Lee Curtis, who had herself agreed to return for a new movie. Ultimately Carpenter walked away, with producer Moustapha Akkad--whose estate owns the rights to the series--reportedly unwilling to pay Carpenter the $10 million that he asked for. So Steve Miner was hired instead; while Miner is hardly one of the great horror directors of the era, he was also far from a novice, with hits such as House and Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3 under his belt.

Against the odds, not only was H20 good, it was the best Halloween movie since the first one. So what went right? For a start, writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg basically ignored every movie since Halloween II. Of course, Curtis's return made this essential since Halloween 4 establishes that Laurie Strode is dead. But more importantly, it allowed the filmmakers to wipe the slate clean and bury parts 4-6 in the video graveyard; they essentially said this is the third Michael Myers movie.

Curtis's presence is H20's other great advantage. The intervening entries did have the presence of the great Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, but his role became increasingly small and more redundant as the films continued, and by 1998 the actor was sadly no longer with us. Bringing Curtis back not only gave the movie continuity with the earlier, better films, it also helped H20 stand apart from the other horror movies of the era.

This was the decade of Scream of course--Wes Craven's smart, self-aware, scary slasher was a massive hit in 1996, and like Halloween 20 years earlier, it inspired a wave of similar movies and their sequels. From I Know What you Did Last Summer to Urban Legend and Cherry Falls, these films were marked by young casts, pop-culture references, and a self-referential quality that was missing in previous decades. H20 ticks many of these boxes, which isn't surprising, given Scream creator Kevin Williamson wrote the movie's initial treatment and reportedly came back for some uncredited rewrites. The cast is packed with upcoming young stars (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams), plus rapper LL Cool J, and Janet Leigh, star of Hitchcock's Psycho and Curtis's real-life mom.

Curtis brought a sense of dramatic weight to the film. Having faked her death to stop Michael tracking her down, Laurie now lives with the terrible memory of the events of the first movie when she was 17. Her own son John (Hartnett) is himself turning 17 on--you guessed it!--October 31, and inevitably Michael returns for a family reunion. But the Laurie of 1998 is very different to the teenage babysitter of two decades earlier. Taking her lead from the likes of Terminator's Sarah Connor and Alien's Ripley, Curtis delivers one of the decade's most kickass heroines. With John and his friends in danger from her crazed brother, Laurie races to save them and faces Michael down in a brutal one-on-one. And in a nod to the fact that by 1998 no one is surprised when a slasher movie villains sits up at the end after being seemingly killed, in the final sequence, Laurie steals the ambulance in which Michael's “body” lies. As she knew, Michael ain't dead; it takes being run over, thrown off a cliff, and beheaded to finally lay him to rest.

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And that probably should have been that. A fun, exciting horror sequel that closed the door on a classic franchise; time to move on to great some new movies. But while Halloween H20's considerable box office success was well deserved, it also meant that there was no way that the film's producers--Miramax by this stage--were going to let it lie. So the cycle began again. A truly terrible "sequel" followed in 2002 in the, er, shape of Halloween: Resurrection, directed by Halloween II's director Rick Rosenthal. It not only brought Michael back from the dead via a twist so idiotic I can't even bring myself to type it, it also killed Laurie off in the opening scenes.

While Resurrection remains the lowest point of the franchise, the subsequent attempt to reboot the entire series wasn't much more successful. Musician-turned-director Rob Zombie was handed this task; he upped the gore quota and gave Michael an unnecessary backstory, and while both Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009) have their moments of brutal intensity, even at their best they are a pale imitation of everything Carpenter did so well in the first place. With mediocre box office returns and seemingly nowhere for the series to go, Halloween II was the last movie in the series to date, leaving the longest gap between movies in its history. It seemed that all the hard work that H20 did in restoring some of the original's glory was in vain.

Which brings us to Halloween, the third movie to carry this title, which is set for release this October and is directed by acclaimed indie filmmaker David Gordon Green. In what feels like an uncanny mirroring of 1998, Curtis is returning to play Laurie Strode, for a movie which, again, ignores most of the movies in between. This time Carpenter IS involved, both creatively as a hands-on story advisor and in contributing the movie's score. While little is known about the plot specifics, we know that this Halloween is a direct sequel to the first movie, so it's very possible that Michael isn't even Laurie's brother in this one.

Will it do what Halloween H20 did, 20 years ago? It certainly seems to be in good hands, from Carpenter and Curtis to producers Blumhouse, who are on a serious roll with the recent successes of Get Out, Split, and the Purge movies. And while Green and co-writer Danny McBride are known more for comedy and drama than horror, they certainly seem to understand what made the original so good. Here's hoping it's a happy, scary Halloween this year.

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Dan Auty

Firmly of the opinion that there is no film that isn't improved by the addition of an exploding head or kung-fu zombie.
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