Slashing Pumpkins

Halloween update finds new blood in a familiar vein

The unkillable masked killer in John Carpenter's slasher-movie prototype Halloween is the most generic of all movie monsters. Even his name--reputedly borrowed from a British film distributor who made an overseas hit out of Carpenter's early film Assault on Precinct 13--is prosaic: Michael Myers.

He's just a tall, silent stunt man in dark blue overalls and a plain, chalky-white mask with strangely long, unkempt hair. He looks like a cross between an auto mechanic and a mime with a hangover, which, come to think of it, is sort of a scary image.

That scariness has always rather annoyed me, though. I'd like to say that it's some poetic terror--say, Dracula or the Mummy, or some other creature that carries the dust of the ages along with direct menace--that keeps me up nights. But alas, classic movie monsters are now more like old friends than nightmares. It's embarrassing to admit it, but if I hear a bump in the middle of the night, it's very likely to be Carpenter's bland, plodding Midwestern bogeyman that pops into my head.

So for my money, Halloween is a horror classic, whether it deserves to be or not. The monster fits his milieu perfectly--the generic small-town Illinois setting, generic cast, generic jolts and stupidly repetitive music all combine to work on your nerves, even while you're laughing at them with derision.

But Michael's charmlessness, for lack of a better term, made Halloween's power a one-shot deal. Without Carpenter's confident directorial touch, the franchise's numerous sequels were all execrable--tedious and unpleasant, relieved only by that amusing ham Donald Pleasence as Michael's shrink nemesis (and even his presence was sort of sad, since an actor of his talents deserved better). Also sorely lacking, in all but the first of the sequels, was the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who had brought a touchingly heartfelt terror to the role of the virginal heroine. Her soulfulness and horse-faced prettiness brought a sympathy to her acting that transcended the dumb shocks.

Pleasence died a few years ago, but Curtis has been persuaded to go slumming in the genre that made her a star with Halloween: H20. In the ads, it's been subtitled Halloween 20 Years Later, a slugline that is scary in itself--it can get those of us who saw the film in high school thinking about diets and exercise regimens and hair transplants.

The modestly pleasant news is that it's not a bad little movie. It's cleanly and tightly scripted, with a low body count and minimal gore. Director Steve Miner (who cut his filmmaking teeth on Friday the 13th, Part 2 and later helmed many episodes of The Wonder Years) and writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenburg have some idea of the difference between an obligatory element and a gratuitous one, and they don't pad--the film clocks in within an hour and a half, slackening the pace only long enough to slip in a gag appearance by Curtis' mother, Janet Leigh, strictly for the sake of a few corny Psycho references (there's even a whisper of Bernard Herrmann's great score worked into the soundtrack). Best of all, H20 pulls a reversal on the usual slasher formula that's really appealing.

The plot: In a good, blackly comic prologue, we realize that Michael is still alive, or whatever state he exists in, after all these years, and that he's decided it's time to go look up poor Laurie (Curtis), who, it was established in the sequels, is actually his sister. After a title-sequence tribute to the late Pleasence, we learn that Laurie has faked her own death and taken on a new identity as the headmistress of a private school in California, where she lives with her son (Josh Hartnett), who's now 17, the age Laurie was 20 years ago. So on Halloween night, with all but a handful of the students gone on a camping trip, "Uncle Mike" stops by the school grounds to pay his sister and nephew a visit. Laurie, her son, her boyfriend (Adam Arkin), the school security guard (LL Cool J) and a couple of nubile partyers are implacably stalked.

It's the same old stuff, only milder, until late in the film, when Laurie, faced with a clear avenue of escape, suddenly decides she's had enough running away and hoping to be rescued. She grabs a fire ax and heads back into the schools, and the rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game, with Michael as much hunted as hunter.

The cheers that accompany this shift in structure are deeply heartening. They indicate that the audience for these films isn't made up of the Old Testament puritans that the genre's sexually cautionary subtext would suggest--that we haven't, all these years, been rooting for the killer to bring down his wrath on the promiscuous teens. H20 ought to serve as the end of this franchise, and it would also be a nice way to end the genre as a whole. It contains the most welcome line I can remember in a slasher movie: the heroine looking at the apparently dead killer and impatiently snapping, "Come on, get up!"

Halloween: H20
Directed by Steve Miner; with Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, Adam Hann-Byrd, LL Cool J, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe and Janet Leigh.

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