Halloween H20 (1998, Steve Miner)

Halloween H20 is an impressively short motion picture. It’s got an eighty-six-minute runtime, but the end credits run four minutes plus. The opening titles run three minutes, plus the cold open teaser runs ten. So the main action barely runs seventy minutes, thirty minutes of story, forty minutes of slasher suspense.

It’s been twenty years since the original Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis has moved away, faked her death, gotten married, had a kid, gotten divorced, and become an education professional. She runs an isolated private school in Northern California, where she only has to go into town when she wants, and she can keep herself and her teenage son Josh Hartnett away from the world.

Except this Halloween, unlike the nineteen previous, is the one where her slasher movie villain brother comes back.

The movie eventually explains the timing. It’s one of those humdrum eureka moments; all Curtis needed to do was verbalize in a particular way, and everything becomes obvious. Well, minus bad guy Michael Myers (Chris Durand) being unkillable. Though the film works out how to address that situation. It never figures out what to do about Durand’s lousy mask. They apparently had four and were never happy with any of the results, which tracks; the main mask shows a lot of Durand’s cheeks and eyes, which actually ends up working for it. The goofy hair almost looks like a Muppet riff on a Halloween mask, leading to the violence being all the more affecting when they get to it.

There has to be some way to check all those boxes and not have the goofy mask.

Director Miner and cinematographer Daryn Okada compensate for the wanting villain with mood lighting, with H20 having a few distinct styles. The first is the prologue—set in Illinois, fellow Halloween 1 and 2 survivor Nancy Stephens finds herself the victim of a home invasion; she gets neighborhood teens Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Branden Williams to help, only they try to help too much, leading to the first scare sequence and a good showcase for Gordon-Levitt’s mugging. Miner and Okada give that sequence a Midwestern, outer suburb American feel. It’s fall, the leaves are falling, it’s almost Halloween.

Because the actual Halloween is in the Northern California location. During the day, Curtis goes into town for a lunch date with mildly inappropriate boyfriend Adam Arkin (they either work together or he’s her subordinate). While it’s clearly Halloween, it’s not one where Curtis has to participate. She can remain detached. And then Halloween just plain isn’t allowed at the private school, something son Hartnett rebels against. While most of the school is away on a camping trip, Hartnett and his friends plan a romantic Halloween weekend. There’s girlfriend Michelle Williams and their friend couple, Adam Hann-Byrd and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe. Hartnett and Williams are the chaste, romantic couple; Hann-Byrd and O’Keefe are the amusingly debauched couple. But H20 isn’t really about the teens.

It’s always Curtis’s movie. At least once the story proper starts, thirteen minutes in. The prologue suspense sequence actually doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot, with the pertinent information coming in the opening titles. They’re a montage of news clippings about Halloween 1 and 2 and what’s happened since to Curtis. A Donald Pleasance impersonator reads Halloween 1 lines as it goes; they use a clip later, so it’s unclear why they didn’t use the Pleasance audio.

Then the next half hour establishes Curtis’s character as deserving a movie, including Curtis having to develop the character from scratch, albeit with some Sarah Connor nods, starting with the nightmares and the suffering son.

Every character relationship, every character development arc start point, everything character-related—it gets one scene setup. Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg’s script is all about the logistics. Get character A to point X, character B to point Y, and so on. They get away with it because even though all the action at the school takes place in a single day—Halloween—Miner, and composer John Ottman create this summary style for most of the second act. It’s Halloween, but Halloween’s not important; getting to know the characters is important, and they’ve still got a regular school or work day to get through.

We also meet security guard LL Cool J, the lone Black person in the main cast. He’s the diversity. He’s working as a posh school security guard, so he has time to write his romance novels, which he reads over the phone to wife LisaGay Hamilton. It’s charming in its lack of success. They try really hard to make it charming, and it never quite makes it, but the effort’s there.

Oh, and there’s also the Janet Leigh cameo. Leigh’s only in a couple scenes, including one where she has an aware but not too aware talk with Curtis about being slasher movie victims. It’s not great dialogue, but Leigh’s so earnest about it and so good at being oblivious to the bit it works out. Especially since it sets the mood for the following suspense sequence.

H20’s efficiencies are never more brutal than with the dialogue. It’s short conversations; once the actors hit their marks, it’s over, on to the next scene. No one gets to ramble; there’s no scenery-chewing except maybe Gordon-Levitt at the beginning. The short runtime is almost a necessity; H20 knows what its concept can support and never tries to go further.

As a director, Miner’s strangely better with the actors than with the suspense. H20’s suspense sequences have some personality—and the film likes its pop scare gags—but the character stuff feels more considered. Though some might just be the plotting, the film keeps checking in with Curtis and about how, either way, the twentieth anniversary of Halloween 1 was going to be special.

If her slasher movie brother hadn’t come back, Curtis would still be making a lot of personal progress thanks to Hartnett’s teenage rebellion and Arkin’s sweet and horny attentions.

Then, much like the character gets a eureka moment, the film makes a comparison between Curtis and Victor Frankenstein (in the novel) and their respective Frankensteins, and something just clicks for H20. The movie can get away with a whole bunch, just thanks to that one detail.

Curtis is great. No one else comes close, but then no one else should be able to come close. Hartnett and Arkin are the obvious standouts, Hartnett more. Arkin’s doing a riff, Hartnett puts in some character work. LL Cool J’s really sympathetic; troubled part but very likable. Leigh’s fun. It’s a scene and a half; she doesn’t have to do much. Hann-Byrd and O’Keefe are fine. They’re perfunctory. Williams is just a little bit less perfunctory and also fine. H20 never tries to be more than it needs to be, including with characters.

The technicals are all solid without ever being extraordinary. Okada’s photography ranges from very good to perfectly fine. Patrick Lussier’s editing’s good. Ottman’s music is… an anti-Halloween Halloween score? The music does a lot of work setting the mood for the film and the performances; it’s usually successful. But it’s also a little ostentatious in how much it avoids the traditional theme.

Halloween H20 is a good “extended period” later sequel. It couldn’t possibly exist without the sequels it ignores, but it also gets to do something entirely different thanks to that feign ignorance. Miner and Curtis, with help, make H20 much more special than it needs or ought to be.

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