The sequel rewrote the history of the franchise 20 years ago, subverted the slasher genre, and gave Jamie Lee Curtis one of her greatest roles.
David Gordon Green’s Halloween is about to rewrite the history of the entire horror franchise, ignoring every single one of the sequels and continuing the story anew, 40 years after John Carpenter’s Halloween. It sounds bold and it sounds risky, but only if you weren’t already familiar with the history of Halloween. The franchise pulled the exact same trick 20 years ago, in the sometimes underappreciated Halloween H20… which is still – for now, at least – the best sequel in the franchise. Let’s look back at the film on the occasion of its 20th anniversary this week!
Full spoilers follow!
Calling it the best sequel isn’t saying too much, of course. The Halloween series was and still is notorious for its scattershot quality, with strange digressions into conspiracy cults and psychic powers retroactively ruining the original film’s celebrated simplicity. Halloween was the story of a masked serial killer named Michael Myers who went on a killing spree on October 31st, something that could, terrifyingly, happen to anyone in the audience. But as the sequels progressed Michael Myers fought a little girl with ESP, joined a doomsday religion and uncovered one long-lost relative after another. In other words, the kind of stuff that could happen to nobody.
Halloween, once the bastion of horror storytelling efficiency, had become complicated and ridiculous. So when the time came to revive the Halloween franchise after the sudden and unexpected success of Wes Craven’s Scream, the filmmakers made the clever decision to pretend all that stupid stuff never happened. Halloween H20 would follow the first two films in the series and ignore everything else… almost.
The only major plot point that Halloween H20 kept from the sequels was that Laurie Strode, the young woman who fought Michael Myers off in 1978, was actually Michael’s sister. The monster and the victim were connected. In H20 we see that that connection, and the shocking murders of Laurie’s friends, have had a lasting impact on her life. She’s lived on the run, constantly looking over her shoulder, dealing with her post-traumatic stress any way she can, including safe medical treatments and even reckless substance abuse.
Halloween H20 is a slasher movie about Laurie and her teenaged son John (Josh Hartnett, in his acting debut) fighting off Michael Myers at a private school on Halloween. Its kills are sharp and efficient, as delivered by respectable horror filmmaker Steve Miner (Friday the 13th: Part 2). But if that’s all it was, H20 would just be a disposable horror thriller with a gimmick, i.e. erasing the history of a franchise.
Halloween H20 is a lot more than that. It’s a redemptive character study told with popular slasher conventions. It represents one of the finest performances of Jamie Lee Curtis’s career, as she comes to terms with the fact that Michael Myers destroyed her life, and she realizes she doesn’t want him to destroy her son’s life as well. She expresses strength and vulnerability as she attempts to protect John, even before Myers attacks. At first she refuses to let him go on a school trip even though she knows her dedication to his safety pushes him away. She lets him go anyway and can barely contain her anxiety within her charming, forced smile.
Laurie reveals her fears and uncertainties to her boyfriend Will (Adam Arkin), the school counselor. She’s losing her son, and she’s been hiding her whole life from a monster who – for all she knows – isn’t out there anymore. But the audience knows he’s there, driving to Summer Glen, California, and that all of her personal growth is about to be tested in one last battle with her inner/outer demon.
Michael Myers attacks and kills some of John’s friends, and in a pulse-pounding scene, as he’s chasing John and his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams) with a knife, he comes face-to-face with Laurie. They take a moment to regard each other. But he’s gone before she can pull out her gun and shoot him. What follows is a mad scramble as Laurie tries to protect her son and Will tries to protect Laurie. But even though Will is set up as her savior – he’s a great listener, a confident supporter, everything she’s looking for – the second he thinks he sees Myers he fires every bullet Laurie has, into Ronny the helpless security guard, played by LL Cool J.
Will dies badly. Laurie Strode won’t be protected, not in this film. So once the kids are off-campus she turns right back around, grabs a fire ax, and Halloween H20 changes. It was a typical slasher movie about a masked murderer chopping up helpless victims. Now the tables have turned. Michael Myers’ orchestral theme begins to play but this time, Laurie is doing the stalking. And when she calls him out, yelling “MICHAEL!!” with all the flames at her disposal, the score kicks into high gear. Turning what once was horrifying into a heroic anthem.
It’s easy to write off the finale of Halloween H20 as just a big fight between the hero and the villain of the franchise. This is the moment when Michael Myers loses his power. He’s still a threat but he’s not the boogeyman. He’s a cancer in Laurie Strode’s life and she carves him out in an epic duel. Myers spent the whole film slinking in the shadows. Now he unleashes his full strength, throwing tables around the room and more. And Laurie unleashes her inner Myers, darting out from behind curtains, effectively jump-scaring Michael Myers to death as she stabs him and throws him off a railing.
And then, she picks up the knife and starts to stab him again. Ronny stops her but it’s as though the moment everyone mocks in John Carpenter’s Halloween – the moment when Laurie dropped the knife, leaving herself defenseless – has been eating away at her after all this time. She’ll never drop the knife again. And when they start to take Myers away she hijacks the ambulance, crashes it, smashes Myers against a tree and – after he shows rare vulnerability, and panics when he thinks his mask might have fallen off – she chops off his damned head.
Audiences had been living with the specter of Michael Myers for 20 years. So had Laurie. That Michael Myers wasn’t just defeated but beaten down to the point of nothingness matters, because simply killing him off would have been meaningless. The whole point was that he was undeniably dead, that Laurie killed him, that there was one less monster in the world, and that he got what was coming to him. His death is the biggest in the series, as big (arguably) as all the others combined.
Meanwhile, Laurie confronted her fear and even, briefly, became the monster. The film ends with her panting, post-decapitation, which mirrors Michael’s iconic heavy-breathing from the original film. Her story has come full circle.
It’s an intensely satisfying film but, in a fit of annoying irony, Halloween H20 fell prey to the same sequelitis that retroactively hurt the original. Steve Miner’s movie made so much money that a sequel was soon released. Halloween: Resurrection was about a group of fame-seeking kids who elect to spend the night in Michael Myers’ childhood home as part of an online reality television show. At one point Busta Rhymes uses martial arts on Michael Myers. Let’s just say it’s not nearly as good.
The classy finish of Halloween H20 was quickly tarnished, but the worst part was that the cathartic finale to H20 was also ruined. Halloween: Resurrection claimed that Michael Myers escaped, put his mask on someone else, and that Laurie killed that innocent man. Never mind that this makes no sense when you’re rewatching Halloween H20, when “Myers” makes no attempt to communicate with Laurie besides looking creepy. And never mind that it transforms an empowering finale into a sad, tragic tale of Laurie Strode doing something pointless.
But if Halloween H20 can rewrite the past, and if Rob Zombie’s remake could rewrite the past, and if David Gordon Green’s Halloween can rewrite the past, then it’s perfectly acceptable for fans of the Halloween series to cherrypick what we want out of the franchise as well. Ignore Halloween: Resurrection and respect Halloween H20 for what it is, a smart and subversive sequel, which starts out as a slasher until it outwardly rejects the premise of the whole slasher genre. It gave the power back to the hero, and gave her – and the Halloween fans – a genuine sense of closure.
It’s a shame that Green’s Halloween will soon rewrite Halloween H20 out of existence, but at least the 1998 film is still available for all the new fans out there, provided they can wrap their heads around the branching alternate realities of this strange and uneven franchise. And hopefully they’ll continue to appreciate just how unusual and impressive H20 is.