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Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

A welcome reset

Kevin Williamson's Scream showed up in 1996 when the horror genre was running on fumes. Slasher flicks had lost their impact after nearly 20 years of very little deviation from the standard formula, & audiences were growing bored. The obvious next step was to acknowledge the formula & to subvert it, & Scream would come along to do just that, opening the door to a new era of blood-soaked blockbusters.

A defining characteristic of the early slasher protagonists is that they were vulnerable as a consequence of being oblivious to the danger of their situation. But Scream normalized erring on the side of caution, introducing new dynamics of paranoia & distrust. And it was this real-time meta-analysis of the situation--which doubled as an homage to films of the past--that seemed to raise the stakes so much higher than in previous horror films. It's almost as if the movie takes the template created by Carpenter's original Halloween & runs it through the Battle of Wits scene from the Princess Bride, evolving the slasher formula from a game of checkers into a game of chess.

Williamson would go on to create the tv series Dawson's Creek, where he'd again lean into precociously self-aware teens interpreting their own lives through cinema, cementing a certain type of know-it-all dialogue that would--for better or worse--come to define teen drama of the era. But through the directorial lens of Wes Craven, the Scream teens come across as capable without being overly self-involved, & funny without feeling overly scripted. Robert Zappia & Steve Miner, a writer & director from Williamson's Dawson's Creek, hoped to accomplish the same with Halloween H20.

H20 was the first film to retcon previous Halloween films, picking up after Halloween II. It's 20 years later, & Laurie Strode (again played by Jamie Lee Curtis) has faked her death in a car accident, moved to California & changed her name to Keri Tate. She works as the dean of a boarding school where her teenage son, John (Josh Hartnett) attends. She struggles with alcoholism & paranoia as a consequences of the Babysitter Killings, & the film revolves around this trauma & how it impacts the lives of John, his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams, also from Dawson's Creek), & the rest of the students & faculty at Hillcrest Academy. But the gun she keeps under her pillow comes in useful when Michael finally tracks her down.

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There's a classroom scene where Laurie calls on a distracted Molly--who has seen the Shape lurking through the window, but has chosen to ignore it--about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Molly suggests that Victor Frankenstein didn't have the courage to confront his monster until he'd lost his love, Elizabeth. This mirrors the scene in the original Halloween where Laurie is called on to respond to a question on the nature of fate: whether it's benign or whether it has personified qualities or intent. This was, of course, a meta-rumination on whether Michael--the film's agent of fate--is evil, or simply a force of nature, like a hurricane or a forest fire. Only when Molly responds to Laurie's question, it's more personal: will it take permanently alienating her son for her to deal with her own monster, the lingering trauma? Will she or won't she confront her fate before it's too late?

The film also references Psycho, casting Jamie Lee's mother & the film's starlet Janet Leigh as the school secretary (who repeats Sheriff Brackett's "Everyone's entitled to one good scare" line from the original film). And it includes the Chordettes' Mr. Sandman as a reference to Halloween II & shows Scream II playing on the tv in the girls' dorm. These references clue the audience into the knowing nature of the film, & cause them to anticipate subversion. And this adds tension even when the scene feels like it might play out as expected.

Laurie ultimately gets to deal with her monster head-on in a cathartic showdown. The stakes are higher because not only might she push her son away, she may literally lose him to Michael. Her transformation from the hunted into the hunter is driven by these very real risks. And the scene where she's wielding an axe & yelling across campus for Michael to show himself is especially affecting, introducing a stark contrast from the bookish Laurie Strode from the original Halloween.

It may not stand quite as tall as the original or even as tall as Scream, but it does stand on its own. This was a needed course correction for the franchise & H20 endures as an essential entry.

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