Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN H20, 1998

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


In 1998 when a projectionist called me after midnight on a Tuesday and said, "I'm building the print for H20 tonight and have to test it ... wanna come watch?" I damn well got back out of bed, got dressed, and ran every red light on the way to the theater. That's how I came to watch "HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER" a week before release in an empty theater in the wee hours of the morning with the sound cranked to max.  Hearing that signature theme boom and echo in the dark for the first time was a highlight of my life [1]. The movie did not disappoint then, and still doesn't.

A quick note before we dive in: The HALLOWEEN series LOVES its long titles, numbers, and subtitles.  I will refer to this film in text as H20 or HALLOWEEN 7, and rarely by HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER.  Also; this film deals with the character Laurie Strode who is living under the assumed name Keri Tate - I will primarily refer to her as Laurie.

I'm not going to talk overmuch about the psycho killer (or agent of Thorn if you prefer [2] ) aspect of the film; it's fun, it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it. "Who will survive and what will be left of them" is as relevant a question for this 1998 release as it was for the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 1974. Halloween 7 is a post-SCREAM slasher film; a little self-aware, a little clever, and  a little unpredictable [3].

What I LOVE about this movie, and what has made it my second favorite of the franchise after the first, is that like SCREAM, H20 deconstructs horror movie tropes and explores their logical consequences: fan theory as opposed to fan fiction.  This film pays the most attention to the evolution of Laurie Strode (in this film called Tate) from victim to heroine. Several young cast members and a talented rapper round out the cast as mostly forgettable cannon fodder for Michael's bloodlust.

It's easy to imagine H20 starting out as a thought experiment. If Michael Myers' sister wasn't actually killed in the prior movies, where would she be and what would she be like?  As originally conceived, H20 was intended to dovetail with Halloween 4, 5, & 6, and as such does not directly contradict anything except the originally shot ending of HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS.

Like you'd expect from any combat veteran/tragedy survivor, Laurie suffers from post-traumatic stress and unspecified anxiety disorders.  She medicates herself with both proscribed meds and booze. The bookish girl from HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II who has a caregiver role as a babysitter is now headmaster in a private school near a small town (which also conveniently isolates her from the wider world and, she hopes, from her murderous brother).

At the same time, Laurie has lived her life expecting and preparing for Michael to return and attempt to finish the job of slaughtering his entire family. This movie has fun with the audience's expectations in several places.  Other heroines in other movies wander around asking the darkness "Is anyone really there?"; when the phone goes dead Laurie goes straight for her hidden revolver. When I watched this movie a second time in the theater, there was a cheer when she pulled the weapon out.  Laurie has no intention of squaring off with her brother in a knife fight. When Michael is presumed dead she doesn't take it for granted that he's dead. Ever. 

All of these characterizations feel genuine for someone who has survived a horror movie. Laurie is believable. The mature Jamie Lee Curtis (now the Lady Haden-Guest, by the way) knocks this role out of the park with a touching blend of authoritarian instructor/overbearing parent and vulnerable survivor. Her transition into a tempered-steel Ripley-in-ALIENS heroine during the course of the movie is foreshadowed by a classroom discussion about fate. Regarding FRANKENSTEIN, a student says, "Victor should have confronted the monster sooner. He's completely responsible for Elizabeth's death. He was so paralyzed by fear that he never did anything." It is clear when Laurie chooses to get her son safely off the school grounds and then opts to return for a showdown with Michael Myers that she is working to choose her own fate. I particularly enjoyed the cat-and-mouse sequence as Jamie Lee stalks through the abandoned school wielding a fire-ax and shouting for her homicidal brother. Laurie Strode is essentially yelling, "Come on if you think you're hard enough!"

In two nicely-shot sequences that bookend the climax of the movie Laurie ends up eyeball to black eyeball with her brother. The first time her sense of panic and shock causes Laurie to fumble for her handgun and allows Michael time to disappear again.  The final time Laurie confronts her brother in this movie she seems to consider compassion…then opts to murder her brother, just to be safe. I'd love to hear some lawyers argue over whether Laurie's coup-de-gras at the finale of this film is manslaughter, self-defense, first degree murder, or what. We get to watch as she considers giving her brother a chance of redemption and discards it. The thoughts are clear on her face as she decides to snuff the light in "the blackest eyes ... the devils eyes."

To circle back to the classroom scene from the original HALLOWEEN: "fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Rollins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is a very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with."  With its' conclusion, HALLOWEEN: H20, TWENTY YEARS LATER was intended to bring closure to the tale of the Myers family and wrap it up in a tidy bow [6]. I think the film is a worthy revisitation of the themes of fate and free will as presented in the original movie. I really enjoyed the added bonus evolution of a scream queen into a fully-actualized hero. Watch it.

Happy Halloween!

1. (Star Wars fans probably know the feeling from the 1990s theatrical releases of those films).  No matter how good your home sound system is, I still believe there is a place for the epic sweep of a theater sound system.  Support your local art theater.

2. See HALLOWEEN 4, 5, & 6. Watch them as if they are a single movie, and get the producers cut of 6 if you want to think about Michael Myers in a dramatically different way. 6 also does a good job, in my opinion, of tying in the events of HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH.

3. In a fun nod to the earliest days of the slasher genre, the theme from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO is briefly used during the scene (at 42:00) where Laurie Strode spoke with Norma Watson.  Norma, Laurie's secretary in this film, is a cameo role played by Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis' real life actress mother. Janet played Marion Crane in PSYCHO and is seen here in front of a 1957 Ford Sedan, license plate NFB 418 [4], reputedly the same car she drove in PSYCHO [5].

4. NFB = Norman Francis Bates. Clever.

5. Her boyfriend in the movie was named Sam Loomis…why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah…Michael Myer's doctor from the entire Halloween franchise.

6. Before those bastards went back to the trough one last time before the reboots and in so doing entirely squandered Laurie's hero journey and potential.  Jerks. 

Jonathan M. Chaffin is an Atlanta-based graphic designer and art director and a lifetime fan of horror stories and film. His current project is where he uses artifacts and ephemera to tell stories...he also produces horror-themed tiki mugs and barware like the Horror In Clay Cthulhu Tiki Mug. In addition, Jonathan occasionally does voice-over and podcasting work and appears on panels at sci-fi fantasy and pop culture conventions on a variety of topics. You can follow him @CthulhuMug on twitter or by friending HorrorInClay on Facebook and G+

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