24 August 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE NIGHT HE WENT TO CALIFORNIA

The last page of notes I took for Halloween H20 (on the back of an envelope, if you care), includes this observation of the film's closing minutes: "[Michael] looks confused & pathetic. Just like this film."

Somehow, history has come to regard this 1998 reboot of the Halloween franchise as the best of all the sequels, and certainly compared to the unforgivable Revenge of Michael Myers and Curse of Michael Myers, nobody sane could argue that it's the worst; but I must confess that I've apparently missed something, the part where the movie is clever and "witty", a word that gets tossed around in internet discussions of this film with a frequency that would seem excessive if for a Noël Coward play. What I did notice were a whole lot of in-jokey references to old horror movies that I'm certain were meant by co-writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg to gratify anyone clever enough to spot them all, but to my mind are much more tiresome than charming. Particularly since the film's idea of "clever" is to have Janet Leigh cameo as a school secretary whose first line is about a problem with the girls' shower.

Of course, we should expect nothing else from a late-'90s horror film. H20 was the first major slasher sequel produced after Scream came along and changed everything. Post-1996, slasher films were supposed to be "ironic" (god, the fucking '90s), and "knowing", and H20 certainly aims for those targets. Hitting them is the hard part, as ever; and while I appreciate Zappia and Greenberg's sincerity, I can't say that I find it funny or intelligent or revealing per se to have it pointed out that Jamie Lee Curtis's mom starred in Psycho. Which is frankly something that John Carpenter's original Halloween already did, without having to resort to making it a gag.

So before I launch into the whole plot thing, I'd like to take a moment to consider the title. As per the onscreen titles and the movie poster, the film's full given name is Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, with H20 hovering underneath the word Halloween. I'm not certain if the intended pronunciation is "Aitch-Twenty" or "Aitch-Two-Oh", the latter giving us the still-deathless joke about calling the film Halloween Water, but either way it stands for "Halloween [at] Twenty" - and now I've gone and whet my appetite for a European anthology of slasher short films titled Halloween à vingt ans - meaning the film is in fact titled Halloween - Halloween Twenty: Twenty Years Later. Quite a long way to go for the studio to make sure we got the point, that the film was coming out as a 20th anniversary celebration. I'd have rather seen the original Halloween: The Revenge of Laurie Strode, or for that matter, Michael Goes to Hell: The Final Halloween, though I assume rights issues would have killed that one in its crib.

In addition to having a stupid title, HH20TYL opens upon a lie: it is October 28, 1998, meaning that it's really H19y,361d. The action begins in Langdon, IL, as "Mr. Sandman" plays on the soundtrack (the same ill-inspired opening as Halloween II) plays on the radio as a middle-aged woman walks home. It's not entirely clear to me when we're suppose to realise that this is Dr. Loomis's old friend Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens, for the third time), but she is; and as she comes to the front door, she notices that somebody seems to have broken in. She cautiously backs away, smack into her teenage neighbor Jimmy, scaring herself silly (Jimmy is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, believe it or not; I suspect his presence here, dead before the opening credits, was meant as H20's attempt at a Scream-style "famous star dies almost right away" moment. Assuming that 3rd Rock from the Sun was enough to make him "famous"). Jimmy, for the record, is wearing a hockey mask the first time we meet him, and it was at this point that I figured out that the film's idea of "wit" would not be cotangent with my own.

Sensibly, Marion decides to send a thuggish teen into her house to check for thieves. So in goes Jimmy, where he finds the office has been torn up, and the spring-loaded ironing board in the kitchen freaks him out so badly that he destroys everything with his hockey stick; but no burglar. He walks outside, where afternoon turned to pitch-black night in about ten minutes, and gives his report. Only a little comforted, Marion goes inside and does not see Michael Myers (Chris Durand who is - are you sitting down? - a stuntman), though she does see that somebody destroyed her photo of Dr. Loomis and stole her file on Laurie Strode. She instantly figures out what happened, and runs next door to get help from Jimmy and his friend Tony (Branden Williams), but dammit if they aren't already dead - Jimmy's skull has been cleaved with an ice skate, against all physics - and naturally, Marion gets hers after a brief stalking scene. The credits finally drift in from wherever they've been hiding and the whole Halloween saga is recapped for us by a series of news clippings and voice actor Tom Kane doing an absolutely horrible Donald Pleasence impersonation, reciting that good old "pure evil with black eyes and a heart that was two sizes too small" bit that Pleasence owned like nobody's business until the end, when he was standing about two inches from death.

If we somehow managed to avoid the deluge of advertisements, it would be right now that we learned that H20 represents an alternative continuity, in which Laurie Myers Strode Lloyd, mother of Jamie, did not marry that swell paramedic fella who might have been dead at the end of Halloween II. Instead, she went into hiding shortly after the 1978 murders, took the name "Keri Tate", had a baby by an asshole methhead, and got a job as the director of teaching at a super-duper prestigious private school in Summer Glen, California. The original story treatment (by Screamwright Kevin Williamson) actually tried to fit this film in with that continuity, and I sort of wish they'd stuck with it; if for no other reason than the fact that I enjoyed Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, like, a lot more than this, and I am sad that it no longer exists.

It's time to buckle in now, because we're in for a long stretch of nothing. It's about twelve minutes into the film when we see Laurie again (still played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who is absolutely the best element of the whole project), and it will be somewhere around minute 58 - that's in a film that runs 80 minutes before credits, folks - before anything particularly interesting happens. In the meantime, we get a whole lot of character exposition, which is tolerable in the occasional moments when it focus on Laurie - who has a son, is borderline alcoholic, and is dating the school's guidance counselor in secret - and which is fucking vicious when it's concerned with the rest of the cast and the nominal plot. Essentially, Laurie is very protective of her son John (Josh Hartnett, in his first role), and he gets sort of pissy about it, so when the whole school goes to Yosemite for a camping night out, he guilts her into letting him go, but only so he can duck out and have a private alcohol-fueled party in the school's basement with his lady friend Molly (Michelle Williams), and fellow couple Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), the daughter of Laurie's guidance counselor lover Will (Adam Arkin).

This is padding of the most interminable sort, weighed down by Hartnett's infamous anti-charisma and minimal talent (though at least you can actually see his irises in this, his debut - they are brown), by the clumsy dialogue that the screenwriters saw fit to perpetrate on an unsuspecting world (when Laurie finally unburdens herself to Will about her tortured, bloody past, his response, believing her to be joking, is that it must have been "sucky"), by a wildly frivolous subplot involving the school's security guard Ronny (LL Cool J), an aspiring writer of erotica whose function to the movie around him consists almost solely of some executive's brainstorm that it would probably be possible to get LL Cool J in the movie, and the kids these days like those hippy-hoppers. He doesn't even prove to be expendable meat, like he would have in one of those good old slashers from the mid '80s where characters were trucked in with one personality trait and a target on their back; he ends up surviving in one of the most contrived "didn't really die" moments I've ever seen. Though to be fair to the ironic nature of the beast, it's entirely plausible that it was supposed to be contrived (god, the fucking '90s).

It's like every other dead teenager film of all time, but with noticeably worse dialogue. After some false scares and go-nowhere stalking scenes, the killing starts, right about the moment that Laurie makes the shocking discovery that her older sister and herself were both targeted on the Halloween of their 17th year. And guess which descendant of the Myers line is 17 years old this particular holiday? So Laurie rushes off to the school with Will in two, just a couple of minutes before the single most cock-teasing scene in any slasher film I've ever encountered. See, Charlie needed to go find a corkscrew for the apparently twist-top liquor bottle they have at the party, and he wanders up to the kitchen with Sarah; but they are separated. Having happy visions of Crispin Glover getting corkscrew'd in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, I readied myself for the first of the many references that I actually intended to enjoy. Then, it got even gaudier, as Charlie dropped the corkscrew in a garbage disposal, which he then proceeds to demonstrate through pornish close-ups on the on/off switch and the disposal's blades, is very much active. Though a hand-grinding and a corkscrew through the skull probably counts as gauche, at least it would have some energy to it, I figured. Anyway, Charlie plucks the corkscrew out of the disposal without incident, and turns to see Michael. He dies offscreen, and reappears in a dumbwaiter with his throat slit.

This is where irony turns into sheer contempt for the audience; where Chekhov's dictum of the first-act gun turns into two characters talking loudly about "THAT'S A BIG GUN." "YES, AND FULLY LOADED WITH BULLETS." "COULD YOU CLUMSILY TOSS IT TOWARDS ME?" right before, I don't know, a piano falls on them both, crushing them.

It therefore fits right in with the climax of H20, which is a twelve-minute exercise in ignoring the whole rest of the movie. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic climax - it's absolutely unquestionably the best part of any Halloween film since the first one. It focuses exclusively on Laurie and Michael, which the whole film ought to have done, really; and that whole big moment where Laurie realises that Michael has come back just to kill John at the appointed moment? Aside from the fact that it makes no sense and cheapens Michael's threat as a motiveless force of nature (something that this film was in a prime position to fix, after the increasingly ludicrous sequels, and at least this reveal isn't as skull-exploding bad as the Thorn conspiracy in Curse of Michael Myers), it's totally forgotten: John runs from Michael, and once Michael spots Laurie, her son never speaks another word in the film. All the agony of watching generic teens mill about and suck time away from Curtis ultimately serves no purpose except for giving Laurie an excuse to fight - something that could have been done in a dozen other ways - and to make sure teenaged asses would shuffle into the theater.

So, what went wrong?

The film began, allegedly, when Curtis hinted around that she might want to appear in one last Halloween movie, as her thank-you to the fans who made her a star (the legend continues that she wanted John Carpenter to direct, but because of good taste, or an unreasonable fee, or an unreasonable fee that was his attempt to express his good taste, he instead worked on the timeless masterpiece that is John Carpenter's Vampires). That's a noble intention, but there's this tricky point that you can't make movies out of intentions; you have to have an story that needs the telling. Laurie Strode's story had been told - there were no unanswered questions or dire foreshadowing - and any attempt to add to that would end exactly where it did: with a film that feels like those interminable Christmas letters about What Our Family Did This Year, where everything is about filling in that twenty year gap, not having anything interesting happen now.

Steve Miner was tapped to direct; and that at least was an inspired choice. Miner after all oversaw the closest thing to a good Jason Voorhees movie, Friday the 13th, Part 2, whose Final Girl sequence remains one of the most impeccably-directed scenes in slasher history. He then directed Friday the 13th, Part 3, one of the most miserable films in the series, and then his career ran headlong into episodic TV. But hey, he was good once, so maybe he'd be good again? This is what I told myself over and over again in the run-up to this film (incidentally, Miner is one of only three men to have directed entries in two major slasher franchises: Wes Craven, with two Nightmares and all three Screams is one; Ronny Yu, with Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason is the third). In the end, my confidence wasn't entirely misplaced; the Final Woman sequence is tremendously exciting, even if some of the editing is a bit confusing once it turns into a car chase. But what makes for a fine Friday the 13th movie doesn't entirely work for Halloween - the former franchise is steeped in exploitation, the latter is heavily focused on atmosphere and mood. When all is said and done, Miner's style is visually cluttered, where the film was written for shadows and dark corners. Nor does he have much luck with the arch "humor" in the script, as further evidenced by his stiff handling of Lake Placid just one year later.

At least it looks pretty good: shot by the tremendously anonymous Daryn Okada, this is easily the best-looking Halloween since the fourth, and maybe even since the second. The night photography in particular is rich and spooky, even with the tendency towards too much backlighting. The daytime scene, meanwhile, reveal that the makers of H20 had some actual desire to make it look like autumn, now that it was taking place outside of the Midwest - I don't know, maybe everybody who lives in Hollywood just think that Illinois really looks green in late October.

So much for the ballyhooed return of Halloween, three years after the main-line of films ran screaming into the ground. At least H20 isn't that toxically bad, it's just irritating. And by ending as it did - with unambiguous, un-retconnable closure - it all but guaranteed that the inevitable follow-up would have to go straight for Idiot Land to even come up with a scenario, so we can't even call it the worst possible conclusion to the Myers saga. But damn me, if this is what "for the fans" looks like, I'd rather Ms. Curtis not try and do me any more favors.

Body Count: After the Voorhesian totals reached by the first five sequels, H20 retreats to an almost dainty 6 - one of which is *cough* Michael himself, and none of which, emphatically, are LL Cool J.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

2 comments:

Jeff said...

More Josh Hartnett reviews please. It doesn't matter how often you can provide commentary on his lack of personality, it never ceases to make me smile.

angel luna said...

There were a total six deaths: Three in the first 10 minutes of the film (Jimmy, Tony and Marion) and three at the latter part of the film (Charlie, Sarah and Will) plus Michael at the end.