This is a story about 1998 and an ode to the halcyon decade that year inhabited. I mean, the movie itself is about the murderous Michael Myers, his long-suffering sister, and the twentieth anniversary of his Halloween massacre that devastated her, but that’s beside the point to what might be a subtle nostalgic aspect of this film’s appeal to a specific generation of Americans.
There had been five Halloween movies in the franchise up to this entry, with four of them directly about the masked mass murderer Michael Myers and his various shenanigans, and also one about murderous…Halloween masks. (It’s not great, but must be seen to be believed.)
But this film as an entity unto itself: from cinematography and art direction to the soundtrack to the cast to its marketing (“H20”? “:Twenty Years Later”? It’s like a concept title salad!) to the influence of the Halloween franchise/mythos in American culture, both in-text and out, any cultural anthropologist worth their MA can identify the temporal locus of this movie’s production just from the opening scene.
And what a scene it is! Taking one of what will be many cues from the film that resurrected the horror movie genre as a cultural force (1996’s Scream), H20 drops into the action with a cold open featuring the original Myers house and its current owner. She looks like she’s playing an upper-crust snob in a low-rent comedy and comes home to find her house has been broken into. We see Myers right away, just hanging out in the background, silently terrifying as always.
But instead of the straight kill, the opening scene gets infested with teen actors who seemed to wander onto the set from nearby productions, including Special Guest Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (or JGL to us Levittheads).
These beanie-wearing long hairs with their tubular slacker jargon and whatnot are totally radical in the most bodacious way. JGL scopes out the house for Nancy Reagan and steals some beers (because he parties, dude!) along the way.
Because theft and underage drinking were cool in the 90’s.
Mikey M. is just straight up chilling somewhere waiting for the beat to drop. Our gnarly friends split to JGL’s house to play N64 and listen to Limp Bizkit, but the lady gets totes wigged out by our man Myers and runs to JGL’s house for his protection and wise counsel.
But when she gets to his house, he has a goddamn ice skate in his face.
Skateface is a common condition brought on by underage drinking.
And she’s stabbed to death shortly afterwards. While the cops roll up to her house on the burglary call, Myers rolls outta there in a sweet new ride.
With the opening exposition credits—that nicely sums up the franchise to this point—concluded, the film begins proper with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis [JLC for short]) screaming herself awake from nightmares of that horrifying Halloween all those years ago.
It’s obvious that this poor woman is completely traumatized from those violent past events, and the going gets tougher as we catch up with the sole survivor of Myers’ bloody reign of terror.
She has a son (And Introducing dreamy Josh Hartnett) and a medicine cabinet full of pills, and he takes out the extra-strength Anti-Nightmare Pills out of the biggest bottle for her to wash away these Halloween blues.
“Should you be driving? You’ve had nothing but pills and booze today.”
She’s the headmistress of a fancy-schmanse private academy and her son is a little sass machine to her because she won’t let him go on the class trip to Yosemite National Park with the rest of the class, and also never let him celebrate Halloween, and in general because she’s just kind of a mess.
In fact, much of her “story” in this film involves watching her quietly have a nervous breakdown on the 20th anniversary of the most traumatizing event of her life and trying to go about her business at work. Fun location fact: the private school’s campus is actually a mansion in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles and has a very interesting little history of its own.
A quick cut later and JH is talking with his dead meat friends Toad and his girlfriend, What’s-Her-Face. His friend is a little creep, character “traits” are established (such as: his friend is horny, you see), and there’s a joke about seeing a psychologist because psychologist jokes were popular in the 1990’s for some reason.
JH’s girlfriend Michelle Williams looks like a kewpie doll and they all agree to ditch the school trip to hang back and party with JH and have some R-rated fun. Toad the Wet Sprocket and his girlfriend break off to smooch and hang around outside restroom entrances.
Michelle Williams, circa 1998.
Speaking of restrooms, Michael Myers ditches his sweet ride and steals a mother’s keys to her car while she goes to the potty with her daughter in a classic 1990’s horror movie (but specifically Scream) psych-out scene. It’s still a pretty dick move, stranding a woman and her small child at a rest stop, but so far there hasn’t been any murdering in this movie. Well, except for all those people in the cold open, but they were pre-opening credits so it’s like they never existed at this point.
Back at Hillcrest Academy (Hillcrest 4 Lyfe is my new tattoo), I spot trouble a-brewin’ because LL Cool J (LL stands for Ladies Love. Yes, that’s his self-appointed moniker, why do you ask?) is being sexually overt to somebody over the phone. But it turns out it’s his wife, and in one exposition-heavy scene we learn that 1) he’s married, 2) he talks to his wife on the phone all the time, 3) he’s the security guard at the school, and 4) he’s a struggling screenwriter because it’s the 1990’s and movies weren’t made back then without references to other movies and film-making in general, often without relevance to the actual plot. I also infer that unfortunately he’s also going to be our Comic Relief.
After this plot exposition conga, JH and Toady scare LL and then JH pays him off to look the other way that weekend while he and proto-Michelle Williams listen to Cher’s “Believe” CD Maxi-Single, watch Friends, and other 1998-esque things. Toady stands off-screen licking the walls.
Meanwhile, our intrepid JLC is busy running around town getting shit done because sisters are doing it for themselves when she stops and has a teensy little emotional collapse on the street. Then JUMP SCARE! The Most Unappealing Love Interest Ever (who I’ll refer to as Mr. Big from this point on) shows up instead of death and takes her to a Folger’s Coffee commercial set to have a nice, quiet chat about her numerous psychological problems.
Day drinking in a coffee shop. When everything’s fine.
While she attempts to relate (without giving too much away, because she’s in hiding, you see) her horrific trauma, Mr. Big (a counselor) doesn’t pick up what she’s laying down and suggests they have a nice, sexy time together that night to further explore her feelings about her murderous stalker brother that shattered both her life and mind. Because men are simply the worst.
Her head nearly explodes when she finds JH off-campus for lunch and they have a giant, ugly, public shouting match. He’s like, “Your brother’s dead, so step off, yo,” but wait Michael Myers is watching this whole thing from across the street.
This scene was shot after an unfortunate lawnmower accident that did this to his hair.
Hey! Michelle Williams is back! Almost forgot she was here. She finds a dozen white roses and a small map to follow in her room. She walks through the catacombs and you think it’s something bad but psych-out again fuckhead! JH is just a romantic sweetheart and put together a little party space for them. (JH & MW 4E)
OK, I guess there’s more of the school day still? Because now everyone minus Ladies Love is in English class, where JLC is the teacher (?) as well, and MW makes an ironic and terrifying point about Frankenstein, and now Mom/English Teacher gives her permish for JH to split with the rest of the kids to the coolest place on Earth, Yosemite National Park. B-b-but he’s got romencey-like plans with his girlfriend and Toad the Wet Sprocket and What’s-Her-Face!
Because it’s the “being meta is artistic, dig?” 1990’s, Janet “Psycho” Leigh strolls onto the scene to provide an iconic quote from the original movie and drive away in the same car she drove in her own iconic film. And hey! She’s also Jamie Lee Curtis’ mom in real lifey! And now I’m starting to feel like I do when I wear VR goggles for too long.
All of a sudden this movie is like when you turn a camera on its own monitor .
Now Ladies Tolerate Cool J is back talking to his wife on the phone (I smell running gag!) while pacing around Groundskeeper Willie’s shed and totally not doing his job because Michael Myers just kind of…walks right onto campus unnoticed.
Great job, Ladies Love.
While JLC tries to pull herself together for the thousandth time that day, Mr. Big scares her yet again. Sensing her fragility, he gets her to commit to dinner that night, then sees a shadowy figure that he promptly ignores as he goes to check in on the girls. For some reason. He has a very 90’s ha-ha slacker conversation with them, which I present here verbatim:
Mr. Big: What-Her-Face? Michelle Williams? Just checking in on the Hillcrest remains. You girls OK?
Girls: (simultaneously) Good.
Big: What are you two up to tonight?
What’s-Her: We figured we’d go off campus, pick up some guys, drop some roofies in their drinks, have a whole date-rapey evening.
Big: Oh. Sounds good.
MW: Care to join?
Big: I can’t, I’m having my nipples pierced.
Everyone’s Chandler Binging all over the place!
Chug-a-lug, Laurie. Because Mr. Big’s here for his intrusive brand of romance! Meanwhile, the Kids, Inc. on campus are listening to a hot slow jam while dorkily experimenting with illicit substances and adult situations. JLC is also getting busy with Mr. Big and chooses this moment to pull a reverse True Lies but for real on this dude (watch True Lies, then diagram that sentence, to understand what I mean by that) about her psychopathic murdering brother.
At this point, he says–and I quote again–“That’s terrible. Take off your clothes,” which wow, but then she’s like, uh yeah Michael Myers is my brother, and Mr. Big is veery slow to realize what she’s saying. Because he’s a professional counselor? He looks like a slovenly mix between Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey, Jr. and is a character actor that’s been in a million things. I also dislike his character immensely. (Internet update: it’s Adam Arkin, Alan Arkin’s son, and who cares really?) Then she sees a Happy 17th Birthday card on her mantle and realizes all of her deepest fears are coming true right the fuck now. Mr. Big looks like he needs a nap..
When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory in this movie? 57 minutes in of a lean 86, and not a whole lot of stabbing action in the ol’ murder department so far. But of course Toady has to die, as the prophecy foretold, and What’s-Her-Face (who says at this point, “No sex games ‘til I’ve eaten,” because Toady invited her to the pants party) finds—then joins—his body in the dumbwaiter shortly thereafter. She’s stabbed in the head four times, so that’s kind of horrific, I guess. Exuent Toady and What’s-Her-Face, stage right.
JH&MW(4E) happen across various atrocities that Myers had scattered around the main hall at some point, then he catches up with them, stabbing JH (my angel!) in the leg, but MW smashes his fucking face with a rock, which is sweet, but then she fucks it all sorts of up by being a butter fingers with the keys. They’re locked in a small cage that’s in front of a door (I don’t know), and Myers slices at them in a rather amusing fashion.
“I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you…nah, you kids are all right.”
Shit starts to happen quick in the third act freefall, and JLC sees Michael through a port in a door, which is an image that anyone who was cognizant in 1998 will remember, since it was in every single trailer (of which there were many, airing round-the-clock for a while). JLC shoots (and kills!) Ladies Mourn Cool J, and Myers just straight up jacks Mr. Big.
Now JLC, JH, & MW are booking it, but of course the car won’t start, and he’s right at the door, and oh wait the car does start. But the stupid gate’s opening too slow, so JLC tells JH & MW to get out before shit goes down in Chinatown, and she stays behind to show Myers she ain’t playin’ no more.
Pictured: Not Playing.
Honestly, this is the most enjoyable part of the movie, watching the long-suffering Laurie Strode take out Michael Myers once and for all. I wish more of the movie was like this, instead of nearly a murderless hour hanging out with the Burger King Kids Club and a storyline from a particularly bleak episode of Thirtysomething.
So she’s like, we’re gonna end this right the fuck now. He takes an axe to the shoulder and slashes her and then rips the damn axe out of his shoulder. So JLC stabs him with a pointed flag holder (with a California flag, as per union rules), then throws knife after knife at Myers, but the hits just keep on coming. She gains the upper hand and stabs the dickens out of Michael Myers and he falls over a second floor railing onto a table below. But this isn’t JLC’s first dance, and she’s about to finish him off to make sure, but goddamn Ladies Abhor Cool J is still alive and stops her from finishing the job proper.
Even he knows he shouldn’t have interrupted. Ladies Scold Cool J!
THE VERY NEXT SCENE is dedicated to wrapping up LL Cool J’s storyline, even though he was only in like three scenes and didn’t actually do anything, complete with another exposition-heavy phone call with his wife (glad that gag came back) about a great idea he has for a movie (because meta), then he walks off this movie, never to be seen again.
But what’s this? JLC steals the van containing Myers’ body then drives away, reliably sure that LL RIP isn’t around to fuck it up this time, to finish things.
By ramming Michael Myers with the van and driving it off of a cliff. With her still inside.
She’s probably regretting this decision right about now.
She lives because she’s the hero of the movie, but Myers is crushed between a van and a tree and reaches out to her as he dies, and I’m like, “Fuck you, buddy,” and JLC is like, “Yeah, I know,” and decapitates him with one swipe. Problem solved, movie over, roll credits! A round of wine and sedatives for all!
Hacking Away At Conclusions
On a more macro level, this film is really well-made—it’s slick and has a muted, earthy color palette. The overall aesthetics of the film, and the quality and obvious overall expense that’s evident in the substance and production of the film, are reflective of the decade and of commercial products of that time, particularly films.
If you weren’t alive in the 1990’s, or were too young to really absorb the culture of the time, it was a decade of great material wealth in America, and that wealth was invested back into the culture-the production of its visual culture. The film industry was booming at this time, and even very strange films with limited commercial appeal could be fully produced and realized. Weird films like Being John Malkovich and Rushmore were nurtured and encouraged for their originality, and when a nation is economically strong, there are enough resources for experimentation and innovation, even (and especially) in its arts.
This sort of largesse also extended itself into many cultural products of the time, high art or popcorn thriller, and the general quality of this film’s production values (sets, direction, wardrobe, locations, etc.) can be viewed as representative of a culturally rich (and otherwise) decade.
As a horror movie, it’s simply not that horrifying: I’m not a die-hard fan of the Halloween franchise, but I’ve enjoyed the films enough to say that I’m primed to enjoy a film produced in this series. But instead of the rawer, and perhaps more clunky, tone and aesthetics that the horror genre in the 1980’s developed so well, this film is a slick, mainstream piece of cinema in which only three of the major characters (who were supporting characters, really) are murdered by Michael Myers, and only six people total perish.
I’m not saying it has to be a holocaust, but considering that the only action in the film involving the main characters occurs in the last half hour, it’s a slow boat ride to get to the horror.
Its marketing was also evocative of the time: it was to be a reinvention of a staid franchise by bringing it into a post-Scream world. In this, it was successful: a slick marketing campaign that highlighted the mythos and cultural importance of the first Halloween movie, combined with the “clever” H20 title (which doesn’t make sense; at the time, I thought this indicated that it would be taking place on or by the water), made it a 90’s hit, although this context has been lost by now.
Character-wise, since Laurie Strode doesn’t come across as too compelling 20 years later, but more like a PTSD victim to pity, she doesn’t make for an interesting character to watch. The teenage gaggle act and perform like teenagers in horror movies do, and everything has a veneer of playing it safe–which is the opposite of what good horror movies do. In honoring its legacy and tying up a major, dangling thread, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later also homogenizes its brand, making it palatable for everyone across the board, but losing what made it horrifying in the first place.
It sounds like I didn’t enjoy this movie. I did, maybe but not for its intended raison d’etre. it was nice spending 86 minutes in a horror movie made in 1998, when The Macarena took control of our bodies, our hearts would go on, and no matter how crummy the initial idea, a lot of money would go into producing and realizing it, be it Magnolia or the sixth installment of a slasher franchise, which upped the overall quality even if only on a purely material level. Maybe I just miss the fabric of material wealth being a common experience in my daily reality. Who doesn’t?
With all of this in mind, it’s a relatively enjoyable movie, if not a scary one: thanks to cultural osmosis, watching Josh Hartnett and Michelle Williams as unbelievably fresh-faced kids is fun, and Michael Myers remains a terrifying (if not particularly well-utilized) villain. But outside of the climactic final five minutes, it plays like a sideways version of any other teen movie from the 90’s. Maybe its strongest asset is in being an unintentional time capsule of the aesthetics and culture of late-90’s America.
Out of four, I give Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later three of Michael Myers’ heads.