The dictionary definition of cash-in is described thusly: ‘to take advantage of or exploit (a situation)’. Ever since the motion picture industry became a going concern, it has unapologetically cashed-in on the success of its product. Take, for example, Bride of Frankenstein, Curse of the Cat People, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, or even Halloween II. While not necessarily superior to their predecessors, each is a wonderful film in its own right, beloved by genre fans. But there’s little doubting that they only exist due to the resounding success of the original; a studio, production company, writer or director merely sought to exploit this.
By the early 1990s, the horror film entered something of a fallow period. While it’s erroneous to suggest that there was nothing of value produced – Candyman and Army of Darkness, for example, both arrived in 1992 – it seemed there was very little to entice the teenage demographic to the cinema. Films such as Jacob’s Ladder saw a shift towards more mature themes and the psychological horrors of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs only exemplified this approach. Merely a decade earlier, the slasher film was in its Golden Age, but as the 80’s wore on, tastes began to change. The teens who flocked to cinemas to take in scenes of gratuitous gore and nudity had all but grown up and moved on while the calibre of output took something of a nose-dive. As the 90’s dawned, purveyors of the slasher were still gamely toiling away. Amid the dreck, there was still a gem or two waiting to be discovered, but seeking out a cinema prepared to show Slumber Party Massacre III or Popcorn was a singularly tricky proposition. For all intents and purposes, the slasher had ceased to exist.
At the same time, a young actor named Kevin Williamson was pursuing a second career as a screenwriter. While attending a class at UCLA he managed to sell his first script, Killing Mrs. Tingle. He soon discovered, however, as the script languished on a shelf, that selling a screenplay did not necessarily equate to said screenplay evolving into a motion picture. But Williamson had an ace up his sleeve. After watching a news special about the serial killer Daniel Rolling, the writer began to sketch out the opening scene for a screenplay that he titled Scary Movie. Having found its way to Dimension Films, the genre arm of Miramax, the script landed on the lap of actress Drew Barrymore. Impressed by the mix of scares, irreverence, and an unapologetic celebration of the genre, she quickly signed on. After cajoling director Wes Craven, still licking his wounds after the failure of Vampire in Brooklyn, the film, now re-titled Scream was an instant hit, catapulting the slasher film and the horror genre back into the spotlight.
“The resurgence of the slasher offered the opportunity for a new chapter [of The Halloween saga] to be written…”
The autumnal period between late August and early December proved to be the most fertile ground for new slasher films. October 1997 and November 1998 saw the release of the first two installments in the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise. The first in the Urban Legend series opened in September 1998, while the latest in the Chucky saga premiered only a month later. Kevin Williamson’s latest genre stab, a mix of high school anxiety crossed with body snatching paranoia in The Faculty rounded out the year, along with Gus Van Sant’s (nearly) shot-for-shot remake of proto-slasher, Psycho. Sandwiched between this new raft of slashers, and teen horrors, was another attempt to bring back a horror titan from the supposed dead. On August 5th, 1998, US audiences once again welcomed back Michael Myers in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later.
Another product under the Dimension Films banner, Halloween H20 is in many ways the ultimate cash-in, seeking potential box office from two revenue streams, the nascent slasher boom and fans of the Halloween franchise. But it’s too simplistic to dismiss the film as nothing more than an attempt to jump the bandwagon.
For a start, the franchise had hit rock-bottom with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers five years previously and with the coffers full, here was an ideal opportunity to redress the balance. Was it cynical? Possibly. But the fact of the matter is fans will always want to see more of their favorite anti-heroes. The resurgence of the slasher offered the opportunity for a new chapter to be written and Dimension duly charged Kevin Williamson with the job. His treatment, by way of some heavy exposition, linked the entire story together, from John Carpenter’s original to the forthcoming installment (with the exception of Halloween III: Season of the Witch). After consideration, it was decided to eschew several elements of Williamson’s story including any reference to the series beyond Halloween II. Hence, the alleged working title of Halloween 7: The Revenge of Laurie Strode became Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later. What remained of Williamson’s treatment was a slightly reworked version of the opening sequence, the academy setting and, most important, Laurie Strode.
Halloween H20 is very much Laurie Strode’s story. Twenty years on she is still coming to terms with the events of Halloween night. Except, of course, she’s not really at all. Her coping strategy is to anesthetize the events with prescription drugs and alcohol. While she has a rudimentary command over her waking nightmares, she has no control over her unconscious mind. This is where we first meet Laurie (now Keri Tate), writhing on the bed in the grip of what we suppose is one of the countless times she awakens screaming. Her son John attempts to reassure her that she’s safe and well.
Of course, when John opens the medicine cabinet, and we see row upon row of prescription bottles. The truth about Keri’s mental condition is etched on his face as he taps several white pills into the palm of his hand. This is how Keri starts the day. This is how Keri starts every day. And when John pointedly mentions that they’re out of Percodan, Keri reacts with a smile and a change of subject. This is Keri back in control, but it’s a thin facade amid the opioid crisis taking place under the Tate roof.
Keri’s relationship with her son is only superficially matriarchal, but the dynamic between the two shifts continuously. As a single mother, responsible for a large number of children as the headmistress of a private academy, she unconsciously draws upon her vocational skills to scold or cajole him. He tries to make light of the increasing tension between them, by half-seriously suggesting: “Today is the day you are going to realize that I am seventeen years old and your overprotection and paranoia is inhibiting my growing process.” Keri’s face darkens though when John pushes to be allowed to leave the academy on a camping trip. When the subject of the anniversary of the Haddonfield murders arises, however, the dynamic shifts again and it is John who assumes the role of adult, drawing a line under the conversation, reminding her that “We’re through with all that.”
“Keri is floundering […] struggling to reconcile the disparate threads of her life through a thin veneer of normality…”
Despite the self-medication, or possibly because of it, the visions of Michael Myers remain. In a window reflection, for example, (she briefly mistakes her lover and colleague Will Brennan for Michael), or when a silhouetted figure approaches (Will again). Despite his attention and concern – Will is a counselor at the academy – and an offer to listen to Keri talk on a non-professional level about a problem her problems, Keri brushes him off, ordering another large glass of wine when he briefly excuses himself.
In Williamson’s treatment, Keri reveals the extent of her turmoil to the character Jake (a fellow teacher, who becomes Will in the final script), when he confronts Keri about her substance abuse: “I can go to all the little 12 step meetings in the world, and I can say, “Hi, I’m Keri, and I’m an alcoholic.” And everyone can hold me and tell me everything is going to be fine with Keri once she quits drinking but what you seem to be missing from your loving and non-judgemental point of view is that Keri doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, the Halloween mask comes off and it’s Laurie Strode who has to find a way to get to sleep at night without a butcher knife slicing into her dreams.”
It’s a revealing moment, but in the context of the final film perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Although the audience is mutually complicit in the knowledge that Michael Myers is coming for Keri, she only divulges information about her past and the persistent fear that Michael will one day come to finish the job. Finally disclosing her past, two-thirds of the way through the film, it also becomes abundantly clear that Keri’s alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs aren’t wholly to blame for her visions and hallucinations, but an exacerbation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that she hasn’t even begun to address.
As Halloween approaches, Keri’s alcohol and chemical dependency increase to ward off the encroaching dread that this may be the year Michael finally finds her. And yet, like the Ouroboros – the snake eating its own tail – Keri increasingly uses Michael as a crutch to indulge in her addictions. And when Keri scolds John for going off campus, arguing that all she asks for is one day for him not to disobey her, his response is as cutting as it is final: “If you want to stay handcuffed to your dead brother, that’s fine. But you’re not dragging me along. Not anymore.”
Keri is floundering during the first half of the film and struggling to reconcile the disparate threads of her life through a thin veneer of normality. Like Michael Myers, she also wears a mask. Michael’s is both literal and figurative, concealing any trace of humanity. But Keri’s mask is slipping. Twenty years of hiding, of maintaining a fictional life have taken their toll. Ironically, it’s a work of fiction that brings Keri to the realization that she must face her deepest fear. In a parallel to John Carpenter’s original, during a class discussion on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the notion of fate, Molly Cartwell, the love interest of John, provides the moment of revelation: “Victor reached a point in his life where he had nothing left to lose. The monster saw to that by killing off everybody that he loved. Victor finally had to face it. It was about redemption. It was his fate.”
Another key moment follows when Keri finally allows John to go on the camping trip, telling him: “It’s good for you, it’s good for me.” A mother’s intuition is described as “the deep intuitive blood bond a mother can have with her child”, and it’s never more obvious than during this brief exchange. Keri is ostensibly giving John his freedom when her true motive is to move him out of harm’s way, sensing that Michael is closing in. John, meanwhile, is fully aware that something is amiss, but his plans have changed anyway, which will incur horrific consequences.
“Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later remains a curiously underappreciated installment in the series.”
Where Halloween H20 starts to falter is during the latter part of the film. The scenes which feature Michael Myers stalking John and his friends follow slasher conventions to the letter. They’re required to because this is what convention dictates, so it’s no surprise when the most sexually-active couple inevitably dies in line with the puritanical trope. The killing of young Sarah Wainthrope is particularly brutal, though not in a gore-fuelled sense. Instead, we’re made to watch Michael’s impassive masked face as he brings the knife down again and again on the unfortunate Sarah.
Elsewhere, components designed to ramp up the tension are all present. Near escapes, wounds that temporarily slow but don’t stop Michael, keys dropped at the vital moment and a handful of fun, but inconsequential call-backs to Carpenter’s original. It’s all somewhat by-the-numbers until Keri finally comes face to face with Michael. In that brief moment, Keri is Laurie Strode again. She’s no longer the headteacher of a private academy, an addict or a victim; she’s a mother, and she’s a fighter. Laurie is the one holding the gun, and when she tells Will to save himself because she won’t leave her son, we believe her. The dynamic has shifted once again.
Inevitably, it’s Will who finds the sharp end of Michael’s kitchen knife. In a moment of impetuous heroism, he snatches the gun away from Laurie and shoots Michael, only to discover he’s ‘killed’ the campus security guard Ronnie Jones. Shamefully, LL Cool J is given very little to do with a poorly-written attempt at comic relief, aside from reading aloud his attempts at adult fiction to an unseen girlfriend on the end of the phone.
Laurie, finding unimaginable strength and resolve, finally sends her son out of harm’s way and goes to face her familial demon. In the final reckoning, Laurie, in her own meta moment, seemingly understands the rule of a killer returning for one last scare and following a brief, and almost touching moment of silent reconciliation between siblings, removes the head of the beast.
There’s plenty of truth to Jamie-Lee Curtis’s performance in Halloween H20, and it’s likely because Curtis herself was at the time addicted to alcohol and painkillers (she became sober the year following H20‘s release). Watching the film through fresh eyes after learning of her addiction struggles Curtis’ performance takes on an even greater sense of urgency and pathos. The pain etched upon her face isn’t acting, it’s the anguish of the actor.
With this being the twentieth anniversary of the release of Halloween H20, there has been plenty of reappraisal of the film, with many citing the phrase ‘cash-in’ and dismissing Steve Miner’s film outright for daring to be made in the wake of the Scream phenomenon. H20 seems to fall foul of some of the most vitriolic ire when discussing the late-90s slasher releases, and yet, aside from Scream, probably has the most compelling point to make. It’s undoubtedly a more straightforward film than it’s more celebrated sub-genre cousin, which may go some way to explaining why it receives the most criticism. But it’s no more glossy than any of its contemporaries, and the return of Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of Laurie Strode elevates it above similar material.
Dismiss it as a cash-in all you want. Despite the unfortunate timing of its release, Halloween H20 was actually trying to say something, however heavy-handedly, about the nature of PTSD and its effects on the individual. While Curtis has since revisited the role that she’ll forever be associated with, in the weakest of the series, Halloween: Resurrection and the forthcoming Halloween reinvention from Blumhouse – a film that revokes all but the original film’s place in the canon – Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later remains a curiously underappreciated installment in the series.