Episode 73: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

Introduced by Devlin

After the CRIMINAL disregard for Halloween III: Season of the Witch shown by the callous and unimaginative general public in 1983, the Halloween name lay dormant for 5 years. I assure you I’m not remotely bitter about this absolute travesty.
Now – as we saw in our first episode, 3 years was a long time in slasher movie terms, as regards the gap between Halloween and Halloween 2. Not least that the genre, at least its most recognisable iteration, was literally invented by Carpenter and Hill. While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, among others, were swimming around, and both undeniably informed Halloween either in form or pure profit-driven motive as far as contemporary North American horror cinema is concerned, and of course Psycho and Mario Bava & Dario Argento’s 1970s works were also key influences, Halloween’s bare-bones plot mechanics were the unwitting touchpaper. Focussing on a group of all-American suburban teens, archetypal roles formatively present (the final girl; the slutty friend; the sarcastic friend; the dim-bulb horny boy), being stalked-and-slashed by an iconically dressed, unstoppable force of edged-weapon-wielding psychopathy, the template was set, from which Sean S. Cunningham (at least most visibly) cut his immensely popular crowd-pleasing Friday the 13th franchise. Matt, our resident compilation expert, has spun a 31 day October slash-a-thon that touches on many of these successors, with their wildly variable artistic qualities, that details the high and low points of this uniquely American subgenre, and its international antecedents/knockoffs/reimaginings, as well as a few of its formative influences and near-contemporaries like Alice, Sweet Alice.

This is the long way around to saying that by 1981 and Halloween 2, the stakes had been raised and a vexed, legally-obligated, less-than-game Carpenter and Hill pulled moves from their imitator’s playbooks and crafted an unsatisfying boilerplate of a direct sequel. While they zigged to the madcap middle-aged doctor-starring Celtic chaos of Halloween III, the rest of the industry zagged to the teen-girls-in-peril likes of more Friday sequels, The Slumber Party Massacre, House on Sorority Row, and Sleepaway Camp. This is not to denigrate the very specific oddness of those entries, mind. There’s a gore-filled bucket of neuroses and weirdness to dig out of a lot of them, although they do represent only those films that survived to attain a cult following, not the cash-in slop that flooded the fleapits and drive-ins of the day. But, this is to say that, clearly, what John Carpenter perhaps naively hoped would be a seasonal, proprietary anthology of Samhain-centric tales of campfire terror were now instead focussed on the sassy kids who surrounded that campfire and sarcastically dismissed the warning signs before being variously impaled while taking their tops off.

The slasher world of 1988 that Moustapha Akkad waded back into with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, was a very different place. Freddy had brought those suburban nightmares even closer to home than the home itself – right inside the dreams of those same teens whose box office bucks the studio executives craved. By now, he was an MTV-inspired catchphrase machine under the direction of future action journeyman Renny Harlin in the 4th Nightmare on Elm Street installment, to impressive financial returns. But franchise fatigue was setting in like a fog over on Crystal Lake, with Jason mind-battling a psychic teen in a confused 7th part that struggled to make an impact. For a film as ruthlessly minimalistic yet affecting and, honestly, artistically significant as Halloween to make a splash in these circumstances would take something very special. We’ll wade in to the resulting “Trilogy of Thorn” in a future episode because, oh boy is there a lot to unpack.

After the dust settled on these increasingly unpopular films, the Halloween name – by now sitting with Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films since the insane Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, received a shot in the arm thanks to the huge success of that same studio’s Wes Craven hit Scream. A film that lovingly indulged slasher tropes while picking them apart, that balanced crowd-pleasing scares with mordant humour, and, crucially, a film that lauded Halloween‘s legacy in an extended on-screen sequence seemed to relight the spark of interest in the films that had been thoroughly snuffed out over the last decade or so. Scream scribe and all-around 90s teentertainment titan in the making Kevin Williamson contrived to reunite the franchise with its true star Jamie Lee Curtis in a slate-cleaning do-over sequel – originally hoping to bring John Carpenter back to the fold. Carpenter, deep in to his 90s lull of movie-industry cynicism, demanded a $10 million fee from producer Akkad for what he felt was past-due recognition for what he had made 20 years earlier. Of course, this gambit failed, so Friday 13th veteran Steve Miner stepped in to direct. With a remarkably short 3 year turnaround time (usually failed sequels tend to create such a toxic atmosphere that follow-ups to notorious flops are shelved for longer than that), the franchise went from the hokey Curse to the comfortably expensive and professional-looking H20.

The Halloween series spent so much of its time feeling just a few years behind the curve – again, in stark relief to the trailblazing original. Was this belated ninetiesification beneficial? Or was Michael once again lumbering heavy-footed in to terrain that had been left threadbare by the footsteps of nimbler competition?

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