Friday, October 17, 2008

Requiem for Laurie Strode

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Truth be told Halloween H20: 20 Years Later shouldn’t have been any kind of success. Placed after three mind numbingly dreadful sequels, not to mention automatically falling right in the shadow of the masterful original, H20 had a lot going against it ten years ago when production wrapped and the film prepared for release. Placing the odds further against the film were constant rewrites, persistent technical difficulties and numerous interferences from a studio looking to turn it into another Scream rather than a proper film to fit into the Halloween legacy.

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Honestly one can see all of the negative influences weighing on the film during its short running time. H20 is a messy production with many visible mistakes ranging from such obvious flubs like the odd switching of Michael Myer’s mask, to a rather large number of smaller continuity errors. Despite these errors and all that it had going against it, H20 is a surprisingly successful and enduring film that maintains as much if not more of the spirit of Carpenter’s original work than any of the other sequels or the countless number of copycat films that landed in its wake.

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The reasons for H20’s success are easy to point out. First and foremost is the Steve Miner as the choice of director. Miner’s an undervalued character in the film community and he was the ideal choice to lead H2O back to the spirit of the original. Second is the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the role of Laurie Strode, her most interesting and iconic character. Thirdly is the cast gathered surrounding Curtis, an engaging and talented group who elevate the film above the many studio caused errors. Finally, and perhaps its biggest asset, is that H20 loves being a Halloween film. Unlike the sequels which felt like they were working against the original as much as they could, H20 works towards Carpenter’s work and it shows as it is the scariest and most resonating of all the Michael Myers sequels.

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The genesis of H20 came from Curtis herself, who reportedly wanted to do something special for the twentieth anniversary of Carpenter’s film. She also had been itching to revisit the character of Laurie Strode and, like many, had been unhappy with the way the sequels had been handled. Carpenter was approached but balked at the idea of directing although he gave his thumbs up to Curtis to proceed.
An early draft of the script was submitted by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson but it felt too much like a sequel to Scream rather than Halloween. Unfortunately some of Williamson’s material and dialogue survives and at its weakest moments, H20 is a bit too winking and self referential for its own good. Thankfully it does contain Scream’s glowing reverence to Carpenter’s original film and some of its most effective scenes come as it is deliberately paying homage to some of Halloween’s smaller and most enduring moments, such as Laurie staring out of her classroom window (mirrored wonderfully by Michelle Williams here).

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The script for H20 apparently went through a lot of hands before Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg ended up sharing the main credit. Despite the many phases it went through, the script for H20 still feels a little undercooked to my tastes. At times the film survives just on the skill of Miner’s direction and talented cast…even when they really don’t have a lot to work with story wise.

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The set up of H20 is fairly simple. Ignoring parts 3, 4, 5 and 6, H20 is essentially a sequel to the first two films where we find a paranoid, pill popping and alcoholic Laurie Strode living under an assumed name as the head of a private school for teenagers, which includes her son John (played well by a young Josh Hartnett). The film plays out exactly as you expect it to, with Michael Myers finding Laurie and returning to enact another night of mayhem on the kids remaining at the school Halloween night after everyone else has gone on a field trip.
H20 doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here. Miner knows the Slasher film basics and he delights in playing to them…this is after all the man who helmed both Friday the 13th Part Two and Part Three.

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Born in Connecticut in the early fifties, Miner began cutting his teeth in film in his early twenties with friends Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham. It is indeed Miner who helped produce and edit Craven’s landmark 1972 feature Last House on The Left. He continued working closely with Cunningham throughout the seventies and it was indeed the first sequel to Cunningham’s immeasurably popular Friday The 13th that marked Miner’s first full time directing gig. Working mostly in television with the odd theatrical feature thrown in occasionally (such as 1986’s House and 1999’s Lake Placid) Miner has perhaps not had as distinguished a career as he should have but he remains more than a little undervalued. H20, for all its sloppiness due to the studio’s tampering, remains arguably Miner’s greatest moment.

In front of the camera joining Curtis (who by the way does some of the best work of her career here) as her love interest is award winning actor Adam Arkin, and stealing the film briefly in just a couple of scenes is Curtis mom, Janet Leigh. Watch out for one of the film’s smartest and sweetest references involving Leigh, a car and a certain famous film role she had played herself many years before.

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Even more worth noting is the younger cast though, one of the best assembled for a horror film in the nineties. Miner had directed Michelle Williams previously on the series that gave her her start, Dawson’s Creek, and she proves a splendid ‘final girl’ here already exhibiting the great acting chops she would eventually hone to devastating effect in her Oscar nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Hartnett, making his debut here, is fine and very believable as Curtis’ frustrated and concerned son. Re-watching the film today, one wonders why Hartnett traded in much of his natural youthful expressiveness for the rather stolid style he has become so known for.

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Featured in smaller roles are L.L Cool j (in the film’s most underwritten part), Adam Hann-Byrd (7 years after his extraordinary debut in Jodie Foster’s miraculous Little Man Tate (1991), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whose work since has been quite miraculous in itself) and gorgeous Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (essentially playing the PJ Soles role here, and redeeming herself quite nicely). O’Keefe should also be given kudos for performing the film’s most brutal and grueling sequence that ends with the film’s most classic kill and shock piece.

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While the film is filled with as many ‘inside tributes’ as possible to the original film (and Halloween II which H20 clearly embraces as well, even though Miner denies it), Miner’s film stands as its own work and if it didn’t have the impact of Craven’s Scream when it was released it definitely distinguished itself amongst the onslaught of that film’s copycats…it also made more people jump than any of those films, something I can attest to after seeing it with a sold out crowd opening night.

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Far from perfect, Carpenter’s original score is particularly missed although composer John Ottman does the best he can and cleverly weaves Carpenter’s iconic theme in quite well, H20 finally works as a standalone Slasher film and a celebration of the most legendary entry in the genre.

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H20 did fairly well when it opened (despite Dimension botching the release) and got some surprising critical support from publications like The New Yorker. However a superior work print leaked soon after its release alerting fans that the film had been tampered with, and that many of the film’s issues were not Miner’s fault. Dimension, which had wanted a new Scream and not a new Halloween all along, continued to do the film no favors when it botched its DVD release by not delivering a promised audio commentary by Curtis and Miner, and by over-pricing the near bare bones disc. H20 has still yet to get the proper DVD release it deserves.

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Battling my nostalgia for Halloween II, H20 is my favorite of the Halloween sequels. Despite the fact that it is a classic example as to the kind of trouble a film can get into due to studio pressure and tampering, H20 is surprisingly potent. One wonders what Miner and Curtis could have accomplished though had they been left alone to really deliver the film they wanted to.

5 comments:

Keith said...

Great post on this film. I wasn't sure going into this film whether I would enjoy it or not. I had been let down by the sequels to the original. I enjoyed Halloween 2, but the rest were pretty lackluster. While this film has its share of flaws, I did have a good time watching it. They assembled quite a cast. I just wish they would have ended it with this film instead of doing another lousy movie after this one.

Steve Langton said...

That is the best appraisal I've read of this film. We really do need a fully loaded DVD, with commentary tracks along with the workprint. I've only seen the cinema version, but understand there is a lot of additional footage. I'm certain it would pay them to put together a truly special edition. Maybe we need a petition?

Joe said...

Outstanding article, Jeremy. I saw H20 in a theater and the only thing I can remember about it was how self-consciously post-modern some of the dialogue was, clearly an influence of Kevin Williamson.

I can't even remember how Jodi Lynn O'Keefe got killed off and will now have to Google that information.

However, I was unaware that the Weinsteins tampered with the movie. I have always loved Jamie Lee Curtis and appreciate you taking a thought provoking, opposing view on a movie many critics panned.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I agree about the film after this...truly terrible and it is a shame that it was even made.

Thanks Steve,
This film would make a splendid choice for a full blown special edition. Let's cross our fingers for one in the future.

Thanks Joe,
One of the pics I used is of Jodi's memorable death scene...a bit of a human jackolantern, that no doubt would have been even more visceral without the studio interference.


Thanks for the nice comments!

J.D. said...

I really like Miner's work on LAKE PLACID, which is very underrated but has some hilarious banter between Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Platt. These guys steal the film... not too hard as Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda play pretty bland-y McPlain wrap characters in this film.