After the relative low of Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers, a sprawling film weighted down by an absurd narrative, undercooked mythology and just general terrible-ness, it would be easy to despair about the direction of the series. How, exactly, does one rebound from painting themselves into a rune-filled corner? The answer: bring back the original final girl and drop the cult material while trying to find a fresh spin that doesn’t coast on the same narrative. But it’s a little more complex than that, because what Halloween H20 is can be hard to describe. It’s definitely a sequel within the series, yet it completely ignores the events of the prior three films, with characters even noting that nobody has heard from the Shape in nearly 20 years.It may, partially, be considered a reboot, but not in the contemporary sense of the world because it is still so indebted to its predecessors.
When it’s all said and done, what the categorization of Halloween H20 is ceases to matter as it quickly becomes the best Myers-centric sequel in the entire franchise. It’s a film that manages to find new ground in well trodden territory; Myers may be terrorizing the same character, but the events and the emotionality of the film are radically different than any of the other installments.
One of the most effective things that Halloween H20 does is to explore the psychological consequences of what happened just a few decades prior. While previous films have explored the repercussions of Myers’ rampages, they rarely do so in any meaningful, emotional way. In lieu of the traditional stalking sequences, Michael Myer becomes a specter that haunts Laurie for the first half of the film. He appears in the window over her should or in the glass display of a local shop, yet it’s never actually him, just a pale shadow of the events that continue to scar her. These sequences twist stylistic techniques to create a new sort of terror: mental and emotional. It also means that, when he begins walking down the path towards her after being let inside, a profound mistrust in the camera has been developed so the audience must ask if this is actually the antagonist or just another vision of the past. Whereas many of the stylistic choices in previous sequels have felt as if odes to the original with little commentary, this ends up being a nifty, subtle technique that falls in line with the emotional resonance of Halloween H20.
Halloween H20 also represents an evolution in the manner in which it opts to invoke terror. This manifests itself in a low body count, but the film definitely plays with this. One sequence I noted was the one when a mother and child stop at rest stop bathrooms; the stolen car is parked outside, conveying information to the audience that the two characters couldn’t possibly know. The expectation created by the previous films is that the Myers will kill everyone in his path, making the claustrophobic interaction, and scream, of the child all the more frightening. Yet, the film pulls back; the mother sees him through the crack in a door, he pauses, and leaves with only their car. Miner uses the same technique later in the film after Myers has broken into the school. In this sequence, Ronny is on the phone with repeated shots of the Shape appearing over his shoulder, following camera movements. When the camera shows a blank space in the window, it is only natural to assume Myers will jump out for the kill based off of his previous interactions in the franchise. However, again, Myers spares a victim and moves on silently towards his real targets.
This reflects a couple big shifts in the series: one is a return to pointed violence. In the opening sequence, two deaths occur off screen after it seems the antagonist may have left or the protagonist may be safe. Miner utilizes a sudden shattering of safety to make the first death all the more affective for the audience. Likewise, actual violence is rarely portrayed on screen at the school, and when it does its quite different than the imaginative-yet-cartoony kills that spoiled the sequels. When Charlie has his hand in the trash grinder to pick out a corkscrew, the audience is supposed to foresee a brutal death sequence. This is actually a misdirection that plays on the expectations audiences have developed, as Charlie’s hand remains unscathed, but he turns around right into Myers and is killed off screen. Though John and Molly discover Sarah has been brutally hung from a lightbulb after following a path of blood, the audience only gets to see select moments of violence against her. Through expunging the actual act of killing, Miner gives moments where characters are attacked even greater weight; it feels devastating when John is even just stabbed in the leg once.
Another evolution is a return to that famed, Hitchcockian manner of suspense. The oft-mentioned quote goes that there are two ways to make one scene; to paraphrase (because you’ve probably already heard it enough), in the first, a bomb goes off suddenly and surprises the audience. In the second, the audience is told that there is a ticking bomb the characters are oblivious to. The first situation results in shock, while the second creates suspense. Halloween H20 moves beyond the sequels’ reliance on shock, typified by over use of jump scares, towards creating this type of suspense. Consider, again, the scene where Ronny is oblivious to Michael standing outside his shed, or the way in which the audience is often so much more aware of Myer’s movements and knows what to expect as the character naively prance along. He doesn’t always jump out and finish the interaction, but the film consistently creates a high level off suspense based off the fact that he may. One of my favorite moments of the film is the face off between Myers and Laurie in the dining hall; at first we track her movements and hiding, things to which he seems oblivious. Then, a cut reveals that he is standing on top of a table to find her. By oscillating between two reference points of knowledge, the film creates an even greater level of suspense.
It’s impossible to talk about the brilliance of Halloween H20 without mentioning is’ referentiality. Like the original film, Halloween H20 is aware of its ancestry; in this case, it tries to situate itself in the lineage of Psycho, perhaps a reason for its use of Hitchcockian suspense. There are moments when characters overtly reference that film–such as when John’s friend suggests he will end living in an oedipal, Bates Motel situation–and there are more minor musical odes. There’s also the fact that Miner casts Janet Leigh in a minor role! Halloween H20 also quickly references the Friday the 13th series as the first bout of misdirection is when the nurse runs into a figure wearing a hockey mask, a nice little shout out to Jason.
More importantly, the film is filled with reflexivity through the constant referencing of its predecessors to the point where it even begins with the radio playing Mr. Sandman. This functions as more than an easter egg, though, as it’s a move, again, to try to situate the film in a direct descent of the first two films, as it will proceed to ignore the events of the last three. Through the film, there are many such callbacks: again, the Myers character is referred to as one that has been waiting, with a central question being as to why he would appear after seventeen years. There is a scene in which Myers stabs a character in the back and picks him up as he did in the halls of Haddonfield Hospital twenty years prior. Janet Leighs character frightens Laurie, and then says the same line as the sheriff in the original so many years ago: “it’s Halloween, I guess everyone is entitled to one good scare.” The puddles of blood are reminiscent of the character that was drained Halloween II. The film also uses this referentiality to rebuke expectations: it would appear that Laurie is going to hid in a closet like in the original, but she uses our (and Michael’s) knowledge of this movement as a fake out to get an upper hand. It’s another of my favorite parts of the film.
And finally, let’s talk about that ending. For a series that has such strong final notes (the original, Season of the Witch, Return of Michael Myers), this one may be a high point. It’s a shocking moment, after all that has gone down in 6.9 outings, to see Laurie have the opportunity to reach out to her brother, but respond by abruptly lopping his head off with an axe. It’s also a powerful moment that I wish the series would have concluded on, as it represents the main character finally exorcising her demons and getting over the events that have scarred her in spite of other characters attempting to hold her back or stop her from what she knows is right to do. It feels like the organic outcome to Laurie’s storyline, more so than forging ahead with another sequel.
As always, I feel that there’s no way this space, or my informal notation, can actually do justice to the project; as a film, this is one I’d like to come back to with some dedicated research and sequence analysis because it really is that good, and there’s so much to unpack about how it subverts expectation through style and uses referentiality. There’s a lot to sift through, and I’m not sure a blog is the right setting for that (although maybe I’ll make it such at a later date). Ultimately, what matters most is that Halloween H20 represents one of the most satisfying entries in the series. I can also, finally, end on a refreshing note of optimism: it’s a great film in its own right, and I highly recommend you add it to your playlist this fall.