Michael Myers is dead. If you believe that, we’ve got a boarded-up house in Haddonfield to sell you. Granted, Michael did look pretty dead by the end of last year’s Halloween Ends. David Gordon Green, in the closing chapter of his geriatric-killer trilogy, went to extreme lengths to convince the audience that there’s no possible way Myers, aka The Shape, aka The Boogeyman, could have survived what Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) did to his senior-citizen body. The closing shot of Michael’s mask, harmlessly unworn under a beam of comforting sunlight, was about as symbolically final as these movies get.
If Green went overboard proving that Myers is really gone this time, and if fans might still be reluctant to believe him, it’s because the Halloween series has cheated death before. And not just in that familiar, “oh, we didn’t see the monster die, so he could still be alive” slasher-sequel kind of way. It was 25 years ago this month that the ballad of Laurie and Michael reached its logical coda with the climactic swing of an ax in the closing seconds of the clumsily titled Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Michael Myers died — like truly, decisively kicked the bucket — in that movie, too. But it didn’t stop Hollywood from finding a cheap way to bring him back, and spoil the perfect ending.
Curiously released in August, rather than October, of 1998, H20 gave Halloween the legacy sequel treatment long before that term was coined — and two whole decades before Green’s 2018 revival gave it another try. Arranging an anniversary reunion for an adult Laurie and a retirement-age Michael? Striking most (if not all) of the other sequels from the continuity to present the new story as a “direct” follow-up to the original? Unleashing Michael in a rest stop bathroom, his heavy boots visible from under a stall? H20 did all of it first — and, in its less flashy and more workmanlike way, arguably better.
Doing its own thing
That’s not exactly conventional wisdom. The best thing generally said about H20 is that it’s not as embarrassing as some of the other Halloween sequels, the ones featuring Paul Rudd or Busta Rhymes. And yet there’s a certain integrity to the way the film goes about building a bookend to the story John Carpenter began back in 1978. H20 nods to the franchise’s past — with a scene of teenage Michelle Williams spotting Michael through a classroom window, with a Mr. Sandman needle drop that sonically confirms that Halloween II (and its revelation that Michael is secretly Laurie’s long-estranged brother) is still part of the official continuity. But the movie also does its own thing, working in the shadow of a classic without endlessly quoting it.
It is, after all, the only one of the dozen Myers movies that takes place someplace other than the endlessly beleaguered small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. H20 breaks the cycle of homecomings that’s plagued this series, before and after, by transporting the action to a boarding school in California, where Laurie Strode (Curtis, reprising her most iconic role for the first time since 1981) serves as headmistress under the name Keri Tate. She’s faked her death to drop off the radar, and is now a helicopter parent with a teenager of her own; he’s played by Oppenheimer‘s Josh Harnett, who gets an “introducing” credit.
If there’s any defense for doing the adult-Laurie storyline twice, it’s that it granted Curtis the opportunity to play two very different versions of an aging Laurie dealing with the trauma of that ancient Halloween massacre in very different ways. The star would later go full Terminator 2 in Green’s Halloween, where Laurie’s become an intense, crackpot prepper, happy to tell anyone who will listen that Myers is coming back one day. But there’s perhaps something more nuanced and interesting about her performance in H20, in which Laurie lives in constant fear that He will return, even as she basically refuses to discuss what happened on the worst night of her life.
Though Carpenter was originally in talks to direct the movie, the gig eventually went instead to Steve Miner, who got his start doing a bloodier imitation of Halloween in the second and third Friday the 13th movies. So, not exactly a lateral move. But time has been kind to the meat-and-potatoes competence of Miner’s staging in H20, which has a certain straightforward effectiveness that borders on elegance. He knows, at least, how to generate tension from Michael’s appearances in the background of the frame. And today, his work-for-hire approach can’t help but seem closer in spirit to the Carpenter original recipe than the country-fried flavors of Green and Rob Zombie, the latter of whon made the Halloween remake and its sequel.
Back to basics
H20 arrived during the short-lived slasher revival boom of the late ’90s, and it bears a few marks of that era — including the fingerprints of Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who did an uncredited pass. The young stars bring a then-trendy dose of WB angst (plus, from LL Cool J, some hip-hop-adjacent comic relief). And at times, you can sense the movie mapping a continuum of slasher mayhem, placing the original Halloween dead center between Williamson’s snarky throwbacks (one of which, Scream 2, appears on a television) and the grandaddy of the subgenre, Psycho, which gets referenced via a familiar car, a familiar sting of Bernard Hermann, and a small role for Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh.
Mostly, though, H20 is free of postmodern irony. It takes Halloween back to basics, if not quite back to the supreme voyeuristic suspense of the original. The film’s relationship to Carpenter’s is spiritual, but not ritualistic; after years of increasingly bloody sequels, it dips the gore quotient — and the body count — back to 1978 levels. And the bare-bones simplicity of the plot, which basically amounts to “Michael tracks down Laurie and tries to kill her again,” mirrors that of Halloween. Once again, the movie is more than half over before Big Mike really gets down to business. Before that, it lingers on the lives of the characters, dangling on the edge of impending doom.
In truth, H20 is rarely very scary. It can’t be — five other sequels had already diminished Michael’s power. But there is a resonance to its nostalgic thrills. When Laurie first sees her old stalker again in the distance, she opens and shuts her eyes, as if trying to wake up from a nightmare and banish him again. The movie is held together by a genuine dramatic interest in its heroine, in her middle-aged love life (she gets a surprisingly sensitive romance with a colleague played by George Clooney lookalike Adam Arkin), and in her coping mechanisms. And when the plot tilts into the promised cat-and-mouse showdown, it becomes an expression of Laurie’s determination to overcome her trauma: She couldn’t save her friends in ’78, but maybe she can save her own 17-year-old son in ’98.
The ending is unforgettable: the ultimate Final Girl mic drop. So satisfying and cathartic is this act of self-preserving violence that Miner wisely opts to just roll the credits immediately afterward, chasing the thwack of the weapon and thud of what it detaches with the iconic tinkle of Carpenter’s original theme, suddenly reclaimed as a triumphant survivor’s anthem.
There’s no topping that closing minute. It could and should have been a punctuation for the series. Instead, we got the unfathomably crappy Halloween: Resurrection, which walked back Michael’s death, and secured Curtis for a cameo, only to cruelly, pointlessly kill her off — a spit in the face of the hard-won closure H20 offered. To the extent that Green’s later, lumpy, not-uninteresting trilogy justifies its existence, it’s largely for the proper, more ceremonious curtain call it facilitates. For all their unevenness, his films work as a final showcase for Curtis in the lead role. Laurie gets the happy ending she deserves.
But the ideal ending? That arrived last century. H20 is far from perfect — like just about every Halloween movie after the first, it’s a mere echo of the wonders Carpenter worked with that elemental premise. But the film’s ending was perfect, which is part of why it was irritating to see Green’s movies retcon all of H20 while attempting something rather conceptually similar, another title fight between the babysitter that got away and the avatar of pure evil who almost got her. Of course, that selective approach to canon cuts two ways, doesn’t it? We know that Michael Myers died in 1998. Any evidence to the contrary is nothing more than hearsay or easily ignored fan fiction.
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is currently streaming on Paramount+, Showtime, and FuboTV. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.