2018 Film Essays

Survivor’s Guilt: The Continuity of ‘Halloween H20: 20 Years Later’

Serialized storytelling is hardly a recent trend. Many of literature’s great novels first saw print in installments, published in magazines or journals over a period of weeks or months. Franchise filmmaking, however, is still relatively new. In the first few decades of cinema as a popular medium, the sequel was the almost exclusive domain of the science-fiction and horror genres. As far back as 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, which begins in the ashes of the windmill from the end of Frankenstein (1931), filmmakers had to deal with the issue of plot continuity, deciding how to continue the story with a minimum of confusion. The existence of a sequel, dramatically, is almost oxymoronic — there should be no more story after “The End,” yet there is. In the 1980s, the slasher subgenre became notorious for finding ways to continue each installment of a franchise after the killer had been defeated at the end of the previous film, resulting in some wacky continuity. The Halloween series, starting with John Carpenter’s original in 1978, is particularly complex in its continuity. In 2018’s installment, all but the first film are ignored plot wise for simplicity’s sake, among other reasons. Halloween: H20: 20 Years Later (1998) was the first in the series’ Michael Myers continuity to reset or “soft reboot” the plotline, yet that wasn’t always the case. The final film exhibits many creative choices and plot elements that make more sense for a continuity-inclusive sequel, rather than a reset to include only the original and 1981’s Halloween II. As such, H20 is much more interesting as a near-sequel to parts four, five and six of the series, providing the series up to that point — and the character of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — cathartic, climactic closure.

Any discussion of the Halloween franchise feels like it now requires charts and graphs, some kind of graphic of diverging timelines. The confusion all started with 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an installment that doesn’t actually belong to the main continuity at all. Producers Carpenter and Debra Hill wanted to move away from the character and storyline of Michael Myers (who had been fairly definitively killed in an explosion at the end of Halloween II) and rebrand Halloween as an anthology series with standalone sequels based around the holiday itself. To attempt to make this clear, characters in Halloween III actually watch 1978’s Halloween on television at several points, yet it didn’t work — slasher-crazed audiences wondered where Michael was, and wanted him back. After Hill and Carpenter left the franchise, producer Moustapha Akkad brought Michael back in the fourth installment in 1988, appropriately titled Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. It featured a severely burned Michael as well as a scarred Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), and involved Myers returning to his hometown of Haddonfield in murderous pursuit of his niece (thanks to Laurie Strode being revealed as Michael’s secret sister in Halloween II), Jamie (Danielle Harris). Laurie’s absence is addressed by dialogue explaining that her character died offscreen (along with Jamie’s never named father), in a manner that’s never made explicit. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) continued the Jamie story, with a new, mysterious “Man In Black” character being introduced as Michael’s secret protector. The filmmakers hadn’t worked out just who that character was and what he was after at the time of filming, which left the sixth entry, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) to attempt to explain. Thanks to production and script issues (including the untimely death of Pleasence before the film was complete), this film is a confusing hodgepodge of secret cults, Druid runes and evil cosmic happenings that kill off Jamie, leaves Loomis’ fate up in the air and has Michael end the film still on the loose. 

Given the mess that the sixth installment left, it’s not surprising that the team behind H20 wanted to leave it all (or most of it) behind. The project started as an attempt by Curtis to reunite herself, Carpenter and Hill for the original film’s 20th anniversary. When Carpenter and Hill declined, the project continued in a similar spirit, with the goal being to revisit Laurie Strode in the present day, pitting her against her evil brother in a final confrontation. Kevin Williamson, who wrote 1996’s Scream (which had revitalized the slasher film in pop culture at the time), was brought onboard as a co-executive producer, and completed some uncredited drafts of the script. The final film (credited to writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg) is unique in that it’s the only Halloween movie to date that doesn’t take place in Haddonfield, Illinois. Instead, it begins in Langdon, Illinois, where the nurse from the first two films, Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens) — who has changed her last name to Whittington — is attacked by Michael (Chris Durand) in the house she shared with a now-deceased Loomis. Finding a secret file on Laurie Strode in Loomis’ office, Michael tracks her to Northern California, where she’s faked her death, changed her name to Keri Tate and gone into hiding as the headmistress of Hillcrest Academy. Michael invades the school, mayhem ensues, Laurie’s 17-year-old son John (Josh Hartnett) and his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams) manage to escape and Laurie defeats The Shape, once and for all. 

The primary evidence that H20 takes place in a timeline divorced from Halloween 4-6 is a conversation between two cops at the beginning of the film, after Marion’s death and before the main title sequence. One of the cops mentions Loomis’ connection to Myers, prompting the other to recall that he “saw a thing on 60 Minutes” on Loomis and Michael, regarding the Haddonfield murders “20 years ago.” There’s no explicit mention of Jamie Lloyd, a Cult Of Thorn or any further incidents in Haddonfield in ‘88, ‘89 or ‘95. Simple and straightforward — except that there’s so much circumstantial evidence in the film that this retcon was not always the case. Williamson’s original treatment for H20 included a scene at Hillcrest wherein Keri aka Laurie listens to a student give a report on Jamie Lloyd and the events of the prior three sequels, revealing that Laurie did indeed leave a child behind when she had her death staged via car accident. There’s a rumor that this scene was shot and cut from the final edit, in order to better fit with the mandate to remove H20 from the prior sequels’ continuity, but footage of the scene has yet to turn up anywhere. Regardless, the scene and plot setting was so baked into the movie’s premise that vestiges of it turn up everywhere. Consider: why is there no explanation or even a hint regarding Michael’s whereabouts for the last 20 years, especially something explaining how he survived the explosion at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital (the cops say they “never found his body,” though Halloween II shows it burning in a hallway)? Why would Laurie feel the need to run away across the country, to fake her death in such a grandiose manner? Why would Dr. Loomis have lived for most of the past 20 years, tracking down Michael, only to die offscreen, when the explosion at the end of Halloween II would’ve provided a more than adequate explanation for his absence? When examined closely, H20 works much better as a vague continuation of the primary continuity, rather than a direct sequel to only Halloween II.

One of the strongest aspects of H20 is the characterization of Laurie Strode, along with Curtis’ performance. Viewing the movie as a final chapter, that element becomes even stronger. Just in general, it makes H20 feel more like a conclusion to a saga-length story, rather than the end to a trilogy (of Halloween, Halloween II and H20), or part of a duology, as Halloween + Halloween II and Halloween ‘78 and Halloween ‘18 are. The glut of events between the original film and this film makes the threat of The Shape an epic one: after killing an entire town’s police force, his niece, her foster family and friends, as well as outliving the doctor who pursued and opposed him for decades, he comes after the sister who got away and her teenage son. It makes the trauma and PTSD Laurie suffers from even more heavy, as there’s an added element of survivor’s guilt on top of it. As a “functioning alcoholic” who has spent the bulk of her life running away from her past and her relationships, there’s a lot of tragedy in the character — a woman doomed by her relation to a serial killer devoid of humanity, who can’t shake the memories of her trauma, who doesn’t allow anyone to get close to her, save her son whom she’s overprotective of, and who may have even abandoned another child. There is also, of course, a strength, a Loomis-like vindication that the worst fears she harbored for years have come true when Michael invades Hillcrest. It provides Curtis a great character arc to play, and she does it brilliantly, allowing director Steve Miner to unleash the movie (past the opening sequence, the first kill doesn’t happen until about an hour into the film) in time with Laurie’s turn, when she chooses to stop running and face her tormentor. The film’s third act feels like a roller coaster finally stopping its climb and careening downhill, as Laurie fights Michael tooth and nail. It culminates in what is still the greatest final moment of any of the Halloween films (save perhaps the eerie coda from Carpenter’s original): Laurie brutally decapitating Michael, killing him once and for all. It’s an ending as triumphant as the prior sequels had been bleak and ominous, and the use of the original film’s score, plus Curtis’ performance, makes it thrillingly cathartic. 

Of course, like any popular film series, the producers and the studio took one too many bites at the apple, and that ending was literally and figuratively undone in the following installment, 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection. The film revealed that Laurie actually decapitated a paramedic whose larynx Michael had crushed and whom he put in his mask, while Michael snuck out wearing the paramedic’s clothes. It’s a retcon that’s ludicrous not so much for its complexity (Michael had been known to disguise himself and others in films before) but for its robbing of H20’s triumphant, victorious power, leaving Laurie a broken woman locked up in an institution whom Michael kills within the first 15 minutes of the movie. Halloween: Resurrection also lazily explains backstory that H20 left vague/explained by the prior sequels, which is that Michael lived underneath the Myers house for 20 years in between the original film and H20, just because. Halloween: Resurrection’s resolutions and reveals unquestionably dilute H20’s impact, and the very 90s, Scream-esque style of Miner’s film keeps it ranked low on many Halloween fans’ lists. However, ignoring Halloween: Resurrection and incorporating parts 4-6 raises H20’s value considerably.

Regardless of how one chooses to view it, H20’s legacy will always have Laurie/Keri’s character and Curtis’ performance in its favor. Even the 2018 film pales a bit in comparison: while it displays a similarly traumatized Laurie, the new film begins with her already prepared and determined to take the fight to Michael by any means necessary. It’s a strong choice and a stronger characterization, but it loses the moment where, in H20, Laurie actually makse the choice to face her fear. When she calls her foe out, screaming “Michael!!” while brandishing an axe, Laurie isn’t just a survivor anymore, but a figure of vengeance. It’s a payoff for 20 years worth of story, and it cements the character as one of the best heroines of all time. 

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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