Smashing Pumpkins

Final Girl meets her match--again: Jamie Lee Curtis and masked man in Halloween: H20

Halloween: H20
area theaters

Basically, sequels mean the same film. That's what people want to see. They want to see the same movie again.

--John Carpenter, director of Halloween

Okay, 20 years on: That baby-sitting, hanger-wielding ingenue is now more admired for hanging from a helicopter with her bosom broadly waving. The name Michael Myers stands less for relentless horror than for horrible chest hair and relentless use of the verb "to shag." The fat butcher blade favored by Halloween's psycho killer has been picked up by cuter, chattier slashers in cuter, chattier slasher films, such as the megahit Scream. In fewer words, it's time for yet another sequel, which might be more prosaically titled, Halloween VII: Hey, We Had It Here First!

Jamie Lee Curtis, cast as Laurie Stroud for her Psycho bloodlines, returns after wisely avoiding parts three through six. (Her mom, Janet Leigh, delivers a sweet cameo.) Michael's white mask is back, albeit with a new, stiff face behind it. John Carpenter's minimalist musical theme has been dug up and revived, although Carpenter himself is nowhere to be found. Steve Miner, captain of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3, enters this august line, following in the steps of, uh, Dominique Othenin-Girard (Halloween 5) and Joe Chappelle (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). No disrespect to Carpenter, but the good news is Miner understands that making the same Halloween entails making a very different Halloween.

Some of the changes are purely cosmetic, and economic: a slate of decent actors, for example, bankrolled by Dimension Films, division of Miramax and home of Scream. Curtis, playing Laurie all grown up as a pill-popping, vodka-swilling private-school headmistress, sells more complex flavors these days than wry loneliness and desperate terror. She's set up with a warm and witty Adam Arkin (Chicago Hope). As the school therapist who finds this head case fascinating, Arkin gets some of the best jokes and makes them hurt.

The kids (including Minnesotan Josh Hartnett as Laurie's son John--named after Carpenter?) are efficiently beautiful, spunky, and way more likable than Laurie's deservedly doomed high school buddies. Like their Scream siblings, this engaging gaggle of TV actors does point out a deeper shift in horror flicks: The early slasher films' atmosphere of punishment has flown the coop. These new, smart, articulate teens drink and screw as much as their predecessors, but their choices don't always affect who lives and who doesn't. In Disturbing Behavior, the most retroactively moralistic slasher film of recent days, the "normal" kids who lust and imbibe actually emerge as the survivors.

Of course, the viewer still knows who's gonna get it--if only by the relative star power of the actors playing the parts. (Dawson's Creek, relax; Nash Bridges, watch out!) But current slasher films, with their debt to the pretty-in-pink teen dramas of the '80s, try to bother the emotions more completely than the original ones. There are characters in the Scream series--the sassy girl who gets crushed in the garage door, Jamie Kennedy's nerdy boy blue--whose deaths provoke something other than joyful shudders of disgust. Reader, I mourned them. Ditto Halloween: H20. The '90s movies invite us to identify not just with the end survivor--the "Final Girl" of academic Carol J. Clover's 1992 slasher-film study, Men, Women, and Chainsaws--but with sundry, not-so-final girls and boys.

Part of this shift stems from the "killer inside" strategy of the Scream franchise: The perpetrator is no ugly, sexually ambiguous boogeyman, but one of the sunny teenage boys, and the film asks you at once to fear him and fear for him. The original Halloween also lured the viewer into Michael Myers's shoes, by shooting from his POV and reducing his victims to caricatures. It's easy, though, to switch sympathies when he goes after Laurie--the guy's repulsive. The Scream killers, unveiled, look handsome and hunky. On the one hand, it's harder to abandon them. On the other, they're more appallingly evil for the beauty of that final mask.

H20 simply sticks with Michael Myers. And frankly, it's tough to go back to such a mute, mechanical psycho. His mystery has been plumbed. Even his relentlessness does not surprise anymore; he's fallen down and gotten up so many times that the filmmakers can only make a joke out of it (following Scream). What horror H20 does hold derives less from Michael's methodical killing than from what he doesn't do. Characters keep running into each other and shrieking, until somebody shoots. The scariest and funniest scene involves the Freudian fear of garbage disposals--with Michael employed merely as a punch line.

I'm wondering too if the age of H20's Final Girl--er, Woman--weakens its ability to frighten. Michael just doesn't appear as overwhelming up against a savvy 37-year-old schoolteacher--even a psychically shaky one. Nor is it as much of a thrill when she turns the knife around on him: We expect a mother lion to defend her cub and, as a side effect, herself. There's no sense of gender transgression, the feeling that the victim girl is suddenly and willfully penetrating and cutting like a boy, for the sole object of narrative survival. Indeed, if you read modern slasher films as coming-of-age tales wherein kids break loose from their parents, then H20 bodes ill for Laurie's well-protected 17-year-old son. No doubt he'll return in H25, slashing at shower curtains while Mom's body decomposes in the basement.

But I'm not sure that the current horror wave still adheres so tightly to Oedipal impulses. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Clover suggests that the slasher-film high-tide beginning in the mid-'70s (with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween) helped its predominantly male audience confront feelings of gender confusion stirred by feminism. These viewers, she writes, initially rooted for the monstrous parent before embracing the Final Girl's ambivalent conjunction of "masculine" purpose and "feminine" passivity, her/his blending of victim and hero. Today's Scream audiences, though, are heavily female. And the films, too, have altered the slasher-film formula.

Perhaps the most noticeable innovation is the entrance of that older woman: Curtis here, Courteney Cox in the Scream movies. The teen protagonists definitely try to push this (s)mothering figure away, but, against the killer's threat, she proves their ally. This addition may well be a result of the mainstreaming--and defanging--of the genre. The murderous, unsettlingly amorphous parent who enveloped both Ma and Pa has been reduced to stabber dad and fuckable mom, just as the powerfully androgynous Final Girl has split, via the reactionary (and very neutralized) Disturbing Behavior, into action boy and follower girl.

There's another way to look at it, however. In the eyes of today's majority female viewer, the older woman models vulnerability and strength; she has hacked a path through the woods. The girl doesn't have to follow, but she knows now that escape is possible. She's not alone in patriarchy's haunted house, with only the killing demand of gender-role stereotype--"Become a cut-able/fuckable woman!"--for company. She can afford to laugh, even, because this life-and-death game can be won, because the rules underestimate her, because some (soft) boys are on her side. Where Scream delights, and H20 falters, is in acknowledging that this next generation must forge their own identities, fight their own fights. In the end, Miner and Curtis have remade Halloween with too much faith--and too little.

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