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Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later

Like Demi Moore leaking tears or Sharon Stone crossing her legs, Jamie Lee Curtis screaming is one of those glorious sights that inspire a generation of moviegoers to binge on popcorn. Lordy, but Curtis can shriek. And age hasn’t diminished her bodacious lung power. In Halloween: H20, a laugh-while-you-yelp sixth sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 cheapie horror beaut (in which Curtis made her feature debut bellowing, cowering, and regularly fleeing to the wrong room at the wrong time, pursued by a knife-wielding masked maniac), the actress returns as Laurie Strode. And when we first see her, she’s screaming while asleep and dreaming, with good reason: Her murderous pursuer, Michael Myers, is back.

In two decades, Strode has made strides. She has changed her name, moved to a small California town, married and divorced (sure, he was an ”abusive, chain-smoking methadone addict,” but at least she wasn’t a single-girl loser), and borne a son, John (newcomer Josh Hartnett, with dead, dark eyes), now 17 and not a little tired of his mother’s overprotective, alcoholic ways. She has also become headmistress of a private school, the kind of atmospheric institution any psycho would visit at his earliest opportunity. On Halloween 1998, Michael (who, by the way, Doctor Freud, is her brother) does exactly this, butcher knife glinting. Only this time — in keeping with an era of assertiveness training and a woman’s right not to be hacked up while she’s out on a date — Laurie faces her stalker down and takes him on. Needless to say, as an orchestral arrangement of Carpenter’s perfectly chilling Halloween theme music blares, heads and other body parts roll.

Halloween: H20 has been directed — in a speeded-up, can’t-hardly-wait style — by Steve Miner, a veteran of slasher features (Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3). But the man spiritually behind H20‘s tone is coexecutive producer Kevin Williamson, creator of Scream and Scream 2 (and the scarily hyper-verbal teen-sex TV drama, Dawson’s Creek). Just as Carpenter’s Halloween was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, and Scream was a gloss on Halloween, so H20 prevails in a post-Scream universe. In this landscape, horror is never so blackly frightening that it’s not a little, like, amusingly ironic, too. Movie-mad younger audiences (i.e., under-30s) raised on Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy Krueger, and David Spade are never so spooked that they can’t simultaneously assess the mechanics behind the mood building. The more pop-culture references and inside jokes, the more hip the viewing crowd feels. The ability to be truly, sincerely terrified by what is deeply, seriously frightening is deflected by a stylish carapace of self-congratulatory sophistication.

In itself, of course, there’s nothing wrong and much right with this deconstructionist approach to the genre: Both Screams (and, to lesser degrees, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Disturbing Behavior) blew cool, fresh air into the hoary madman-on-the-loose formula by subverting it, and they also established new followings for nubile stars, many harvested from TV. In H20, Michelle Williams gets to leave the Dawson‘s bull pen, joined by 3rd Rock From the Sun‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nash Bridges‘ Jodi Lyn O’Keefe. For symbolic ethnic diversity, rapper/sitcom star LL Cool J plays a security guard. Meanwhile, for the post-WB crowd, Chicago Hope‘s Adam Arkin is nicely cast as Laurie’s colleague and suitor, providing the deathless ’90s line ”I’d like to believe that recovery is always possible.”

The ongoing undercutting of scaring with winking is, I think, a dead-end direction. That footage of Sarah Michelle Gellar in Scream 2 is playing on a dorm-room TV while Michael lurks on campus is as much a distraction as an amusement. But in the midst of such easy, expendable tricks, the appearance of Janet Leigh as a school secretary is a thrill, pure and simple. Jamie Lee’s mother, the star of Psycho! ”If I can be maternal for a moment,” she murmurs to Laurie, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the old woman’s car — the Ford cruiser Psycho‘s Marion Crane drove nearly four decades ago! Leigh’s brief reunion with her heartily likable, resilient daughter carries more of a charge than any pileup of bloody bodies. Now, there’s a novelty act worth screaming for. As for the rest of the postmodern shtick — time to give it the ax. B

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later

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