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Review: Same lowered standards in 'Halloween H2O'

Web posted on: Thursday, August 13, 1998 5:15:23 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Why, oh why do people lower themselves? I'm currently stuck watching the revival of a movie form that appalled me the first time around, then disappeared from view after a torrent of thoughtless re-workings that resembled bloody tape loops. You could argue that this kind of movie gained its initial commercial foothold with Alfred Hitchcock's "Pyscho" 38 years ago. But you also know that that's not really the case.

Anybody who cares about the art of movie-making can immediately detect the difference between that picture and the mean-spirited revenge fantasies that 20 years later came to be known as slasher films. "Psycho" (and you'll get to see that one again, as soon as Gus Van Sant is done tracing it) was a knowingly subversive undermining of audience expectations. Hitchcock torpedoed what people expected of his movies, while deftly inserting witty dialogue and a single scene that's so utterly devastating you tend to forget that much of what's going on is really rather boring. No, the actual explosion came while I was in high school in 1978, when John Carpenter's "Halloween" was released.

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I clearly remember being scared by the movie, but my overriding feeling when I was watching it back then was one of sadness. I couldn't for the life of me see why my classmates (and millions of kids just like them all over the country) were lining up for something so blatantly, proudly heartless. Carpenter's plot was practically "The Magnificent Ambersons" when you compare it to the herd of movies it spawned. However, even the smattering of character that Jamie Lee Curtis was allowed to play was purposefully upstaged by knives getting jabbed into people, right out in the open. As an added bonus, some sound man out in the Valley enhanced the knife's multiple entries by stabbing a casaba melon in front of a microphone.

'Psycho' showed craft, skill

Hitchcock kills twice in his movie, with a level of skill and enthusiasm for his craft that brings the horror to the forefront. Audiences at the time felt violated by the killings in "Psycho."

"Halloween" and the films that it led to, on the other hand, simply provided a forum in which audiences could enjoy tasting blood without fear of a reprimand. When that guy in the mask gutted somebody, it was like the tease was finally over; the movie flashed its breasts for you. The knife comes out and all that's missing is an announcer intoning, "And now for our feature presentation."

Audiences hooted and hollered like they were having "fun," but what kind of fun is it? If a character suddenly jumps out of the dark and does something vile, is that an accomplishment that has anything at all to do with the power of filmmaking? The shock is so cheap and easy, it's the vileness that sticks with you, not the movie itself. Far lesser directors than the semi-talented Carpenter picked up on the appeal immediately, mostly because all you needed to grasp it was a central nervous system.

And here we are again. If the '70s were the "Me Decade," then I'm absolutely convinced that the '90s are the "Irony Decade." You can do anything you want in a movie or TV show, no matter how base or simplistic, and get away with it. Just make sure that there's a little wink attached. "Scream" isn't a movie about people lining up to get murdered, it's a joke about movies where people line up to get murdered. That way audiences can camouflage their blood lust and come out of the theater on a higher moral ground than you could manage back when these things first became popular. After all, you can tell yourself, it's not like you're watching "Faces of Death."

Few in-jokes in 'H20'

That kind of in-joke stuff is available in mercifully small doses during Steve Miner's "Halloween H20" -- mostly through the appearance of "Psycho"'s Janet Leigh, driving the same car that she rode to her doom all those years ago -- but, not surprisingly, you don't get much of anything else.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars once again as Laurie Strode, the same woman who was attacked in the first two installments of the series. It's 20 years later (the number in the title doesn't mean that you somehow missed 14 sequels), and Laurie has changed her identity. She's got a new name, has a teen-age son (Josh Hartnett), and is the head of the boys' boarding school that he attends.

Laurie is still so jittery from her late-'70s ordeal, she jumps around like somebody is continually setting off cherry bombs behind her back. That somebody would be Miner, whose idea of an expertly staged thrill is to have a benign person abruptly appear from out of the frame while the music on the soundtrack goes "CHIIIING!" This happens repeatedly -- at least seven times before I quit counting. As you may have guessed, it's Halloween again, so the killer is back, ready to stalk and cut. And this is the pivotal flaw of these movies.

Over and over, the same "."

It's a coincidence that I'm referencing Kurt Vonnegut only a couple of days after I did it in my review of "Ever After," but he once wrote a brilliant essay about what makes a good story work. Vonnegut theorizes that the key to telling an interesting story (or, in this case, making a sequence in a film come to full fruition) is this: "? ! ." The idea is that you ask an interesting question (?), make it exciting as the audience awaits an answer (!), then give them an answer that they weren't looking for (.). (I believe this is so pivotal to good writing, I literally have the series of punctuation marks tattooed on my left wrist.)

So I'm sitting there watching "Halloween H20," and I realize that the key problem is that the closing "period" in Vonnegut's sequence, which is supposed to hold an element of surprise, is continually the same answer. Things can build up for 10 or 15 minutes, but the ultimate conclusion (every single time, unless it's an intentionally misleading side-track) is that someone's going to get their throat slashed, or their stomach split open, or their eye gouged out. The audience is not remotely interested in the elements of story-telling, of taking a trip. What they're doing is patiently awaiting the kill. And then they get it.

This is problematic, folks. I don't think for a second that movies cause people to kill, but that debate will continue forever, regardless of what I think. What disturbs me is that we've invented a form of entertainment that appeals to our most elementary, brute levels of response. A good time at the movies is getting harder and harder to find these days. The re-introduction of this genre is a setback that was bound to happen. Everything has already been blown up fifty times over, so now it's time for Hollywood to return to good old days, when movies consisted of systematically offing people one at a time.

Before you pony up the dough, you might want to take a step back and venture a guess as to why you're paying for the chance to see it again.

"Halloween H20" isn't as loaded with gore as some of these movies are, but what's there is of the "take no prisoners" type, with blood, blood, and slashing. Attractive teen-agers, in case you're worrying that the producers missed a beat, get massacred while trying to set the table for a sexual encounter. 82 minutes. Rated R.

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