Aside from the “Scream” pics that kickstarted it, the latest horror wave is starting to look no less routine — if glossier — than all those ’80s teen slash-’em-ups that had previously run this genre aground. Fortunately, “Halloween: H20” — reactivating a franchise responsible for all the above — proves an exception. While plot mechanics aren’t wildly imaginative, pic nonetheless delivers requisite jolts in an above-average package, while providing Jamie Lee Curtis sufficient character meat to justify revisiting her career-making (and, for a time, career-limiting) debut role. Expect solid if medium-legged B.O. performance, followed by a dynamic video shelf life.
Feature cuts — ahem — to the chase right away with a lengthy prologue in which nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens), the former assistant to first pic’s Donald Pleasance psychologist character, arrives to find her suburban Indiana home broken into. Two neighborhood boys (including “Third Rock From the Sun” regular Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose character is out of the picture before his special billing appears onscreen) offer to make sure the intruder’s gone, though police have already been called. Needless to say, things turn out badly for all concerned.
Subsequent opening credits pan the now-late medico’s office, revealing myriad newspaper clips related to Michael Myers’ killing spree 20 years ago — including one alleging that latter’s beleaguered sis Laurie Strode (Curtis) died in a later auto accident. Patient files have been ransacked, and the nurse’s car is stolen.
Surprise! Laurie isn’t dead … yet … and is in for more grief. She faked the fatality to “go into hiding” (Michael’s ashes never having been found after film No. 2’s hospital bonfire); using a different name, she’s now live-in headmistress at a gated, upscale SoCal boarding school, with teenage son John (Josh Hartnett) duly enrolled. Guess who’s coming cross-country to visit.
The majority of staff and students are on a camping trip, leaving the few stay-behinds isolated. Plus, natch, it’s Halloween. Initially barred from the Yosemite outing by overprotective mom, John gets permission once he’s already planned a “romantic dinner” with three classmates — girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams, from teleserial “Dawson’s Creek”), Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). He opts to stick around for latter event without telling Mom. Meanwhile, she’s having her own not-so-romantic night with school-counselor and secret amour Will (Adam Arkin); this date turns a tad somber when holiday-rattled Laurie decides to confess her catastrophic past history.
Some hide-and-seek games at the school gate get Michael (Chris Durand performs the mute, masked role this time) past security guard Ronny (LL Cool J). Soon “The Shape” is slashing his way through California youth en route to his already-suspicious, then panicked little sis.
Director Steve Miner presses the false-scare button a few too many times early on, and once the nonstop running-screaming-snuffing action takes over after 50 minutes or so, script (by Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg) doesn’t evince any special invention. Admittedly, there is only so much variety you can wring out of an unstoppable killing machine — he’s down, he’s up, he’s dead, he’s not. Still, the scares are there. Sibling-duel climax does effectively push conceptual envelope in making Laurie as obsessively focused on offing her homicidal brother as vice versa.
Despite the now-required addition of sexy TV-recognizable adolescents, pic belongs to Curtis, and care has been taken to make her character one credible, battle-scarred survivor. Laurie here is a caustic divorcee, an overdisciplinary administrator, a “functional alcoholic” and caring but oppressive parent whose understandable paranoia no pill can ease. (One of script’s best ideas is having her constantly experience delusional Michael sightings — so when the real thing shows up, she thinks at first it’s just another “episode.”) Star juggles the job’s multiple facets — psychologically damaged victim, nearly unlikable control freak, self-mocking wit, avenging action superhero — in fine fashion.
Other roles are more rotely written but well-turned; rapper-turned-thesp LL Cool J gets most of the decent comic relief (via recurrent phone conversations with his argumentative girlfriend) in a pic that, thankfully, eschews campy in-joking for straight-up suspense. Curtis’ mom, Janet Leigh, has a cameo as the school secretary. (No, she doesn’t take a shower.)
Tech package in economically paced prod is first-rate, with Miner (who started out directing the second and third “Friday the 13ths”) using shadowy, tracking Panavision images that evoke rather than blatantly imitate the mood in John Carpenter’s 1978 original. John Ottman’s score rings orchestral variations on that helmer’s eerie self-penned theme.
For the record: Though being sold as a “classic,” long-dormant series’ return (script pretends Michael’s mayhem stopped with ’81’s “II,” also Curtis’ last related appearance), this is in fact “Halloween” chapter seven.
The last was as recent as 1995 (“The Curse of Michael Myers”). While ’83’s eccentric “Season of the Witch” proved memorable simply for using the franchise name without any actual plot connection, one may be forgiven scant knowledge of mediocre entries four through six — nobody else remembers them, either. Current edition suggests at finale that Michael is truly, seriously, definitely you-know-what. But don’t place any bets against the likelihood of No. 8.