Fans of modern horror have John Carpenter to thank for "Halloween," the genuinely thrilling 1978 shocker about the mentally deranged Michael Myers' murderous return to his hometown after years in an insane asylum.
Carpenter deserves blame, too, for inspiring the tide of bloody but not particularly suspenseful films -- including five lame sequels and the "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" cycles -- that washed onto mall screens in the wake of his low-budget blockbuster.
So why would anyone care what the man in the spray-painted Captain Kirk mask is up to 20 years hence, particularly after "Scream" so cleverly celebrated and assassinated the slasher genre in 1996?
"Halloween H20," from the same company that made the two "Scream" films, does its best to offer enticements for viewers to rejoin the franchise.
Jamie Lee Curtis, who made her film debut as the Illinois babysitter so convincingly frightened in the original and the second installment, is back as Laurie Strode, gracefully grown up and living in California with her teen-age son, John (Josh Hartnett).
Strode, who has changed her name to Keri Tate, lives a potentially idyllic life as resident head mistress of an exclusive boarding school, and the part-time lover of friendly guidance counselor Will (Adam Arkin of television's "Chicago Hope").
Then again, those pesky memories of Michael Myers would drive anyone to drink. So Tate does. Even worse, she's plagued by recurring visions of her old tormentor. One fine overcast Halloween weekend, she rubs her eyes to erase his image, and he's still there, with blade in hand and ready to stab.
Viewers know what our heroine doesn't: Mayhem Mike already is on the rampage, having conveniently dispatched the nurse of his former physician, and purloined the official records on the girl who survived that awful night so long ago. As always, the police are the last to know: "Michael Myers? Yeah, right," one cop says at a murder scene.
Curtis and Arkin lead a smartly chosen cast that raises hopes for a "Halloween" treat, and indeed makes the movie a cut above the other awful sequels.
Rap star L.L. Cool J is a comic delight as a security guard with plans to turn his softcore short stories into successful fiction. Screen veteran Janet Leigh, Curtis' real-life mom and the star of Hitchcock's classic 1960 chiller "Psycho" (which itself inspired "Halloween") has a small role as a well-meaning colleague. "If I could be maternal for one moment," she says, before wishing the spooked Tate a happy All Hallow's Eve. Hartnett and Michelle Williams (of television's "Dawson's Creek") are less than compelling as one set of two young couples pursued by the bad guy.
Steve Miner, whose resume as a horror director includes two "Friday the 13th" sequels and "Warlock," loads the movie with false-alarm moments, as characters bump into each other by mistake, ominous shadows morph into friends and a kid shows up in a hockey mask (a la Jason of "Friday the 13th").
Miner, sadly enough, doesn't really make much of the appealing elements he's assembled for "Halloween H20." The suspense is negligible, the body count is, well, rather low for a scarefest, and the three horny couples never consummate their love on screen. What good is a slasher movie without serious shivers, buckets of blood or gratuitous sex? Not much.
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