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Halloween: H20

4

They said that no-one would be able to make a straight horror movie after Scream. They were wrong. In an excellently tight 87 minutes, H20 delivers a concentrated rush of paranoia, jolts, screams and surprises that honour John Carpenter's original while also stamping new ground. And it does this in an old-school way: a straightforward, back-to-basics cranking-up of anticipation to knuckle-cracking heights before unleashing a final gush of horrific blood-letting.

The odds were certainly against H20, following in the footsteps of horror classic Halloween, and so closely after two successful Scream movies. It had to tread the fine tightrope between being too derivative of the original and too self-aware of itself as a horror movie. Yet despite being written and directed by relative unknowns (Steve Who? Robert What-else-has-he-done?), it nimbly leaps over the potholes of cliché and over-familiarity to dress up some old ideas in a new way and deliver genuinely original set-pieces.

At its heart is a fine performance from Curtis as traumatised Laurie Strode, who scaffolds her public persona as a prim headmistress by necking vodka and pills in the evenings and being pissy to her secretary, her long-suffering lover (school counsellor Will Brennan) and her tormented teenage son John. Of the three, he's the only one who knows her real name and her background, but is also the least tolerant about her obsession with what he sees as the past.

But the real surprises start before all this, with a Scream style pre-credit slaughter centring around the house of the late Dr Loomis. It's here that Michael picks up the trail of Laurie, yet also where the movie starts to confound the viewer's expectations. It knows that we know that victims always do the wrong things and end up dead. So when Loomis' assistant finds the house broken into, she does everything right. She gets out fast, phones the police, seeks safety in numbers and stays with her neighbours. All of which does her absolutely no good.

A montage over the credits fills in the past, leaving the next 50 minutes to follow the original's format - - nothing much happens in an clammy, claustrophobic way. As most of the school prepares to go camping, Halloween draws ever nearer, leaving Laurie fearing the worst, a bunch of kids having a spooky meal in the cellars and security guard Ronny watching the gates.

"The Oscar for best supporting actor goes to... (rustle, tear) ...LL Cool J!" As unlikely as it seems, rapper Cool James puts in an excellent performance that rises above his knife-fodder status. To be a security guard (and a black one at that) is certain death in a horror movie, yet Ronny's as fleshed-out and real a character as all the rest.

Onwards then to the final act, with Myers' purposeful stride making the prancing and dashing of the Scream killers look juvenile and silly. Behind that mask is a terrifying, silent and seemingly unstoppable force, his eyes glinting darkly in a rapid-fire sequence of unfailingly thrilling set-pieces that you must strive to know nothing about before you go and see it. And all the while, Carpenter's original Halloween theme cranks ever-louder, proving that even after 20 years, it's a chilling set of notes on par with the Psycho stab and the Jaws rumble.

Shrieking towards a savagely satisfying climax, H20 uses realistic lighting and a pared-down screenplay (dialogue all but ceases halfway through) to produce a sombre balance to the gleeful slaughter of the Scream flicks. It's a movie-buffs' movie, peppered with nods and winks to other genre pics and even featuring original slasher victim Janet Leigh (she of that shower scene). Yet for a younger generation, it's plainly and simply the scariest, most surprising chiller for years, offering a challenge to future horror movies: top this.

Verdict:

Scream 2 claimed that sequels have to be flashier, more elaborate and boast a higher bodycount. Yet with a tiny cast, simple plotting and minimal locations, H20 goes back to basics with fear, a rubber mask and a lot of knives. Lots of knives.

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