Copycat Killers: ‘Scream’ Versus ‘Halloween H20’

In 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream changed the landscape of mainstream horror. This change may not have lasted forever, but was certainly enough to give the films of the 1990s a distinct set of tropes and atmosphere. Before Scream, horror was going through a period of stagnation, mostly dominated by straight-to-video releases and watered down sequels to former powerhouses. Scream changed that with a fresh approach and gave us a movie world where the characters were young, sarcastic, and already aware of the intrinsic rules of a horror film because they had seen them all. Scream gave us the genesis of ‘meta-horror’. With the recent announcement that Scream 5 will be coming to our screens soon, now is the perfect time to look back on those who copied the franchise that did so well off a copycat killer.

As well as giving audiences a new sub-genre to soak up, Scream also reignited the public’s interest in slashers. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Pre-existing scripts were being reworked to star effortlessly witty teenagers, and every killer was getting a mask. The copycat wave had become a tsunami of kitchen knives. It would be easy to talk about any of the copycats, especially with entries like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, but one of the most interesting phenomena was how pre-existing properties tried to get in on the action. No film did this quite like the seventh entry of the Halloween franchise, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later.

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It feels a little odd to include H20 in this feature because it’s by no means the worst Halloween sequel – that wooden-spooned honour belongs to Halloween: Resurrection. However, it is an early example of the franchise reinventing itself to try and fit into a new landscape, a quick change act with which the series is now synonymous.

Bear in mind that Halloween currently has five separate timelines. You’ve got the original timeline with cultists and curses (entries 1, 2 and 4-6), the Rob Zombie reboots, the more recent “urgh, Laurie as Michael Myers’ sister is dumb” continuity where the direct sequel to 1978’s Halloween is, confusingly enough, 2018’s Halloween. There is even a completely standalone anthology entry with 1982’s vastly underrated Season of the Witch.

H20 started the trend of reimagining the history of Michael Myers by eliminating entries 4 through 6 from canon. Laurie Strode is alive again, living under a new identity as the headmistress of a very fancy private school that her 17-year-old son Josh Hartnett attends. The Shape has returned to continue killing his family and their peripheral pals in vastly entertaining manners. H20 is made to appeal to fans of the original who had been too worn down by 20 years of convoluted lore, whilst cynically still appearing to be on-trend for franchise first-timers.

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So how does this reinvention tie back to Scream? Without even watching the film, you can already see that there were attempts to get in on the action. H20 came about on the back of a treatment scribed by Kevin Williamson, who, as well as writing Scream¸ Scream 2 and Scream 4¸ also penned I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty. Williamson was your man if you wanted snarky teens in peril. Although much of his original script was scrapped and he is credited in H20 as an executive producer, it still feels like a product of his mind.

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This is perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, since Halloween had so much influence on Scream. Halloween even features in the background as Randy explains the laws of surviving a slasher movie, and scenes from the film are intercut as Sidney becomes a less than virginal final girl. Williamson writing this and then going on to have a hand in the actual Halloween universe feels a lot like J. J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek having a Star Wars vibe about it.

Williamson is not the only creative team member the films share. Although H20’s score is credited to John Ottman, there is also ‘additional music’ by Marco Beltrami, the composer behind Scream. Admittedly, this fact is a little bit more coincidental. Producers were not the biggest fans of Ottman’s original score, but it was too close to release and he was tied down by other commitments, so Beltrami was brought on at crunch time. The result is a bit of a Frankenstein score, featuring aspects of Ottman’s original score, notes of John Carpenter’s original theme and additions from Beltrami, including old temp scores from the original Scream. While it may not have been the original intention, it is hard to argue that there wasn’t a conscious effort to make it more like Scream when they gave the OK to use the exact same score in places.

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Halloween has never been a stranger to reinvention. Season of the Witch was originally intended to transform the franchise into an anthology series. The lack of Myers, Loomis, and Laurie unfortunately meant that the film was poorly received, prompting them to bring home everyone’s favourite Shatner-masked psycho and never repeating the experiment. However, the filmmaker’s willingness to adapt to cinematic trends did not start here. Halloween 2 notably upped its gore and blood to adapt to the grizzly tradition paved by Friday the 13th.

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H20 continued this tradition with its appropriation of Scream and meta-horror tropes, although snarky teenagers that could have had their words written by Joss Whedon was not the only way it did this. The film also released a weapon still used by franchises and fan-favourites today: Easter eggs. H20 is effectively an 80-minute exercise video for winking and nodding.

Above all else, H20 is a love letter to both its own legacy and the history of horror. Within the first five minutes, you get a jump-scare from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a hockey mask, which isn’t even appropriate to this franchise (although H20 is directed by Steven Miner, the man behind Friday the 13th’s second and third entries). In one scene, Laurie tells her son that if there’s trouble, he is to “go down the street to the Beckers”. Not only is this a knowing wink to the line “go down the street to the McKenzie’s” from the original Halloween, but it swaps out the family’s name to that of Drew Barrymore’s family in Scream. In one scene of H20, characters are even watching Scream 2 in the background. This creates a whole mess of continuity because it means that both Halloween and Scream exist as films within each other’s timelines, but it is a fun nod all the same. Laurie telling her students how to best behave on the school trip can even be read as a more subtle take on ‘the rules’ in Scream.

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It is impossible to discuss Easter eggs in H20 without bringing up Janet Leigh’s cameo. Her one scene is shared with her real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and involves her quoting Halloween with the line “We’re all entitled to one good scare”, whilst the score of Psycho plays faintly in the background, and she walks to her car, which is, of course, the exact same model and registration plate as her car in Psycho. This scene alone screams of Scream, constantly quoting and referencing horror movies of the past. It also has the added bonus of representing the passing of the scream queen’s bloodied baton.

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Halloween H20 was meant to breathe new life into the franchise by going back to basics and bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis in one final showdown. Despite this, we ended up getting a sequel in this continuity, murdering Laurie in the first five minutes, and she has now returned for yet another retcon timeline. The film’s intentions were there though, and it expressed these intentions by taking pages from the playbook of ’90s meta-horror. It is not the worst Halloween film or even the worst copycat offender, but it is probably the most high-profile copycat and will always serve as an example of a popular franchise copying their friend’s homework to survive in an ever-changing landscape.

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