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Night of the Long Knives

It's been 20 years since the release of John Carpenter's Halloween: the film that made us reconsider the American kitchen as something more than the repository of milk and cookies and, instead, as an armory of Ginsu knives. That movie and its clones introduced to mainstream films the now-dominant Red Asphalt aesthetic, as well as imposing in horror movies a weirdly puritan universe in which teenagers are stabbed and impaled for having sex or drinking beer.

Jamie Lee Curtis, who appeared as the hapless baby sitter in Carpenter's original, is back as Laurie Strode, who, under the name Keri Tate, today runs a private secondary school in exotic Northern California. (That Laurie was killed off in H02 - I mean, Halloween 2 - is neatly explained away with two lines of dialogue.) She's a mom now and frets over her only son while dating student counselor Adam Arkin. Like many similar films, H20 seems to take place in some quaintly anachronistic corner of America with no fast-food chains and whose Hillcrest Academy has ancient wooden desks and big, faux-parchment globes, and where Curtis is employed as something called a "headmistress." Even Michael Myers, the series' indestructible villain - and Laurie's brother - drives up in an impossibly old jalopy. In this retro environment, naturally, the only black man within a thousand miles is LL Cool J, who plays an inept security guard with literary pretensions. (Those wacky Negroes!)

The story unwinds with surprising leisure as we learn about the academy's various relationships and Curtis' lingering trauma. Screenwriters Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg needn't have bothered, for as soon as these formalities are dispensed with, director Steve Miner's film gets down to the merry business of having Michael Myers kill off everyone in sight, according to the video-game plot logic that guides the genre.

The film is predictably packed with fake-out shocks that occur during quiet scenes in which someone turns around to confront, with a blast of music, some person standing right behind them. And there are film references - lots of them, mostly to Psycho, some to Plan 9 From Outer Space, Friday the 13th and Scream (co-executive-producer Kevin Williamson's alma mater). It's been a while since a Hollywood film was not about other movies, which is why today's directors feel they must sardine in as many cute references to other films as possible, whether they appear on background TV screens, in the names of the characters or, in the case of H20, in the mere presence of Curtis' mother, Janet Leigh, and the Fairlane she drove in Psycho.

Experience, however, tells us this will be one short movie: Most of the school departs for a camping trip, leaving behind precious few potential victims. There's the "bad" teen couple, the black guy and Adam Arkin - how long can it take to silence these lambs? The answer is about 40 minutes, from the time the first corkscrew is imbedded in one teen's neck to when Curtis lets go of a fireman's ax.

Curtis' apocalyptic showdown with her demon brother makes her part uber-soccer mom, part Ripley in an altogether reactionary vision of female empowerment, one in which Curtis improbably matches male violence with her own, as opposed to outwitting it. For his part, Michael Myers remains as chilling a specter as ever, his obsidian eyes sunken into a luminescent, mime-white face. That face is his calling card, for Michael has none of the physical deformities that distinguish other remarkable characters in pulp film and literature - he doesn't have a set of daggers for hands, a right-sided heart or a clitoris located in his larynx. He is simply an unemotional man with a masklike face and a habit of stabbing people in the back, making him undistinguishable from any corporate raider or downsizing CEO. Which is what made Michael Myers the perfect Golem of the Reagan era, and so . . . Be afraid that he is back - be very afraid.