Cinema: An old trick, and no treat

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The Independent Culture
Halloween H2O: Twenty Years Later 18

Velvet Goldmine 18

The Governess 15

The Disappearance of Finbar 15

Small Soldiers PG

Air Bud U

John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) was one of the most frightening movies ever made. A product of poverty row and butcher's row, it owed its power to an insistent, lo-fi sadism: the jerky hand-held camerawork, excessively long takes and fuzzy soundtrack made it seem like a snuff movie that had somehow found its way into the Odeon. Carpenter's camera kerb-crawled around the featureless Illinois suburb, biding its time before the knives came out for Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. There was a series of progressively ropy sequels: even the man in the video shop where I dutifully rented parts three to five told me not to bother with the later ones. This week, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (to give it its full, less than Sabatier-sharp title) attempts to scare some life back into a stalk'n'slash cycle that most sensible cinema- goers have had nothing to do with since the early Eighties. Michael Myers - the knife- happy psycho in the white mask and geek wig - is back. Unfortunately, for today's teen screamers, the name Michael Myers means that guy in Austin Powers who says "shagadelic".

In Steve Miner's movie, Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode has grown up from the gangly 17- year-old schoolgirl of the original film into a gangly schoolteacher with a 17-year-old son, John (Josh Hartnett), who is clearly ripe for filleting.

Kevin Williamson, king of the new wave of high-irony horror flicks, gets a credit as executive producer. But he and Miner don't seem to have the necessary cheek to parody the original as well as steal its best tricks. Perhaps because of the grown-up, old-school presence of Curtis, they are timid in their attempts to treat Halloween to the rigorous po-mo makeover that gave Williamson's Scream movies their bloodthirsty wit. So when we get a scene in which Laurie and her students start discussing Frankenstein with uneasy reference to the monster at large in their community, it feels like a milk-and- water version of a similar - but much more sly - scene in Scream 2 in which a class of college cinephiles deconstruct Scream. There are many lost opportunities for fun: no one thought to make capital of the reason why Michael is still wearing his white mask and boiler suit, or why his only desire in life is to shish-kebab the few remaining members of his family. The plot is screaming for cod-Freudian analysis, but it never arrives.

In adding up-market production values to the series, and attempting to relaunch it as a mainstream franchise, Miner has gained much but lost more. He revels in the razor-sharp editing and lush photography to which Carpenter never had access. He gets up a brisk pace, and fills the screen with a subtle shade of autumnal orange. He choreographs a couple of sequences that will make you jump out of your skin. But he has sacrificed that streak of undisciplined, exploitation-movie viciousness that made the original such a white-knuckle sensation. It's a case of trying to gild the pumpkin: call me old-fashioned, but there's something a bit too aesthetic about the way in which H20's teens get the blades of ice-skates and carving knives plunged into their faces.

Another mouldering corpse from Seventies popular culture is reanimated in Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, an attractively messy meditation on the mores of Glam Rock which sprawls like some doped-up odalisque on a pile of spangly scatter cushions. The film advertises itself as a glitter version of Citizen Kane, but the model is really Abba: The Movie, with which it shares its shapeless story about a journalist (in this case Christian Bale, glowing with just-slapped rosiness) attempting to track down his pop idol. The object of his quest is a Bowie-ish/Bolan-ish figure, Brian Slade (played by a sensuous Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Haynes's thesis is that Glam was about two contradictory things: an irresistible, decadent bisexuality that continued the tradition established by Oscar Wilde (whom, the film suggests, was left on his mother's doorstep by aliens), and hard- headed marketing practices that make The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle look like small beer. Both are persuasive. On the former point, however, you've got to suspend your disbelief. Although Haynes invites you to swash about in a rich agolagnia of sexual mores with not uncomely actors like Ewan McGregor and Toni Collette, the stark reality would be something more like crawling over Roy Wood and Noddy Holder at a Chelsea mews-house orgy.

Someone obviously decided that this week was Jonathan Rhys Meyers Benefit Week. In Sandra Goldbacher's The Governess, he plays a big-shirted, early-Victorian nancy boy with a touch of what would probably have been called laudanum chic. Goldbacher's plot is sub-Bronte stuff with a Semitic twist, and stars Minnie Driver as a young Jewish woman forced by poverty to take the post of governess to the Cavendish family on the Isle of Skye. This being the 1840s, she has to conceal her ethnic origins, changing her name from Rosina to Mary. Mrs Cavendish (Harriet Walter) sews and simpers, her son (Rhys Meyers) lies on the chaise longue looking slatternly, and the gentleman of the house (Tom Wilkinson) is up in the attic inventing photography. It is Rosina, however, who helps him perfect the process ("Daguerre'll be pissing his pants!" she exclaims.)

An affair develops between master and servant, during which Rosina's demotic, unEnglish, proto-feminist attitudes thaw out some of Mr Cavendish's reticence - to the extent that he pays her compliments such as "Your hair is like treacle," and colludes with her in taking the world's first mucky photograph. The Governess almost compensates for its plodding pace with a thin vein of originality - both of the main male characters are given nude scenes. Ultimately, though, it rehearses the usual tiresome desire to punish the Victorians for not being modern enough, and for getting turned on by ankles.

Rhys Meyers Week concludes with The Disappearance of Finbar, in which he plays a schoolboy who vanishes after taking a death- defying walk along an unfinished motorway bridge. Sue Clayton's Irish- English-Swedish co-production follows the attempts of Finbar's friend, Danny (Sean McGinley), to discover what happened to the missing boy, a journey that eventually takes him to the Arctic Circle, where he lodges with two women who (to the untrained ear) converse in the language of Pingu. Clayton's film has a pleasantly dippy sense of humour: the script adds lines about Finbar being spotted in the Tralee branch of Tesco and in a monastery in Greece, simply so that it can rhyme "Tralee" with "Greek Monast-ree" in the Finbar Campaign's charity song. But once it has supplied all the vignettes about barmy Scandinavian types that it can muster, it has little idea about how to bring its story to a satisfactory conclusion.

Here's a startling paradox: Joe Dante's Small Soldiers is a film that is opposed to large corporations, to toy manufacturers' exploitation of children and to militarism. Interestingly, it is the work of a huge corporation (Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures), which earned a fortune by flogging crummy plastic Jurassic Park dinosaurs, and which has just released one of the biggest war movies ever (Saving Private Ryan). As children's entertainment goes, Dante's film is terrifyingly perverse: the title characters - killer toys voiced by Tommy Lee Jones and the surviving cast members of The Dirty Dozen - are out to perpetrate genocide upon their enemies, the monstrous, but (get this) kindly Gorgonites. That nail guns are their weapon of choice unnerved me, and I might yet have nightmares about a scene in which a troop of electronically augmented Barbie dolls swarm over the heroine.

Less evil children will hopefully be charmed by Air Bud, the story of a bereaved little boy (Kevin Zegers) who is cheered up by a golden retreiver who can slam dunk like Michael Jordan. There are two sequels to this hound-of-the-basketballs heartwarmer in production, and if their makers can better the bizarre conclusion of this film - a courtroom custody battle between Zegers and a villainous clown, which seems to be a parody of the final scene of Amistad - then I'm sold.