Film: The sequel to end them all

Forget screaming girls, the real victims in slasher movies are the killers. A new Halloween tries to bring peace to the wicked.

It began in the Bates Motel. When its neon sign lured Janet Leigh into the care of its timid owner Norman Bates, the "stalk'n'slash" genre was born.

First, there was Halloween (1978), John Carpenter's classic attempt to make "a feature-length version of the shower scene", with Norman replaced by the inhuman Shape, and Leigh by her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis. Then came Friday the 13th (1980), a clumsy rip-off, which in turn spawned the killer Jason, in eight sequels. Halloween had five. There were hundreds of other slasher movies, as the formula was squeezed bone-dry. Then Kevin Williamson paid homage, with Scream and Scream 2.

Next week, the circle will be completed, with the release of Halloween: H2O, scripted by Williamson, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and directed by Steve Miner, of Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3. There's a cameo by Janet Leigh, and nods to Psycho. But overriding everything, as Curtis finally turns on her nemesis The Shape, there's a sense of trying to bring this parade to a close. This is the Last Sequel. This is The End.

Except that, in this sordid sub-basement of Hollywood, there is no end. The only laws the slasher sequel obeys are financial. It is Hollywood stripped to its moneymaking bones. The Friday the 13th and Halloween series are called "franchises" by their backers.Like branches of McDonald's, each sequel's duty is to repeat its predecessor's success.

And yet the sequels' makers always hope for more. When John Carpenter wrote Halloween II, he had The Godfather Part II in mind. Halloween 5 director Dominique Othenin-Girard tried to give the Shape "a soul". But each would-be auteur has been frustrated. Their subsequent careers have been savaged like their film's teenage victims. Apart from Miner, only Halloween IV's Dwight Little has escaped to the mainstream (with Free Willy 2). The others' CVs include Omen IV, The Birds 2 and worse, as if they've been cursed by sequels. H2O's script credit to the mysterious Robert Zappia suggests that Kevin Williamson may have taken note.

The fact is, every time a stalk'n'slash director attempts to insert themes and metaphors into his film, he misses the point of a sequel. "It's primarily a social event, not a movie per se," says Friday the 13th's originator Sean Cunningham. "It's a rollercoaster experience where guys who've done it before put their hands in the air, and girls get scared and grab their boyfriends' shoulders. The bottom line is that it's a place for kids to go."

It's this social dimension of the sequel that Kevin Williamson explored in Scream 2's dark opening, as a girl is killed for real among horror fans roaring on a fictional murder. Williamson also has a character list the sequel's basic rules: a higher body count, and more blood.

Watching the unironic originals, then, is all a bit sad; wading through the sequels to Friday the 13th and Halloween in strict order as numbing as you'd expect. In the grainily shot Fridays, especially, most of the eight films blur into one long sequence of aimless teenage hi-jinks, with the ritual slaughter of all but one being the only sign that one sequel has been replaced by the next.

The Shape and Jason begin as inexplicable threats. But as one commercially- caused resurrection and defeat follows the next, their rampages become dulled with familiarity, and the simplicity of their menace is strangled in sequel-justifying narrative twists. By Halloween 6, the Shape has become the pawn of a ludicrous Halloween cult. By Friday Part VII, Jason is a hellish heart-muncher. As they're dug up yet again, it's the psychos you feel sorry for.

But how to explain the reappearance of sensitive, complex Norman Bates, their spiritual father? Robert Bloch, the writer of the1959 novel Psycho, on which the film had been faithfully based, was fed up with the exploitation of his work by Hitchcock and Psycho's screenwriter, Joseph Stefano (whose agents had falsely claimed Bloch was unavailable). "It got to the point where I began to listen to agents and others," he told me in 1990. "They said, `Look, you were very poorly paid for your original film sale. And there are people who have literally made millions by exploiting the title of Psycho and the character of Norman Bates. Many of them weren't even born at the time your novel was written. There've been room-keys, postcards of the house, T-shirts, even shower curtains. Why don't you take advantage of the procession?" And I decided, "Why not?"'

Bloch's Psycho 2 (1982) took such exploitation as its theme. It was about the making of a horror film about Norman Bates's life, just as Bates himself escapes from hospital. But Bates, it turns out, has been killed early on. Most of the book's villains work in Hollywood - the self-reflexive plot, essentially, of Scream 2. Bloch reinforced his point in Psycho House (1990), in which a simulacrum of the Bates Motel becomes a tourist attraction, complete with knife-wielding automata of Norman and his Mum.

What presentiment... A new film about Norman was made, also in 1982, followed in 1986 by a third. And one further twist was to come. In 1990, two producers made a pitch for Psycho IV. The executive they approached, delighted, pulled out a real estate photo. Psycho IV was financed as publicity for a simulacrum of the Bates Motel, to be used first as a set, then as a theme park attraction in Florida. It was the seedy plot of Psycho House, writ bizarrely large. The final irony: that the film was written by Joseph Stefano, the man who had stolen Bloch's thunder so many years ago.

Psycho IV was a decent effort. It left Norman a happily married, mercifully cured man at its end. It might not have stayed that way. "There could be a V", its producer hoped. But with the death of both Perkins and Bloch, that threat has withered. "Norman Bates will never die!" Bloch once proclaimed. But, in a series so tied to specific artists, Bates should rest easy now. Jason and the Shape, though, never will. Kevin Williamson may think he's written the last of the psycho sequels. But in America, H2O is making the tills ring again. The Shape may be jerked back to life, by forces far stronger than mere supernatural killers.

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