In 1978, an independent horror film sent shockwaves across America, redefined a genre and established a young Jamie Lee Curtis as a scream queen. That movie was Halloween. That movie looms large in the cinematic landscape for one of us. One of us just watched it for the first time (under protest). Halloween is both a landmark in American cinema and a prime example of the material that inspired this series in the first place. Cut to 2018. A year where women’s rage and women’s stories have been consistent undercurrents in both entertainment and the world at large, and we get Halloween (2018) a new vision that looks to do justice to Laurie Strode’s story by positioning her in direct opposition to her attacker, 40 years later. If ever there was a double feature made for us, it is this. So, let’s get to it.
S, let’s start at the start and unpack our thoughts on the original before we move on to the sequel, and eventually, how these two pictures function as a complete narrative.
S: I’m sure our readers have already surmised that I am the one who watched the Halloweens under protest. I am NOT a horror fan. When I was in early childhood, the proprieters of a neighborhood haunted house had to turn on the lights and escort me out because I was in hysterics. Later, in middle school, I watched one of the Nightmare on Elm Streets at a slumber party and it messed me up for weeks. Cut to my mid-20s, where my husband (then boyfriend) convinced me to go see The Ring, and then hated his life while I demanded that we sleep with the lights on for a week.
Needless to say, I’m a wuss when it comes to scary movies, so I recruited my husband to watch the original with me, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to make it through on my own. And…he hated his life yet again. But this time, it wasn’t because I was terrified (it wasn’t that scary). Rather, it was because I spent the entire movie loudly exclaiming things like “How is she getting overpowered by a six-year-old?!?!?!”, “C’mon!”, “Really????” and “Of course she has to get naked before they kill her! Gross.”
Although not a horror genre aficionado, I know enough to recognize that Halloween laid much of the foundation that scary movies would be built upon for decades to come. And I get why fans of horror put the film on a pedestal. The problem I have with Halloween is that it also created – or was an early adopter of – many of the anti-feminist tropes that still plague Hollywood today, such as death by sex and final girl. And, as a sidenote, I know we’re here to discuss feminism, but I also have a lot of problems with how this film stigmatizes mental illness.
But back to the task at hand. B, talk to me about the tropes that Halloween had a hand in creating. Why are they ultimately so problematic for women?
B: If you were to pick a single horror film that established the rules, it would have to be Halloween. Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, made two years earlier features the first instance of a final girl, but since the trucker who attempts to help her runs off screen very much alive and another stranger comes to her rescue moments later, she’s not nearly so alone as Laurie Strode is for much of Halloween’s third reel, so the idea still feels fresh. And indeed, this feels like the proving ground for the idea that one should never drink, do drugs, have sex or utter “I’ll be right back.” To be fair, the tradition of punishing women for having gumption, sexual desire or for doing anything “bad” dates to at least some 40 years previous of this film in the era of the Hays Production Code, so we can’t pin it all on John Carpenter, but he certainly set the trend for a group of high school girls in a slasher flick being destined to live or die based on their virtue, or lack thereof. And that makes for some predictable viewing over the next several decades. And it also places an unnecessary, if not surprising, emphasis on female virginity. Quite often linking it with redemption.
“But, what of the boys those girls are with, “you say, “don’t they die too?” Great question, you! Yes. Those boys do die. But, they die principally because they are an obstacle to the girls. They generally die quick and without attachment, while the girls are killed slowly, intimately. Look at the case of Bob and Lynda. After a tryst in the empty home of some unwitting adults who probably won’t be stoked to find out that their (now dead) babysitter took their daughter a few doors down so she and her pals could party, Lynda expresses her pleasure. “Fantastic, totally fantastic.” She’s at her leisure, she’s done this before and she’s having a great time. (Get it, girl!) She dispatches Bob to get her a beer while she files her nails. Down the stairs Bob goes, to his unwitting death. Michael slips from a closet and wastes no time lifting Bob up, eyeing his target and pinning him to the wall with a butcher knife. Horrific, but without delay. Things go a little differently for Lynda. Michael dons a sheet and Bob’s glasses, looking for everything like a cutesy Halloween gag. He stands disguised in the doorway watching Lynda for some minutes. Frustrated, she turns her back to dial Laurie, looking for Annie. As Laurie answers, Michael strikes, stalking toward her from behind and strangling her with the phone chord. She struggles, the sheet is ruffled, her expression is wild. And of course, her surprised, strangled screams and gasps for air walk the line between horror and pleasure. A woman’s pain, not for the first time, is blurred with a suggestion of ecstasy. And therein lies the great difference.
Later, Laurie will be left to reconcile why she survived when her friends didn’t. Is it because she, the “ol’ girl scout,” was minding the children, rather than having fun with a boy? Because she’s cautious when others were carefree? And why was she that way? While Annie and Lynda are looking forward to a night of frivolity, Laurie, our hero, is worried about forgetting her books and is sexless to the point that her best gal pals were stunned to hear about her crush on Ben Tramer. Are we then to assume that Laurie lives because she wasn’t asking for trouble? That Annie and Lynda die because they were? Because they wore cute outfits and made plans with boys? Michael Myers might be a notorious horror icon, but he’s also a pretty effective tool for the perpetuation of rape culture.
Okay, S, we’ve pretty thoroughly unpacked the conventions of Halloween — let’s jump ahead to Halloween (2018) and see what we make of this new look sequel — does it finally do Laurie justice? And does it subvert the very rules it helped establish?
S: Yes and no. And before we get into it …
Let’s hit the “yes” side of the equation first. This film is definitely a departure from its predecessor. After all, Laurie — rather than playing the role of terrified, helpless teen — does her best Sarah Connor impression, and spends her life prepping her daughter and herself to take on “the boogeyman.” When given the chance to go head to head with Michael Myers for the second time, she uses her brains (the boobytrapped house is genius) and her brawn (she is tough AF) to make it clear that she will no longer play the victim in this story.
But it’s Laurie’s daughter Karen who delivers the blow (literally) that most gloriously puts female badassery on display. When Michael destroys Laurie’s kitchen island/bunker door to get to Karen, we all believe she’s terrified. After all, she plays the role of typical horror movie victim, helplessly screaming and crying. But guess what? It’s all a ruse to get the killer in her crosshairs, where she swiftly and easily dispatches him (for the moment) with a bullet to the head.
However…while Halloween (2018) made strides to change the horror movie playbook, it also fell victim to many of the problems that happen when movies tell a female-driven story without a lady in the writers room or directors chair. And that’s where we get to the “no” part of the equation. Many of the female characters’ behaviors and reactions in the movie did not read to me as authentically female…or even authentically human person. I recognize that the majority of the horror genre is built upon people doing dumb things and then getting murdered as a result of it, but any lady who lives in the actual world would not behave in some of the ways the female characters in Halloween (2018) do. Now, I am by no means saying that I am representative of all women, but here’s a list of things that women did in this movie that I would not have done.
- Gone into a creepy gas station bathroom by myself.
- Had a complete lack of empathy for my mom who LITERALLY almost died at the hands of a serial killer.
- Taken a shortcut while walking home with a dude on Halloween night.
- Stayed in a house where I’ve heard banging noises upstairs and then been told by the kid I’m babysitting that there’s a man in his room.
- Run into the dark woods, rather than toward a well-lit police car, when being pursued by a giant killer in a William Shatner mask.
- Forgotten to emote after my husband was brutally murdered.
All I’m saying is, if you’re going to produce a movie wherein you intend to undo the series’ problematic treatment of women, let’s get some ladies involved in creating said movie.
B, your question deserves some more exploration, so same query back at you. Does this film undo the sins of its past?
B: You’re absolutely correct, S, there’s no simple answer to this question. On the one hand, we have to celebrate for the lack of egregious nudity and the general open-mindedness of much of this picture. We’re not playing the familiar game of waiting for young couples to get down so we can watch Michael do his thing when they are at their most vulnerable. Indeed, the only time the film walks close to this cliche a gem of a small child named Julian blows the whole thing up. He busts in on his babysitter, Vicky, and her boyfriend, Dave as they are enjoying some fully clothed smoochies and sagely suggests that they first send Dave to investigate the figure that sent him out of bed and downstairs in a panic in the first place. Not because he expects Dave to live, but indeed, because he expects doom for whomever goes up those stairs and he cares too much for Vicky and himself to perpetuate that eventuality. When the teenagers in charge of him fail to listen he straight up bails. Like a rational human. What I’m saying here is this: in a world with literally any other horror character, be a Julian.
But, we cannot ignore that list of quite questionable choices you’ve masterfully assembled, S. I clocked every single one of those moments right along with you, and I think they perfectly demonstrate the value Debra Hill brought to the development of the original script, which she penned with John Carpenter. However much the original pushes nudity and the purity narrative, it understands women in a way the new film fails to. Teenage Laurie doesn’t run away from cop cars, she runs toward neighboring homes, she screams, she uses what’s around her, and, critically, she keeps true to her word that she won’t let anything happen to Tommy. And that’s lucky for Tommy, because he’s no Julian. All of this is to say that although this story is ostensibly about three generations of women standing up to a man who’s dominated all of their lives for too long, it misses the nuance in everyone but Laurie.
Karen and Allyson’s actions don’t track as women in America in 2018, and certainly not as people with a matriarch who was nearly butchered by a mass murderer. And Michael himself is all over this movie, blatant even though the most powerful source of the fear he inspires has always been his near invisibility. That by remaining unseen he could be anywhere. And so, seems to be everywhere. As women, that unknown rings much more authentically horrific because it mirrors the creeping unease that follows us in parking lots, dark parks and lonely subway cars. New Halloween seems not to register that, and instead leans on brute force and shock to inspire chills. On the surface that’s more an observation about narrative quality than feminism, but ask anyone who’s seen an episode of Sweet/Vicious what Jenn Kaytin Robinson might have done if given the reins to this story and their eyes will get misty with possibility.
S, it warms my cynical heart to see the progress made, and especially to see Jamie Lee Curtis kick ass in this picture, but it’s tough not to pine for what might have been if women had a seat at this creative table. But, I digress, we still have work to do. Tell me, what are we to make of the way Halloween and the subsequent Halloween treat Laurie in terms of her mental health?
S: I could spend days talking about how the trope of the “insane” serial killer insensitively stigmatizes mental illness, but we’re here today to discuss Laurie, so I digress.
While original Halloween doesn’t comment on Laurie’s mental health, per se, what it does is lay the foundation for the later film’s approach to it. Remember that nurse who is quickly dispatched toward the beginning of the 70s film? If there’s anything to take from her complete lack of empathy for people with behavioral disorders, it’s that the 70s were not kind to the mentally ill. So I’m guessing Laurie Strode never received any sort of treatment for the whopping case of PTSD she must have developed.
Cut to 2018, and now we’re watching a woman whose entire life has been defined by a trauma that occurred four decades ago. I go back and forth on how Halloween (2018) treated that. Laurie spends the majority of the film (even after Michael escapes and starts killing) being gaslit by literally everyone around her — her family, the cops, the podcasters. But I can’t tell if Halloween (2018) wants us to side with the gaslighters or the gaslightee. Even though we, as viewers, spend a good deal of the film yelling at the screen about how right Laurie is, she’s still treated by many characters with less empathy than she deserves, considering the circumstances of her life. And those characters aren’t entirely unsympathetic.
Also, could SOMEBODY in this town where one of the worst murder sprees in Illinois history (I’d imagine) happened offer the lady who survived it some psychotherapy instead of taking her kid away!?!?!?!?!
B, speaking of kids, I’d love your take on how the kids and teens in the 70s flick compare to those in the 2018 version. Are they more woke today?
B: Ah, the youths! For the most part, the kids of Halloween (2018) are far more woke that the kids of Halloween (1978). While Annie and Lynda spend virtually all of their screen time with Laurie alternately other-izing her for not being sex-obsessed and then shaming her for admitting her crush, Vicky and Allyson chat amicably about how hot Allyson’s boyfriend looks in Vicky’s grandma’s skirt. As devoted fans of Tom Holland’s Rihanna Lip Sync, we fully feel you girls. And we’ve already toasted the glorious relationship betwixt Vicky and Julian, which echos the positive and protective vibes between Laurie and Tommy. Even Vicky’s boyfriend, Dave, who is a bit of an idiot (see knocking over a motorcycle while high and exclaiming, ‘Oh shrimp'”), is a sweet kid, for the most part. And when he says an insensitive thing and Vicky calls him out on it, he takes the feedback in stride. You’re alright, Dave!
But let’s not get too carried away here, there are still two fellas we need to address here, and while they’re not the worst we’ve seen, they have some soul searching to do. Yes, it’s time to talk about Cameron, Allyson’s boyfriend, and Oscar, Cameron’s BFF. These two are pretty good guys, until they get wasted at a dance and Cameron cheats on his girl, then blames her for it and tosses her phone in a vat of pudding. Not great, bro. Oscar, on seeing all of this processes only that Allyson is not with Cameron anymore and assumes this is the moment to make his move. He’s quickly rebuffed by Allyson, who deftly educates him that her breakup with Cameron does not mean she wants to be with him. To his credit, Oscar takes this feedback to heart, unfortunately, he chooses to bare his drunken soul to Michael Myers, who seems like a great listener until he snaps into stab mode. Even with these two making some foolish mistakes, these kids are a vast improvement over the blueprint of the past.
Alright, S, let’s make with the stray observations before Michael comes back to life and we have to add another movie to this post. I’ll start:
- I would like to formally request a YouTube series with Julian where he roasts people in horror films who do dumb things.
- The podcasters would have been way cooler if we had gotten a cameo from Karina Longworth or Phoebe Judge and they had written a *good* script for the fake show.
- WTF even was going on when Michael’s doctor straight-up murdered Coach Yoast (a cop in this movie) and put the mask on? I don’t have to tell you, S, but I nearly rage quit this movie over that choice.
- I loved that this movie featured a boy named Lumpy who just wanted to dance and was having a healthy conversation with his redneck father to that effect, but then Lumpy got murdered and that crossed a line. #JusticeForLumpy
S: I hope these stray observations are even more delicious than a peanut butter and jelly bahn mi.
- I already brought this up once, but it bears repeating. Ladies are far too easily overpowered in the 70s film. Can we have a quick side convo, Michael’s sister and nurse in the car en route to the mental hospital? Ok…paying attention? You 👏 don’t 👏 have 👏 to 👏 just 👏 sit 👏 there 👏 while 👏 someone 👏 is 👏 trying 👏 to 👏 kill 👏 you. You are allowed to fight, or at the VERY least, do something besides sit completely still while someone straight up murders you.
- I think we can all agree that the a-hole neighbors who refused to answer the door for a screaming teenage Laurie are the true villains of Halloween.
- Can we have a quick conversation about the Haddonfield police department? I forgive them (sort of) for their lack of response in the original film. After all, it was the 70s. But there is absolutely no excuse for their response to THE SECOND TIME A SERIAL KILLER GOT LOOSE IN THEIR TOWN. Y’all could have called in a) all of the surrounding police and sheriff’s departments, b) the FBI or c) the National Guard. Oh and also, it’s 2018. Everyone has a cell phone. How did everyone in Haddonfield NOT get an alert to stay home and lock all of the things?
- Yes, you absolutely CAN cancel Halloween.
On to the math…
First, let’s take a look at the 1978 film.
- +1 cringe for each time a teenage girl is punished for her sexuality (3 total)
- +10 cringes because Laurie isn’t allowed to save herself and has to be saved by a man.
- -3 cringes for a female co-writer and a female producer at the helm — a big deal for a 1970s horror flick.
- -2 cringes because Jamie Lee Curtis.
That leaves us at 8 cringes, which I think is perfectly fair for the film that singlehandedly inspired horror writers to objectify women for decades.
Let’s see if the 2018 addition fared better…
- +2 cringes for “peanut butter on my penis”.
- +4 cringes for the perpetual gaslighting of Laurie by everyone who surrounds her.
- -2 cringes because no naked ladies. 👏👏👏
Halloween the latter brings us 4 cringes – half of those established by its predecessor, bringing us to an average of 6. Looks like the horror genre has made some progress, but we still have a little ways to go. I look forward to a future filled with lady-helmed horror projects that may even tempt me to get over my scaredy-catness and take a watch.
B, take us home (and please make sure that home has slidey room-clearing things so we can avoid getting murdered, kthanksbye!)
B: This is tough for me, S. Because here’s the thing, I can’t argue with anything you said about the 1978 picture, but I’m so not convinced that it ranks up there with Grease. Laurie is a fighter and a protector and she keeps the boogeyman at bay while the people who were meant to be keeping him locked up run around without a clue. Does Loomis swoop in late in the game? Sure, but he doesn’t really save Laurie, he just takes the last shot before seeming safety comes. And we know Laurie would have kept scrapping if he didn’t, even without a gun.
I know I didn’t do any math, I just expanded on yours (breach of established structure!) but call the OG a 6 for me.
I do have some additional thoughts on the 2018 edition:
- +2 cringes because the dry sex before death really isn’t better than sex before death, it’s just dressed up like it is.
- -2 cringes for Judy Greer coming into her own just in time to shoot Michael in his creepy face.
That leaves us at 4 cringes as your math already suggested, and that’s a step in the right direction, even if we’re not quite in step on the first Halloween. If anything is certain, it’s that this genre will never run out of new ways to get us talking … and cringing, for one reason or another.
Next time, we’re taking stock of a title we love to pieces. Suffice it to say this, it is so fetch.