Halloween: The Feminist Slasher Movie

The latest Halloween re-contextualizes the slasher genre with Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode forming its true unstoppable Shape.

This article contains major Halloween spoilers.

She appears behind him like a wraith; a shade; an unstoppable force. For the first time in perhaps 11 movies, Michael Myers is reacting with surprise. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Below him, one of the helpless Strode women who have been his victims du jour for 40 years (no matter the timeline) turned out to be not so helpless. Rather than weeping at the arrival of the very male Angel of Death, and his ever phallic kitchen knife, Karen (Judy Greer) feigned crocodile tears before blasting a hole the size of a golf ball in his shoulder. Only then comes the true ‘Shape’ of David Gordon Green’s Halloween reimagining: Laurie Strode.

Once the defining visage of victimhood in the horror subgenre of slashers, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie is this film’s actual omnipotent being, appearing as if out of thin air to whisper in his ear, “Happy Halloween, Michael.” She then delivers the next of many strikes toward what should rightly be Michael Myers’ final resting place. Indeed, the ending of 2018’s Halloween doesn’t need much explanation (though we still offer one), yet its importance to horror might be monumental. The last time we saw Curtis as Laurie, she was contractually obligated to appear for the umpteenth time in 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, a disastrous relic of the post-Scream era wherein she finally relented and let the Boogeyman slice and dice her within the first 15 minutes. At least she was done with the waning franchise, right?

Fifteen years later though, Laurie is the hunter, and Michael her prey. This is a subversion of expectation on the part of a stunningly compelling Curtis, as well as Green and Danny McBride’s screenplay. Yet it is also an overdue course correction of the slasher genre. As a type of storytelling cemented, if not created out of whole cloth, by Michael and Laurie’s first encounter in the original Halloween 40 years ago, the slasher movie has gone through many metamorphoses, including becoming all but extinct in the last decade. Nevertheless, it has almost always been a product of a certain voyeurism at the expense of the feminine, including in every other Halloween movie. In the 2018 movie, however, everything from top to bottom is toppling the patriarchal order of the genre.

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Arguably the slasher began in earnest when Curtis’ mother played the most legendary victim in horror cinema: Psycho’s Marion Crane. The faux-protagonist of the Alfred Hitchcock masterwork from 1960, Janet Leigh’s Marion carries the first third of the film before having it violently stolen from her by the titular male monster waiting on the outskirts of society with his mommy issues and and an unhealthy disposition toward women. Crossdressing as the mother he hates, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) sneaks into Marion’s motel room while she is in the shower, washing away the sins she committed in the first act of the movie, and brutally stabs her to death with the only tool he can lift to penetrate the woman’s naked flesh. It is a brilliant sequence, but it is also perverse, turning a heroine into a victim, and her killer into the film’s hero (viewers originally didn’t know until the end that the nice mama’s boy they rooted for was actually a serial killer in drag).

The slasher genre continued to ferment over the next decade, including in Tobe Hooper’s update of Hansel and Gretel via The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in which the killer is again a crossdressing deviant coded as Other (or queer) awaiting on the outskirts of civilization teenagers who wander too far. Soon they’re literally gobbled up on his cannibalistic table. There is a sole heroine who escapes in that film, but in doing so she laughs maniacally into the sunrise, having just barely avoided Leatherface’s chainsaw. Too weak to truly survive, Hooper suggests that even though she lives on, the depravity of what she’s witnessed has driven her hysterically mad. There is no escape for gentle hearts.

John Carpenter and Debra Hill were the ones who perfected the slasher formula in 1978. Hired to write yet another exploitative yarn sold to Carpenter as “The Babysitter Murders,” the duo turned in the simple but elegant Halloween screenplay. Suddenly the monster with a sharp weapon wasn’t waiting for the children to stray too far from home; he was invading the very place where they lived. Evil, as it so happened, could be anywhere, including inside your house. So watch out.

And it is that watchful gaze that saved Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. As the hero of the story brought to visceral life by Curtis, Laurie is the only one of three central women who realizes that a monster is hunting her, and she is smart enough to figure out how to evade him, at least until Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis can save her by shooting Michael Myers and causing him to tumble off a second story house… a fall that he is still able to walk away from by the time Loomis looks back over the ledge.

Laurie is strong, and Laurie is every bit the great character Curtis described her to be when we interviewed her earlier this year. However, Laurie was still made Michael’s victim, albeit one audiences could rally behind. What changed after Carpenter’s film though is that slowly the killers became the true heroes of their narratives. While Laurie and her friends were sympathetic avatars for young audiences, the teenagers who followed in the knockoffs like Friday the 13th were simply fodder. Increasingly teenage boys watched these movies not to be scared but to cheer on the slaughter, reveling in the “best kills,” which usually were comprised of naked, nubile young women who were objectified and then purified of their sexuality after being penetrated by a fetishistic knife, machete, chainsaw, or razor hand. Even the later Halloween sequels embraced this, as Laurie and then (depending on the continuity) her daughter Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) were surrounded by lusty knife-holders while the young Strode women could do nothing more than cower in fear of Michael’s virile approach.

It is not hard to guess why slasher movies have faded away in the 2010s. Besides the genre now appearing as saturated as Gothic vampire flicks were by the 1970s, the “horror” wasn’t scary anymore; not when the killer was the hero. And to a generation of newly minted teenagers raised in an age where school shootings are virtually a weekly occurrence—and like Elm Street parents, real-life adults do nothing to stop the carnage—it is hard to savor the cinematic ritual. Meanwhile, gorehounds were turned off by Michael’s last iteration, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, which transformed Michael into a too-real serial killer whose attacks were disturbing in how realistic and un-fun they appeared.

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further reading: John Carpenter on Halloween and Reboots to Come

All of which makes Green’s new iteration of Halloween both a homecoming for the series and a corrector of all the implicit and explicit misogyny of what primarily followed. As a gentle rebuke of Zombie’s approach, no character in 2018’s Halloween is rewarded for their desire to humanize Michael. The Shape will not speak or justify his motives and desires, and death comes in graphic detail for those who attempt to get inside his head (the entire purpose of the Zombie films).

Green returns to the simplicity of Carpenter’s original, with so much romance for that classic he even ignores every other sequel ever made, including the original Halloween II which revealed Laurie Strode was Michael Myers’ secret sister. Nay, Green goes back to the original, complete with a new score by Carpenter, and yet it finally allows Laurie to become what she was all along—the hero of her own story.

When we first spoke with Ms. Curtis, she told me it was serendipitous how this movie was filmed, in part, during the autumn of 2017 when the #MeToo movement began. It was unintentional to tap into that zeitgeist, yet she was adamant Laurie Strode was about “to have a moment.” She did get that and then some. While Curtis did another anniversary return to the series before in 1998’s Halloween: H20, that now ignored sequel still had her dreading to be victimized by Michael Myers yet again, the evil brother she must rise to face on the field of combat. Curtis’ new Laurie is not rising to any occasion; she’s making her dreams come true.

Laurie has an amusing line in this year’s Halloween: “I’ve prayed every night that he would escape… So I could kill him.” While the actual bit of dialogue also becomes a laugh in the final film when a deputy says that’s a stupid thing to pray for, it is still her desire which she then makes real. Throughout the picture, Laurie enjoys all the “easter eggs” and callbacks associated with Michael Myers. It is she who stands ominously outside her granddaughter Allyson’s (Andi Matichak) school. In the original Halloween, Michael stalks Laurie to her classroom, no doubt planning nefarious harm. But in 2018, it is Laurie keeping a watchful eye on the granddaughter she barely talks to, and coming to give her some newfound money. She is there to help the next generation, as opposed to cut her down.

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This echo occurs again at the end of the movie when Michael and Laurie have their final confrontation. Up to this point, Michael has shown little interest in Laurie. While everyone, including the falsely paternal Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), suggests Michael’s fate is entwined with Laurie Strode, that is not the case in Green’s reimagining. As Green removed the detail of Laurie being his sister, and thus destined to be his victim like the older sister he eviscerates in the nude in the original Carpenter film’s prologue, Michael has no reason to find her again. He simply fixated on her in Halloween because she passed his male gaze. When he is finally free in 2018, he uses the opportunity to only slaughter at random.

It’s Dr. Sartain, wishing to fulfill some warped experiment, who drives Michael to Laurie’s house during the third act, the patriarchy trying to turn Laurie once more into Michael’s victim in the name of some type of twisted order. Earlier in the film, Laurie misdiagnoses Sartain as “the new Loomis,” but the real Loomis here is of course herself. She pursues Michael after he commits the one requisite “babysitter” murder. Michael executes his fetish on the very likable and fully clothed Vicky (Virginia Gardner), but it is Michael and the film’s solitary indulgence in slasher movie perversion—one Green denies the viewer from fully experiencing as we do not see the knife penetrate, instead we hear only her anguished cries.

But this is not a Babysitter Murders movie, as much as Michael might think otherwise. Laurie is outside the house and chases Michael away at gunpoint after Vicky’s death, and becomes the persistent predator of Michael’s nightmares. When they faceoff at the end within Laurie’s house, it is in a scenario she’s prepared for him like the gravestone surprise Michael planted for her in ‘78.

Laurie and her daughter Karen were safe in the hidden basement below, but Laurie alerts Michael to their presence in order to hunt him. She follows Michael up the stairs, and while he gets the brief advantage over her by throwing her out the window, when he looks down from the second floor… she has vanished into the night, just as he had on Loomis at the end of Carpenter’s 1978 picture.

In the end, Laurie manifests behind Michael after he walks right into her trap. In the basement below, Karen embraces the future her mother trained her for and performs a role that could just have easily been executed in her girlhood (or by Harris’ Jamie Lloyd). She plays the victim, crying she doesn’t have the strength to fire the shotgun she was taught since infancy how to operate (it even unsettlingly has her initials and hearts carved on its handle). It’s a ruse, and Michael walks right into her line of fire. “Gotcha,” Karen grins as she pulls the trigger. It is only then that Laurie materializes and pushes Michael not into her trap.

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When Michael falls into the basement, he and the audience realize it is really a cage, and that he’s been locked in it by three generations of Strode women. It is a moment of epiphany for both the monster and this franchise. Strode women, whether blood or strangers, have always been his prized prey. Now three such women are standing above him, and not at cross-purposes as the movie’s misleading first act suggests they’d be. They’ve worked together as mother, daughter, and granddaughter to welcome Michael to the pits of Hell. As the fire ignites and begins licking his feet, Michael can only stare up at them, if ever blankly. It is impossible to rationalize Michael’s thought process in this movie; that is the fool’s errand for other filmmakers (and Dr. Sartain).

The women of the film don’t care. They know who and what Michael is, and they don’t need him to speak; they only need him to burn. Hence why the very final scene of the movie is not a fakeout surprise that Michael survived. It is all three Strode girls hitching a ride on a passing car, not unlike Marilyn Burns’ protagonist at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But whereas Burns was driven made by her ordeal, Laurie and her heirs apparent are quiet and confident. They vanquished the slasher genre’s greatest demon and crossed the paradigm more than any one “final girl” before them. They have had their revenge on the slasher genre’s inherent misogyny and offered a feminist retort that cuts to the bone.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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