Sean Guynes-Vishniac / October 31, 2018
The first time I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween, I was five. No, I didn’t have terrible parents, but I did sneak downstairs after bedtime, sometime around the eponymous holiday, to find out what they were watching. I had nightmares for weeks, and, when my parents found out it was because I watched a horror movie behind their backs, I got in trouble. The next time I saw Halloween, I was teaching it as a TA during my master’s program. I was much older, obviously, and it wasn’t scary anymore; I even laughed, much in the same way I imagine audiences in the 1970s laughed at Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula—but I was in love, and the film, which I taught alongside selections from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, got me into horror movies for good. It was with no trepidation that I sat down on opening night to David Gordon Green’s Halloween, released for the fortieth anniversary of the classic slasher that followed Michael Myers as he cut his way through Laurie Strode’s friends in suburban Illinois.
The film was pitched in advertisements as a return to the original: the true sequel to Carpenter’s iconic opus, despite a whole franchise of sequels (seven in total, with two different continuities) and remakes (including a 2007 movie by Rob Zombie, also called Halloween). In addition to placing the conflict between Michael and Laurie front and center, the trailer includes a scene from the movie explaining a Halloween II (1981) plotline—that Michael is Laurie’s brother—as “made up,” thus explicitly distancing Green’s version from all other ones (not a bad move, given the shoddy filmmaking of several, though I maintain that Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is something of a classic).
In our era of perpetual franchises and reboots, Halloween could have been more of the usual: a decent film, some good scares, a nice visit from Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie) and the original Michael (Nick Castle, credited as “The Shape,” and appearing for only a brief cameo), but on the whole nothing special. Instead, Green’s Halloween is an important lesson for long-running franchises especially attuned to the politics of the #MeToo era, showing how directors and movie producers might rethink long-established gendered narratives—though, as attested both by recent statements from producer Jason Blum and the fact that no women were involved in this sequel’s script, horror filmmaking has a long way to go in order to represent such politics behind the camera. Despite these easily solvable production shortcomings, Halloween as text manages to be a soft feminist triumph for a horror blockbuster. It puts Curtis and her character’s trauma at the center of the narrative, but, unlike the original film, Halloween II (1981), or Halloween H20 (1998), it does so without exploiting the terrorized female form. Now, Laurie and her female descendents—daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak)—get Michael back, maybe even for the last time.
While the previous films focused on Michael and what makes him tick (including inventing a cult of druids to explain why he kills), only occasionally zooming out to other characters, notably the psychiatrist Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who was obsessed with “studying” Michael, and Jamie Lloyd (Laurie’s daughter and Michael’s niece in films four through six), this new one emphasizes the response by the Strode women to their would-be killer, not only showing how the trauma of the past and the terror of the present work on them, but also turning the decades of male-perpetrated violence back on Michael (played here by James Jude Courtney). It’s no longer a question of Michael, as Loomis put it in 1978, as “purely and simply evil” versus the (sexual) innocence of his victims, but rather a question of the faceless male killer versus his quintessentially female victims. As Laurie declares: “He’s waited for this night. He’s waited for me. I’ve waited for him.” She reminds us that as much as he might be obsessed with her, with murdering her for the generic sake of it, she is the one who harbors a justified hatred.
This becomes a theme of the movie, as various characters parrot the idea that Michael and Laurie sustain one another’s existence, that his pursuit keeps her alive, and vice versa, or turns her into an equal “monster” (an ill-conceived hot take insisted on in the awful novelization by John Passarella). While this certainly works as a commentary on the franchise and the slasher genre more broadly, the arc of the film proves its lie. Such a narrative—that the (male) killers exist to kill, and the (female) victims to be killed, both in equal measure, the genre ceasing to exist without that symbiotic presence—is an explicitly sexist logic that naturalizes gendered violence in an effort to spin a supposedly ungendered tale about “human” (rather than misogynist) evil.
Laurie may indeed be trapped in the trauma of her experiences, may have inflicted her justified paranoia on her daughter Karen, who was taken away by the state at age twelve, but Laurie proves herself independent of Michael in the last. She is not “sustained” by his pursuit, as argued by Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilinger), the psychiatrist (or “new Loomis,” as Laurie names him, mocking the franchise’s reliance on the trope) who has studied Michael for decades and grown obsessed with understanding what it “feels” like to be Michael. Laurie survives and does so by her own actions—not, as in previous films (with the exception of Halloween H20), through intervention of a man.
* * *
Halloween opens disturbingly. Two British podcasters, Dana (Rhian Rees) and Aaron (Jefferson Hall), arrive at the mental institution where Myers has lived the forty years since his first murder spree. Accompanied by Dr. Sartain, Dana and Aaron confront Michael, show him his mask, and Aaron yells at him to “say something” (Michael has been famously silent since he murdered his sister at age six). All the while, mentally ill inmates chained to cinder blocks on the ground yell and shout nonsense. The camera cuts back and forth rapidly between the inmates, Aaron yelling, Dana recording, and guard dogs barking as the intensity of the situation—the suggestion of Michael’s supernatural, unexplainable evil—mounts and finally dissolves into the Halloween logo, John Carpenter’s famous synthesizer theme song taking over.
It is a disturbing scene because it confronts us with its own antiquity: surely we’re beyond such depictions of disability and mental illness; surely we don’t still objectify mental illness as evil. But the scene unfolds all the same, reminding us that our treatment of mental illness has hardly progressed in forty years, especially in the horror genre, where bodily and mental difference still regularly manifest as monstrosity. The film wants to say that Michael is not mentally ill, just calculatingly evil, but it has no way of imagining his violence outwardly, at the level of the visual, except as the result of a disability—one for which he has been incarcerated and heavily studied for forty years. (The otherwise dreadful novelization does a good job of getting at the sense of evil by internally narrating occasional scenes from the point of view of “the Shape,” who acts mechanically in his pursuit of violence.) Green’s Halloween unwittingly uncovers one of the many ways in which our culture scapegoats misogynist violence: by pointing to mental illness rather than toxic masculinity, as seen with nearly every mass shooting event in recent history. This is a major symptom of the #MeToo era, that those willing to speak in favor of women’s empowerment often fail to speak equally against male violence in all its manifestations.
But while Halloween fails to truly critique the misogynist culture of violence that drives Michael and the slasher genre in general, it also turns the tables on the tropes of genre and franchise. The film frames Michael’s pursuit of Laurie with her relationships with her daughter and granddaughter, attempting to recapture the teen spirit of the original film by following Allyson and her friends through some of the romantic travails of high school: she, like Laurie, is the innocent nerd, the pretty smart girl. She dates, he seems like a good guy, but he’s a scumbag who cheats. Her friends Vicky (Virginia Gardner) and Dave (Miles Robbins) are hipsters who like to toke out and make out while Vicky babysits. Naturally, they die.
Vicky is in fact one of only two major female victims in the movie (Michael kills Dana early in the movie and two unnamed women as part of his random murder spree), and she isn’t the usual female victim of slasher films; she’s not sexually promiscuous (though she is about to have sex for the first time), she’s kind and affectionate to the boy she babysits, and she’s a great friend to Allyson. Like Allyson, she’s robustly developed despite her limited screen time, and her death feels more like an attempt to build audience investment, and follow the franchise rule that Michael kills his victims’ friends (and babysitters, to boot), than it does a punishment for her supposedly immoral sexual license.
The scene of Vicky and Dave’s deaths is the culmination of Michael’s slow crawl through Haddonfield. It moves back and forth between, on the one hand, Michael’s murders, which are tracked with unbroken shots that mimic the late-’70s aesthetic of horror in slow-time, turning Michael’s unceasing movement through houses and bodies into an unflinching spectacle, and on the other, Vicky’s babysitting and date with Dave. This creates an interesting blend of the original film and the up-beat horror we’ve come to associate with Blumhouse Productions. It is also a play on the original film, essentially rehashing Michael’s movement through the neighborhood, culminating with the murder of two horny teens: like that teen boy in 1978, Dave is impaled on the wall with a knife. Halloween maps the intergenerational and suburban spaces of America’s neighborhoods, which, in this nostalgic presentation, has changed little in the forty years since he last struck. And in the end, by providence, Allyson (dressed as a gender-flipped Clyde Barrow) comes to Michael, meandering through backyards on her way home after abandoning the high school Halloween dance (and her cheating boyfriend) with her wacky friend Oscar (Drew Scheid).
While alone, Oscar tries to kiss Allyson, who pushes him away, confused; they’re just friends. But Oscar decries that she has been looking for a “good guy” like him, and when she runs away angry, he yells after her that the cheerleaders he danced with got him hot and bothered—they “made” him do it. Oscar speaks the language of men who explain away their assaults on women as the result of women’s actions, their clothes, their mere existence, for they are sexual objects in the eyes of “good” men. When Michael kills Oscar, it is not without relief. In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, it’s difficult to empathize with his death. After all, we know what teenagers like that grow up to be: the very real, silent monsters confirmed by patriarchy to the highest offices. And for those brave enough to read the novelization, there is a discrepancy between Oscar’s portrayal there and in the film, one that significantly undermines the stakes and politicized tone of Oscar’s death. In Passarella’s novel, Oscar is a creep throughout the book, nearly sexually harassing every woman he meets, and a needy, whiny tool when he sees Allyson and his friend dating; in the movie, he’s fun, eccentric, and lovable, perhaps even popular, up until he fails to get what he thinks he deserves.
The final act of the movie sees Michael stalking the Strode women at Laurie’s house in the woods, which she has turned into a veritable fortress—a subversion of the specifically male fantasy of survivalism—after years preparing for Michael’s escape. But they aren’t here to be victims. As Laurie explains to Officer Hawkins (Will Patton), who, like every other male character in the film (except, surprisingly, Allyson’s scummy boyfriend) is killed by Michael, “Do you know that I prayed every night that he would escape?” When he asks why, she bluntly tells him, in the annoyed tone of someone answering a stupid question, “So I can kill him.” What was the simple story of a slasher stalking people through the neighborhoods of suburban Illinois is now a siege film, not unlike The Strangers (2008)—but these embattled women are no helpless Liv Tyler: they’ve got guns and a will to kill the man stalking them. Indeed, Laurie inverts the tropes of the franchise: after Michael breaks into the house, it is she who stalks him, not the other way around. The “Terrible Place,” as Clover called the site of horror, is no longer terrible, but is transformed into a locus of triumph.
As Karen is ensconced in the basement (hidden by an island in the kitchen that mechanically rotates at the touch of a button, and which becomes for Karen something of a second womb: the place her mother always meant to hide her, to protect her), and as Allyson runs through the woods toward her grandmother’s house, Laurie stalks Michael, moving room to room. The house has, not coincidentally, a similar floor plan to the Doyle house, scene of their final confrontation in 1978, so that it is unsurprising when Laurie meets Michael in a room with a balcony and large closet with slatted sliding doors. The scene is a purposeful reminder of how this new Halloween upends the original film’s gender-specific logic of male pursuit of the young female victim.
Michael—who in the intervening forty years has become one of the major “heroes” of horror franchises, alongside Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface—is the one hunted by a new enemy, the woman who has empowered herself to take back her life from the man who made himself, through his traumatic actions, the center of her world. And in this confrontation he beats her out, throwing her off the balcony, whereupon she sprawls on the lawn just as Michael once did. He is for a brief moment distracted from her body by Allyson’s noisy arrival in the house and her escape into the hidden basement with Karen, and when he turns back to Laurie—the orchestra squeals in suspense; her body is gone! What follows is a tour-de-force of slasher revenge as Michael is again pursued by Laurie; as he discovers Karen and Allyson, Karen feigns that she is too afraid of Michael, the man her mother prepared her since eight to fight, that she cannot shoot him, only to reveal it as a ruse to entice him to attack. Laurie, Karen, and Allyson all get their shots in, and Allyson steals Michael’s knife and stabs him one final time. The Strode women trap him in the basement and the house goes up in flames. Michael, it seems, is dead for good.
Halloween ends with Laurie, Karen, and Allyson huddled together in the back of a truck after catching a ride back to town. They were all at one point estranged from one another by the frustrations of family, by the trauma Laurie passed on to Karen, by her alcoholism (an allusion to Halloween H20), and by the space of narrative alike—family separated by generations, by Michael’s threats, by high school dances, by the woods that kept Laurie distant from suburbia and her family’s daily life. But in the end they made it back to one another to defeat the man who started it all by killing Laurie’s friends and trying to kill her forty years ago.
As the truck drives away, as the film enters its final seconds, the camera pans down to Allyson’s hand, where the bloody knife of Michael rests. That phallic symbol of the slasher genre with which the male killer forces his selfhood and his violence onto the women he victimizes, has been taken back. Where in the fourth through sixth films this might have been an allusion to some continuing curse that will cause Allyson to murder too, thereby fulfilling franchise demands to extend the story indefinitely, this feels like an ending, a coming home, a final and timely closure to a saga of misogynist violence, a reclaiming of voice, power, and agency for three generations of women.
* * *
David Gordon Green’s Halloween is by no means the first movie to critique the slasher genre. We’ve had meta, send-up, and experimental slasher films for decades, most obviously in the form of Scream (1996) and the increasingly meta-referential franchise it spawned; or the unfunny Scary Movie spoof franchise; as well as more singular productions like The Final Girls (2015), or Tonight She Comes (2017), or Happy Death Day (2017, though an even more meta sequel is due in 2019); and even prose horror, for example Stephen Graham Jones’s The Last Final Girl (2012) and Riley Sager’s Final Girls (2017), and poetry, like Claire Holland’s I Am Not Your Final Girl (2017). Green’s Halloween is a blunt instrument compared to the fine scalpel of some of these texts, and it is also not the first “feminist” slasher film, as many of these examples could easily qualify.
But perhaps the blunt blockbuster of Halloween is what we need, especially because this new rendition, like so many recent franchise films, wears the name of the original film, both declaring a possible new beginning and narratively picking up, in our time, where that original film naturally would have led. It is no surprise that this Halloween remembers none of the others. In this world, the sequels never happened. Michael has waited forty years; so has Laurie. And so, too, have women—four decades, and then some, for the promises of feminism to manifest in revolutionary social change, for a world in which the Donald Trumps and Brett Kavanaughs and Roy Moores and Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys do not hold social, political, and economic power—a world where #MeToo is unnecessary.
Halloween announces itself as a finale of sorts. It is Jamie Lee Curtis’s last hoorah in the role that made her career, the end to the story as it began. It may not be the last in the franchise (it will be unsurprising, given the opening weekend box office and the brief end-credit sequence featuring Michael’s breathing, when a sequel is inevitably announced), but it is certainly the “last word” as far as original cast and creators (Carpenter, for example, returned to score the film) are concerned. Going in, then, it was unclear whether the film would take the cynical, nihilistic route so familiar to “quality” contemporary media and have Michael triumph, whether it would have Laurie win, or perhaps kill them both, or take some fourth, unexpected turn. Halloween, then, does the expected in some ways. And in doing so it refreshes the franchise, especially since it plays so heavily on the first movie, peppers in nods to the many sequels, and recodes the space of the house where Laurie first experienced her traumas into this new space, where she is in control, where Michael is the one the camera stalks slowly through the house, waiting for the “killer” to strike.
As that final scene of Allyson holding the knife clarifies, the genre, the franchise, all that Michael and his single-minded pursuit of teenage Laurie forty years ago meant—all of this belongs to women now. They have taken it back. And they’ll cut you if you come for it.
Sean Guynes-Vishniac is a reviewer, critic, and editor who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the journals coordinator at Michigan Publishing at the University of Michigan, a PhD candidate in English at Michigan State University, co-editor of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (2017) and Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics (2019), and editor of SFRA Review.