Halloween and the Evolution of the Final Girl

The soft reboot of Halloween is a film very much in conversation with John Carpenter’s original masterpiece. There are several scenes, especially in the second half, that mirror shots from the first film while swapping places between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the predator and the prey. The film is aware of the Final Girl tropes, a term first defined by Carol J. Clover, and this time, the Final Girl is turned into the predator instead of the prey. In doing this, the film explores the trauma Strode has endured after her encounter with Michael 40 years earlier, and though it is not the first film to have this type of story, it does make the reboot feel relevant  after a string of subpar sequels throughout the years.

Clover’s definition of the Final Girl was first presented in her seminal work Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. She studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s and came to a few conclusions. Sexual transgressors of both genders are punished and killed. Think of Lynda (P.J. Soles) in the original Halloween, who is killed soon after having sex with her boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham). Any of the sex-crazed teens in the Friday the 13th series serve as another example. Clover adds that the male killers, including Michael Myers, have an oedipal psychosis, thus a majority of their victims are female. She notes that Michael’s sexual anger towards his sister, Judith, drives him to kill her and a string of sister surrogates. Furthermore, the camera lingers on the deaths of the female victims much longer than that of the males.

Soles

Lynda (P.J. Soles) about to meet her fate in the original Halloween

The Final Girl, Clover says, stares death in the face, and she is either rescued or kills the slasher herself. What made a film like Halloween especially unique was the way it disrupted traditional narrative structure. In analyzing structure and point of view, Clover references Laura Mulvey’s definition of the male gaze and cinematic narrative structure, specifically that the male drives the story’s action and the point of view is associated with him. Films like Halloween were different because the spectator identified with the Final Girl and eventually saw everything through her point of view. She was also the most developed psychologically. To underscore this point, Clover analyzes the closet scene in Halloween, writing,

As the killer slashes and stabs the closet door—we see this from her inside perspective—she bends a hanger into a weapon, and, when he breaks the door down, stabs him in the eye. Given the drift in just the four years between Texas Chain Saw and Halloween –from passive to active defense—it is no surprise that the films following Halloween present Final Girls who not only fight back but do so with ferocity and even kill the killer on their own, without help from the outside (37).

lauriecloset

Laurie Strode hiding in the closet in Halloween. The camera shows her point of view.

Lastly, Clover theorizes that  Final Girls adapt masculine characteristics to defeat the killer and to fulfill a traditional Western narrative of the hero. The Final Girl is boyish, and she has a general competence with practical matters. She seizes the killer’s phallic weapon, such as Michael’s kitchen knife, to defeat him. Of this narrative trope, Clover writes,

It is no surprise, in light of these developments, that the Final Girl should show signs of boyishness. Her symbolic phallicization, in the last scenes, may or may not proceed at root from the horror of lack on the part of the audience and maker. But it certainly proceeds from the need to bring her in line with epic laws of Western narrative tradition—the very unanimity of which bears witness to the historical importance, in popular culture, of the literal representation of heroism in male form—and it proceeds no less from the need to render the relocated gaze intelligible to an audience conditioned by the dominant cinematic apparatus (60-61).

Halloween 2018 stands apart from its predecessor and other slasher films from that period because unlike its predecessors, our association does not eventually shift to the Final Girl. Unlike the original Halloween, which opens with a young Michael Myers’ gaze as he is about to murder his sister, the latest film is essentially Laurie’s story from the outset. The opening scene focuses on Michael, unmasked and shackled in a prison yard, but it is Laurie Strode who carries the film. She is immediately depicted as the hunter and predator, and in some of the first scenes, we see her wooded house, complete with a hideout shelter, cameras, and dozens of guns.

LaurenHalloweenrifle

Even through her dialogue, Laurie makes clear that she will hunt and stalk him this time, saying at one point, “He is a killer, but he will be killed tonight.” This idea is reinforced when we see Laurie firing rounds of ammo outside of her home, shooting mannequins in the head. She is armed and ready to confront Myers.

In that regard, and unlike earlier slasher films, there is no symbolic phallicization that needs to occur later in the film. Laurie is in possession of a stockpile of traditionally masculine weapons before Myers ever touches a knife after he crashes a transport bus and escapes to Haddonfield.

The reversal of the predator/prey dichotomy is underscored even more by the scenes that director David Gordon Green and writer Danny McBride chose to mirror from the original film. When Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), is in class, Laurie waits outside of the school, and Allyson meets her gaze. In the original film, when Laurie is in the classroom, Michael stands outside, stalking her before suddenly vanishing. The roles here are reversed.

Near the conclusion of the film, Laurie hunts Michael through her house, and she searches for him in closets very similar to the closet where he tormented her in the original film before she stabbed him with a hanger. In the new film, Laurie is the one stalking him, not the other way around. Lastly, when Michael pushes Laurie off a balcony, nearly killing her, the scene echoes the ending of the original film. When he looks down, she is gone, determined to get back up and kill him.

laurierifle3

Laurie hunting Michael

It is no coincidence then that mirrors and windows are a reoccurring symbol in the film. Most importantly, when Laurie first sees Michael after his escape, it is while she stands outside of a house in Haddonfield and catches a glimpse of him through a bedroom window. His face is reflected in a mirror. The mirror image returns throughout several scenes and highlights the change of roles and the similarities between Michael and Laurie, how they were both predator and prey between both films. Another interpretation is that Laurie’s obsession with confronting Michael has made her monstrous in that it has walled her off from her family and any other type of meaningful relationship.

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Laurie’s first encounter with Michael in Halloween 2018, seen through a window and reflection in a mirror.

Halloween 2018’s other concern is the presentation of female trauma. As already stated, Halloween 2018 is not the only film that addresses trauma of the Final Girl. In fact, it has already been addressed in the franchise’s previous entries. Rob Zombie explored this in Halloween II, and it was addressed rather extensively in Halloween H20. However, in the age of #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearings, specifically the powerful image of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford raising her hand, about to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee composed of nearly all white men, Laurie Strode’s updated character is especially resonant against the backdrop of current events. The scar on her upper arm from the time Michael slashed her 40 years earlier is a physical manifestation of her trauma, a mark that won’t go away, no matter how many times her family tells her to move on from the past.

As the story unfolds, the viewer learns what happened to Laurie since her first encounter with Michael. She lost custody of her daughter, and, during the present events of the film, has a difficult time maintaining a relationship with her granddaughter. Her scars are both deep and lasting, reverberating for decades. Additionally, people view her as a wingnut, especially since she became a survivalist. While interviewed by two British pod casters who label themselves “investigative journalists,” Laurie questions why they’re willing to humanize Michael, despite the fact he killed her friends, but view her as a “basket case” because she’s been twice divorced. This is one of the smartest scenes in the film and raises questions about how we treat and view female survivors.

The film makes a broader critique of masculinity. Two of the earliest deaths are that of a father and son. The son tells his father that he wants to continue dance lessons. The father, a hunter, scoffs. When they encounter the crashed transport bus that was carrying Michael, the father, eager to grab a gun and investigate, winds up dead. The son, who initially broke from a traditional masculine role by expressing his interest in dance over hunting, ultimately follows in the father’s footsteps by exploring the scene and arming himself with a rifle. Of course, this does not end well. It’s one of the most brutal deaths in the film and one of the most haunting set pieces.

One character who tries to fill a traditionally masculine role, Ray (Toby Huss), husband of Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), is the biggest comic relief and essentially impotent. When we’re first introduced to him, he is slathering mouse traps with peanut butter, tending to a rodent problem, a task usually assigned to the male. However, he fails to do this well and ends up getting peanut butter all over his pants, his crotch area specifically. Later, when Laurie warns Karen to prepare for Michael’s arrival, Ray shouts that it is his house and his to defend, if need be. However, both Karen and Laurie ignore him and talk over him. Laurie arms him with a gun far smaller than the rifles she possesses and urges Karen to use.

The rest of the men in the film are generally ineffective against Michael’s wrath. There is no Dr. Loomis-type character to save anyone, and unlike the original film, Laurie doesn’t need his assistance to defeat the boogeyman. Michael’s latest doctor, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a former protege of Loomis, is morally ambiguous, to say the least, and has some weird fascination with Myers, an urge to understand his power and what it’s like to murder. Unlike Loomis, he doesn’t believe that Myers is pure evil, a force beyond reason. Even the police officers are generally helpless against Myers. Though females are killed in the film, a majority of the kills happen to men. The camera lingers on their brutalized bodies, a reversal from the early tropes identified by Clover.

In the preface to the Princeton Classics Edition of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Clover commented upon the more recent state of the slasher genre and the Final Girl, essentially speaking out against how the term has been misconstrued, in her view, and what has happened to the genre following the initial publication of her book. Essentially, she states that the Final Girl has been turned into a sketch. She writes,

But a sketch is only a sketch. Fill this one out with the dimensions of affect, identification, pacing, and audience, and the picture gets kinkier. Yes, the Final Girl brings down the killer in the final moments, but consider how she spent a good hour of the film up to then being chased and almost caught, hiding, running, falling, rising in pain and fleeing again, seeing her friends mangled and killed by weapon-wielding killers, and so on. ‘Tortured survivor’ might be a better term than ‘hero.’ Or, given the element of last minute luck ‘accidental survivor.’ Or, as I call her, ‘victim hero,’ with an emphasis on ‘victim.’ It’s a great moment when she stops the killer, but to imagine that her, and our, experience of the film reduces to that last-minute reversal is to truly miss the point (x).

Clover’s concern regarding the Final Girl and what others have said about her theory is understandable. Yet, Laurie, Karen, and Allyson Strode in Halloween 2018 don’t spend the film being chased or hiding, running, and falling. In this film, the roles are totally reversed. Laurie Strode is the predator and Michael her prey.

This is not to say that Halloween 2018 is a perfect film. It certainly isn’t. The younger Strodes are generally underdeveloped and aren’t given much to do until the final act. Hopefully, a sequel remedies this. There is a plot twist near the final act that nearly stops the story in its tracks. Additionally, what does it say about our culture to have a new Halloween movie where guns are ever-present and the only way to confront Michael is by amassing firearms? That said, at the very least, the reboot tries to do something different with the Final Girl tropes, while adding yet another dimension to Laurie Strode, one that feels especially relevant for 2018.

 

Some additional suggested reading:

Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover

“A Tale of Two Lauries: Trauma in ‘Halloween H20’ and 2018’s ‘Halloween”  by Bloody Disgusting

“A Raged-Filled Halloween for Our Time” by Dawn Keetley/Horror Homeroom

“The New Halloween Re-imagines the Franchise as a Tale of Maternal Warrior Women” by Vox

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula by Alexandra West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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