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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Thing/Body Horror

I’ve had John Carpenter on my mind a lot lately, maybe because he’s returning to the Halloween universe he created nearly 30 year ago to produce another Halloween film that will star Jamie Lee Curtis and ignore all of the sequels that followed the original film.  It will be just Jamie and Michael, reunited at last, no bizarre stories about Michael Myers’ bloodline, or his cult, or those awful Rob Zombie remakes that tried to give a backstory that we didn’t need.

Michael Myers is so effective in that first film because he literally could be anyone, and Haddonfield could be any tree-lined suburbia. There is one brief scene in the original film where Michael takes off his mask, after Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee) stabs him with a clothes hanger. When he unmasks, he looks rather…normal.  The boogeyman isn’t some supernatural entity, and the only thing thing that’s uncanny about him is the fact he gets up after Laurie Strode thinks she’s defeated him, and he gets up a second time after Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shoots him off a balcony.

As much as I love Halloween and will always have a soft spot for Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, I’ve been more intrigued lately by Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. On a few levels, I find it to be a more interesting film. It has stunning, guttural visual effects that still hold up, for one, but lately, I’ve been more intrigued by the idea of body horror. Few films represent that better than The Thing and the idea that the monster could be inside everyone and will spread from person to person, host to host. On a deeper level, the film was a perfect metaphor for the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s,  and today, in a very divided America, the sweeping paranoia/don’t trust thy neighbor arc  feel even more relevant.  For anyone that ever felt different, off, or an outsider, The Thing is the perfect body horror film. Anyone that appears slightly unusual is tied to the chair, blood tested, and blowtorched if the monster is inside of them.

A few years ago, there was  remake of The Thing that I didn’t bother to see. For me, Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s The Thing from Outerspace holds up too well, especially the non-CGI effects, the pulsating soundtrack, and the acting. If the new Halloween is indeed going to  follow the original film and no sequels, then there is more story to tell. I don’t think that is true about The Thing, despite its ambiguous ending.

In a tribute to the film, here is a poem I wrote about the body horror idea that  Rockvale Review recently published. I also have an essay coming out about the film in 2018 in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing). Not all of Carpenter’s films have aged well, but The Thing certainly has.

It Follows and Suburban Fears of the Other

I’m straying a little bit from the usual poet-oriented posts to offer some criticism on the horror film It Follows, one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a few years. If you’ve seen the film, I hope that you enjoy this read.

John Carpenter, director of the original Halloween, The Thing, and other iconic horror movies, states in the documentary American Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue that American horror movies are very much about our fear of “the other,” something or someone different that will threaten our tribe. His own movies very much deal with this theme. In his remake of the The Thing, the monster is a shape shifter/parasite/alien that infects a group of scientists working in Alaska. In Halloween, Michael Myers terrorizes a quiet, sleepy suburban Illinois town and picks off teenagers one by one.

It Follows is very much a movie that plays with the trope that Carpenter mentioned, fears of “the other,” and like Halloween, it raises questions about where the other comes from. The opening shot establishes the setting and resembles some of the early shots in Halloween in that we see big houses and tree-lined streets, thus establishing the setting of what should be a safe suburban town. However, in both films that sense of security that suburbia should provide, specifically keeping bad things out, is shattered. In the opening scene of Halloween, the initial camera sequence is from Michael Myers’s point of view, as he roams through the rooms of his house, picks up a butcher knife and kills his sister as she’s having sex. In those first few moments of the film, however, the viewer has no idea that the killer is a child, a young Michael Myers, until a few shots later, when the camera angle shifts to third person, and we see him standing on the lawn, dressed in a clown costume, holding a bloody knife. Terror doesn’t come from the outside, but rather, it comes from the inside. About 20-30 minutes into the film, once Michael Myers is grown up and escapes from a mental hospital, he returns to his hometown to kill off teenagers.

After the opening shot of tree-lined streets and nice houses in It Follows, the viewer then sees a teenager, Annie, run out of her house, screaming, before she drives to a beach,where she leaves a panicked message for her father.  As the film progresses and moves towards the opening shot, we learn the source of her terror.

Early in the film, the protagonist, Jay, has sex in  a car with a boy older than her. He goes by the name of Hugh, but viewers later learn that his real name is Jeff. At first, little is known about him, but it can be assumes that he’s from the rougher side of the tracks, since he tells Jay that he doesn’t want to go back to his place because he doesn’t want to show her where he lives. After they have sex, he tells her that he passed on something to her, which he inherited from his last sexual partner. He then tells her that this thing can come in any form and can be someone she knows or someone she doesn’t know, but if it touches her, she’ll die.

During the rest of the film, Jay spends her time fleeing this creature in various forms, a creature that only she can see. She and her friends also visit Detroit, and in one scene, the friends chat about how their parents always told them to stay away from the city and stay in the suburbs. During their attempts to locate Jeff in the city, the viewer sees shots of bombed out buildings, which reinforces the idea of “the other,” that everything bad came from the city, including the man that Jay encountered and the sexual partner who passed down the evil to him.

However, the friends eventually learn that Jeff was not from the city, but rather, he attended high school in the suburbs, and they find him hiding out at his parents’s safe suburban home. He faked his name, though, and rented a house in the city to lure in a young woman and pass down the evil. His true identity is important, however, because it shows that the real terror lurks in the suburbs, not in the inner-city. It didn’t come from outside, but rather from within.

In this regard, the nameless, shape-shifting villain in It Follows is similar to other iconic horror movie villains, including Michael Myers, a boy from the suburbs, who, for seemingly no reason, kills his sister as a boy and returns to his hometown to commit additional murders. The evil is similar to Freddy Kreuger, a child molester who was burned to death by the townspeople and then returns as a supernatural entity to kill, in dreams, the children of the suburban parents who burned him alive. Even in Poltergeist, the evil does not come from outside, but from within. A family moves into a home in a development, and are terrorized by poltergeists. About mid-way through the film, the father learns that the development was built on an Indian burial ground, thus the cause of the haunting.

It Follows also gives a nod to another horror trope: sex and consequence. In the Friday the 13th movies, any teenagers who have sex are murdered by Jason. In American Dreams in Red, White, and Blue, Jason is even compared to a vicious, Old Testament kind of figure, eager to butcher anyone who strays from the straight and moral path. It is indeed significant that the creature in It Follows is passed down through sex. However, It Follows is a little more liberal in its treatment of teenage sex, or perhaps it lies somewhere in the middle of Friday the 13th and David Cronenberg’s 1970s film Shivers, which is about blood parasites that make their hosts hyper-sexual. There are some scenes of It Follows that resemble Shivers. In one of the final scenes, Jay and her friends hide out at a public, indoor pool. They hope to trap the creature in water and electrocute it, using lamps, TVs, and other appliances they lugged from their suburban homes. The pool itself and the colors in the shot, especially all of the yellow, resemble the closing scene in Shivers, when the creature/parasite infects the last person who doesn’t have it, and essentially, the film ends in an orgy, thus making a statement that sexual desires are impossible to avoid.

That scene in It Follows is different, however. Jay doesn’t succumb to the shape-shifting creature. Instead, she resists it, fights it, and flees from it yet again. Furthermore, throughout the film, Jay’s childhood friend, Paul, pleads with her to have sex with him to pass it on. She refuses, however, especially after she has sex with another character and the creature kills him. Ultimately, though, Jay does have sex with Paul, and the closing shot shows them walking down their suburban street, holding hands, while someone walks feet behind them. It’s not clear, however, if the person following them is the creature in yet another form, or someone normal. The viewer is left to guess.

It Follows makes a middle-ground statement regarding sex. Jay and Paul have sex and aren’t killed off Jason-style. Even Jeff doesn’t die, despite his confession that he contracted the evil after a one-night stand with a woman he met in the bar. However, it can be interpreted that only once Jay has sex that is meaningful, with someone who cares about her, is she safe. She survives and is no longer running by the closing shot.

In many ways, It Follows is about the old classic horror trope of the other. In the film, the other takes the shape of the inner-city creeping into the suburbs, an American fear that stems back to the great white flight of the 1950s and 1960s and has returned in the age of Occupy, a bankrupt Detroit, and class inequality/racial tensions. But the other also takes the shape of teenage sex. The creature literally stalks characters because it is passed down through sex. Yet, in the end, Jay has sex, and survives. So sex becomes less threatening.

There are other aspects of the film to note. Its music and even some of its set design/displays, such as the lamps, station wagons, and even a typewriter, resemble 1960s/1970s America, a time period that was iconic for American horror film. Yet, the film is supposed to be set in present day Detroit ‘burbs. There is a wonderful scene too, when Jay is sitting in a college classroom, listening to a professor read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem all about “the cry of the occasion,” sex, the consequences of sex, and death. Prufrock ponders sex, women, and fears that he is getting old. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” It Follows is a film that analyzes the consequences of sex and how our past partners shape us and carry us to the present. We can’t run from it or avoid it. It follows.

They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara

When I was young, I used to watch horror movies with my father. I have memories of seeing Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, Fire in the Sky, and other movies with him. Since then, I’ve always loved horror movies, specifically ones from the 1960s-1980s that offer at least some character development, interesting plot, and at times social/political commentary. As a writer, I also know how difficult it is to suspend reality and make the setting and situation work, no matter how outlandish the story may seem on paper.

Here’s an overview/commentary on some of my favorite horror movies.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead,  Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead

Zombies have been popular over the last few years. The high ratings of AMC’s show “The Walking Dead” prove that. But Romero’s brilliant zombie films started the trend and how we think of zombies on the big screen or TV. What separates Romero’s films from the rest, though, is his social commentary. You can view Dawn of the Dead as a statement against consumerism. The zombies do flock to the mall, after all, and wander around aimlessly. Day of the Dead warns against militarization, and one of his more recent films, Land of the Dead, highlights the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in the U.S. My favorite, though, is still Night of the Living Dead. I love the 1968 black and white version, especially the beginning of the film where the young woman and her friend are in the graveyard and encounter a stumbling, groaning zombie. I still love the line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

John Carpenter’s Halloween

This is the film I re-watch every October, and it still holds up. I love the scenes shot from Michael Myer’s point of view, as he stalks Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. I love the fact there is no rational  for why Michael does what he does, other than pure evil.  None of the sequels or remakes hold up to the original.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

I just re-watched this the other day for the first time in a few years. The setting and effects are still spectacular and eerie, especially as the paranoia overtakes each of the characters in the film as they question who or who isn’t the shape-shifting alien.

Poltergeist

I also re-watched this recently. The scene where Carol Anne speaks through the TV and the white noise gives me chills. What’s especially effective about this movie is the character development. We want the family to survive, and we grow fond of them as the movie progresses.

The Exorcist

This is the only horror movie that generally scared me. A lot of the scenes stick with you after you watch it,  even the notion that a 12-year-old girl can suddenly become possessed by a demon. There’s also a lot of good points about faith and doubt raised in this film. In the extended version, the scene where a possessed Linda Blair walks up and down the stairs like a spider makes my skin crawl.

These are just some of my favorite horror films. There aren’t too many recent ones I’ve enjoyed, as it seems many of them rely on high body counts and flat characters, as opposed to rich character development, an intriguing plot, and effects that aren’t overdone.

My girlfriend and I plan to watch a few of these and some other favorites during these days leading up to Halloween.