electricsheep

The Many Lives of Laurie Strode

Halloween

Although the Halloween franchise is mainly associated with indestructible serial killer Michael Myers, six of the 10 films (and by next year, seven of the 11) in the saga also feature returning ‘final girl’ Laurie Strode – the ultimate objective of Michael’s murderous rampage. The final girl, as observed by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, is a common fixture in the slasher genre, the female character who survives a killing spree and often turns up in the next instalment, only to be dispatched by the monster then. The final girl is often asexual and straight-laced in contrast to the teenage victims, who, in most slasher films, are seemingly punished for having pre-marital sex, drinking and taking drugs. Because of this, according to the documentary Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (2006), Jamie Lee Curtis, when approached by John Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill, would have preferred to have played one of the other girls in the film who did have ‘fun’. But by being cast as the more innocuous Laurie, Curtis helped create an iconic character that she would be asked to reprise in various sequels, not to mention similar parts in another three horror films – The Fog, Terror Train and Road Games – all made between Halloween and Halloween II (1981). Being a fan of Hitchcock, Carpenter also found the idea of casting the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh (one potential final girl who didn’t survive the second act of her brush with a serial killer) as the lead irresistible, something that would be commented on explicitly and awkwardly in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998).

In Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, Carpenter mentions that when Michael Myers first sees Laurie, through the ageing net curtain of his abandoned family home, he sees something sisterly in her aspect. This familial attachment to his victim(s) of choice would form the backbone of the sequels, but here it carries a double meaning. First, Laurie’s bland femininity negates her as an object of desire – she would only be allowed a (doomed) relationship belatedly in Halloween H20 – but it also bears comparison to Michael’s first victim on screen, his sister, whom he voyeuristically stalks pre- and post-coitus through the window and doors of his family home, before stabbing her to death in the film’s memorable prologue.

The characters in the film refer to Michael as the ‘bogeyman’, a word whose etymology comes from an old Celtic word for ghost, and Celtic mythology becomes increasingly important in the sequels. In this first instalment, Michael is at his most ghost-like, his featureless (well, William Shatner-esque) white mask removing any emotion from his face and his drab boiler suit being at odds with his ability to appear and disappear like a wraith, who moves slowly when observed, but like lightning when off screen. One other Celtic reference makes it into the first instalment: Michael leaves the word ‘Samhain’ scrawled in the shop where he steals his iconic mask, a reference to a festival associated with legends of adventurers fleeing monsters in order to be proved worthy (which Laurie does in the films) and connected with the slaughter of mammals to allow people to survive the winter months, also applicable to the residents of Haddonfield as Michael only massacres on his favourite feast day and the days before.

Lead characters Michael, Laurie and Sam Loomis – Laurie’s erstwhile doctor, who spends the sequels in a Cassandra-style role, warning the residents of Illinois against their itinerant bogeyman, and who is always ignored until the bodies start piling up again – survive the end of the first instalment, but Carpenter and Hill hadn’t intended a sequel until the financiers revealed they had a massive hit on their hands. Fuelled by beer and sleepless nights, the workmanlike and generally pointless sequel written by Carpenter and Hill does Curtis/Laurie a great disservice by keeping her sedated in a hospital bed for half the running time of the film while Michael stalks the corridors of the institution failing to find her (Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween II in 2009 condenses this down to 25 minutes). In writing the sequel, Carpenter came up with the idea of actually making Laurie Michael’s long-lost sister, who was brought up by foster parents, and retrofitted the original film with this idea, by having the killer write the word ‘sister’ on a wall in an additional scene filmed for the extended TV version made for ABC in 1981. Why Michael wants to murder all the younger members of his family is never really explained, but when Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t reprise her role for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) the killer went on to stalk his niece, cousins and daughter respectively in the next four instalments of the saga, as well as any other young person who got in his way.

The killer generally doesn’t change from film to film beyond the stuntman playing ‘The Shape’, as Michael is referred to in the end credits of each film, and the directors of some of the sequels even forget he should have third-degree burns covering every area of his skin whenever we see his hands on screen after his return in 1988. Laurie, however, goes through as profound a change as sci-fi final girl Ellen Ripley in the Alien saga, who goes from blue-collar space miner in Alien (1979), to maternal soldier in Aliens (1986), to shaved prisoner in Alien 3 (1992) to resurrected half-alien clone in Alien: Resurrection (1997). In Halloween, Laurie is an asexual senior high-school student, in Halloween II, a traumatised, drugged hospital patient, in Halloween H20, an alcoholic headmistress with separation anxiety, and in Halloween: Resurrection (2002), she’s back in hospital, borderline psychotic, awaiting the inevitable return of her nemesis. Perhaps in order to survive against an implacable foe, the final girl is the one who has to change, both in her approach to each return of the killer and to provide another instalment of a franchise with a degree of freshness as well as familiarity.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is only a thematic instalment of the saga, featuring cursed masks, another hospital immolation and references to Samhain, but none of the original main characters. However, the mystical cult it introduces, which wants to kill all the children of America (not just the ones who do pot or are related to Laurie Strode), makes a return to the screen in part 6, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (2005), in a confusing plot that mixes astronomy, black masses, genetic manipulation and incest! Before this narrative dead end, which along with parts 4 and 5 would be ignored by the script of H20, Halloween 4 starred a much younger final girl, Laurie’s daughter Jamie Lloyd, who would also go through similar transformations to her mother – becoming a killer herself in the final scene of part 4, being variously catatonic and telepathic in part 5 and a rape/cult victim in part 6…

In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Laurie is only present in the form of a photograph, at which her abandoned daughter gazes forlornly after she has apparently died off screen. This plot element is retained for Jamie Lee Curtis’s return to the franchise in H20, where it is revealed that Laurie faked her own death and moved to California to bring up her son, though why she left her daughter behind is anyone’s guess. Like Jamie in the previous instalment, she was perhaps impregnated by Michael off screen between sequels and she was separated from her first child for nefarious reasons…

Sequels generally follow patterns, and every third sequel to Halloween is largely quite good. Part 4, while a retread of the original with Michael stalking his niece rather than his sister, is atmospheric and has a terrific ending where Jamie re-enacts the beginning of the first film. Part 7 (H20) brings Laurie back to the franchise in a film that gives the characters genuine depth and should have brought the entire narrative to a close. Part 10, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009), finally allows Laurie to have some fun and adds a touch of David Lynch/Oliver Stone-style surrealism to the proceedings.

In contrast, part 6, The Curse of Michael Myers, is almost incomprehensible and exists in two different versions. The bootleg ‘producer’s cut’ ends with a child Laurie babysat in the first film, now an adult played by future comedy actor Paul Rudd and the first ‘final boy’ of the series, who immobilises Myers by surrounding him with Celtic runes (!). The recut theatrical version had 40 minutes of different/alternate scenes mixed into the film and tones down the black magic angle (which offers some explanation for Michael’s indestructibility) while some mumbled lines and briefly glimpsed computer screens add genetic engineering to the plot… Donald Pleasance died before they shot these new scenes, so his exit from the series is off screen, only represented by a scream he recorded for the original cut.

However, The Curse of Michael Myers still turned a profit and producer Moustapha Akkad, who once joked he’d stop with part 22 (!), managed to convince Jamie Lee Curtis to reprise her role for the next film in the series, which brought the saga back to basics. The seventh instalment of a long-running franchise is often interesting, as following a pair of trilogies, filmmakers who take on a convoluted narrative have to come up with a new angle to keep the fans coming back and bring new audiences to the saga. This can mean a new, younger cast – the successful casting of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) following six performances by Sean Connery as James Bond, or Patrick Stuart taking command of the USS Enterprise in the seventh Star Trek film, Generations (1994) – or a gimmick that sets apart the new instalment from its predecessors – Jason Voorhees coming up against a psychokinetic final girl in Friday the 13th part VII: The New Blood (1988), ‘Saw VII’ being retitled Saw 3D (2010) – or the return of the star from the first film, as in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (on Elm Street, 1994) with original final girl Heather Langenkamp, and in this case Curtis in H20.

Having continued for 20 years at this point, the Halloween franchise, having helped create the slasher genre, also became influenced by its peers. The original film in the series was relatively bloodless, but following test screenings of Halloween II, John Carpenter had to shoot additional scenes of gore to shock an audience who had already seen Alien (1979), Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Alligator and Dressed to Kill (all 1980). By 1998, the genre had also been dismantled by director Wes Craven, writer Kevin Williamson and editor Patrick Lussier in the first two Scream films (1996-1997), and Williamson was called in to come up with a first draft of Halloween H20. Although his credit had been reduced to co-executive producer by the time the film was released, the writer’s fingerprints are all over the production, from the clip of Scream II showing on a TV in the film (replacing the classic black and white horror films of previous instalments), Lussier in the cutting room, the presence of Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams as a student, and the references to other horror films, including the casting of Janet Leigh as the secretary of Laurie Strode (now Keri Tate), who has moved to California, where the first film was actually shot. Leigh’s casting could have been a subtle in-joke, but it is heavily underlined: while the rest of the film creates fairly realistic characters, Leigh states she always felt ‘maternal’ to Curtis’s character, leaves the film to the strains of the score from Psycho and drives Marion Crane’s car!

However, Curtis is given plenty to do in this film: raise a son, cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, run a school, hide her alcoholism and finally dispatch her murderous brother. H20 is the best sequel to date and it’s just unfortunate Curtis agreed to cameo in one more instalment, the lacklustre Halloween: Resurrection, which sees her killed off in the pre-credits sequence by the ‘real’ Michael Myers, as opposed to the impostor she unwittingly decapitated at the end of the previous film. Channelling Linda Hamilton’s muscled up and institutionalised Sarah Connor from Terminator 2: Judgment day (1992), Laurie Strode’s final scene wastes the character who has been with us on and off screen since 1978.

Post-Resurrection, the franchise was rebooted yet again with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween in 2007. Reasonably entertaining, the new Halloween is as pointless as the first sequel was in 1981 as it’s just more of the same but not as good, with the only noticeable addition being that Michael’s childhood is explored, and his abuse by a poor white trash family removes much of his mystique. The new Laurie Strode is a more traditional teenager, swearing and listening to loud music, which also makes the contrast of the ingénue versus the monster less interesting, and while a capable actress, Scout Taylor-Compton isn’t a patch on Jamie Lee Curtis. However, as the eleventh instalment of the series has been announced – the inevitable Halloween 3D in 2012 – we can only hope for a female killer (as teased but not followed up on in the endings of Halloween 4 and H20), since Zombie’s Halloween II ends with Myers downed in a hail of bullets and Laurie Strode picking up her brother’s knife…

Alex Fitch

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