horror

The Many Lives of Laurie Strode

Halloween (1978) wasn’t the first slasher film, not by a long, long shot, and Laurie Strode wasn’t the first Final Girl, but — as I have discussed here before — the commercial appeal and success of Halloween codified the slasher subgenre and set the rules for at least a decade of horror films, rules that still matter over 40 years later, even if its only to the extent they’re broken. For all of that influence, Halloween struggled alongside more popular franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, not least because John Carpenter and Debra Hill never conceived of the Michael Myers story as a franchise. As a direct result, while the number of sequels to Halloween is well within the typical range for its peers, even on the low side, if you look at the substance of those sequels, you’ll notice kind of a lot of rejiggering. Since 1978’s classic original, the producers of Halloween have struggled over and over to get this story straight. 

Which brings me back to Laurie Strode, the Final Girl — Final Woman now, surely, although they’re all really Final Women — who never seems to get a final cut. This woman has lived and died and been rebooted like she’s Jean Grey or Sarah Connor, without the excuse of competing timelines. While Spider-Man and Batman get their origins retold every two or three years, there’s no analogue in horror for just how many versions of a character, much less a heroine, we’re invited to meet. So let’s start meeting the once and future Final Woman Laurie Strode. It’s going to take a while.

Something I should dispatch from the outset is that Laurie’s role has never been recast, except for the Rob Zombie remakes, and so her story has always been a little bit tied to Jamie Lee Curtis’s celebrity and the extent to which an award-winning actress was willing to come water her horror roots. Laurie wasn’t Curtis’s first acting role, but she was her first starring role on film, typecasting her as a Scream Queen until her mainstream breakthrough role in 1983’s Trading Places. After that, the Halloween franchise became anthology-curious with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and Curtis was not in a very Laurie Strode-place when producers were finally ready to go back to the Myers Family Matters in the late-80s. Although she did come back, for two separate reboots, plus sequels, at the twenty and forty-year anniversary marks. The stories that brought Curtis back are similar, but also different in crucial ways that speak to the zeitgeist of the reboots’ eras as much as any natural trajectory of the character. That’s also true of the Scout Taylor-Compton’s Laurie in Rob Zombie’s remakes, and we’ll look at that, too. But let’s start with who Laurie was in the beginning.

Laurie’s first incarnation in 1978 is archetypal stuff, and maybe that’s part of why giving her character a final arc presents such a challenge. It’s important, especially given the baggage of the first raft of sequels, to note that she wasn’t originally written as Michael’s sister, and when we join her in her high school English class discussion of fate, that’s meant to be her theme in the original Halloween, too. Laurie is facing off, not against her brother, but big, scary, capricious fate as a momento mori in a Halloween mask. Taking the first film without looking at the sequels, Laurie is the model Final Girl: beautiful, but chaste; smart, but humble; part of a group, but lonely within it. She fits a very patriarchal fantasy formula of a woman who deserves to live. Shy and bookish, Laurie is gorgeous, but styled to seem mousy next to her best friends, both of whom dig into Laurie’s self-confidence mercilessly, and she’s babysitting on Halloween night instead of going on a date largely because she’s talked herself into being a permanent wallflower. When her friend Annie takes the initiative to reach out to Laurie’s crush Ben and finds out he’s actually interested, Laurie is mortified and only wants Annie to shut the whole thing down. She has that little self-esteem, and the extent to which that’s modeled as something desirable is a whole other screed, but the point is that Laurie begins the film as meek and mousey as possible and ends it as the last girl standing, hair down and blouse partially unbuttoned, sexualized at last, and in the language of B-horror, that must mean something. She’s not exactly a badass; she’s crying and has technically only survived because Dr. Loomis rushed in like the woodcutter to save Red Riding Hood, but she survived. Not only that, but every woman left standing at the end of a slasher film in the 1980s (even Sleepaway Camp’s Angela, kind of) is going to look a little bit like her.

Everything gets more complicated with Halloween II (1981), the story Carpenter and Hill didn’t really plan for or want to tell, but money, and so it goes. Carpenter hands the keys to Rick Rosenthal and everything picks up pretty much immediately after the first film ends, following Michael following Laurie to the least-populated hospital in the midwest, and it’s all pretty much Halloween (1978) but less disciplined, more gory, and faster paced. Laurie again will have to run and shimmy through small openings and hide and scream and Dr. Loomis will make a couple dire speeches before a fiery showdown that was meant to end Michael (and the story) once and for all. There are two main differences. One, Laurie gets a love interest in the form of a tender paramedic. Good on you, Laurie. Two, Laurie gets a backstory, revealing her to be Michael’s sister, adopted and renamed after their parents died in a car accident. Man, the Myers family got more tragedy going on than the Kennedys. But anyhoo, none of this is really important for Laurie’s character at this point–it will be–but it does solidify the framework of the franchise until the 2018 Halloween: Michael Myers is hunting his family. That’s it. Still fate, I suppose, but a very localized fate, a fate you can kind of understand. When Curtis declined to take up the role again for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Final Girl status was passed to Laurie’s daughter Jamie (Danielle Harris, and they named the character after Curtis, isn’t that sweet?) for the next three films. Even Rob Zombie’s remake continuity takes up the family thread, making the franchise as much saga as slasher.

I don’t have to tell you anything else about what happens over the three Halloween films without Laurie because for Laurie, they do not matter. She’s killed off offscreen in 4, but in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, that film kills off Halloweens 4-6. At that point, too, Donald Pleasance has passed away, and Dr. Loomis is not recast either (BECAUSE WE WOULD RIOT), so even though his offscreen fate in 6 was ambiguous, he’s given a completely different backstory, too, as a Myers obsessive to the last, but one who died safely in retirement. So Laurie, twenty years later, is a Final Woman with another name change–Keri Tate–having faked her own death only to live in fear and substance abuse as a functioning alcoholic and headmistress of a posh boarding school. She’s a mother now, too, with a son (Josh Hartnett) who chafes against her holiday-themed paranoia, as the theme for Laurie in this film is not so much facing the capriciousness of fate as weathering the cost of survival. This becomes a leitmotif for Laurie throughout her successive reboots, but it starts here. Laurie hiding and running, but finally getting tough, with no Dr. Loomis to protect her and a son of her own to keep safe. She subsumes the Dr. Loomis role as ranting Cassandra and unifies it with her own essential function as the last woman standing, only this time, she is badass.

At least until Halloween: Resurrection (2002) kind of undoes it. This film opens in hoary slasher film tradition, letting out the old blood before shedding some new blood, revealing Laurie as a catatonic patient in a mental hospital, paralleling Michael at the beginning of the franchise, after it’s revealed her final triumph over Michael was…mistaken identity. Yep, Michael had the foresight to crush a guy’s larynx and put his mask on him so Laurie would kill him by mistake– you know what, forget it. [rubs eyes] Laurie, like her brother so many years ago, was only playing catatonic though, secretly waiting and laying a trap for Michael, knowing he would come to get her, and she almost wins, until Michael uses her self-doubt against her, and that’s the second ending for Laurie Strode. On camera this time at least, but still not the one she earned. 

Let’s try again. Rotten Tomatoes may not agree with me, but I like the Rob Zombie films. Remaking a genre-defining classic is essentially lining up to get punched anyway, but for whatever perceived faults Zombie’s versions may have, they definitely have an unflinching point of view. In fact, I don’t think they’re truly comparable to the original films, not because they’re inferior, but because that point of view is so strong. Without getting too much into the weeds here, Zombie’s films are more grindhouse and naturalistic, trading the mythic dread of the original films for brute force, but what they share, particularly in Laurie’s story, is a focus on how the trauma of being Michael’s victim utterly guts her psychologically. Much like the original Halloween and Halloween II, Zombie’s pair of films tell a fairly continuous story, with the sequel picking up its action with Laurie being gruesomely stitched back together in an emergency room after the events of the first film. This Halloween II will follow Laurie not over the course of one night though, but over the course of another year. That year will be a year of extensive psychological stitchwork, as Laurie suffers hallucinations and acts out in self-destructive ways until she finally learns, yes, she is Michael’s long-lost sister and that is why he is hunting her down. In a final act shaded with the storyline of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, we see survivor Laurie succumb to a kind of sympathetic madness, institutionalized and haunted by the same ghastly visions that kept her brother on the hunt. 

Third– wait, fourth time’s the charm. In Halloween (2018), Carpenter, unhappy with the Rob Zombie reboot, gave his energy and blessing and synth-composing skills to the new new new continuation of the story, a direct sequel to Halloween (1978). So no Halloween II (1981) or Halloween H20 (1998) and definitely no Halloween II (2009). Which means no family backstory. None! Revolutionary! Back to the original original vision; Michael is just the bogeyman, and being hunted by the bogeyman is Laurie’s fate. There are similarities with the films it’s killing off though. This is again a story about trauma after survival, as in H20 and Halloween II (2009). Laurie’s older, so she’s not only a mother, but a grandmother now, and, just as in H20, her paranoia about Michael has infected her relationship with her kid, daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who tries to protect her own daughter from Grandma’s survivalist lunacy. (Laurie still enjoys a better relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) than Karen would prefer.) Laurie here is a gritty recluse with a touch of substance abuse, much as in H20, but no faked deaths, no messing, just one old lady waiting for death like a Dickinson poem, only armed to the teeth.

I really love Halloween (2018), and I actually like it better every time I see it. It was made with so much love, sometimes it feels more like Valentine’s Day. Boom tish. But seriously, the script is extremely clever, tossing nods and winks of fan service like candy from a parade float, but ceaselessly moving, moving, moving that plot and those themes, echoes of which are familiar from three separate Halloween realities: how do you survive a monster without becoming one? At times, Halloween (2018) seems to be a total bigger, bloodier, smarter rewrite of the glossy and comparatively superficial H20, and it’s brave and self-aware enough to directly confront elements that are only hinted at in the earlier film. I love the moment when, confronted by ambitious podcasters, Laurie calls them out on their bias. 

Dana Haines: Michael Myers is a human being who killed his sister when he was six years old. Then he came after you. We just want to know why. We want a glimpse inside his mind. That’s why your story’s so important.

Laurie Strode: My story?

Aaron Korey: Two failed marriages. Rocky relationship with your daughter and granddaughter.

Laurie Strode: Michael Myers killed five people. And he’s a human being, we need to understand? I’m twice divorced. And I’m a basket case.

And as interesting as it was for Laurie to have a teenage son in H20, not queuing up an obvious Final Girl to pass her torch to, the moment at the end when three generations of women band together against Michael and prevail brought a completely unexpected tear to my eye. But the focus here is Laurie. Laurie has, over 40 years of trauma, 40 years that this film takes care to contextualize within an ever-gorier 24-hour news cycle, forfeited living in favor of survival. But just as crucially, her sacrifice was worth something. She’s not dispatched in the final reel or driven off her rocker to become the monster she was fighting all along. That second part is the lingering question of Halloween (2018): has Laurie’s fear made her, not just weaker or stronger, as Loomis’s protege Dr. Sartain muses, but a stranger to herself and anyone who tries to love her? Is what Laurie has become necessary? Is it worth it? In the end, the answer is a resounding affirmation of Laurie’s sacrifice. She has suffered, but because of her vigilance — not her smarts or her sexiness or her suffering, but her vigilance — survived, and not only that, she’s protected her family when no one else could. She’s not a monster, because–however alienated her daughter is–Laurie was right. And Laurie and her daughter and granddaughter were all there for each other when it counted. It’s a triumph, and Laurie Strode’s best result, failed marriages and all, in 40 years.

Of course, her story isn’t over. There are two more films planned to follow Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends, with Jamie Lee Curtis booked for both. Given how much I like Halloween (2018), you’d think I’d be more excited about that, but honestly, I’m a little afraid, not only that I’ve seen this movie, but that I’ve seen it three or four times. Still, I’ll be there for it. It’s the least I can do; with a character that has transformed from a bookish wallflower to a sexy headmistress in hiding to an average-ish teen to a crazy survivalist grandma, Laurie’s always been there for me. She is at all times–all times that the plot’s not killing her off for box office reasons anyway–as immortal as the guy closing on her with a butcher knife. I wouldn’t be surprised if Laurie Strode, not the first Final Girl, one day still might prove to be the last one, if only because they’ll never let her die.

~~~

Angela’s husband opined that the podcast they were working on in Halloween (2018) sounded pretty awful, so maybe it was good they got killed and Angela can’t honestly disagree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s