Director David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic splattered across big screens last fall, breaking box office records for opening weekends for the long-running franchise and for the slasher genre as a whole.
But financial success is rarely a barometer for artistic success, and a film as rich in meaning as the original Halloween deserves a comparative review alongside its shiny sequel. As we shall see, Green’s film stays faithful to the original’s atmosphere and structure but does little with the film’s underlying social commentary on sex and suburbia, opting instead to play it safe and only offer a few, mainly cosmetic feminist reversals.
For one, this sequel does not in any way address the controversial topic of sex like its predecessor did. Although John Carpenter has gone to great pains to insist that his 1978 film does not offer commentary on teenage sexuality, countless film critics have spilled much ink on the original’s unique relationship to sex. Michael Myers kills his naked sister after she has sex; he also kills babysitters and their paramour boyfriends as they engage in lovemaking or immediately after it (harkening back to an earlier association between sex and murder made in Italian thrillers known as Gialli, most prominently Mario Bava’s 1971 picture Bay of Blood). Many critics have seen Myers’ killings as allegorical of Middle-American and middle-class anxiety over burgeoning teenage sexuality, unleashed by the Sexual Revolution a decade before the original film’s release. Myers appears in the absence of parental supervision, acting as a nightmarish father figure in addition to being the boogeyman. By making Myers both a symbol of society’s condemnation of premarital sex and its superego, Carpenter’s film also makes teenage sexuality not just “problematic” (to use contemporary academic lingo) but transgressive, something that must be repressed by any means necessary–even violent ones.
But Green’s Halloween dispenses entirely with the transgressive teenage sexuality of the late 1970’s, instead importing contemporary America’s lax moral strictures on the subject. Allyson (granddaughter of female protagonist Laurie Strode) and her boyfriend Cameron Elam break up because Cameron drunkenly kisses another girl at a Halloween-themed dance at their high school; their mutual friend Drew Scheid drunkenly tries to hit on her afterwards and fails; babysitter Vicky begins making love with her boyfriend Dave but never gets anywhere with it. The last two episodes are interrupted by the appearance of The Shape, who promptly kills the men and the babysitter. But make no mistake, the movie offers no special Freudian connection between sex and death, eros and thanatos–the sex is incidental to the killings, and nothing more. More often than not humour interrupts otherwise romantic or steamy scenes, making it seem like the movie has nothing important to say on the subject of sex. In fact, sex features so little in the film, you would be forgiven if you mistook this Halloween for a sanitised version of the original. The newest installment in the franchise merely includes sex because it was a feature of the original, which it mistook for a bug rather than an integral part of the film. The updated sexuality of Green’s film is in all likelihood an attempt to make it relatable to younger audiences, who rarely sleep with a guilty conscience–or the fear of being killed by the boogeyman–just because they’ve slept with someone else.
Another aspect of society which Green’s Halloween refuses to comment upon is the decline of social trust in American society and suburbia. The original Halloween was so shocking to 70’s theatregoers because of the sleepy suburb of Haddonfield, Illinois―a microcosm of Middle America, and some might say ‘real’ America―was ravaged by a faceless killer who weaved through unlocked door after unlocked door. None of the residents of Haddonfield expected the intrusion of evil into their Halloween night precisely because they were embedded in a social system where neighbours not only looked out for one another but babysat each other’s children.
Contemporary Americans no longer trust their neighbours. Americans’ trust in their fellow citizens and trust in government have reached all-time lows. One University of Minnesota study suggested that “materialistic values may be undermining young people’s views about the trustworthiness of others.” The researchers found that “the rapid rise of materialistic value orientations that occurred among American youth in the 1970s and 1980s severely eroded levels of social trust.” This is in line with the theories of French sociologist Emile Durkheim and especially French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who predicted in Democracy in America that democracy impels people to materialistic worldviews and pursuits.
The recent spurt in widely publicised mass shootings, as well as the continuous coverage of assaults and rapes and all manner of affronts to civil society by an increasingly negative news media, has eroded that trust. (If anyone doubts this trend, they need only look at the media’s coverage of Donald Trump alone, which is three times as negative as the coverage of the Obama and Bush presidencies.) But instead of taking note of and commenting upon this decisive social change, the new Halloween film thoughtlessly assumes the social situation of its 1978 forbearer. True, cosmetically the film boasts the reversal of gender roles by its characters―Allyson and Cameron dress as Bonnie and Clyde with the genders reversed, and Laurie Strode hunts Michael Myers in the final act of the film. But it tellingly leaves its premise–the violation of social trust–unmodified.
Moreover, Green’s film pathologises Laurie Strode’s prepper mindset as paranoia and a trauma which she can only work through by confronting and killing Michael Myers, when in fact in contemporary America, Strode’s fears are not so far beyond the pale as the director would like us to think. Americans, especially mothers, do fear for the safety of their children, especially in an age of widely televised mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Fewer and fewer children use public transportation and fewer and fewer states allow the “free-range parenting” of children. The state instead criminalises the very act of allowing one’s children to play outside unsupervised. Laurie Strode is the modern helicopter mom par excellence, and can we begrudge her for her fears given our own times and perceptions? Of all the characters in this ostensibly feminist-themed sequel, Laurie Strode and her particular brand of psychology is done the least justice.
Green appears far more interested in merely perpetuating a franchise and duplicating its financial success, rather than actually engaging with the original film were it counts, that is, at the level of setting. The setting of Halloween is what makes the idea of Michael Myers possible; gender roles have little to do with the horror of The Shape.
To put things simply, Michael Myers would be a lot less scarier if the film had placed him in contemporary American suburbia, helicopter moms and all.
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