Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Violence

Halloween

YEAR: 1978
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
KEY ACTORS: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Halloween is rewatchable – I’d not seen it before but I will watch it again
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test as Laurie and her named friends talk about babysitting and school, but most conversations do end up about men.
❌ But this film is not sex positive – it was the big hit movie that spawned the idea that sex means death, which isn’t really a message I’d want to promote!
❌ And it didn’t inspire fantasies – there’s too much murder to be appealing!
❌ The cast isn’t fuckable either. Jamie Lee Curtis looks incredible with amazing 1970s Farrah Fawcett hair, but I didn’t want to fuck her. Which, in a way, is lucky for her as it’s her virginity that saves her!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: a brief mention of possible trauma and insufficient mental health treatment]

The Halloween poster, showing a fist and a knife made to look like the face of a jack-o-lantern and the tagline ‘the night He came home’

I came to horror films late in life. As I mentioned in my Practical Magic review, that movie terrified me so much that I avoided all horror films for years and years afterwards, but I have been trying to catch up. As a wannabe movie buff, I do want to see all the important ones but somehow I’d not seen Halloween until this week. And that was a definite lapse as this film is hugely important. It wasn’t only the most successful independent movie ever when it was made but it is also the movie that launched an entire genre – the slasher movie.

Now slasher movies almost feel wrong for this blog – I’m supposed to be writing about movies that promoted sexual fantasies or changed the direction of my sex life, which slasher movies did not, but they are definitely about sex – and not in a good way – so I couldn’t ignore them.

Halloween was the first significant slasher movie. It contains so many movie tropes that the whole thing almost feels like a cliche, except that this was the first time they’d been seen. It was the first use of the creeping Steadicam footage to show the perspective of the attacker, disorientating the viewer and allowing paranoia to grow; the first masked murderer who cannot be killed; one of the earliest films to connect risk with having sex and, of course, one of the earliest Final Girls. At the time of its release, these ideas were so new that they were shocking and terrifying. Roger Ebert described it as a ‘visceral experience,’ warning viewers not to attend if they didn’t want to be scared. And it still works. It’s lost some of its power through repetition and poor imitation, but it’s still fucking creepy!

Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers, a boy who brutally murdered his sister when he was six years old (while dressed as a clown! Why is it always clowns?!) and ends up locked away in a secure psychiatric unit. Jump forward 15 years and Myers has escaped. He returns to his home town and, dressed in a boiler suit and creepy blank William Shatner mask, begins a killing spree, murdering several young women who were working as babysitters before finally being stopped by Laurie (Lee Curtis), the bookish, virginal final girl. Of course, Myers’s body vanishes, opening the door for a whole series of sequels…

Image from Halloween showing Laurie holding a knife

Considering Psycho is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen and enjoyed, I loved how much Halloween was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and it has so many links to that horror masterpiece that it almost feels like a fan tribute! The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Pleasance), as was Marion Crane’s boyfriend; the stabbing scene at the beginning reminded me so much of the infamous shower stabbing scene from Psycho with flashing knives, fleshy stabbing sounds, but no visible penetration; and Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter, and Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Psycho! Considering Psycho remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not a bad source of inspiration.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie sat by a door with Mike Myers sitting up in the background

Before I dive into the sexual politics, I can’t go on without mentioning that Dr Loomis is a terrible, terrible psychiatrist! He’s clearly absolutely terrified of his patient and uses incredibly damaging language to describe Myers, calling him ‘the Evil’ and insisting that he ‘isn’t a man.’ I find his language choices so difficult because there’s no suggestion at this stage that Myers is supernatural in any way. There’s no possession by the devil, no evil spirit or hint that Myers is anything other than a ‘psycho.’ The film just seems to suggest that he’s unwell and his illness is what is causing him to murder.

I’ve written before about my deep concerns with connecting mental ill health with ‘evil’ behaviour and the stigma that this perpetuates, but viewing Myers as unwell rather than evil also has the effect of significantly changing how the plot is viewed. My brief rotation in psychiatry as a medical student taught me that there are very few mental health disorders that affect children and this knowledge means I almost feel sorry for Myers. What kind of fucked up childhood leads a six year old to murder their sister? What has he seen and what might have been done to him to make him act that way? And after that, what kind of mental health treatment did he receive under Loomis’s care? Myers’s illness is clearly beyond Loomis’s expertise to treat and yet there’s no evidence that he sought help or a second opinion. He just locked him up: ‘I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.’

Gif from Halloween showing a young Mike Myers wearing a clown costume and holding a knife, having his mask pulled off

Maybe they did intend Myers to be a supernatural being, and his immortality despite being killed repeatedly in the later films does provide evidence for this, but the way he is presented here in the original make him look more like a traumatised child who grew up to become a traumatised man who acts out in the only way he knows. He’s been let down by an incompetent doctor who is deeply afraid of him and who lets his fear prevent him from treating Myers objectively. And that’s really sad.

But, dangerous as this outdated view of psychiatry may be, this is a sex and relationships movie blog and there is a shit ton of sexual politics to talk about too!

Because Halloween created the rules of the slasher film, a place where ‘sex becomes death becomes sex, where a knife is never just a knife’ and women must suffer. I’m once again quoting from Sady Doyle’s ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ in her analysis of the sexual themes in slasher movies. She describes how, according to the patriarchal construct, girls are pure and perfect and innocent and must be protected, but women are damaged and tainted and dangerous and should be feared or destroyed. And, of course, as virgins we remain girls, ‘whole, sealed, and unbloodied…until a man comes along to break [us] open.’ Urgh…

It is all down to penetration – both the patriarchy in general and the entire sexual philosophy of slasher movies put forward by Doyle: ‘Men penetrate, women are penetrated; men are predators, women are prey; men desire and pursue sex, women flee or become victims of men’s desire.’ Which is why there’s so much stabbing! Sadly I can’t find the source now but I read something that claimed none of the villains in slasher films use projectile weapons – no guns or bombs, just knives and hands – because their killing needs to be intimate, needs to be penetrating. It’s sex; dangerous sex that destroys the one being penetrated because that’s what losing your virginity means: ‘penetration is seen as a means of conquering and humiliating the penetrated; to open your body is to bleed, suffer, and die.’ Again, urgh…

Logically, within this construct, those who have already lost their virginity are already damaged, already humiliated, and so deserve to be killed. And that’s exactly what happens – almost all of the murders in Halloween occur after the character has had sex or exposed themselves in some way. In fact, the only people who survive are virgins – Laurie and the children, plus Loomis himself who one review described as asexual. All those other girls who use their babysitting jobs as opportunities to have sex without adults present are ruthlessly slaughtered. In the slasher world, sex is dangerous!

Which leads on to the Final Girl, the chaste virgin who survives – another one of the horror movie Rules that Halloween popularised. First described by Carol Clover in ‘Men, Women and Chainsaws,’ the Final Girl is often boyish and manages to resist penetration, both sexual and homicidal, by rising ‘above all the sexual humiliation’ to outwit the killer. Laurie is the archetypal Final Girl. She’s a good girl, running errands for her father, actually looking after the child she’s babysitting rather than sneaking off to have sex, and is doing so well at school that she can’t get a date as ‘guys think [she’s] too smart.’

But I liked that she wasn’t evangelical in her virginity – she doesn’t act like she knows she’s morally superior and she doesn’t judge her friends for their behaviour. It almost feels like she’s only a virgin for want of opportunity rather than choice.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie

Despite being the original, Laurie doesn’t quite fit all the requirements of the Final Girl as she falls victim to another sexist stereotype – she needs to be rescued by a man. It is Loomis who stops Myers, Loomis who fires the gun. Laurie is perhaps more accurately the final survivor as all she really does is scream. And, wow, she can scream! I’m really not surprised that Jamie Lee Curtis inspired so many more Final Girls in the future.

Everything about Halloween was among the best in its class, so it’s not surprising that it launched such a flood of similar morality tales that by 1981 ‘over 60% of American releases were of the stalk’n’slash genre.’ And they were hugely popular, especially and most surprisingly with young women. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, the teenage target audience had swung back from the free love of the 1960s to form a ‘deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgressions.’ According to the New York Times, John Carpenter has consistently denied that he was ‘trying to punish the promiscuous,’ despite the significant evidence to the contrary, but this theme definitely becomes more explicit in later slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th franchise. And, of course, 1996’s Scream made sure that the rules Carpenter created couldn’t be misunderstood: ‘There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex…BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?’

So why are these puritanical movies so popular?

Sady Doyle in ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ has a theory about why women in particular enjoy slasher movies – they ‘are a release [from rape culture], in part because they give a name and face to the problem…giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for.’ When women already fear walking alone at night because of hidden and unknown threats, having a real villain to scream at and, importantly, to defeat is hugely validating. And so we keep going back for more – to scream in safety because the horror is on screen and not actually following us home.

Image from Halloween showing masked Michael Myers bursting into a wardrobe

And Halloween is scary. It’s the patriarchy distilled into it’s simplest form – men wielding sex like a literal weapon and punishing women who seek sex outside of marriage or for their own pleasure – and that is fucking terrifying…

Next week: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Death Proof

YEAR: 2007
DIRECTOR: Quentin Tarantino
KEY ACTORS: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Rose McGowan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Easily passes the Bechdel test – it’s a Tarantino script so there is a lot of talking about, well, everything and there are eight key female characters so it definitely passes.
❌ I’m going to say not rewatchable – I bought it when it came out but the DVD was deep in the cellar so I clearly didn’t watch it that often!
I don’t want to fuck the cast – they’re hot but no. They’re not real enough!
❌ And no, not sex positive. The women may chat easily and freely about sex and appear to enjoy full and consensual sex lives…but they’re either brutally murdered or have to kill to avoid brutal murder. It doesn’t take much psychoanalysis to see a problem here!
✔️ BUT, this film did inspire sexual fantasies. Unexpectedly so. It’s the lap dance scene. It’s just so hot!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Not available on usual streaming services, but can be rented from Microsoft for £2.49 or £7.49. For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: violence towards women]

The Death Proof poster showing the muscle car in the top left corner and a headless woman in short shorts is in the bottom right corner

Without really meaning to (although you can be pretty certain that I’ll carry on the trend now that I’ve spotted it!), I’ve ended up doing 3 good films for every bad one. It’s become a pattern – 3 films that score more than 2.5 followed by one that scores less, and so on, which means we were due a rant! And as the recent release of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood means that Quentin Tarantino and his views of women have flooded my timeline, I thought I’d write about one of his films.

I’m generally a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies – I’m actually writing this while watching Pulp Fiction – but I think it’s not possible to deny that they’re problematic. They may be clever and groundbreaking and inspiring to future generations of movie makers and they may have become part of our popular culture, but they undoubtedly glamorise crime and violence. And, honestly, Tarantino does have a problem with women. Don’t @ me – this is a statement, not a question.

But. But. I chose Death Proof as the host for my upcoming Tarantino rant for more reasons that simply because it has a majority female cast. This is mainly a blog series about sex and the impact that different movies had on me and my sexuality, and I cannot deny that the lap dance in the middle of Death Proof is hot. It’s fucking hot. It made me look at myself differently. It made me look at many things differently.

I’m definitely straight. I’d say I’m a Kinsey 1 – I can appreciate how beautiful and sexy women can be, but I’m not interested in fucking them. I’m rarely even curious, although there are notable exceptions. And this lap dance is one of those exceptions.

It’s slow and lazy and indulgent, and I wanted to be Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) receiving the lap dance and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) giving it. I wanted so much to be that cool and sexy and to be that free and confident with my body. She’s wearing flip flops, for fucks sake! 22 year old me who saw this movie when it was released only knew how to be sexy in heels and tight dresses. The women in this film, particularly Arlene, were hot in a way that soaked all the way through them, and I was so jealous.

I thought about that lap dance for a long, long time after I saw it. Having seen a friend receive a lap dance at a private party, I’ve realised that my fascination with them is mostly because they’re just incredibly hot – performative, exhibitionist, sensual, and watching from a disconnected position as I did both at the party and in the film is also voyeuristic and I love that too!

Jungle Julia sitting on a bar stool with her legs stretched out on the table in front of her

But I also wondered if I could ever be like that; if I could be that sexy and that cool. I was envious and it was that envy almost more than any arousal that meant I could not take my eyes off Arlene as she danced, and why I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and perhaps why I bought the DVD at all. And then, years later, I read the cool girl monologue from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and I understood.

‘Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot…I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.’

I know this isn’t a huge revelation in the grand scheme of things, and I was probably quite slow to come to this realisation, but the clarity that came over me as soon as I realised that Tarantino is the archetypal socially awkward man was so freeing. He almost literally wrote the movie that spawned the cool girl phenomenon!

The four girls are standing looking cool and strong

In 2007, I was still at university and had spent the entire time hopelessly in love with drum and bass DJs and stoners who, well, weren’t right for me! The contrast between who I am and who I was trying to be is almost laughable now but I wasted so much of my early twenties trying to be noticed and trying to be cool, and that lap dance was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to be.

But it’s actually kind of gross when you look at it more closely. Don’t get me wrong – Arlene is still fucking hot – but she’s performing this lap dance for a much older stranger who persuaded her to do it by calling her bluff in a way that would never work in reality. ‘There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel,’ he tells her before calling her chicken shit for not dancing for him. It just feels a bit icky after the cool girl revelation and after #MeToo.

Ah yes, #MeToo! I may have to start classifying film history as pre- and post-#MeToo in the same way that they’re divided by the Hayes Code or Technicolor. And when it comes to Tarantino, #MeToo and the necessary fallout surrounding it has been eye-opening. He’s Harvey Weinstein’s good friend after all. Not that we didn’t all suspect that there was something creepy about Tarantino anyway – for example, during the promotional tour for Death Proof he joked that his character was named ‘rapist no. 1’ and made him an action figure – but we were proved right. Worse for Tarantino, we were also shown just how little he cares.

This quote from a recent Buzzfeed article says it all: ‘The last few years have left Tarantino looking less like the usual bad boy of cinephilia and more like a crushingly familiar type of standard-issue shitty guy. Not a sexual harasser, but a man willing to disregard the well-being of women — or overlook violence inflicted on them — in order to pursue his professional goals.’

It’s why I said earlier in this post that the fact that Tarantino has a problem with women is a statement, not a question. He’s a shitty guy. He can and does make fabulous movies but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a shitty guy!

In early August, The Times posted an unexpectedly hilarious article debating the issue of Tarantino and women that couldn’t have been a more perfect example of everything women have been trying to say about him. The first (male) author argued that Tarantino isn’t a misogynist and wrote gushingly about how great his films are and how they changed Hollywood forever. He felt that the misogyny claim is ‘nonsense’ as Tarantino has centred women in his films, writing strong leads who fight back, describing Kill Bill as a ‘tale of feminist empowerment achieved through dogged determination and stylish ultra-violence.’

The second (female) author then responded by stealing Tarantino’s line, ‘I reject your hypothesis,’ before following up with a list of facts that prove how underdeveloped his female characters are and how little he gives them to do in his films, describing how ‘the only credited female characters in Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 directorial debut, are “Shot Woman” and “Shocked Woman”’ and how Pam Grier, who played Jackie Brown, was only given ‘25 minutes of screen time in her character’s 154-minute movie.’ And, of course, she undermined the entire argument supporting Tarantino’s claims to feminism by quoting Jessica Chastain who tweeted that ‘it is not empowering to be beaten and raped.’ Female characters should not be defined by the violence wrought against them. It is not empowering to need to seek revenge because of the horrors inflicted upon us, even if we are able to gain peace from that revenge.

And on that note, we return to Death Proof, a movie about grotesque violence against women and the revenge that they take from it…

Two cars dramatically colliding, the black flying over a red

It’s actually a movie that has been ruined for me by the clarity that has come with age, a greater understanding of feminism and the realisation that the cool girl trope is just as dangerous and false as the manic pixie dream girl or any other stereotype. I used to think this movie was cool. Deeply and unnecessarily violent, but still cool. Which is pretty worrying!

It’s almost like it’s Tarantino’s fantasy world made real; his wet dream shared with us all. There are so many shots of bare feet that I cannot shake the thought that he just spent however many millions of dollars making his own porn! Combine hot sexy cool women who talk like he talks, drink beer, drive muscle cars and wear cheerleader outfits for no discernible reason with a hot sexy cool psychopath who kills them in profoundly disturbing ways, sometimes pleading for their life, and, well, you have a Tarantino movie.

Kurt Russell about to stroke a pair of bare feet sticking out of a car window

And these hot sexy cool women are not real, in any way! They are the figments of a teenage boy’s imagination; they’re how the kind of guy who writes a film like this thinks women should be. The male gaze is so strong that even Stuntman Mike, the villain of the piece, is slick and cool and fast talking. It almost obscures how creepy he is, depicting his homicidal tendencies like an inconvenient character trait in an otherwise stand up guy.

I wonder if the fact that Death Proof was made in the style of the classic Grindhouse exploitation movies gave Tarantino an excuse to just let go and make the film he always wanted to make, or whether he misjudged what really needed to be remade in 2007. Did we really need a movie playing homage to something described as exploitation? Maybe he enjoyed reviving the cinematic style, the gritty colours and poor quality, adding scratches and poor edits for realism, but did we really need the violence towards women and the blatant sexism too?

I’m going to steal someone else’s words to finish as this just sums it all up: ‘This male version of women’s empowerment is bullshit…Seeing (young, hot) women being able to kick ass in Tarantino’s films may seem, on the surface, empowering. But Death Proof is still predicated on the eroticisation of killing. It is impossible for Tarantino and his ilk to simultaneously feed from and perpetuate this highly sexualised threat and empower women. The women only get to kick ass when a sufficient number of women have already met their gory, eroticised end.

Exactly.

Next week: Imagine you and me

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.