Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Virginity

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.

Cruel Intentions

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Roger Kumble
KEY ACTORS: Ryan Philippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reece Witherspoon, Selma Blair
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 4/5

✔️ Rewatchable – it’s a film that I would stop to watch if it was on TV even if it was already an hour in!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast! Sebastian and Kathryn would definitely be on a list of dream movie threesomes, although that is a long list…
✔️ Yes to fantasies – mainly romantic ones as a teenager when I still believed that bad boys could be fixed by love, but they weren’t all that clean!
✔️ Bechdel test easily passed – lots of named female characters and lots of talk of school and reputation so no trouble with this one.
But is it sex positive?! I’d say no – the villains are sexual and are saved by love. The good are chaste and innocent, and risk being destroyed by sex. Not such great messages… It’s also very homophobic!

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

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (cost to be updated), Rakuten TV (from £2.49)

The Cruel Intentions poster, showing conspiratorial faces from Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar as they look down on an innocent looking Reece Witherspoon

If ever I wanted proof that how I first experience a cultural phenomenon changes its lasting impact on me, I need look no further than my first viewing of Cruel Intentions. It was 2000 and I was in year 10. Our classroom was in a separate block designed for language lessons and, in a move that confirms my own privileged upbringing, the language teachers rarely locked the cabinet that contained the video player. So, when someone brought in a VHS copy of Cruel Intentions, we all watched it, and news spread around the block. Soon the classroom was full of fifteen year old girls, sharing chairs and perched on tables as we avidly watched what was by far the sexiest thing I had ever seen.

Not far into the film, our German teacher wandered into the room, pottering in the cupboards at the back and getting out reading materials for the afternoon’s class. You could have heard a pin drop. I don’t think my year group has ever sat so still and so quiet, hoping beyond hope that she wouldn’t notice what we were watching.

This was at the moment of the film where Kathryn and Sebastian are setting out the terms of their wager. No one in the room had seen the movie before so we didn’t know the precise danger waiting just around the corner. Sebastian has agreed that, if he loses and isn’t able to seduce righteous virgin Annette, he’ll give Kathryn his car. And if he wins?

‘I’ll fuck your brains out.’

‘Oh!’ gasps our German teacher, ‘What films you girls watch!’

And she was gone!

Honestly, I struggle to remember another time when almost, almost, being caught doing something naughty felt so fucking good! The adrenaline, the sex on screen, the rush of relief and astonishment that we’d got away with it…it was quite an awakening. And that was before Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair kiss and before Ryan Philippe gets his arse out and before that iconic scene when Reece Witherspoon is going up that escalator and Philippe appears at the top, all while Counting Crows ‘Colorblind’ is playing, and she says ‘I’m impressed’ and he says ‘Well, I’m in love!’ and my teenage heart exploded.

Of course, my memory must be playing tricks with me. Our lunch break was less than the length of the film and so we can’t have watched it all, and although it’s possible that that same level of sexual tension was maintained over a few days, it feels unlikely. Instead, I can only assume that it’s just this film; it’s hot and always will be and, according to a piece in the Telegraph earlier this year, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – it seduced a generation!

Describing it as a ‘sexy cinematic firebomb, one dressed up in a blood-red bustier and dripping in quasi-incestuous dirty talk,’ Adam White suggests that this movie, and its subsequent recent comeback with a TV sequel and musical heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, taps into ‘our generational thirst for schadenfreude.’ After a soft and sunny 90s filled with dewy-eyed romantic comedies, we were ready for something harder. Something more cynical. And sadly, the future in store for that generation – the much maligned millennials – has proven that it was good to be prepared. Or did this film and how much we enjoyed it, pave the way for today’s call out culture? Both Sebastian’s pattern of only destroying hypocrites and the revelation of Kathryn’s real character in the finale echo our current glee in ‘knocking undesirables off a pedestal of unearned privilege’ and discovering the seedy truth behind anyone claiming to be good.

Philippe and Gellar dresses in black with dark glasses, holding a letter

But cynical extrapolations aside, this film certainly had a huge effect on me as it was just soaked in sex and, importantly for me, sex for my age and generation. Cruel Intentions retold Les Liaisons Dangereuses for a modern audience, with Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her step-brother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Philippe) plotting to destroy the reputation of virginal Annette Hargrove (Reece Witherspoon) by manipulating her into having sex before the new term at school starts.

Somehow the film managed to feel relevant to my life despite the huge gulf between the wealth and sexual experience of the characters and mine. Annette’s struggles with her virginity when faced with love was relatable, Cecile’s naivety clashing with her obvious sexuality was an exaggeration of my own turmoil, and the ongoing, all pervasive obsession with reputation was certainly understandable. The fear at being the person at school that everyone was talking about was almost as strong as the fear of being the one nobody talked about.

But in thinking about this film, I have struggled to decide if it’s sex positive or not, if it was a good example for my teenager self – and my difficulty is mainly due to the identification of heroes and villains. The moral arc of the film clearly defines Kathryn as a villain but the fact that she owns her sexuality and sexual needs feels more sex positive than Annette’s pledge to wait for marriage, eventually downgraded to waiting for love but which is still problematic. Although Kathryn’s manipulation and selfish scheming are undoubtedly (deliciously) evil, it could be argued that if she were allowed to be as sexual as she wanted without damaging her reputation, all of these plots would be unnecessary. As she says, ‘God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex!’ and yet as she is dumped for ‘innocent little twots’ who are a more superficially attractive type of women, she has to lie to maintain her chaste and moral reputation. Is this sex positive? I don’t think so!

Sarah Michelle Gellar understood this complex division and recognised the importance of playing this role, inhabiting this sexuality and depicting this type of women. It was her decision to dye her hair a dark brunette, creating a definite split from her blonde, innocent previous roles – most famously Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It would require a whole other long, long essay to unpick the depiction of female sexuality in BVS (and the podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer does a very good job of this) but I think it’s pretty telling that when Buffy loses her virginity to the man she loves, he loses his soul and becomes the Big Bad of the season. Buffy creator Joss Whedon certainly didn’t understand Kathryn, referring to the film as ‘porny,’ to which Gellar responded that Cruel Intentions was her ‘best work to date.’ Talking to Premiere, she said that ‘brushing it off by calling it ‘a porny’ is unbelievably hurtful to me. He owes me flowers. And that’s on the record.’

Gellar looking hot in her underwear on her bed, trying to seduce Philippe

Because Kathryn is hot. She’s hot and she’s powerful and she’s a seductress and, as much as I’d wanted to end up fucking Sebastian, I secretly but definitely wanted to be her more than I wanted to be the other female characters. I was so jealous of her acceptance and joy to in her sexuality. I was jealous of her confidence and ability to just be sexy. Just as Laura San Giacomo taught me what it was to be sexy in the 80s, Kathryn showed me how to be sexy in my own generation.

A black and white image of Gellar lying back against Philippe

And I believed her that sex was something that everyone was doing, just that ‘no one talks about it.’ Being at an all girls school with staggeringly few male friends, I could completely believe that there was another world just around the corner where All The Sex was happening and I’d have loved it if someone had introduced me to it, as Sebastian does for Cecile.

For me, Cecile’s character is the only one that doesn’t stand up to a rewatch now. She’s too child-like, too naive, and my now adult eyes cringe at her sexualisation. Of course, as a teenager I saw myself in her – at the start of the film, she is definitely a child, wearing T-shirts with big animal prints and doing headstands to impress her crush, but by the end she is an adult, asking for what she wants sexually and owning her fate, and I wanted that arc so much. Kathryn and Sebastian’s aim may have been to destroy her reputation but Cecile’s face at the end as she hands out copies of Sebastian’s journal to her peers suggests that it’s not done her any harm at all in their eyes.

Blair, wearing a koala T-shirt, sat next to Christine Baranski

The importance of maintaining the ‘right’ reputation is, after all, the whole point of the film – Kathryn as a saint, Sebastian as a whore, Greg the gay footballer as a macho straight jock, Annette as a good girl. All of them go out of their way to ensure these reputations aren’t damaged, Sebastian even leaving Annette after Kathryn mocks how much dating the headteacher’s daughter would stop him being seen as a bad boy who fucks around. But this is perhaps the only way that I could take a sex positive view on this film because sex doesn’t actually destroy anyone. It allows Cecile to grow up, it shows Annette that losing her virginity isn’t that big a deal. Even Sebastian learns that sex doesn’t always need to be a weapon. Yes, Kathryn ends the film in tears but it feels more like the lies and manipulation are her undoing.

But despite this, I cannot conclude that Cruel Intentions is sex positive film because of the homophobia. Being gay is definitely a potential source of humiliation and, although Joshua Jackson’s character Blaine was probably the queerest mainstream character I had seen on screen by that point in my life, he’s not a good person and it’s more than a little appalling that he was the queerest mainstream character that I had seen by the age of 15! Roger Ebert found the dismissal of homosexuality to be at odds with the characterisation of these sexual young adults, feeling that ‘kids as sophisticated as those in this story would be less homophobic.’ I, however, feel that it fits perfectly with the sex negative undertones. If having sex full stop could damage reputations, it’s sadly hardly surprising that gay sex is worse.

This movie also introduced me to the connection between sex and power, and who is seen as powerful, although I am less keen on the implication that women can only maintain this power by withholding sex from men – Kathryn is able to use her sexuality as a weapon, wielding her power over Sebastian because she knows how much he wants her, and Annette has a similar amount of power over him, initially because her virginity seen as a challenge and later through love and a wish to avoid disappointing and hurting her.

Of all of them, Sebastian’s character arc is one that I can see much more clearly as an adult. As a teenager, I lusted after his bad-boy-turned-good-by-love sexiness, a very dangerous rom com trope, but I missed the nuance. My now more experienced observation can see pick-up artistry in his moves, initiating touch early, negging, and creating false closeness through manipulating circumstances so they meet often and appear to share interests. He really is a creep! He’s the ultimate fuckboy and not the cold-hearted but misunderstood lothario that I thought he was.

Philippe whispering In Witherspoon’s ear

Teenage me wholeheartedly believed that Sebastian could be ‘fixed’ by love and that he would have been happy with Annette forever. I now know that that’s a lie, sold to us by the romance industry. Kathryn’s bleaker view of his boredom is more accurate and Sebastian’s death was arguably the only good ending for his character. The type of seventeen year old boy who drives a vintage sports car and has a leather-bound scrapbook of his sexual conquests is not likely to stay faithful to his high school love forever, even if he believes it himself. People do change if they want to, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Maybe that’s why this film seduced my generation so fully. Like reading Catcher in the Rye, you have to watch it as a teenager otherwise the characters all look unbelievable. But if you’re the right age when you see it, it’s overwhelming and seducing and hearing those opening bars of Bittersweet Symphony will unleash a wave of nostalgia for a time when finding Ryan Philippe waiting at the top of an escalator was all I ever wanted.

And that’s it! That’s all I have to say about Cruel Intentions, except for that one scene…

I don’t know that I like it… As much as even my Kinsey 1 straightness really wanted to be taught to kiss by Sarah Michelle Gellar, the male gaze is too strong and has difficult implications. ‘Haven’t you ever practiced on one of your girlfriends?’ fits into the same tired trope as female friends having pillow fights in sexy underwear – unrealistic and unnecessarily sexualising women even when they’re alone.

So Cruel Intentions is not sex positive, it’s pretty homophonic and definitely filmed for a male gaze…but I still fucking love it! It’s hot and it’s one of the personal and generational catalysts for sexual awakening, and it’s just such a great story!

Next week: When Harry Met Sally…

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. Gifs from Giphy.com