She is the hardy perennial of all-American horror, its blood-drenched prom queen, the so-called “final girl”. In the closing minutes of 1978’s Halloween, teenage Laurie Strode is stabbed in the arm and flipped over the stairs. She’s attacked in the closet and brutalised on the landing. Laurie gets out alive – that’s Halloween’s happy ending. So far as the film is concerned, her story wraps up there.
“Now here’s what I think happened immediately after that,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who has now played Laurie Strode in no fewer than seven Halloweens. “I think she went straight back to school on 1 November. I think people bandaged her arm and figured they’d then done enough. No discussion, no therapy; this was the 70s, after all. I think the expectation was that everything returned to normal again.”
This, typically, is the fate of the final girl – the sole survivor of the monster’s killing sprees, be it Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ripley in Alien, or innocent Laurie, arguably the brand’s market leader. If the film is unsuccessful, they’re abandoned, left hanging. If the movie’s a hit, they’re scrubbed down and reset to be menaced afresh. Slasher films are meat grinders. The process is industrial. Except that Halloween Ends serves as a corrective of sorts. The clue’s in the title: it’s about healing and closure.
Curtis was 19 when she made the first Halloween. She’s now 63, a survivor herself, vigorously promoting the franchise from her London hotel. She points out that the very last shot of Halloween Ends (a front porch, a pumpkin) is a deliberate echo of the original movie’s first scene. This, it transpires, was Curtis’s suggestion. She says that it brings the entire story full circle. “It at least holds out the possibility of a realistic good future.”
The future – good or otherwise – was the last thing on director John Carpenter’s mind when he made the first Halloween. He envisaged it as a piece of “trashy exploitation”, co-wrote the script alongside his producer, Debra Hill, and shot it across 20 days on a $300,000 budget. But the film struck a nerve and took on a life of its own. It spawned myriad sequels and endless crass copycats (Friday the 13th, Chopping Mall, He Knows You’re Alone). “So for me it’s the strangest experience,” Carpenter says. “It’s a film that feels like a long-ago distant dream. I’m not sure I can explain it, even to myself.”
The film, at its root, is a pitch-black fairytale, dropping a modern-day big bad wolf in the heart of picket-fence USA. It’s the story of an imperilled babysitter in sleepy Haddonfield, Illinois (largely inspired by Hill’s home town of Haddonfield, New Jersey) who’s preyed on by Michael Myers, a psychopath in a mask. On its release, Halloween was filed alongside Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the three musketeers of the 70s slasher genre.
But the film’s true ancestor was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – and the casting bears this out. Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who played ill-starred Marion Crane, arguably cinema’s most notorious murder victim. “So I was an actress by accident,” Curtis says, looking back. “All my friends were in college and I was off making a movie. I was 19 years old and I didn’t know shite.”
Isn’t that the ideal state? Films such as Halloween are wasted on the old. Horror, I suspect, hits us hardest in our teens, as much a rite-of-passage as our first drink, our first kiss. It delivers a rush of sensation; it provides a safe space to go mad. In adulthood, though, we keep more of a distance. Surely the world contains enough horror as it is. Only a masochist or a sadist would run to a slasher film for escape.
“Actually I would argue the exact opposite,” says James Jude Courtney, who has played Myers (AKA “the Shape”) in the last three Halloween films. “I’ve met with so many firefighters and EMTs who have told me that after the traumatic events of the night all they want to do is sit down and watch these films and let off steam. That’s their value. They’re a safety valve.”
Courtney spent the bulk of his career as a jobbing Hollywood stuntman before the Halloween gig bumped him into the limelight. As part of his duties, he now attends horror conventions, mingling with the adult fans of the franchise. “They’re the kindest, most grounded people you’re ever going to meet,” he says. “If the world was populated by horror fans, believe me, it would be a much better place.”
Courtney is a late arrival at the party, inheriting the mask from Carpenter’s old friend Nick Castle. So too is writer-director David Gordon Green, who rebooted the franchise with 2018’s Halloween. The way Green sees it, horror movies are gateways. They’re our first step into the darkness, the first managed transgression. At their best, horror films point the way towards a richer, stranger, more experimental style of cinema.
“Here’s an example,” says Green. “At the age of 12, I was obsessed with The Shining, desperate to see it. So on Saturday mornings my father would sit me down and show me 10 minutes of the film at a time. We’d talk about the artistry of how it was put together. We’d talk about Stanley Kubrick and the production design and the use of sound, and I give my father a lot of credit for that. He did it because he didn’t want me to be immersed and overwhelmed by seeing it all at once. It was his responsible way of introducing a masterpiece to his son.”
In Halloween Ends, the franchise finale, sixtysomething Laurie Strode is still living in Haddonfield. She’s a survivor of trauma, a woman who is jumping at shadows and battling demons (often literally so). Green describes Halloween Ends as a “post-slasher film”. It plays to the gallery; keeps the fanbase onside. But it’s also trying to update the genre and nudge it to a different place. This, he admits, is a tricky balancing act. “There’s a very subjective line between what’s socially responsible and where we’re just leaning into what people want to see. Where we’re feeding the machine. Feeding the beast.”
Green knows his audience. He laid on the test screenings and weighed up the response. “You read some of the comment cards afterwards and think: ‘Whoa, this is kind of crazy.’ Certainly there’s a bloodthirsty contingent that isn’t concerned about motivation or morality or character. They just want bloodshed and chaos.” He laughs. “And in some ways, the other two films [2018’s Halloween and 2021’s Halloween Kills] provided that. But I wanted to bring the story to a more grounded place to conclude. It’s about processing all that we’ve learned and making an intimate, cautionary tale about violence.”
Before meeting Curtis, I rewatch the original Halloween. It stands up. It’s still great, a model of restraint compared with many of the knock-offs that followed. Inevitably, though, the film is a product of its time. Some of its ingredients feel more vexed today.
The problem, perhaps, is that Carpenter and Hill’s Halloween was almost too influential. Few films have been so analysed or so judged. In the four decades since its first appearance, critics and academics have held it up as the ultimate slasher movie, the one that wrote the rulebook and established all the genre’s hallmarks. The male gaze, the minimal plot, the reliance on psychosexual violence. Slasher movies, wrote the critic Tom Shales, were “not so much whodunnits as who-gets-it-next” – although even here the casualty list tells a story. Laurie’s friends are worldly wise and sexually active, and are duly served up like chum. Laurie is a good girl – her reward is her life.
Curtis pulls a face. She is well versed in the theories. “Well, it was a different world,” she says. “And hindsight is what college professors get paid for. But my feeling is that Debra Hill [who died in 2005] was a feminist and that Laurie Strode is a feminist hero. But yes, Debra was also working within a male-dominated industry, and what the film needed was three basic types. So therefore you had the flirty cheerleader and the sarcastic, cynical one. And then you had Laurie Strode, who was the serious student, the romantic, the virgin. And the great miracle of my life was that I got cast as Laurie. You’ve met me, we’ve spoken, you know who I am. I could very easily have been cast as one of the other two girls.”
Halloween was her first film. It’s the role that’s defined her; the franchise that has pursued her. She could be forgiven for occasionally feeling oppressed by it all.
No, she says, never. “The only thing I’ve ever found oppressive was people thinking that my career was all because of my family, all connected to having Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis as parents. That whatever little ecosystem I’d created had somehow been handed to me on a plate. That’s the perception I had to fight against, kick against.”
Curtis adds that her mother had the same attitude. Leigh was best known for playing Psycho’s fugitive heroine, who stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain behind her. “But my mother came from nothing,” she says. “Nothing. She was very educated but poor. She was discovered by Norma Shearer, the silent film star. She came to Hollywood; she became Janet Leigh. And so my mother would never have complained about being burdened or limited by Marion Crane. Because that role gave her an Oscar nomination and a fantastic life, thank you very much. It was a huge honour for her, just as this one is for me.”
The difference, of course, is that Marion dies in the middle of Psycho, whereas Laurie kept going; she’s the genre’s Mother Courage. “But I’m going to tell you a secret,” Curtis says. “Marion Crane is my nom-de-plume here. In this hotel. I get calls to the room: ‘Message for Marion Crane.’” And so maybe the woman lives on after all.
It was the critic Carol J Clover who coined the “final girl” label, in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws. She wrote that at a horror film’s climax, the passive victim turns active; the hunted becomes huntress. They scream and they suffer, but they take charge at the end. In the 44 years since she first stepped off the porch, Curtis has carved a rewarding career and lived a rich, stormy life. She has married, raised kids, battled addiction, bounced back. But her alter ego has walked in parallel and had to toughen up, too. Laurie Strode began her journey as an innocent high-school student, a 1970s Red Riding Hood strolling into darkness. She ends it as something different, another fairytale archetype. She’s a hard-bitten old woman full of animal cunning. She’s scarred by her past and possibly a danger to others. Whatever Laurie once was, she’s not the final girl any more.
“Yes, well, she’s everything,” Curtis says. “The final grandmother. The final wolf.”