BREAKING THE HABIT: CONTEMPORARY HORROR & TOXIC MASCULINITY
ANDREW J. OWENS, PHD / UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
If screen genres are cyclical, then horror is having another heyday. While studios like Dark Entertainment and Blumhouse continue trafficking in mainstream franchises and reboots, companies like A24 have become swept up in an aspirational movement variously dubbed “‘slow horror,’ ‘smart horror,’ ‘indie horror,’ ‘prestige horror,’ [or] ‘elevated horror’.” Always adept at having its fingers on the pulse of contemporary social issues, horror still continues to do so while caught in the crosshairs of cultural distinction. Yet if, as Mark Jancovich argues of 1940s horror, these films were able to level up by treating social problems head-on under the auspices of psychological drama, I believe we’re in the midst of a similar moment today, wherein both mainstream and more art-house oriented fare are attempting to close their respective gaps by bringing the subtextual to bear on the text itself.
As a horror scholar interested in gender and sexuality, the genre’s relationships to femininity and masculinity have always both fascinated and frustrated me. How and why have many viewers simply taken as given that horror revolves around tortured women (and many other historically marginalized populations) at the hands of mostly cis-gendered white men? A longitudinal view does seem to lend credence to this conclusion, but I still echo Linda Williams’ insistence that we can’t simply write horror off as subtly (or not) misogynistic exercises that habitually dispatch a male-identified villain only to reassert the status quo and let patriarchy live to fight another day.
To say that entertainment industries around the world continue to be shaken by those accusations that gave rise to the #MeToo movement in 2017 would be a vast understatement. And while some have decried a rising climate in which “woke-ness” functions as a vapid form of cultural currency, I’d like to briefly sketch how the horror genre has recently taken its own historically vexed relationships to gender head-on in two films, Alex Garland’s Men (2022) and David Gordan Green’s Halloween Ends (2022), that plainly tackle how the self-replicating lifecycle of toxic masculinity might finally come to an end.
When I first encountered Men, my initial reaction was one of bewilderment. Knowing that the film was another in the quickly catalyzing catalog from prestige horror hotspot A24, there was no way in my mind that it could simply be the obvious Adam and Eve allegory its trailer read as…and I was right. Escaping to a rural estate after witnessing the apparent suicide of her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) is both literally and metaphorically haunted by the toxicity of men who surround her. In flashback, we learn that Harper intended to divorce her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), who did everything in the gaslighting playbook to convince her that the destruction of their marriage was her fault alone and that the blood from his threatened suicide would solely be on her hands. As circumstances begin to steadily swing sideways, Harper confronts her local landlord, police chief, bartender, and vicar as one constantly morphing character insidiously played by Rory Kinnear. The film’s final act, which can best be described by Tilda Swinton’s Eve in a pithy line from Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (“Well…that was visual”), sees Harper constantly fending off attack by this all-in-one man who wards off death through a montage of regenerative rebirths.
Perhaps fittingly, the cycle ends with the creature mutating into the likeness of James, who engages Harper in one final exchange:
James: So, I died…This is what you did.
Harper: James…what is it that you want from me?
James: Your love.
Harper: [heavy sigh] Yeah.
The heavy sigh tells it all. Tale as old as time, and one with which Harper is even more exhausted than ever before. As prominent horror critic and scholar Kim Newman writes in a review for Sight & Sound, Garland’s film presents Essiedu and Kinnear’s characters as a “living rebuke to the #notallmen hashtag” that became a reactionary response to #MeToo.
As morning dawns, Harper’s friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) arrives at the behest of Harper’s earlier FaceTime pleas for help. Seeing Riley in the flesh for the first time, we’re presented with one final twist: she’s pregnant. And, given what has previously transpired, we can only assume it’s with a boy. This (pun intended) pregnant pause reverberates with Harper’s heavy sigh to leave us with a final question: will masculinity continue to replicate its own toxic lifecycle or is this the moment for a different kind of rebirth?
Released less than five months later, Halloween Ends is the third and final chapter in David Gordon Green’s reimagined trilogy of one of horror’s most storied franchises. On the surface, Men and Halloween Ends share little in common: a prestige production shot in the U.K. with a nearly all English cast versus the latest installment in an American slasher franchise that even some diehard fans wish would have died years ago. Admittedly, I watched Halloween Ends primarily because I’m a completist. But like my experience with Men, the film did more than I expected.
In an October 12, 2022 Today interview, Jamie Lee Curtis minced no words about the defining legacy of her career being Halloween’s iconically resilient final girl, Laurie Strode.
4 decades of Laurie and Michael. Happy Halloween 🎃🔪 pic.twitter.com/eNWM1Gl1En— #HalloweenEnds (@halloweenmovie) October 31, 2022
Although Laurie appears in less than half of the franchise’s films, the forty-four-year battle between her and masked killer Michael Myers has become shorthand for Halloween itself. So, what surprised me most about Halloween Ends was that the central battle wasn’t between Laurie and Michael, but rather between Laurie and a legacy.
Living with her granddaughter in a house at the heart of Haddonfield, Laurie becomes increasingly suspicious when Allyson develops feelings for Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), who several years earlier had “accidentally” killed a young boy while babysitting him on Halloween. First presented as a bullied outcast of tragic circumstance, Corey’s character takes a turn when, after discovering Michael Myers is still alive, he lures Allyson’s former love interest into Haddonfield’s sewers to observe how Michael kills. Far more than a mere copycat, Corey intends to inherit Michael’s legacy to become Haddonfield’s newest boogeyman. Although Corey is dispatched by Laurie after a string of violent murders, the latter only sees Michael during the final act of the film when she pins him down, stabs him repeatedly, and slits his wrists and throat. “He’s dead,” Laurie exhaustedly says to Allyson who immediately replies, “Not dead enough.” Strapping him to the hood of a police car, Michael is paraded through Haddonfield as its residents follow en masse to watch his body run through an industrial grinder at the local junk yard. It’s here that Halloween Ends fascinated me most. What started in 1978 as a young girl battling a psychotic killer became, by 2022, so much more: an entire town engaged in a group exorcism of the demons of toxic masculinity that had haunted Haddonfield ever since.
In her landmark study Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover argues that horror offers moments of “formal brilliance, political intelligence, [and] psychological depth…that [are] simply not available in any other stripe of filmmaking.” Indeed, whether prestige products or mainstream reimaginations, contemporary horror has begun to ponder new possibilities vis-à-vis its gender politics. What many feminist critics have seen bubbling below the surface for decades has finally come full circle, as fantasy spaces of horror might finally be where toxic masculinity meets its end.
- Jessie Buckley as Harper Marlowe in A24’s Men (2022)
- British actor Rory Kinnear adeptly plays nearly all of the male characters in Men
- Jamie Lee Curtis has played Laurie Strode in the Halloween franchise since the first film’s release in 1978
- David Church, Post-Horror: Art, Genre, and Cultural Elevation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021) 2.. [↩]
- See Mark Jancovich, “Horror in the 1940s,” in A Companion to the Horror Film (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 237–54.. [↩]
- Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (Summer 1991): 2–13.. [↩]
- Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) 20.. [↩]