Just in time for Halloween comes Halloween—the hit movie that is. This new monster of a picture—it was number one at the box office over the weekend—is actually the 11th sequel to, or remake of, the original Halloween, released in 1978. That film is credited, if that’s the right word, with launching the “slasher flick” as a major genre.
In its sanguinary essence, this latest Halloween isn’t much different from the first one: women terrorized by a stalker-killer. Still, these are “woke” times, and so the returning star, Jamie Lee Curtis, boasts a lot more kick-ass agency than she did back in ’78. And four decades into the series, audiences are still into it. As Curtis herself tweeted, “Biggest horror movie opening with a female lead. Biggest movie opening with a female lead over 55.”
For the rest of us, it’s always interesting to consider movies—even slasher movies—as an indicator of the zeitgeist. Admittedly, motion pictures in theaters have nowhere near the cultural impact that they once did. Yet even if movies are now “legacy media,” they still cast a long cultural shadow. At least everyone knows what a movie is, which is more than can be said about, say, Roku or Slingbox.
So even if slasher flicks are not critically esteemed, they still merit attention as to their implicit social commentary. For instance, one common and pertinent theme is the absence of parents and other family in the lives of young people. Kids get into trouble because they are left on their own, that is, mom and dad are too busy with their own lives, or the family is sundered and one (or even both) parents are out of the picture altogether. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other friendly faces in what was once a “village” are nowhere to be seen. The extended family, having extended to rootless suburbs, now extends over the receding horizon, leaving individuals with little familial support. It doesn’t take a knife-wielding stalker to prove that this isolated and atomized environment puts latchkey kids at greater risk. By this reckoning, the serial killer is just a concretized manifestation of overall dread.
We can also say that there’s something pretty darn politically incorrect about Halloween. Yes, the bad guy, Michael Myers, is a white male, and so that much is PC. But beyond that, the message is that it’s a dangerous world in which intruders are to be feared and repelled. In other words, The Other is really bad news.
Moreover, in the new film, Myers, sentenced to hard time for mass murder, escapes from prison as the inadvertent result of meddling by opportunistic journalists. So score another one for the conservative worldview.
Consequently, in the finale, it’s up to Jamie Lee Curtis and her family to fend off the killer. Movie fictions aside, this survivalist scenario is meaningful to real people. For instance, back in July, The Wrap reported on a dramatic moment at the Comic-Con in San Diego in which a fan, one Jeffrey Scott, stood up and recalled that a few years earlier, a person wielding a knife had broken into his house. “I was scared out of my mind,” Scott testified, “and out of nowhere this thought inside of me went, ‘Well, what would Jamie Lee Curtis do?’” So he acted in an unspecified way to save himself. He concluded, “I’m a victor today instead of a victim.” The rest of us, of course, are free to take this tale with an any-sized grain of salt, and yet at minimum, we can see that Halloween resonates.
That resonance seems to be distinctly right-wing. In particular, we can observe that the central dramaturgical dilemma in Halloween—that the protagonist is hacking people to death—is resolved, as much as things in such films are ever resolved, with a gun. Indeed, in the words of National Review’s Kyle Smith, “Halloween is a gung-ho, gun-loving, liberal-trolling, capital-punishment-backing conservative manifesto in the format of a slasher flick. It’s the kind of movie where if someone says he’d rather have dance lessons than shooting practice, he’ll soon be corrected.”
So sure, Hollywood is ostensibly liberal insofar as it gives all its endorsements and money to Democrats, as well as to liberal causes, including gun control. And yet, as we have just seen, the meta-politics of its actual cinematic products are often not liberal at all.
Indeed, if we look at the weekend box office receipts, we see that, in addition to Halloween, the second- and third-place films are not in the least bit PC either.
In second place is A Star is Born, the third remake of a film that debuted in 1937. It isn’t much different from the original, except that the female form, in this case that of star Lady Gaga, is consistently objectified, with glimpses of nudity, in a way that male bodies—including that of co-star Bradley Cooper—are not. In other words, 80 years later, the newest Star is Born is in some ways more retrograde than the oldest. And the third-place film, Venom, is a sci-fi parable about menacing invaders in which violence settles everything. It’s hard to see anything progressive about that.
In fact, the political protestations of their makers notwithstanding, movies are always at least something of a mirror on the world—and by definition, the world is never PC.
This point, about the perdurability of un-PC, has been made yet again in a new book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, by W. Scott Poole. As the author argues in considerable detail, World War I—the centennial of the end of which comes on November 11—inspired much of what we think of as movie horror.
In that terrible conflict, some 10 million military personnel died, many of them killed by infernal new devices, including the machine gun, barbed wire, and gas. This technology—made vivid and brought home by photographs and the penny press—sparked not only a societal rupture but also a cultural eruption. As Poole explains, “The specters of despairing creativity [loomed over] a generation of filmmakers, writers, and artists who themselves often went about their work with shattered bodies and psyches.”
The idea that the fighting of 1914-1918 is a decisive break in Western history is a familiar one. The case was best made by Paul Fussell in his magisterial The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). As Fussell observed, before the war, the language of combat was usually rendered in the exalted lexicon of “gallant foe” and “legions,” even as “the fallen” ascend to “the heavens.” Yet after the war, writing styles took on a cynical and bitter tone. For instance, in A Farewell to Arms (1929), Ernest Hemingway noted that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”
Poole’s contribution is to focus on the link between World War I and the burgeoning popular art form of cinema. Perhaps the most emblematic figure is James Whale, himself a World War I combat veteran, who went from directing the trench warfare film Journey’s End (1930) in Britain, to directing Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in Hollywood. Poole usefully connects Whale’s vision of the manmade monster to his wartime experiences: “Whale shoots the scene from fragmented angles with jump cuts, suggest[ing] that we are looking at pieces of bodies.” No “safe zones” there, and plenty that could “trigger” a delicate Millennial snowflake.
Indeed, as Poole details, others influenced by the Great War were less PC—even defiantly non-PC. One such was Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and other characters of sword and sorcery. Even as most saw the European carnage through a bleak or pacifist lens, Howard saw it completely differently—he reveled in the slaughter. Indeed, from his perspective in faraway Texas, the war vindicated a primal, even fascistic, vision of martial virility; only the strong deserved to survive. The Conan originator never himself wrote for the movies, but his characters, of course, have flourished in film.
So as we step back and think about the movie Halloween and the director Whale and the writer Howard, we are reminded of a basic truth: there’s not much, in reality or in fiction, that’s PC.
Yes, sometimes, to scan the headlines, it might seem as though political correctness is taking over. But then comes something slashing and bleeding—or reanimating and conquering—to remind us that in this world, reality is always going to prevail. And Hollywood will always find a way to make it profitable.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.