Women killed at the box office this weekend — literally.
Halloween held strong at number one for the second weekend in a row, after its headline-making opening last week. The film, which has Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her 1978 role as Laurie Strode, raked in $77.5 million on its opening weekend, and has now grossed $172 million worldwide. That means Curtis now holds the record for the highest grossing opening for any movie with a female lead over 55 years old.
Likewise, Luca Guadagnino’s gory remake of Suspiria, which stars Dakota Johnson as an American dancer auditioning to join a Berlin-based company run by a coven of witches, dominated the indie box office. The film, which makes a powerful statement on the power of women and sisterhood, and stars a woman as the only male-presenting lead,opened in only two theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, but boasted an average gross of $89,903 per theater, the highest per screen average in 2018. Suspiria is set to expand to 250 theaters nationwide by next week.
That box office success is even more impressive given that the weekend before Halloween is usually considered a dead zone for theaters, but it speaks to a hunger for stories about women facing obstacles that seem insurmountable, rooted in many women’s frustrations with our current political climate.
At first glance, a slasher flick like Halloween may not seem to have much in common with an art house film like Suspiria. One is a sequel four decades in the making, pitting an older Laurie, hell-bent on revenge, against masked nemesis Michael Myers. The other is a mysterious and mesmerizing — almost spiritual – tale of guilt, modern dance, and witchcraft, and stars Tilda Swinton as an 82-year-old German man. Still, both are women-led horror films that have shattered records and expectations, proving once more that scary doesn't have to be synonymous with passive female victim.
That horror is booming isn’t exactly a surprise at this point. In 2017, the success of Get Out and It paved the way for a resurgence of the genre, a craze that has held steady throughout this year, with sleeper hits like John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which grossed $338.6 million, over 150 times its original budget, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Horror is a genre we typically turn to in times of upheaval and turmoil as people seek a cathartic outlet for their real-life fears. It’s also, as Jordan Peele so deftly proved, a genre that’s primed for incisive social commentary.
“There’s a movement of women taking back their life narrative from their perpetrators.”
Jamie Lee Curtis
Halloween has always had feminist roots. The original film, directed by John Carpenter and written by Debra Hill, centered around teenage babysitter Laurie Strode, who is hunted and tormented by serial killer Michael Myers. In the end, she has triumphantly survived (but is scarred for life), the perfect embodiment of the Final Girl trope that has become an essential component of horror. (That Final Girls like Laurie were archetypically virginal or chaste while their murdered female friends were sexually confident and active has inspired decades of thesis papers and often reductive academic arguments.) But this latest installment, which ignores all the other sequels in between, takes a more nuanced approach: now a grandmother, Laurie is haunted by her trauma, and desperate to reclaim control over her own life — by any means necessary. It’s an arc that reflects the struggle that so many women are facing in confronting their own aggressors, many of whom have also remain unscathed for years.
In an interview with Refinery29, Curtis stressed the renewed relevance of the film in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up initiative. “There’s a movement of women taking back their life narrative from their perpetrators,” she said. “The contributions of those brave women clearly made its way into the script and into the performances.”
The trend even carried over into TV. On Netflix, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina became an overnight success after the season’s 10 episodes were made available to stream on Friday. The series, based on the same Archie comics that inspired The CW’s Riverdale (the two shows even share a creator) gives Sabrina Spellman a darker, scarier twist, in keeping with our renewed fervor for things that go bump in the night.
Unfortunately, the success of these female-led horror films and TV shows further emphasizes glaring gender disparities in the director’s chair. Just over a week ago, Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions, which co-produced Halloween, was blasted for comments he made in trying to explain why his company has never produced a theatrical release by a female director. “We’ve always been trying [to hire female directors],” he told Polygon in an interview. “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.”
That simply isn’t true — Twitter was soon filled with lists of women Blum should be considering, and the producer soon walked back his statement. But that all-too common attitude goes a long way to explaining the pernicious lack of opportunities for women behind the camera.
In an essay for Longreads published in the aftermath of Blum’s comments, Soraya Roberts pointed out that horror presents a complicated situation for women. On the one hand, it’s the only genre where women get more screen time and dialogue than men. But that doesn’t translate to representation behind the camera. In that respect, horror still woefully lags behind. Case in point: The 1978 version of Halloween may have been written by a woman (fun fact: Debra Hill was integral to the casting of Curtis as the lead), but the 2018 sequel was entirely crafted by men.
There are outliers of course. Karyn Kusama’s much-derided 2009 feminist zombie flick, Jennifer’s Body (with a screenplay by Diablo Cody), is slowly starting to get the recognition it deserves, nearly a decade after its release. Jennifer Kent’s critically-acclaimed 2014 film, The Babadook, has developed a cult following over the years. Her follow-up feature,The Nightingale, won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, but not before Kent, the only female director in consideration, was publicly insulted by a male Italian journalist during a screening.
So, even as we rejoice in women's’ ability to kick serial killer ass, or cast a demonic spell through dance (and we should!), let’s remember that these are still male perspectives on female power. The final girls are still left standing, but it’s the men behind them who are cashing out.