Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance in the Halloween series.
Jamie Lee Curtis really had her work cut out for her creating a consistent character across the Halloween franchise. The series has rebooted itself multiple times over the past forty years. This has inadvertently created a twisted web of timelines Curtis has had to wade through as final girl Laurie Strode.
At the start, she had it easy. The first two Halloween films track Laurie Strode’s initial encounter with The Shape, Michael Myers. The Laurie we meet in the original is a typical teenager, blithely enjoying a normal life in Haddonfield. She goes to high school, hangs out with her friends, and gossips about boys. Across these first two films, Curtis is able to ingratiate us to Laurie through effective naturalism. As she gossips on the phone with her friends, she conveys bubbly vitality that feels completely authentic.
But Curtis’ Laurie is also like a blank slate. This allows the audience to project their own high school experiences onto her character. And as Michael comes stalking into Haddonfield, this tenuous emotional connection transfers the terror Curtis conveys back to the audience. We earnestly feel scared for Laurie because Curtis shows how vulnerable she is. This was the key character trait director John Carpenter impressed on her during the production of the first film. As Curtis said in an interview for The Nerdist:
“The character’s on the page, it’s right there. I didn’t need anybody to tell me who she was; I knew. The only thing [John Carpenter] kept insisting was vulnerability, over and over again. Vulnerability, vulnerability, vulnerability. The V word is what he definitely encouraged from me.”
After Halloween II we wouldn’t meet Laurie again until Halloween H20. After twenty years and six movies, the series retconned everything back to the first two films. This erased Laurie’s off-screen death that occurred between II and IV, allowing the character–and Jamie Lee Curtis– to return to battle her brother, Michael Myers, once again.
After watching The Shape burn at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, Laurie left her hometown. She changed her name and led a relatively low-key life as a teacher at a prestigious high school. She attempts to conceal her trauma from her son, John (Josh Hartnett), by drowning her pain in booze. Even though her son is aware she’s a functioning alcoholic, slamming back white wines on her lunch break, she can’t stop herself. The wounds Michael left are simply too deep for her to quit binge drinking. She hopes that by killing her brother–with a swift decapitation in H20‘s finale–she’ll be free from her life’s torment.
But in the follow-up film, Halloween: Resurrection, we learn that Laurie doesn’t actually kill Michael at the end of H20. The Shape had surreptitiously swapped clothes with a paramedic who Laurie unintentionally murders. This tragic accident lands her in a mental hospital – just like her brother before her.
If there is one saving grace in Resurrection, it’s Curtis’ performance in its opening minutes. Curtis fills Laurie with manic, unraveling energy as we learn she’s laying a trap to finally beat her brother. But after ensnaring Michael high above the hospital, victory within her grasp, Curtis’ Laurie hesitates. We suddenly see this heartbreaking web of emotions fracture across her face as she relives the moment she murdered the wrong man. Even though Laurie remains a badass final girl until the very end–snarling “I’ll see you in hell” as Michael plunges a knife in her back–Curtis never wavers on using her physicality to show the vulnerability and trauma her character has carried over the last two decades.
Then everything changed once again for the series’ 40th anniversary in 2018 with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s franchise reboot. Now Laurie isn’t just a fighter–she’s a freaking warrior. But this isn’t the same Laurie from Halloween: Resurrection, miraculously back from the dead just like her brother, or even the same character we last saw in Halloween II. Green and McBride retcon everything that came after the original 1978 Halloween.
What this does is erase one of the biggest character traits that impacted Curtis’ performance as Laurie across the other Halloween films. Now, Michael is no longer her brother. He is just a random killer who decided to stalk a girl who visited his childhood home one fall Halloween morning. The randomness of The Shape’s murder spree makes the threat feel exponentially scarier. When Michael was Laurie’s brother, there was an aspect of premeditation that allowed the audience to distance themselves from the horror. In the 2018 reboot, the horror feels like it could have happened to any of us.
These disparate timelines matter from an actor’s perspective. That’s because it means Curtis had to access different given circumstances each time the series rebooted her character. In H20, Curtis’ Laurie is accessing the memory of watching her brother’s face literally melt off. One could argue that this would let her character breathe a little easier because, really, how does a murderer come back from that death scene? This makes the fear she feels in H20 come directly from her trauma rather than any sense that Michael could actually return from the dead.
But her motivations shift for 2018’s Halloween because Michael isn’t Laurie’s brother anymore–he’s just a psychopath who randomly selected her as his ultimate victim. Curtis uses the trauma of this existential nightmare to harden Laurie to her very core, transforming her into a survivalist constantly in preparation for the night when Michael inevitably comes back home. This fear causes Laurie to isolate herself and her family from any threats from the outside world–Michael or otherwise. Michael may be locked in prison, but he’s still alive–which leaves Laurie in a state of perpetual readiness. She knows that if he breaks out again and goes on another killing spree, all roads will ultimately lead back to her.
However, there is one through-line that Curtis has that connects the character back to the work she created in Halloween: H20. In both timelines, Laurie’s trauma manifests itself as functional alcoholism. This element of her character would have hit especially close to home for Curtis as a survivor of addiction and alcoholism herself. We see it clearly in a scene early in Halloween (2018). As Laurie runs late to a dinner celebration, rather than sitting down and joining the family, she remains standing. Her physicality is riddled with uncomfortable anxiety as she picks up a random glass of wine and gulps it down. She has the outward appearance of a grizzled war vet ready for combat. But in this moment, she shows us just how trapped she is by her trauma as she breaks into tears.
This scene allows Curtis to show a deeper emotional layer of her character than we see across any of the other Halloween films. But there’s another moment in the 2018 reboot that I believe effectively captures all the nuances Curtis has infused into Laurie over the years in a single look.
After a pair of podcasters, Aaron and Dana, visit Michael at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, they seek out Laurie in her wooded compound. They want to persuade her to sit down and speak with Michael for their show. “He won’t talk to anyone. Never has,” Aaron says. “And I think he might speak with you. So why don’t you sit down with him and say all the things you must be longing to say. Come with us. Let us help you free yourself.”
As Aaron says these words, the pain that’s been festering inside of Laurie surfaces. Curtis shows on her face all the years of torment Laurie’s been holding onto. She conveys a deeply mournful expression. Laurie’s abject anger becomes intermingled with overwhelming sadness for all that Michael had taken from her. As her facial expressions shift, Laurie becomes lost in a sea of traumatic memories. But Curtis doesn’t need to say a word to tell the audience what she’s feeling. Through her physicality, we understand everything she wishes she could say to Michael. We watch the steeliness Curtis gives Laurie suddenly melt away. She’s instantly back in the same emotional state she was in the first time she fought Michael. In a flash, we can see Curtis quietly convey every iteration of Laurie, all tied together through unspeakable childhood trauma.
Twenty years after John Carpenter’s Halloween first premiered, the franchise went through a reboot. Twenty years after that, the franchise went through yet another one. With Halloween Ends seemingly concluding the Laurie Strode saga, I highly doubt we’ll see yet another reboot of the series in twenty years with an octogenarian Laurie and Michael duking it out once more. But undoubtedly, the performance Jamie Lee Curtis created will reverberate in whatever final girl faces Michael next. Curtis has been the pin that has held the series together across its fractured timelines. The horror of Haddonfield has been told through the trauma that befell Laurie Strode. Sure, Michael Myers and his iconic mask are synonymous with the Halloween series, but the terror he spreads would be nothing without the nuanced, vulnerable strength Jamie Lee Curtis used to defeat him over the last forty years.