In 1992, Carol J. Clover, who, at the time, was a Professor of Medieval Studies and American Film at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote a book that would shake the foundation of how low-budget horror films are viewed. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film gave us an honest critique of how gender roles are in constant flux when we are watching the modern horror film or, in this case, the films from the 1970s and 1980s with various older horror films sprinkled within the text.
Sandwiched between a foreword and an afterward are four chapters of insightful criticism of horror films. In chapter one, entitled “Her Body, Himself”, Professor Clover introduces us to “The Final Girl” as most of the killer’s victims are women. The killers themselves often times have sexual confusion, such as Norman Bates in Psycho, the transvestite slasher in Dressed to Kill, and Chop Top and Leatherface In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With these sexually confused killers, their instruments of murder are most of the time phallic in nature, and the varieties of these tools are vast. Clover states that, “the preferred weapons of the killers can be knives, hammers, ice picks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks and the like.” These weapons, according to Clover, “are personal extensions of the body that bring attack and attacker into primitive, animalistic embrace.” The final girl comes into play when all of the men fail to save the woman and she becomes the sole survivor. This survivor becomes the main focus of the film and becomes the heroine when she saves herself like Sally in Texas Chainsaw Massacre or dispatches her killers like Stretch in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Professor Clover also goes to great lengths on how gender and body identification is constantly in flux in horror films, especially within the slasher genre.
In chapter two, “Opening Up,” Clover proclaims that “the occult film is the most
‘female’ of horror genres, telling as it regularly does tales of women or girls in the grip of the supernatural.” In this chapter, Clover sites many examples of the woman being the portal of many supernatural films from possession (The Exorcist, Witchboard), to telekinesis (The Furies, Carrie), to the spirits of the departed (Don’t Look Now, Poltergeist). Clover not only addresses the female story of being an entry of something into the female body, but also the male one. In The Exorcist, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) becomes a portal for the devil when his faith is compromised as a result of dealing with Regan’s possession coupled with the death of his mother which riddles him with guilt. This makes him vulnerable and provides the devil entry into his body. Clover provides a critique on the shifting ground that happens with supernatural films and how, once a person is possessed, turns mean and macho, regardless of their sex.
In chapter three, “Getting Even,” Clover delves into the rape/revenge genre, citing films such as I Spit on Your Grave, Deliverance, and Ms. 45 to name a few. Professor Clover goes into how the female protagonist is repeatedly raped and tortured in these films and when “the tables finally turn, she proves to be just as vicious as her attackers.” In this chapter, Clover gives us a blow-by-blow account of I Spit on Your Grave with its brutal beginning and avenging aftermath. She then switch gears with part of the chapter entitled “Urbanoia” and uses films such as The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessings, Hunter’s Blood, and Deliverance displaying how the city folks intrude or “rape” the countryside inhabited by the local hillbillies. When the locals feel that the city dwellers have come to invade or “rape” their land, they, in turn, perform these acts on the urbanites. The raped haves, inexperienced with the rural landscape, take their vengeance on the have-nots in a conflict of class. As Clover delves into more rape/revenge themes and how it effects the bodies in film, she makes an interesting analogy of rape/revenge movies being similar to Westerns with the city folk being the settlers while the hillbillies being the Native Americans.
In chapter four, “The Eye of Horror,” Professor Clover turns to the “eye” of horror as “introducing a narrative that necessarily turns on the problems of vision – seeing too little (to the point of blindness) or seeing too much (to the point of sanity)” and how “horror privileges eyes because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about eyes.” Clover then gives us an epic analysis of Michael Powell’s most infamous film, Peeping Tom and how the art of looking or, in Peeping Tom’s case scopophilia, shows the protagonist Mark gazing through his “killer camera” killing numerous women. The camera does not only provide Mark his predatory, assaultive, murderous, phallic gaze, but the viewer sees through the camera’s viewfinder as well “which, like a rifle sight, is marked by cross-hairs.” Clover ends the chapter with “Cruel Cinema” claiming that “at the risk of circularity, I would argue that the very repetitiousness of fear-inducing scenarios in horror is prima facie evidence of horror’s central investment in pain.” Harsh but true.
This book is nearing thirty and, while some of the films of “modern” horror that are referenced are quite dated, this Bram Stoker nominated book of non-fiction is still the roadmap of how horror films are scrutinized and how the “final girl” is the trope that we still cheer for. While there are many other women in the past and present, who have written several great books on horror, I believe that Professor Clover is the Helen of Troy. Men, Women, and Chainsaws still gives us wonderful insight and analysis and, due to this publication, assisted in launching a thousand horror flicks and then some.
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