Thursday, February 16, 2017

Women in Horror: Men, Women, and Chainsaws

Men, Women, and Chainsaws is a film theory book that I've heard referenced since I've been getting more interested in gender and horror. I couldn't get it for years because it was out of print and/or super expensive, but now it's reprinted and accessible. I was daunted at first because I know from literature that theory books aren't always the most entertaining read, but the majority of the book is easily readable and engaging. Carol Clover lays out the formulas for three different horror subgenres and references numerous films (mostly in the 70's) to support her claims as well as other film theorists, Freud, 17th and 18th century views of gender, among others.

The first chapter, focuses on the formula for slasher films. The villains are typically frozen in development in some way like Michael Meyers or have some sort of muddled sexuality like Leatherface. Most of them have an overbearing mother or some sort of obsession with their mother like Norman Bates. Their choice of weapons are knives and chainsaws instead of guns. Their victims can be male or female, usually young adults, but the final one is always female. This final girl is more aware of her surroundings, less distracted, and usually romantically unavailable. Clover theorizes that she's more masculine so the male audience can relate more to her than the other more feminine and frivolous teen victims. Sometimes the final girls only survive by sheer chance, but others survive due to fighting back. Clover calls her the victim-hero because she suffers through the whole film watching her friends die, being hunted, and knowing that she's being hunted. Looking at this formula in the present, I see plenty of films that follow it, but in recent years, many break out of or mock this formula like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Cabin in the Woods.

The second chapter illustrates the formula for possession films. The person (or thing in the case of Christine) possessed is almost always female because they are more vulnerable to the supernatural and underneath all their decency, they still could become witches. They are usually possessed by male entities and act in horrific ways outside of how women should act, like grotesque sexuality and foul language. These possession stories are never actually about the women being possessed, but about what that possession means to a man in the situation. I don't think I realized this was a feature in every film in this subgenre and it makes sense why it's one of my least favorites. The women are violated and essentially raped, only to serve as a journey for the man on the outside rather than one for that woman. A prime example is The Exorcist where Reagan and her possession serve as a spiritual epiphany for Father Merrim in his crisis of faith while Reagan remembers nothing of her ordeal. I haven't seen a whole lot of change in this genre in recent years. The possessed tend to be more violent rather than sexual, but the possession as a vehicle for male character and plot development still happens all the time.

The third chapter focuses on rape revenge films, which is a genre I'm honestly not very familiar will. Clover talks about how along with the gender conflict, a country and city conflict that goes along with that. The country folk are poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and unemployed. They might also have sexually depraved relationships with animals or their own family members. They blame their improverished situation on city people due to industrialization destroying nature and big businesses crushing their smaller businesses. The city people are either women or considered feminized men. The country people attack and violate city people for revenge, only to have those people come back to exact revenge as well. The lower versions of rape revenge films have women exacting their own revenge, which gives them agency and power. It also often criticizes the justice system that rarely works in favor of these rape victimes. The more celebrated versions like The Accused have the justice system come out in their favor and obscure that criticism. The remade versions of these films seem to be glossier versions that don't bring anything new to a modern audience. Although these films can be exploitative and uncomfortable to watch, I have renewed interest in watching them because of Clover's analysis.

The last chapter is about meta horror films. More obviously meta films like New Nightmare, Scream, and Cabin in the Woods hadn't been made yet, so Clover's focus is the film Peeping Tom. Mark films his female victims while he kills them, making the audience view the scene through his eyes. He recreates scenes reflected from his own abusive childhood. Clover puts forth that this film critiques the masochistic viewer looking at the sadistic filmmaker's violent production. This chapter as a whole is more scattered and less focused, mostly because of the state of meta horror at the time. I would love to see her or anyone else take a second analytic look at these same (plus more) genres and analyze how they have changed or stayed the same.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws has an illuminating look at horror genres still alive and well today. Clover has some strong arguments and views films and subgenres. I don't always agree with her rationales or citations. I don't agree with Freud's psychoanalytic theories and I don't think a single sex model (where men and women are essentially the same gender) is an accurate representation of cinema. She talks a lot about how cameras and weapons of various types are phalluses that the final girls then take for power at the end of the films. In some cases, like the sexually charged scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 between Leatherface and Stretch, I can see how it would be considered to be that, but I think it's overreaching at times. Overall, this film theory book offers a solid breakdown and analysis of different subgenres and how men and women are treated in them.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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