Men, Women, and Chain Saws

In 1980, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hosted a special edition of their Sneak Previews PBS show, and used the opportunity to decry an emerging “Women in Danger” genre of horror thrillers:

It’s important to note that this was only the opening salvo of exploitation horror. New technology, changes in distribution, the continuing emergence of independent filmmaking, and a host of other factors lead to a glut of popular yet despised horror films. The dominant sub-genre of these films was the Slasher film, but Siskel and Ebert were talking about this so early in the process that the much maligned sub-genre hadn’t even been named yet. There is something prescient about the two film critics putting this episode together when they did. The heyday of the slasher was only beginning and would last another three years before it even started to subside.

Indeed, it must have been more than a little odd to have been present while all of this was happening. I actually like slasher movies and have watched a lot of them during my annual Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, but even I would probably have had a different reaction back in 1980. Apparently one of the things that prompted Siskel and Ebert to dedicate a show to the behavior of the crowd during the film I Spit On Your Grave, as they shouted and cheered the rape sequences in the film. That has to be a disturbing way to watch a movie. But with time and perspective, things have changed a bit.

Enter Carol Clover, a Professor at UC Berkely, who wrote several essays on horror films that have since been collected in the book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film:

This book began in 1985 when a friend dared me to go see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I was familiar with the horror classics and with stylish or “quality” horror (Hitchcock, De Palma, and the like), but exploitation horror I had assiduously avoided. Seeing Texas was a jolting experience in more ways than one. (Page 19)

Alerted to the genre, she started to explore territory she had avoided, and “against all odds” she has “ended up something of a fan”. She certainly doesn’t go too easy on the genre, and in many ways, her critiques mirror Siskel and Ebert’s, but perhaps with the perspective of time, she has also found value in these films, and she did so at a time when they were universally reviled and never given much of a thought. Her essay on slasher films first appeared in 1987 (just as the genre was in its final death throes) and was revised in this book in 1992, and immediately changed the landscape. In this essay, Clover coins the term “Final Girl”, and notes that even if audiences identify with or cheer on the killer early in the film, they always experience a reversal as the Final Girl fights back. Reading this now, it seems odd that anyone would be surprised that a male viewer could relate to a female protagonist, but this was apparently a surprising thing that people were still working through. As Erich Kuersten notes: “I wasn’t afraid for girls, or of girls, I was afraid through girls.”

Again, the fact that Clover finds value here does not mean she’s blind to the issues with slasher films, but she also thinks its worth discussing:

One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representation. (Page 64)

Clover’s slasher essay shines a light on a reviled sub-genre, and is clearly the centerpiece of the book, but there are several other chapters, all filled with similarly insightful looks at various sub-genres of horror. In one, she tackles occult films, with a focus on possession films like The Exorcist, and contrasts with the slasher:

It is in comparison with the slasher film that the occult film (above all the possession film) comes into full focus. Both subgenres have as their business to reimagine gender. But where the slasher concerns itself, through the figure of the Final Girl, with the rezoning of the feminine into territories traditionally occupied by the masculine, the occult concerns itself, through the figure of the male-in-crisis, with a shift in the opposite direction: rezoning the masculine into territories traditionally occupied by the feminine. (Page 107)

I don’t always buy into all of this, but then, I came of age when all these films were playing on cable. I grew up with strong Final Girls, so the notion that “strength” would ever be “gendered masculine” seems a little silly to me, but perhaps 30-40 years ago, that was not the case (and vice versa for the male-in-crisis movies). I probably never would have used the same terminology or articulated in the same way, but I’ve clearly internalized these notions.

There is a chapter on Rape Revenge films, which I am actually not very well versed in (because I was reading this, I watched I Spit On Your Grave this year), but which makes a fair amount of sense. It’s easy to see why these movies are controversial, especially something like I Spit, but Clover manages to find value in these films (one of which includes the all male Deliverance) and makes all sorts of clever observations about commonalities in the genre (in particular, there isn’t just a male/female dichotomy in these films, but also a city/country or sophisticated/redneck component to the rape and revenge). Finally, there is a chapter on “The Eye of Horror”, which spends a lot of time looking at perspective shots and “gazes.”

It’s a fascinating book, filled with interesting observations and a motivated perspective. There are certainly nits to pick (for instance, at one point, she claims that Werewolf stories are about a fear of being eaten by an animal, which I guess is there, but the real fear is becoming a werewolf yourself, losing control, being overwhelmed by your animal desires, etc… The enemy within, and all that…) and I don’t always agree with what she’s asserting, especially when she starts down the rabbit hole of Freudian analysis and some of the broader topics like “gazes” and “rape culture” and so on. I could quibble with some of her key films in each chapter (she perhaps overestimates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and its impact on the genre, though it’s clearly a great example for Clover’s thesis) and the notion of closely observing a few films and extrapolating that into an entire sub-genre will always cause some dissonance, but Clover clearly did her homework and has seen not only the famous horror movies, but also her fair share of obscure ones. Like the Bechdel Test, the perspective here is narrowed to gender, which of course, isn’t the only perspective to have while watching movies. Also like the Bechdel test*, there’s this notion that you have to take individual examples of something and treat it as a representative of a much broader trend. This doesn’t make these analyses any less interesting though!

When you look at Siskel and Ebert’s response to these films, then Clover’s response (years later and with some unique perspectives), it’s easy to see how much we inform our reactions to film ourselves. Siskel and Ebert saw only misogyny, which is not entirely incorrect, but Clover looked at the films differently and managed to find value. I think a lot of people would find both analyses absurd, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong about that either. People often complain that critics never represent the mainstream, perhaps because the mainstream never really concerns itself with context or perspective. They’re looking to be entertained for a few hours on a Friday night, not discuss the reversal of gender politics or other such high-minded affairs. In the end, a book like Men, Women, and Chain Saws probably says just as much about Carol Clover as it does about the films themselves. You see what you want to see in movies, and while that can be interesting, that’s not always the whole story.

To a remarkable extent, horror has come to seem to me not only the form that most obviously trades in the repressed, but itself the repressed of mainstream filmmaking. When I see an Oscar-winning film like The Accused or the artful Alien and its blockbuster sequel Aliens, or, more recently, Sleeping with the Enemy and Silence of the Lambs, and even Thelma and Luise, I cannot help thinking of all the low-budget, often harsh and awkward but sometimes deeply energetic films that preceded them by a decade or more – films that said it all, and in flatter terms, and on a shoestring. If mainstream film detains us with niceties of plot, character, motivation, cinematography, pacing, acting, and the like, low or exploitation horror operates at the bottom line, and in so doing reminds us that every movie has a bottom line, no matter how covert or mystified or sublimated it may be. (Page 20)

* Interestingly, horror movies tend to pass the Bechdel test at a much higher rate than most other genres (just shy of 70% pass the test, as compared to stuff like Westerns or Film Noir, where it’s more like 25%). This says nothing about the quality of the films or their feminist properties, but it’s an interesting note…