The Horror Show: Carol J. Clover and gender subversion in the modern horror film

Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book is a foundational text for students of the modern horror film

As a theorist of the horror film, Carol J. Clover is best known as the person who codified the idea of the “final girl.“ In a slasher film, the final girl is the character who remains alive at the end, the one figure in a string of victims targeted by the monster or the psychopathic killer who, through a combination of perseverance, ingenuity, and chastity, finally turns the tables and slays (or, in the case of seemingly never-ending franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th, temporarily sidelines) the villain.

Clover elucidated the theoretical conception of the final girl in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which has since become a core text for any serious student of the cinematic genre. But in a preface included in the book’s 2015 reprint edition, Clover admits being frustrated by the fact that her analysis of the final girl has generally usurped other considerations in the text and that the final girl herself has been reduced in the popular perception to a “female avenger” or a “triumphant feminist hero.” These stereotypes, Clover laments, ignore certain key aspects of her argument and also gloss over the fact that the final girl is a figure to be found predominantly in the less refined category of slasher films as opposed to the more elite cinematic offerings of Hitchcock or De Palma. (The latter of whom Clover singles out for special comment in her text: “however revolting their special effects and sexualized their violence, few slasher murders approach the level of voluptuous sadism that attends the destruction of women in De Palma’s films.”)

Regardless of their critical bona fides, Clover argues, films such as those of Hitchcock and De Palma that operate on a higher aesthetic plane than their grindhouse counterparts are less interesting from the perspective of subverting traditional gender roles, a subject that forms a key through-line in Clover’s book. Whereas slasher films provide an opportunity to observe a slipperiness in gender presentation and response, “femininity is more conventionally elaborated and inexorably punished, and in an emphatically masculine environment, in the higher forms.”

For all the complaints about liberals in Hollywood, it should be readily apparent to anyone with any sense that big-budget studio pictures – be they bubbly rom coms, costumed superhero films, or serious drama – will of necessity be conservative and will promote the maintenance of the social status quo. When there’s big money on the line, no producer is going to greenlight a truly subversive movie. Which is one reason why horror – at least the kind that flirts with nonconformist subjects and images – has largely been confined to independent productions in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While major studio franchises like the Die Hard or the Fast and Furious movies reinforce traditionally accepted gender roles almost by default, Clover argues that low-budget slasher films are freer to conflate ideas of masculine and feminine, not least in the figure of the final girl.

Here we are presented with a character who is coded female and spends the majority of a film in the traditional feminine role: running from the clutches of the monstrous killer (who is frequently armed with a knife or chainsaw or other explicitly penetrative implement) and screaming. Then, in the film’s latter stages, this female character picks up the phallic implement (or some version thereof) and uses it to take down the monster. In other words, the woman (whom Clover identifies as usually tomboyish or otherwise evincing masculine qualities) explicitly adopts the practice of vengeance or the meting out of violence that is more typically reserved for a male figure. Not only that, but the film insists that its audience, which Clover points out is mostly male for horror films, identifies with the final girl, putting men in the position of feeling sympathy for a woman’s pain and cheering her on as she vanquishes the (typically male) villain.

And whether highbrow or low, those villains often display aspects of gender conflation (Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Sleepaway Camp, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) that further complicate the reading of masculine and feminine characters. If the final girl is coded feminine but reads masculine, Clover argues, it can equally be said that the gender codes are reversed in the case of the killer. “It is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation; it is that they fix on the irregular combinations, of which the combination masculine female repeatedly prevails over the combination feminine male.”

Clover’s dismay at the popular responses to her book confining themselves to a reductive reading of her first chapter on slasher films is understandable given how subtle her arguments in that chapter are and how her ideas are developed in subsequent chapters about occult films, rape-revenge films, and the interplay of sadism and masochism in the horror genre.

Of these, it is the chapter on rape-revenge movies where Clover seems poised most precariously. Not because her core arguments are faulty. Her observation that films in this subgenre – including, but not limited to, I Spit on Your Grave, Ms. 45, and Last House on the Left – reverse the affective point of view from that of the killer to that of the victim is solid, as is her suggestion that the male stake in such films resolves into a kind of victim-blaming: “if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a gun or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliché, asking for it.”

Where Clover’s high-minded analysis seems to fail – one of the few points in her book in which it does – is in her generally approving analysis of the truly reprehensible 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave. Clover argues that the film operates on polarities of male/female and urban/rural; places its viewer in the perspective of the victim as opposed to the victimizers; and, by giving roughly the same amount of time to the revenge that it devotes to the rape, allows its central character a reasonable catharsis from, and retribution for, her trauma. All of this is well taken; what Clover ignores is the way the film’s second half continues to view Jennifer, the writer and repeated gang-rape victim, from the perspective of the male gaze – not of the rapist characters, but of the filmmaker, and therefore, the audience. For the majority of the film’s final forty-five minutes, Jennifer is either naked or clad in the skimpiest of outfits, and the camera continues to sexualize her even as she is exacting grotesque retribution on the men responsible for her violation.

Unlike Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 or Virginie Despantes and Coralie Trin Thi’s Baise Moi, Meir Zarchi’s film never rises above the prurience of its material and never for a moment stops seeing its female protagonist as anything other than eye candy for the camera and its salacious viewer. Clover’s analysis focuses on the revenge, but does not take into account the mise en scène in which that revenge unfolds. It’s not just that I Spit on Your Grave is a truly distasteful and poorly made film – Clover’s analytical rigour seems stronger and more defensible elsewhere. (Her discussion of the urban/rural dichotomy resurfaces in her analysis of Deliverance, a film that upends the rape-revenge template by making the rape victim a feminized man.)

The male gaze is explicitly addressed in Clover’s final chapter, fittingly titled “The Eye of Horror,” which discusses the dialectic of sadism and masochism as it relates to the modern horror film and includes a persuasive and extended examination of a foundational genre classic, Michael Powell’s psychological chiller Peeping Tom. That film is particularly interesting because its lead is a filmmaker, allowing Powell to engage in a metatextual examination of the commingled pleasures and dangers of seeing and being seen in the mitigated context of the camera and its operator.

All of this provides much fodder for thought and further investigation and does open the book up to a deeper and more sustained analysis of the way gender is used and subverted in a selection of horror films from the final decades of the 20th century. Clover’s readings are generally sharp and, even when they open themselves up to objection, poke at presuppositions about the way films in this genre that are too frequently written off as trash or exploitation actually function as subversive or even progressive texts. Having said all that, and at the risk of raising the author’s ire, if all the book had to offer was the analysis of the final girl as a key figure in modern cinematic horror, it would still be well worth the cover price.

The Horror Show: Carol J. Clover and gender subversion in the modern horror film
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