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You are here: Home - - - > Book Reviews Index - - - > "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" Book Review
Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film
By Carol J. Clover
Published by Princeton University Press, 1993
Softcover Trade Paperback; 276pp; Profusely Illustrated
Review By: Matthew Dean Hill

It's not a new book, not by a stretch. Nor is its subject matter particularly new, even when it was first published. A lot has always been written and discussed on the issues of gender in cinema, and no other genre has been targeted more than horror cinema. I mean, be fair...when the average person thinks of a "horror movie", they very likely think of a hulking, masked killer stalking a helpless and, no doubt, scantily-clad female victim. Brandishing his (as the killers are almost invariably male) phallic murder weapon in a psychosexual manner that would make Freud and Kinsey blush, the killer dispatches the victim in an act that reflects as much overt sexuality and even misogyny as it does actual violence. Couple that imagery with the vaguely orgasmic screams of the victim as the knife or pseudophallus penetrates her over and over again, and then finish it off with a proverbial "money-shot" consisting of great splashes of blood (or surrogate "semen") covering every visible surface. It's par for the course, the woman-hating nature of horror cinema...or is it? Carol J. Clover's "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" directly confronts the common perceptions of how women, in particular, are portrayed in horror cinema, supporting some and outright blowing others out of the firmament.

Why so much interest in this subject? Post-Feminist-Movement America almost requires books like this; so many film reviewers and journalists have so firmly entrenched the viewing (and indeed, the critical) public with these perceptions that we need intelligent discourse to separate the bullshit from the truth, or at the very least, the highly-biased speculation and pontification from the true nature of the films under analysis. Clover covers a lot of ground, to be sure; certainly a great deal of time and energy is spent on now-standard concepts like "the final girl", murder as act of sexuality, etc, but the key here is that Clover recognizes that the main culprit of most of these films is the viewer him or herself. Noting, memorably, that far more sensitive, woman-revering men were outright offended by, say, I Spit On Your Grave than were women, Clover turns many misperceptions on their ear. Deftly moving from example to example, she picks apart issues ranging from outright sexuality to gender identification, from fantasy to the realities that those fantasies imply, she explores her subject in depth, while still maintaining a reasonable amount of humor and self-awareness, just to keep the goings-on from becoming too clinical.

"Men, Women, and Chainsaws" is a seminal work, but by necessity, it can hardly be considered the final word on the matter. Horror, notoriously, is about sending mixed signals to the viewer or would-be participant, and it naturally evokes mixed responses; everything from shock, revulsion, fear, titillation, arousal, and everything in between. Clover does an admirable job of staying on subject, given the broad nature of her subject. And therein lies the main flaw with the work. Clover uses a comparatively limited pallet of films and other resources to back up her assertations. While I can understand that, in the context of the book form, this was as much a practical decision as anything else...how on earth should she be expected to work from an enormous list of films when just a few would suffice. That said, she uses some awfully strange examples in the mix, if only for contrast and comparison purposes (e.g. the reprehensible Poltergeist II: The Other Side is cited a few too many times for comfort, if you ask this reviewer). Also, Clover's fact checking leaves a little bit to be desired; more than once, she makes outright incorrect references to films...scenes that do not appear in any known version, out of context or misquoted lines of dialog, and the like. It's never anything earth-shattering, but when you're trying to make a point, and your audience is at least as well-versed in the subject matter as you are, then you need to really mind your P's and Q's, as the saying goes. Otherwise, it does nothing but diminish the impact and credibility of your opinion. It's a comparitively small gripe, but worth noting.

I would love to see Clover follow up this work with a sequel of sorts; a follow-up that examines more recent entries into horror cinema (e.g. the incredibly controversial Hostel and Saw franchises, most notably). Her opinions would no doubt be interesting to read. Still, "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" is an altogether engrossing, enriching read, and it succeeds in making its point. That point, I believe, is that in horror, everything is equal. An Arabic philosopher is credited with saying, "Nothing is real when everything is permitted". I would like to think that Clover understands this, in no uncertain terms. Highly recommended reading, with the aforementioned caveats




- Matthew Dean Hill, August 18, 2010