Men, Women and Chainsaws
by Carol J. Clover

Her Body, Himself

. . .At the bottom of the horror heap lies the slasher (or splatter or shocker or stalker) film: the immensely generative story of a psychokiller who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived. Drenched in taboo and encroaching vigorously on the pornographic, the slasher film lies by and large beyond the purview of the respectable (middle-aged, middle-class) audience. It has also lain by and large beyond the purview of respectable criticism. Staples of drive-ins and exploitation houses, where they "rub shoulders with sex pictures and macho action flicks," these are films that are "never even written up." Even commentaries that celebrate "trash" disavow the slasher, usually passing it over in silence or bemoaning it as a degenerate aberration. Film magazine articles on the genre rarely get past technique, specal effects, and profits. Newspapers relegate reviews of slashers to the syndicated "Joe Bob Briggs, Drive-In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas," whose lowbrow, campy tone ("We're talking two breasts, four quarts of blood, five dead bodies . . . Joe Bob says check it out") establishes what is deemed the necessary distance between the readership and the movie. There are of course the exceptional cases: critics or social observers who have seen at least some of the films and tried to come to grips with their ethics or aesthetics or both. Just how troubled is their task can be seen from its divergent results. For one critic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is "the Gone With the Wind of meat movies." For another it is a "vile piece of sick crap . . . nothing but a hysterically paced, slapdash, imbecile concoction of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it." . . .The Museum of Modern Art bought the film the same year that at least one country, Sweden, banned it. . . (p. 22)

. . . Female killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly different from men's. With the possible exception of the murderous mother in Friday the Thirteenth I, they show no gender confusion. Nor is the motive overtly psychosexual; their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience but from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men (Strait-Jacket, Play Misty For Me, Attack of the 50-foot Woman). Friday the Thirteenth I is a noteworthy anomaly. The killer is revealed as a middle-aged woman whose son, Jason, drowned years earlier as a consequence of negligence on the part of the camp counselors. The anomaly is not sustained in the sequels, however. Here the killer is Jason himself, not dead after all but living in a forest hut. The pattern is a familiar one; his motive is vengeance for the death of his mother, his excessive attachment toward whom in manifested in his enshrining of her severed head. Like Stretch in the crotch episode of Texas Chain Saw Massacre II, the girl who does final combat with Jason in Part Two sees the shrine, grasps its significance (she's a psych major), and saves herself by repeating in a commanding tone, "I am your mother, Jason; put down the knife." Jason, for his part, begins to see his mother in the girl (I-camera) and obeys her.

. . .In films of the Psycho type (Dressed to Kill, The Eyes of Laura Mars), the monster is an insider, a man who functions normally in the action until, at the end, his other self is revealed. Texas Chain Saw and Halloween introduced another sort of monster: one whose only role is that of killer and one whose identity as such is clear from the outset. Norman may have a normal half, but these killers have none. They are emphatic misfits and outsiders. Michael is an escapee from a distant asylum; Jason subsists in the forest; the Sawyer sons live a bloody subterranean existence outside of town. Nor are they clearly seen. We catch sight of them only in glimpses - few and far between in the beginning, more frequent toward the end. They are usually large, sometimes overweight, and often masked. In short, they may be recognized as human, but they are only marginally so, just as they are only marginally visible - to their victims and to us, the spectators. In one key respect, however, the killers are superhuman: their virtual indestructibility. Just as Michael (in Halloween) repeatedly rises from blows that would stop a lesser man, so Jason (in the Friday the Thirteenth films) survives assault after assault to return in sequel after sequel. It is worth noting that the killers are normally the fixed elements and the victims the changeable ones in any given series. . . (pg. 30)


. . .Postcoital death, above all when the circumstances are illicit, is a staple of the genre. Denise, the English vamp in Hell Night, is stabbed to death in bed during Seth's after-sex trip to the bathroom. In He Knows You're Alone, the student having the affair with her professor is similarly murdered in bed while the professor is downstairs changing a fuse; the professor himself is stabbed when he returns and discovers the body. The Friday the Thirteenth series exploits the device at least once per film. Particularly gruesome is the variant in Part Three. Invigorated by sex, the boy is struck by a gymnastic impulse and begins walking on his hands; the killer slices down on his crotch with a machete. Unaware of the fate of her boyfriend, the girl crawls into a hammock after her shower; the killer impales her from below. . . (p. 34)
Final Girl

. . .The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in a pinch. This Laurie even at her most desperate, cornered in a closet, has the wit to grab a hanger from the rack and bend it into a weapon; Marti can hot-wire her get-away car, the killer in pursuit; and the psych major of Friday the Thirteenth II, on seeing the enshrined head of Mrs. Voorhees, can stop Jason in his tracks by assuming a stridently maternal voice. Finally, although she is always smaller and weaker than the killer, she grapples with him energetically and convincingly.

. . .The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine - not, in any case, feminine in the way of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself. Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will, Joey, Max. . . (p. 39)