Wickham Clayton, editor. Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. ISBN 978-1-137-49646-1. €48 (paperback). 254pp
It is only fitting, in a collection of this type, that Carol Clover haunts almost every page; her timely intervention, first with her influential article “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” (1987), and then with Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), looms as large in this book as any of the iconic monsters whose abject antics established the popularity of the slasher film. If slasher films were once “beyond the purview of legitimate criticism” (Clover 206), before Clover almost singlehandedly imbued them with a kind of critical allure, this collection proves that the slasher discourse is not a static one and remains open to new and exciting theories: Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film (2015), edited by Wickham Clayton, manages to pay tribute to Clover while also re-engaging with her core theories in very interesting if, at times, highly critical ways. In his Introduction (“The Collection Awakes”), Clayton acknowledges Clover’s status in slasher studies but is also keen to argue for the application of a renewed critical interest; one that need not centralise auteur theory or psychoanalysis (the twin poles on which much of the academic writing on the horror film has rested, including Clover’s), but instead one which offers an approach that centralises readings of films that take into account their formal and stylistic aspects.
The first section, “The Birth, Death and Revenge of the Hollywood Slasher,” presents essays which, collectively, trace the evolution of the classic slasher from its inception in the late 1970s, to more recent slashers (released in the 1990s and 2000s) whose tropes were infused with Gothic aesthetics. In terms of structure, Clayton restricts this opening section to the formal aesthetics of specifically classic (or traditional) slashers and certain “hybrids” which still cleaved to traditional tropes, wisely delaying any discussion of the subgenre’s major turning point, the release of Scream (Wes Craven 1996) and with it the sweeping adoption of self-reflexivity and irony that came to dominate the slasher cycle (and many of the remaining essays in this book), until the later sections.
Apart from confirming that the slasher was disposed to experimentation from an early age, David Roche’s opening essay focuses on thematic material which connects most (if not all) of the essays in the collection: the battle for mastery of the visual field between the killer and Final Girl (Clover’s “genderised gaze” is discussed in the opening paragraph). Examining two films that were released immediately before (When a Stranger Calls [Fred Walton 1979]), and immediately after (Eyes of a Stranger [Ken Wiederhorn 1981]), the major success of classic slasher Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham 1980), Roche argues that both these films are hybrid slashers, mixing slasher and psychological thriller tropes which allow for a fluctuating point of view. On the formal level, Roche states, the slasher is premised on “a conspicuous instability of point of view” (18), with the killer’s POV represented through framing aligned with “subjective” camera movement (the opening scene of Halloween is the locus classicus). The two films earn their “hybrid” status by personalising their killers halfway through the narrative, allowing for a more stable POV with a consequent movement away from the slasher towards the thriller format.
Clayton’s own essay follows, where he attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (Danny Steinmann 1985), a film conceived during a period when the subgenre’s popularity was in decline. Describing it as “a prophetic, as opposed to influential, harbinger of the abilities of the slasher to transcend its base connotations as ‘low’ art” (37), Clayton fights against overwhelming odds – the film drew the ire of franchise fans and slasher critics everywhere – by basing his argument around the film’s “unique and original approach to style and narration” (37). He does, however, make many interesting observations about the film’s formal construction, particularly its innovative treatment of POV. Providing a neat contrast to Roche’s essay, two key strands of Clayton’s argument are worth noting: the manner in which the film organises its formal strategies, particularly its editing and use of sound, to favour the victim’s POV over the killer’s; and the increased time given over to the victims’ personalities, setting the film apart from most other entries in the franchise.
Next, Karra Shimabukuro analyses the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, employing an interdisciplinary approach to argue for the auteur tendencies of the series as a whole (despite the different directors who worked on the individual films). Adapting the theory of functional aesthetics from the art world, which argues for practical considerations as an influence on aesthetics, and linking it, rather unwisely, I believe, to David Bordwell’s six tenets of modernism in cinema, Shimabukuro traces the evolution of functional aesthetics throughout the series. Freddy’s bladed glove, for example, and the frames within frames, such as windows, mirrors and doors, all took on the status of functional aesthetics and evolved throughout the series. These frames, as they became more prevalent in the films, somehow act, in accord with Bordwell’s system, as a modernist device to encourage aesthetic distance. However, in a few cases there appears to be a mismatch between the headings provided by Bordwell’s tenets and the content attached: under “The modernist work retains overt traces of the process of its making” heading, Shimabukuro discusses the evolution of special effects in the films without saying how they reveal the films’ production processes.
In the final essay in this section, Stacey Abbott provides a convincing argument for the overlap of slasher and Gothic aesthetics in Candyman (Bernard Rose 1992) and Saw (James Wan 2004). Abbott’s point of departure is Clover’s conception of the “Terrible Place,” explaining that “it is through this notion of the Terrible Place that the conventions of the slasher film connect most overtly with the Gothic” (69). Resituating their Terrible Places to the urban environment of the modern city, both Candyman and Saw are “dripping with abject urban decay and evoking a tradition of urban Gothic” (69-70). Formally, both films often use the same devices to evoke the Gothic, but in functionally different ways. The use of voice over (VO) at the beginning of the narratives, for example, affect the viewer differently: Candyman offers “a dreamy and nightmarish experience” (73), while Saw privileges a “visceral” one (ibid).
Section Two, “Older, Darker and Self-Aware,” embraces the ironic, self-reflexive obsessions of the subgenre after the release of Scream, although the first essay doesn’t completely sever the link with the classic slasher. Andrew Patrick Nelson asserts that because of “the necessarily historical treatment of its villain” (83), Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Steve Miner 1998) has a less intense relationship with its intertextuality than Scream and those other slashers which Valerie Wee collected under the term “hyperpostmodernism”. The main thing that sets this film apart from other self-reflexive slashers, according to Nelson, is that the characters’ knowledge does not come from other films (as is the case in Scream and its derivatives) but from characters’ personal experience. This aspect of Halloween H2O also allows the film to avoid the fate of the hyperpostmodern slasher: whereby intertextuality becomes the text itself.
Nelson’s essay is followed by another defence of a lesser-known slasher. Valentine (Jamie Blanks 2001), Mark Richard Adams insists, incorporates a stylistic excess that marks it as innovative; it is a misunderstood slasher in which “the chaotic nature of its component parts have (sic) combined to create a film that is actually both disturbing and effective” (93). The excess Adams claims for the film rests on its visual style, which depends on trans-media convergence with late-1990s TV drama and certain aspects of the neo-slasher cycle (again, late-1990s films). There follows a strangely contradictory discussion on the schematic use of colour in the film, where Adams cites Robert Kolker’s view that colour can have a distancing effect, adds Jeffrey Sconce’s paracinematic idea (describing a stylistic excess which foregrounds the artificial nature of cinema), and then claims, in a discussion of the first murder scene, that “[the colour] blue places the audience in a position of expectation that continues throughout the sequence” (98). This last point, whether true or not, certainly contradicts the previous two. However, while I find the author’s arguments often lacking interpretative rigour, I still admire his close readings of key scenes, such as the opening school dance and the art installation murder, and his complete focus on the formal aspects of the film.
The next two essays return us to hybrid slashers and further exploration of the Saw saga. Ian Conrich presents a detailed discussion of the emergence of the grand slasher, which assimilated elements from disaster films, computer games, theme park rides and science fiction. He understands the need for a renewed examination of the contexts which give rise to this kind of generic evolution, arguing that “[p]opular film can be highly absorbent and can reflect, refract and inspire new cultural variations on existing forms” (108). Slasher cycles are not repetitive, but evolutionary – and there is significant overlap between them, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to set their parameters. Conrich refers to Angela Ndalianis’s idea of increased connectivity between branches of the entertainment industry, emphasising how both the Final Destination and Saw franchises, with their puzzles and games master villains, are hugely influenced by video games.
Matthew Freeman’s essay takes up where Conrich’s left off, continuing the discussion of the Saw franchise in terms of what Warren Buckland calls the “puzzle film”. David Bordwell’s appropriation of the Russian formalists’ fabula and syuzhet categories, and Buckland’s later application of them, are used here to describe how the seven films of the saga, taken as a whole, seek to “make a puzzle of its own diegesis” (122), with Freeman asserting that this series is unique in the way it examines its own narrative history. The ambiguous ontological status of John Kramer (the “Jigsaw” killer), who seemingly, like Freddy Kreuger, has the ability to transcend the alive/dead dichotomy, moves the film series into postmodern territory. Conrich’s and Freeman’s essays are highlights of the collection, offering an understanding of a much-derided slasher cycle (often called “torture porn”) that goes beyond its reputation for simplistic narratives.
The Russian formalists again provide a solid argumentative base for Gary Bettinson’s “Resurrecting Carrie”. While many of the other essays in the collection deal with the results of evolution, the focus here is on evolution in action. Using the formalist concept of historical backgrounds, Bettinson charts the evolutionary transformation of slasher conventions from the pre-slasher cycle to the more recent post-slasher cycle (the 2000s and beyond), beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and ending with Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie (2013). De Palma utilised a number of tropes from Psycho, the latter becoming, in Russian formalist terms, a background text for Carrie (1976). But if De Palma used the same formal devices as Hitchcock, Bettinson argues he gave them new functions through an act of creative deformation (for example, Clover’s Terrible Place is now, for the first time, situated in sunny suburbia). Peirce’s remake, on the other hand, makes use of much different background texts. Bettinson makes a strong case here that the influence of superhero films on the one hand, and the contemporary cycle of slasher remakes of classic titles from the 1970s and 1980s on the other, position Peirce’s film as a return to the type of traditional slasher which De Palma sought to plunder.
The final section, “Form versus Theory,” collects essays that are designed to show how formal analysis can work alongside theoretical analysis. We’ve had gentle reminders of this in earlier sections, but the essays here leave us in no doubt. After haunting quite a few of the previous essays, Scream is the principal subject of the section’s first essay. Fran Pheasant-Kelly somehow confers plausibility on the argument that Scream is both a unique slasher film and an embodiment of Baudrillard’s simulacrum. The unsubtle use of intertextuality “becomes the film’s text” (149) (emphasis in original), but doesn’t prevent Scream from being “genuinely horrific” (ibid). And while it remained at a distance from other slashers which employed irony, Scream’s success turned its aesthetics into a template for subsequent slashers. Apart from Baudrillard, and Wee’s “hyperpostmodernism” hypothesis, the author cleverly weaves together theoretical approaches by Rick Worland, Julia Kristeva and Frederic Jameson, among others, to fashion a fresh understanding of the film as a postmodern (even hyper-postmodern) work grounded in seriousness.
Pheasant-Kelly’s essay is followed by Jessica Balanzategui’s excellent examination of the supernatural in the slasher film. Discussing Fallen (Gregory Hoblit 1998), In Dreams (Neil Jordan 1999) and Frailty (Bill Paxton 2001), the author finds that the processes of identification, always important in the slasher, are here foregrounded in the films’ formal aesthetics by rupturing the usual dichotomy of villain/victim in the tug-of-war for control of the visual field. “The supernatural is employed to engage the viewer in an overtly disorienting oscillation between the perspective of the hero/ine and the villain” (162), Balanzategui explains. This conflict of scopic mastery is rarely explored in the actual narrative of the slasher, and the author’s claims for these films as the vanguard of a new cycle, whose “new sincerity” position them in a dialogue with the parodic slashers of that period, are given credence in a well-crafted essay.
The next two essays examine slasher films using specific theoretical categories. Darren Elliott-Smith presents a queer reading of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel 2003), and Dana Och offers a new understanding of cinematic realism, this time linking it with surveillance culture and the wider socio-political implications of technology and the paranoia it attracts. If Elliott-Smith fails to fully convince that the violence done to the male torso is attached to a romantic component, he nevertheless provides a thought-provoking argument, addressing the gender “imbalance” in the slasher which foregrounds the female victim, and leaves the topic open for further study. Och, by contrast, packs so much into her in-depth analysis of slasher horror in the post-9/11 era, that you would be forgiven for thinking it was the last word on the subject. Her understanding of how the impact of films like The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) led the postmodern slasher film down a path towards neopostmodernism, characterised by the greater freedom awarded to the viewer to determine what was real as well as the replacement of the gendered gaze with a “surveillant gaze” (201), is one of the most provocative discussions in the book.
The final essay, Janet Staiger’s survey of Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws book, is a fitting end to the collection, assessing how the book’s core ideas stand up nearly twenty-five years later in relation to the cultural function of the slasher. One of her key arguments is the contention that while Clover opened up “the possibilities of theorizing cross-gender identification and same-sex desire among the audience members” (214), she should have included a supernatural component to the killer’s origins. An occult dimension is essential to allow for an invincible killer (which is also essential) – but an unstoppable monster must necessarily weaken the Final Girl formula (Staiger points to Laurie in Halloween, who needs help from Dr Loomis to stop Michael). In an argument that steers her essay slightly away from the formal remit of the collection, Staiger nonetheless raises an interesting point about the relationship between sexuality, death, and the abandonment of closure in the slasher. Sexuality is the threshold that leads to adulthood – in films where the child is gendered feminine and the adult gendered masculine (Clover’s Final Girl plays out this gender transformation) – and adulthood leads to death in the slasher. The “anti-denouement” keeps the threat alive. This collection keeps the discourse on the slasher going; I truly hope the book gets the attention it deserves.
Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187-228.
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