Colin Le Sueur

Colin Le Sueur

colin@colinlesueur.com
Colin Le Sueur

Misogynism and the Macabre

More so than possibly any other genre in film, the concept of gender is central to the horror film. The slasher, in particular, regularly examines the relationship between men and women, along with the on-screen representations of masculinity and femininity. Recently, focus has shifted onto the depiction of the woman in the slasher and her empowerment or disempowerment. Many critics specifically argue that slashers are “particularly misogynist” (Grant 8) in their portrayal and treatment of women. Director Rob Zombie’s recent film House of 1000 Corpses (2003), for example, contains many disturbing and potentially misogynist sequences. The film is a proto-slasher, an homage to early splatter film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974), among others. Recognising this, how does the film fit into more modern theories of gender in horror? Following a description of the representation of women in House of 1000 Corpses, certain sequences will be analysed using classical and modern feminist theories, those of Laura Mulvey and Carol Clover, respectively. This analysis will help to answer the question, ‘Is this film truly misogynistic in its depiction of women?’

In a throw-back to the slasher films of the early 1970s, the representation of women in House of 1000 Corpses is at best problematic and at worst misogynistic. The basic plot of the film involves two couples travelling across country in 1977; they run across a dangerous and psychotic family in their travels and are slowly and methodically terrorised and killed. What’s more interesting than the sparse plot or gruesome violence is the film’s treatment and representation of women. For instance, of the film’s fifteen major characters, four are women. Two of the women are murderers (Baby and Mother Firefly) and two of them are victims (Mary and Denise). Both of the murderers are depicted as sexually ravenous, trying at separate instances to seduce the men they encounter. The only other women shown are victims of the crazed family, often appearing half-naked or dead.

The two primary female characters in the film are much less interesting than the males. Practically homogeneous, they suffer from little character development and engender almost no audience sympathy. Mary, in particular, is almost unredeemingly negative and overly confrontational; perhaps this is writer and director Rob Zombie’s image of a feminist from the 1970s. With Denise, however, there is one sequence (discussed in greater detail further below) that gives her character some dimensionality: the short sequence near the beginning of the film when she telephones home to speak with her father. For the most part the two boyfriends have more interesting dialogue and more dynamic personalities. This is in contrast to traditional slasher films such as Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), for instance. As Carol Clover discusses gender roles in the slasher, she notes that “[boyfriends] are for the most part marginal, undeveloped characters” (Clover 44). House reverses that concept, perhaps ironically and knowingly.

The costumes worn by many of the women in the film are also quite interesting. Along with the two couples, the Firefly family has kidnapped a group of cheerleaders, still in their uniforms. The cheerleader has become saturated with sexual significance, an icon of female sexuality and desire. Moreover, at one point in the film, Denise is dressed in a schoolgirl or doll’s costume, complete with exaggerated makeup. Much like the cheerleader, the schoolgirl image has become sexualised in some circles. Finally, the Firefly family dress the surviving main characters in rabbit outfits, perhaps a reference to Playboy and the sexual revolution of the 1950s and 60s. All three images, the cheerleader, the schoolgirl, and the bunny, are powerful icons of female sexuality and represent male desire projected onto women. The idea of a woman as object of male desire leads into the spectacle theories of Laura Mulvey, examined next.

Baby Firefly is nothing more than an erotic spectacle, an object of violent sexuality. According to feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, the female figure on screen represents a visual spectacle, an object of male sexual desire. a phenomenon that “[freezes] the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey 11). In essence, the spectacle of the female form halts the narrative, with the visual image taking precedence over the “flow of the diegesis” (Mulvey 11). The film halts completely, allowing the audience the opportunity to indulge in their “scopophilia” (8), or pleasure in looking. There are two such sequences in House of 1000 Corpses that completely halt the narrative; both involve Baby Firefly (interestingly played by director Rob Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon).

The first sequence of spectacle literally announces itself as such. The “Showtime” sequence involves Baby Firefly performing a burlesque dance to the classic Betty Boop song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” The sequence begins with a set of intertitles announcing “Showtime” and “Our Next Attraction.” What follows is a series of shot-reverse-shot, starting with a medium to close shot of Baby and cutting to a reaction shot of the two couples. Baby is clearly the focus of this sequence and holds the attention of both the diegetic audience and the viewer of the film. Moreover, both men and women are fascinated by Baby, though clearly for different reasons. For the men, as Mulvey states, “she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (11). The men are fascinated by her because she represents sexuality and desire. Conversely, the women appear shocked and disgusted by her performance, perhaps seeing their boyfriends sexually fascinated with Baby. To them, Baby represents unrestrained sexuality, as opposed to their repressed sexuality, and therefore is a threat to their relationship with their boyfriends.

For the most part in the film, both Denise and Mary are not sexualised; only near the end of the film does Denise gain any sexuality (as will be discussed later). It is interesting to note that the film’s most sexually open female is also the most dangerous and violent. Although Mother Firefly does kill the sheriff, his death is rather passionless. When Baby finally kills Mary, however, it represents almost a sexual release, an explosion of rage and emotional violence.

This sequence also asks an interesting question: who does the film’s spectator identify with, the men or the women? In her original article, Mulvey argues that the spectator (primarily male) “projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate” (12); essentially, this means the spectator would identify with Bill and Jerry as they objectify Baby. However, this identification is not as simple as it appears; many other factors influence it. For instance, although Baby is a receptacle of sexual desire, she also represents physical violence and psychosis, as witnessed in previous scenes. In an interesting interstitial sequence, Baby non-diegetically speaks to the camera, as if in a home movie; she reveals to the audience that “If someone needs to be killed, you kill ‘em. That’s the way.” Basically, the film announces her as an immediate threat, rather than building suspense as to her true nature. Therefore, Baby represents dangerous feminine sexuality, potentially castrative. Surrendering to her look means potential death. Therefore, it is possible for the spectator to identify with the women, to look at Baby in disgust. However, the way the sequence is shot and the way the girls are portrayed, the primary reading is one of identification with the male gaze. The next sequence of spectacle is only for the non-diegetic audience, and serves almost no function whatsoever in the narrative.

After an extended spectacle of violence, the film offers a wholly extraneous spectacle of sexuality. Shortly after a self-conscious, nearly silent 35 second crane shot depicting one of the psychotic males of the Firefly family shooting a sheriff’s deputy in the head, the audience is “rewarded” with another extended Baby spectacle sequence. Provocative music on the non-diegetic soundtrack, Baby poses half-naked in front of “Red Hot Pussy Liquors,” orally fixated on a piece of chewing gum. The sequence continues to show fragmented close-ups of Baby’s exposed buttocks, intercut with images of apparently black and white fetish films. As Baby enters the liquor store, there are two quick shots of garish neon signs advertising “Adult Movies.”

This entire sequence (including a scene inside the liquor store) has no impact at all on the previous or following narrative. As before, it completely freezes the flow of the film. The only reason for the sequence is to titillate the audience, to display Baby’s (and Sheri Moon’s) sexuality and “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 11). This sequence is interesting, however, when considering Mulvey’s theory of “fetishistic scopophilia,” wherein the male viewer “[turns] the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous” (Mulvey 14). Baby represents both a castrating force and an object of sexual desire. By fetishising her, Baby loses her power to castrate. Along with the mentioned theories of spectacle and fetishism, a modern analysis of House of 1000 Corpses will help to determine if the film truly hates women.

One of the most interesting theories concerning gender and the horror film is the concept of the Final Girl. According to Carol Clover, most slashers fit into a pattern wherein one lone surviving girl remains standing at the end of the film, usually escaping the killer, or more recently killing the killer. She is the one person who manages to avoid the killer, while still watching her friends die around her (Clover 35). Along with the concept of the Final Girl, Clover discusses several archetypes prevalent in the slasher: the terrible place, weapons, and victims. Essentially, the terrible place is “most often a house or tunnel” (Clover 30) where all the violence and depravity is enacted. The weapons are usually “pretechnological,” essentially “knives, hammers, axes… and the like” (31). Finally, the victims are often “sexual transgressors of both sexes” (33), though the deaths of women involve more “lingering images” (35) of violence. Taking these archetypes, and the idea of the Final Girl, is this film a standard slasher?

Though closer to early 70s slasher victims, there is a Final Girl in House of 1000 Corpses. Denise is first identified as the Final Girl in her early conversation with her father (a scene mentioned previously). Though a slight and forgettable scene, hers is the only character with any mentioned connection to the outside world and the only person with an emotional attachment. As Clover states, “The practiced viewer distinguishes her from her friends minutes into the film” (39). The Final Girl sequence, according to Clover, “occupies the last ten to twenty minutes” (39) of a film. In House, the Final Girl sequence begins with about fifteen minutes remaining. Denise is separated from everyone else (Bill and Mary are dead, Jerry is taken away), alone in a dark tunnel deep underground. This represents the “terrible place” mentioned earlier. However, unlike most other slashers, the killer in the Final Girl sequence does not appear in the film until the very end (perhaps mirroring the late onscreen appearance of the killer in the first Friday the 13th). Denise encounters and is chased by a monstrous masculine figure, masked and complete with phallic axe (matching the “weapon” archetype). This killer fits the profile established by Clover, as well. However, rather than the more active Final Girls of recent years (as described by Clover), Denise is more similar to one of the original Final Girls, Sally in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, who simply survives long enough to be rescued. Granted, House is clearly referencing the previous film in its ending.

The only slasher criterion that does not fit this film is the idea of a sexual transgressor as victim. None of the main victims (Bill, Mary, or Jerry) are involved in anything resembling sexual activity. Interestingly, however, Denise does become more sexual during the Final Girl phase. Stripped out of her rabbit costume by a pair of grasping old men, Denise is reborn as a sexual being, represented on film by her schoolgirl/Alice in Wonderland costume. Much like Baby’s dangerous sexuality, Denise develops a defensive sexuality; without it, she would not have evaded the killer. She becomes, through POV shots from the killer’s eyes, the object of the male gaze; therefore, opposite to Baby, she becomes fetishised and empowered, able to resist the masculine killer.

After reviewing the sequential and textual analysis, is House of 1000 Corpses indeed misogynist? The answer is rather complex. One of the main elements to remember about this film is that it does not exist in a vacuum. There are several major influences, both explicitly stated and implicitly inferred. Most importantly, this film is an homage to early 1970s horror films and therefore adopts the attitudes of that period, albeit adjusted slightly. The depiction of women, at least in the killer Baby, is quite different from say, Texas Chain Saw. In that regard, perhaps it can be viewed as a feminist film. However, the use of spectacle and degradation shown toward women practically negates that argument. Is the film misogynist? Perhaps more so than modern slasher, but certainly not more than classical ones.

Bibliography

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Grant, Barry K. “Introduction.” The Dread of Difference. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16/3 (1975), pp.6-18.

Colin Le Sueur
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
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