BOOK REVIEW: THE DREAD OF DIFFERENCE: GENDER AND THE HORROR FILM (SECOND EDITION) / AUTHOR: VARIOUS / PUBLISHER: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
If there's ever a discussion that comes up in the discussion of horror movies, it's the violence -- and, specifically, the way that violence is directed at women. However, in the second edition of The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, the discussion of gender is not limited to violence perpetrated upon women, but also to how women respond to violence, how patriarchal control is limned in boudoir-based horror, and even how violence as perpetrated upon the male body can be seen as a commentary on gender dynamics.
In his introduction, Editor Barry Keith Grant makes the point that “along with the historical epic and the war film, horror is one of the most profitable genres for addressing the always present but forever shifting dilemmas of difference.” It's a statement that will be proven quite true in the essays which follow.
Of all the essays in The Dread of Difference, Carol Clover's 1987 essay, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” might be the most important. Not only do several essays which follow build upon or take off from Clover's points, but it's also a necessary read. It's necessary not just for horror fans, but arguably more important for those who are opposed to horror films, as it does such a wonderful job of ably demonstrating that while there may be violence readily and repeatedly enacted against the female characters in the slasher genre, it is usually a woman – the now-standard “final girl” – who vanquishes the male villain, and mostly through guile, cunning, and wit.
Thomas Doherty's “Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Triology” builds off Clover's essay quite well, even if it does lapse a bit from discussion of genre-gender dynamics and devolves into disappointed film critique of Alien3 and its overall failings as a film. Pointing out that, for the earlier moments of the first film in the franchise, the viewer thinks it's going to be a film about Tom Skerrit's character, but in the end, is about Ripley and her triumph. Granted, Doherty's conclusion, wherein he posits that Ripley's death at the end of the trilogy is “a failure of artistic imagination” on the part of director David Fincher is a bit harsh, but it does demonstrate that the big-budget movies will always shackle the woman in some way – even if it's to death – rather than allow her unqualified success.
It's that refutation of Clover's “final girl” theory that Tony Williams takes especially to heart in his “Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror”, which is essentially taking Clover to task for failing to notice certain things: most notably, the fact that the final girls of the Friday the 13th franchise are frequently left “alive but catatonic”, which is “certainly not victorious!”
The essays contained within the pages of The Dread of Difference cover slashers, sci-fi, classic Universal monsters, and more, even going so far as to look at Eli Roth's Hostel films and In My Skin. The breadth of topics is quite amazing, and while some works might be more readily readable than others, they all offer up viewpoints well worth entertaining.
My only quibble is that I feel that 23 essays and not a single one that mentions Sleepaway Camp and its final reveal – especially in a context regarding how the transgender community is frequently portrayed as being comprised of deviant murderers – seems a wasted opportunity. Given that Linda Williams ever-so-briefly touches on those aspects in the book's first essay, “When the Woman Looks”, by examining Psycho and Dressed to Kill, one wishes that someone else would have taken the baton and really examined the ramification of these films and others in further detail.
However, that's why there could always be a third edition. Editor Grant has chosen a wonderful selection of authors and essays for this second edition of The Dread of Difference, and it should be an immediate addition to the shelf of every horror fan who wishes to go beyond the surface aspects of the films examined therein.