Commentary Track

Dead Alive (1992)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

Dead Alive (1992) 10.5.18
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

— Notes —

  • Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover — This is a seminal book in academic criticism on the horror genre. Highly recommended, and we discuss it in our conversation on Dead Alive.  What follows are  few relevant excerpts from the second chapter, “Opening Up’:
    • “The world at the opening of the standard occult film is a world governed by White Science—a world in which doctors fix patients, sheriffs catch outlaws, mechanics repair cars, and so on. The intrusion of the supernatural turns that routine world on its head: patients develop inexplicable symptoms, outlaws evaporate, cars are either unfixable or repair and run themselves. Experts are called in, but even the most sophisticated forms of White Science cannot account for the mysterious happenings, which in turn escalate to the point at which the whole community (school, summer camp, family) borders on extinction. Enter Black Magic. Some marginal person (usually a woman, but perhaps a male priest or equivalent) invokes ancient precedent (which in a remarkable number of cases entails bringing forth and reading from an old tome on witchcraft, voodoo, incubi, satanic possession, vampirism, whatever). Her explanation offers a more complete account of the mysterious happenings than the White Science explanation. The members of the community take sides. At first White Science holds the day, but as the terror increases, more and more people begin to entertain and finally embrace the Black Magic solution. Doctors admit that the semen specimens or the fetal heartbeats are not human; sheriffs realize that the “outlaw” has been around for four hundred years; mechanics acknowledge that the car is something more than a machine. Only when rational men have accepted the reality of the irrational—that which is unobservable, unquantifiable, and inexplicable by normal logic—can the supernatural menace be reined in and the community returned to a new state of calm. That state of calm is not, however, the same as the opening state of calm, which is now designated as a state of ignorance. It is a new, enlightened state in which White Science, humbled in its failure, works not arrogantly against but respectfully with Black Magic. It is an ABC story, the C being a kind of religioscientific syncretism” (97-98).

    • “But as I suggested at the outset, the conflict between White Science and Black Magic is a deeply gendered one, constitutive of a conflict between male and female and also constitutive, within the male story, of a conflict between “masculine” and “feminine.” It is a rare occult film that does not show us a man in crisis, forced by circumstances to question for the first time the universal claims of White Science and to entertain for the first time the claims of a world—of religious, spiritual, magical, and mystical feelings and occurrences—that he has until now held in contempt. Parallel to and simultaneous with this spiritual crisis is an interpersonal one, as the man confronts and accepts the deep feelings he has toward others—wife, girlfriend, children, parents, and male friend. Whereas the female story traces a circle (she becomes again what she was when the film began), the excesses of its middle disappearing without a physical or psychic trace (Regan is explicitly amnesiac, Linda implicitly so), the male story is linear (he is at the end radically different from what he was at the beginning), public (he and the world know he has changed), and apparently permanent. In other words, hers is an ABA story of restoration in which she emerges unaware of what has transpired, whereas his is an ABC story of revision or conversion in which he emerges a “new man” fully cognizant of what has befallen not only himself but her as well. At the same time, his C is very much like her A. The man he becomes is a man who not only accepts the feminine against which he railed at the outset but even, up to a point, shares it. If he does not accept and share it, as in Don’t Look Now, he dies” (98-99)

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