If you want to start a spirited debate amongst horror fans, a sure fire topic to bring up is the infamous rape/revenge sub-genre probably best known because of movies like Meir Zarchi's 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave (originally titled: Day of the Woman) or Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left from 1972.
Both films include elongated scenes featuring a group of men torturing and raping a woman, followed by them meeting their demise as a direct result of their crimes. Both are also often cited as classics that every horror fan must see and each has recently been remade for a more contemporary audience.
The main source of conflict about these and other films like them is whether or not they actually do the job that many cinephiles and film scholars claim they're meant to. That is, to highlight the ugliness of sexual violence and give women an outlet to vent their rage at a sexist society via the revenge doled out by the films' protagonists. But is this actually the intent or just a positive spin on yet another way that cinema exploits women and their sexuality?
In her book Men Women and Chainsaws Carol Clover writes about this sub-genre with a focus on I Spit on Your Grave. She says of the way the sexual violence is portrayed in that particular film, "gang rape has first and foremost to do with male sport and...only secondarily to do with sex, the implication being that team sport and gang rape are displaced versions of one another ...both driven by male spectatorship."
This is an important point because while it speaks to the intent of the filmmaker to reinforce the horrors of rape and showing that it's a crime that has very little to do with the actual victim. It could also be used to argue the fact that there's a certain demographic who might be watching because they actually like seeing the sexual violence. There's no denying that rape fetishists might, in fact be the main audience seeking out these types of films.
Acknowledging that fact makes it hard not to see how a filmmaker might start out wanting to make a statement on sexual violence, but will end up catering to what will actually sell the film: an arguably unnecessary 40-minute, brutally explicit rape scene. Would it be possible to make the same point without the film being built around a scene that might carry a confusing message for the audience? After all, The Accused included a rape scene that was horrifying but never once felt exploitative.
Rape vs. Revenge
This brings up the question: what is the real focus of the rape/revenge film? We all know that sex sells, but then so does violence -- especially in the horror genre. Meir Zarchi, director of the original I Spit on Your Grave, has said that inspiration for his film came from stumbling upon a recently attacked woman in Central Park and seeing how she was mistreated by the police which resulted in her never receiving justice. He then wrote the screenplay as a re-imagining of the situation, allowing that rape survivor to get her revenge. This would suggest that, in his mind, the focus of his film was the bloody retaliation. But then why include a rape scene that, at the time, was the longest scene of its kind in cinema history? If the intent is truly to right the wrongs of the justice system against rape victims, shouldn't the rape simply be a hellish impetus for the real showcase: the victim taking back the control and dispatching the rapists?
There's an argument to be made that Zarchi's film is simply imparting the true horror of both acts by giving them equal importance, but the same cannot be said for the 2010 remake by Steven Monroe. This version amps up the violence of the retaliation in accordance with today's gore porn standards, but pulls back from helping the audience to identify with the victim by not fleshing out her character. In fact, she disappears for a large part of the film's second act while we get to know more about the rapists. This, perhaps inadvertently, sends the message that we should feel dread about the cartoon-like atrocities that we know are about to befall them in the comparatively short third act. Despite being both the catalyst and the driving force behind all of the film's action, the female character is unimportant. Here it's clear: the main event is the rape.
The Female Perspective
For the most part, rape/revenge films have been the territory of male writers and directors. In other words, it's a man's idea of what women would want to have the power to do if they were brutalized. It's a base desire for vengeance that's present in all human beings, yet few female filmmakers have waded into this territory to explore it.
In Virginie Despantes' Baise-moi the filmmaker looks at how violence begets violence, a take that seems largely an afterthought of films like The Last House on the Left or Ms. 45. The main characters are out on a man-murdering spree after their attacks yet the film never takes the stance that any of their violence is justified. Yes, they may be revolting against a society that's set up to kill women's self-esteem every day, but murder is still bad. Strangely enough, for a movie that takes such an ethical stance, it was pretty difficult for people to look past the explicit but by-no-means gratuitous rape scene, to what the filmmaker was saying about violence. The film was banned in several cities.
In other words, there's simply no room for moralizing in the rape/revenge genre. Especially where women are concerned.
Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the Canadian Film Centre. She's also a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, has written for multiple websites including Toronto Film Scene (where she acted as editor-in-chief) and We Got This Covered, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community. Reach her on Twitter: @mskristalcooper