Saturday, 7 May 2011

From revenge to rape, and back again. Part 1

This post has been a long time coming. And not only because it's a long time since I've posted anything. I've been trying to make sense of the rape-revenge sub-genre ever since I was introduced to it (once again, credit goes to Carol Clover). Maybe not even so much the genre or the movies themselves but something to say about them. Can anything sensible be said, that isn't already said elsewhere?

For those not familiar with the phenomenon: a rape-revenge film is exactly what it sounds like. A person (typically a woman... I'm not aware of any examples where a man is the victim. If you know of any, please comment below) is raped brutally, seemingly unprovoked. She is then left for dead or at least assumed unwilling or unable to do anything about the situation. Her hatred builds up and drives her to perform hideous acts of revenge. Sometimes, the person executing the revenge is not the victim herself but rather someone close to her (especially, of course, in the cases where the victim is actually killed), such as a boyfriend or parents. The rapist(s) is often killed. There are variations, as you will soon enough see, but that is the standard outline.

Not strictly speaking the first of its kind, I Spit On Your Grave (1978) has certainly come to be the defining movie of this bizarre sub-genre.

There was a remake of this film released last year. In 2009, there was a Norwegian rape-revenge film called Hora ('The Whore'), which made all sorts of claims about being the first Norwegian grindhouse film and other things besides, and as far as I am aware it never said anything about being a remake. It was, though. This made me think, again, about what this genre actually is. Can it even be said to be an actual genre, a type of film, or is it just basically one film and endless remakes and variations?

In this post I will try to provide you with a kind of history of the evolution of the rape-revenge film. In some cases, it will be debatable whether the films I'm talking about are actually rape-revenge films at all. Debate away! I've mainly just picked films that help to illustrate my point. Which is hinted at in the title of this post.

Ready? Let's go!

For many reasons, the brutal visual representations of rape have not been around for many decades. Censorship rules and standards of what might be socially acceptable have, as you might be aware, not always been the same as they are today. Movies have always included stories more or less about sex though, and women scorn, and bitter, hateful vengeance. Look, if you will, to the 1958 classic Attack of the 50ft Woman:

When an abused wife grows to giant size because of an alien encounter and an aborted murder attempt, she goes after cheating husband with revenge on her mind.
Here, the theme of female revenge over a male object is brought into horror, and even sci-fi, terrain. Granted there is no hint at an actual rape, I'm sure you could interpret a rape into it if you really wanted: maybe the alien raped Mrs. Archer? Maybe it was a forced marriage that could on some level be likened to rape? Maybe it was just what is popularly referred to as "emotional rape"? Who knows. The revenge motif is clear, and we're talking a real physical type of revenge.

By 1972, things were naturally different. For a start, Wes Craven was in business. And in The Last House on the Left, he is introducing one of his favourite themes: teenagers rebelling against their parents. With added rapists.

Two girls get raped in this film, and the representation of the two rapes are quite different. The first rape is that of the tougher girl, Phyllis, and is not very graphic at all. You hear some noises and Phyllis telling them to 'stop it', but overall it almost seems as if it was a far worse experience for her when she was forced to 'piss her pants'. The rape of her more innocent friend Mari is far more exhausting on the viewer, and the experience of being raped is here pretty much likened to death. Mari is being stabbed in the chest almost while she is being raped (but I think the stabbing takes place just after the other kind of penetration), blood spurts out, she screams and cries and begs for her life. After being raped, Mari gets up, covers herself up and walks into a lake. She is then shot. It seems almost that death is the only possible consequence of being raped.

It is Mari's parents who punish the brutal gang for their crimes after they realise she has been killed. Maybe this is another "mother and father know best" kind of thing? Coming from Craven though, that would be a bit strange (see: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The People Under the Stairs (1991), the Scream films, etc.). Interestingly (though a bit of an aside), one of the men repsonsible for Mari and Phyllis' rapes and deaths, dreams of Mari's parents taking out his teeth. Apparently this can represent 'a fear of rejection [or] sexual impotence', or a loss of 'childhood innocence'.

Although Jennifer in ISOYG is the victim of that film as well as the avenger, she certainly has common traits with Mari's mother. As opposed to Mari, they are both fully adult women, who do not hesitate to use sex as a way of getting back at the ones who have somehow hurt them. In both films, the men do not seem to have any doubts about the legitimacy of the women's approaches – maybe believing themselves to be that irresistable, or in Jennifer's case that they have somehow changed her mind about them; that deep down, she must have enjoyed the rape(s).

I realise I have not really paid much attention to the rape scenes themselves. If you have not seen these films you will just have to take my word for it: they are there, and they are quite graphic. Indeed, 'the length of the rape sequence, the prolonged physical and mental anguish suffered by the victim' were among the reasons why ISOYG was originally refused classification. (Here is a link to the Video Nasties documentary.)

In order to prevent this post from getting so long that no one will want to read the whole thing, I will pause here and get back to you with a part 2 within a couple of days. There will be quite a leap in time in terms of films being discussed as well, so this is a good place to take a break.

Oh, and while we're all here: it is now possible to be become a fan of Tits And a Scream on Facebook! I set it up so that I can share funny links and film clips and stuff, and still keep this blog as "clean" as possible. See you there, guys n gals.