Rape revenge films have often sparked controversy among audiences and critics alike, some of which declare that depicting such brutal rape is an easy way to cheapen a violent and unthinkable crime, passing it off as common exploitation cinema with the simple purpose to entertain. Another opinion is that these films are necessary to raise awareness, or rather, present, the realistic nature of these despicable acts and their effect on the victims. The pertinence of the 21st century within this discussion is the key to noticing a plausible misunderstanding of the original concept, as the influence of third-wave feminism, as well as society’s ever-changing values, can distort our perception of what the horror really is in these films. Challenging the reason for portraying such gruesome rape scenes, often thoroughly criticised for their unnecessarily guttural nature, asks the question; is this something that happens to unsuspecting women more often than we care to imagine? What effect does that have on the horror film of today? And who is the real monster within these films?
Many films categorised as ‘rape revenge’ draw attention to the subject of rape and how the perception to this changes over time.The 1970s proved to be a decade incorporating substantial change for women, with the inception of second-wave feminism; an ideal that was taken from female ideologies of how women should and should not be represented in the media, often arguing that over-sexualising the female figure was detrimental to women’s equal rights. With essays such as feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema being published in Screen Magazine in 1975, opinion was beginning to shift towards a future with a changing representation of women on film. Laura Mulvey’s realisation of ‘the male gaze’ forced Hollywood and independent film-makers to face-up to their discrimination regarding their poorly represented female characters, asking them to rethink their all-male protagonist approach, along with their penchant for silent naked women. She warned of an approaching female uprising against this unrealistic film representation of women. But what effect did this have on the horror genre? A genre heavily featuring female exploitation and extreme violence.
A film that was decided to be far too exploitative of rape and torture for entertainment’s sake was Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left in 1972 which the BBFC refused certification of the film (even if scenes were cut) due to the whole ‘feel of the film’. A decade later the film was briefly released on VHS without a certification, soon to be deemed a video nasty by the director of public prosecutions at the time. The Last House on the Left began a frenzy of revenge films by loosely adapting Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Appearing a year after Straw Dogs and the same year as Deliverance, The Last House on the Left began a new sub-genre of horror that influenced many films to come and presented its audience with a different level of realism than they’d been accustomed to. The film depicts two girls who are tortured relentlessly by a gang of escaped psychopaths, whose deaths are then avenged by their parents, once the murderers unwittingly stumble onto their doorstep seeking refuge. Interestingly, this rape revenge film does not present the victims avenging their own torture, which is predominant in more recent rape revenge films. The Last House on the Left, began the trend for portraying the police and the authorities as either contributory or incompetent, with the latter being presented in The Last House on the Left as the police are either driving past the crime scene without noticing, or hitching rides from chicken farmers with a non-diegetic music overlay strikingly reminiscent to the Benny Hill theme.
1978 saw the birth of the seminal, though infamous ‘video nasty’, rape revenge film, spawning one remake and two sequels. Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave came at a time in the 1970s when rape was beginning to be taken much more seriously as a social issue and women finally had a platform where people might take notice. I Spit on Your Grave follows Jennifer as she is tortured and raped in her house in the middle of the woods, before she recovers and takes revenge on her attackers. I Spit on Your Grave caused controversy among those who considered the rape element to be so severe that the sadistic nature of the film defeated the object of the perpetrators getting their comeuppance. Film critic Roger Ebert said at the time of release that the film was “a vile bag of garbage… without a shred of artistic distinction”. The film received mostly negative reviews from all corners, many suggesting that it isn’t pro-women in the slightest. Ebert commented on a female audience member who shouted out about her “feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine”. He wrote, “I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes”. This shows that a female perspective was not considered to any merit and Ebert seemed to dismiss the fact that the horrific rape scenes are why the audience should be on the protagonist’s side with her revenge, and sparks the notion that the movie was actually a misunderstood feminist film.
Female protagonist roles within horror began with lustful femme fatal figures in films such as The Vampire Lovers in 1970, continuing the transformation of horror films to include sexualised themes. After Hammer released Horror of Dracula in 1958, sparking the idea that monsters could be sexy, the genre then moved swiftly onto portraying women as sex symbols, or ‘scream queens’, whose appearance in slasher movies such as Halloween, Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street would be for the simple reason to be killed (whilst probably quite naked), for entertainment purposes only. The audience of the 1980s just wanted to see sex and violence, explicitly towards women, so that’s what they were given, as film censorship was becoming slightly more lax. The slasher movies from the 1980s show how the torture revenge films of the 1970s contributed little leeway for female characters within the horror genre, until moving forward to films such as Ginger Snaps in 2000 where a transition occurred. This time we are to be afraid of the female character, rather than just attracted to it, therefore paving the way for a rape revenge horror reboot.
The onset of third-wave feminism post 2000s – a feminism where women know what they want and go after it, whatever it is – brought with it revenge flicks that know they are pro-women, showing victimised women fighting back. With this comes horrendous scenes of physical and sexualised violence towards the women involved – much worse than the audience has seen previously, which leads the viewer to understand the levels of unthinkable horror the protagonist would have to go through to become a vengeful murderer.
Despite this apparent shift in culture towards female leads, I Spit on Your Grave (2010) was received by critics in the same harsh way as the original, with many reviewers dismissing the film as little more than cartoonish revenge taken in a world where it seems that an eye for an eye is acceptable. Yet again, the lack of notable attraction to the female empowerment angle leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, asking whether even in 2010, are the people and the critics still failing to understand the ability to address a real social issue within disgusting and brutal filmmaking? Is all people see really just the gore? Also going unnoticed are the failings from the authority to intervene when the protagonist needs their help, something that was vacant from the 1978 I Spit on Your Grave, while very much an obvious blame standpoint within the remakes.
The 2010 remake had the County Sheriff rape Jennifer along with the gang, causing her to have nobody to run to, and therefore leaving her no choice but to handle the situation herself. The second movie takes it a step further by suggesting that anybody Katie seeks help from seems to have a connection to the gang, as she is returned to the house of torture by a female officer who tricks her into thinking she will be taken to the US Embassy. I Spit on Your Grave 2 is also all the more frightening due to the foreign country element. Katie escapes her captors the first time and runs flailing down the street like a crazy person, having no idea where she is; when she runs into a policeman. This policeman then begins to take the stance of not believing what Katie is telling him, suggesting that she may be on drugs (which she is to an extent true, as the kidnappers drugged her). Only when Katie is approached with help from the local priest, does the policeman who disbelieved her, begin to think she may need serious help and looks into it further. This is too late as by this point Katie has healed and is beginning her plot to take revenge on all her captors. Once again proving how the failure of protection by the authorities is to blame for the revenge taken by Katie, after being unable to obtain justice. This angle would begin to suggest a flourishing notification of the way females can often be disbelieved when terrible things happen to them, therefore acknowledging as to why Jennifer did not even attempt to go to the police in 1978.
In I Spit on Your Grave 3, the writer (Daniel Gilboy) gave us a different female character in addition to the return of 2010’s Jennifer (renamed Angela in number 3), with Marla, a David Fincher inspired character who beats up paedophiles and knows how to put a sex attacker down in a sarcastic and witty way. She stands up for everyone except apparently her abusive boyfriend who ends up killing her. The film yet again focuses on the failure of the police department, as the detective investigating her death says: “Maybe she was into weird shit”, inferring that he can’t seem to accept that a woman might be beaten or killed through no fault or action of her own. When asked about his approach to writing the female roles, Gilboy explained that: “When dealing with the subject of rape, you are instantly dealing with gender issues as well. It is a minefield, because you do not want to intentionally offend anyone. I tried, as much as possible, to think about each character as a person, rather than a representative of a gender. As a man, that’s the only way I can approach writing any female characters.”
This sequel’s angle on the authorities is a more civilised and realistic standpoint to how the justice system might fail a rape victim, as opposed to the previous two films that suggest the police are ‘in on it’. This is a redeeming feature of the third film, especially as even the writer was explaining that he wouldn’t be able to understand these girls’ actions, or even be able to get his point across properly: “The lack of nice male characters was intentional, but I don’t feel we quite hit the mark in getting our point across.”
The whole idea that everyone else in the film doesn’t even entertain the notion that women might be able to fight back is what enables them to commit revenge killings and go unnoticed. It begins a catch 22 where the girls get frustrated with the incompetent authorities fail to catch the wrongdoers, however it is the same authorities failings that are allowing their revenge killings to go unnoticed. When film critics review these films as violence on violence, they completely miss why this happens; because of the incompetent police and the knowledge of just that by everyone involved.
There are so many things that link rape revenge films together, with only a small proportion being the female solidarity element. The main recurring feature of this type of exploitation horror is the relentless and unrepentant torture and gore. I Spit on Your Grave 3 includes a horrific male genital mutilation scene during Angela’s revenge. A scene which telegraphs the original The Last House on the Left, where the mother seduces her daughter’s attacker and proceeds to bite off his penis. Let us also not forget the horrific ball-crushing scene in I Spit on Your Grave 2. The sadism in the revenge attacks is designed to mirror the first attacks on the protagonist, who would deem castration a reasonable punishment that fits the crime. These scenes, however, are often viewed as more horrific, possibly to counter the great psychological damage caused from rape. This type of torture porn is more intense when it has real passion and intent behind it from the scorned protagonist. I Spit on Your Grave goes intends an audience to feel empathy for the girl committing the atrocities, making gr. viewer question their own morals as to who is in the wrong. This concept is reminiscent of the way Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange outraged an audience who were asked to empathise with a violent and malevolent Alex, after the governmental system fails him.
There’s a blurred line around rape revenge films. On the one hand, they show a side of women that we aren’t used to coming across in film; a harder, stronger kind, who can and will take on any men who put them down. Whereas the other side presents these so-called ‘strong’ female characters as completely crazy by the end of the film, demonstrated in I Spit on Your Grave 3 as Angela ends the film killing anyone and everyone. Eli Roth’s 2015 feature Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves does just that, taking the idea of the female revenge flick and turning it on its head, apologising for all the cheating men in the world by suggesting (in Roth’s own words from an interview with Buzzfeed) “would any guy say no to a free pizza?” The difference being with this film is that the girls involved aren’t raped, though they do have sex with Reeves’ character before starting a strange torture revenge upon him for cheating on his wife. It’s films like Roth’s that send the social element of these films backwards in time with their poorly represented female characters. Knock Knock is even comparable to Gone Girl in the sense that it completely strikes out any good reasoning behind female revenge films and turns them into a horror story about crazy girls. This misogynistic view oozing from certain films is obsolete in today’s society, yet sadly it seems to still exist, often disguised within dark humour or ambiguity.
It might be a while before the horror genre finds a way to present the gore and fear that exists within rape revenge films, without doing women a disservice in the process. There is, however, something to be said for the misunderstanding of films such as I Spit on Your Grave; they may well originate from exploitation cinema, but they have since taken refuge in the pro-feminist court, despite being wholly unrecognised for their understanding of the more serious issues featured within them. Maybe a fourth instalment to the rape revenge franchise will forgive the female characters enough for people to one day recognise who the real monster is, rather than proportioning the blame onto the one created solely by unforgiving torture. As Mary Shelley once prompted the question; who is the real monster? Dr Frankenstein, the creator of an undead being, or the unfortunate creation who befriends a blind man and saves a little girl? We should all know by now that horror isn’t always just about scares.
Words: Sarah Appleton