Hell Hath No Fury: On Revenge
Writer Jessica Ferri sends you a blood-drenched Valentine with a feminist spin on the female revenge genre. Read on…
When we think of horror films, we generally think of a psychopathic male killer who is motivated by sheer bloodlust. But plenty of classic horror films are centered around the idea of revenge. Freddie Krueger, in Nightmare on Elm Street, seeks revenge on the parents who threw him into the furnace. Billy Loomis, in a decidedly ’90s twist in Scream, wants to kill the daughter of the woman who caused his parents’ divorce. Mrs. Voorhees, in Friday the 13th, looks to avenge her son’s death by murdering irresponsible camp counselors, and Carrie goes berserk when years of bullying reach a fever pitch.
By monster-izing Freddie Krueger, the audience almost begins to side with him, despite the fact that he is the villain of the series (The same eventually goes for Jason.) And we undoubtedly root for Carrie as she blows up her high school and everyone in it. It’s easy to cheer for the underdog, and even easier if, as an audience, we’re confronted with extreme violence right off the bat, making the answer (even more intense violence) seem justified.
The best example of this sort of violence is in horror’s rape-revenge plots. Wes Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left, is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In the 1960 New York Times review of the film, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Mr. Bergman has stocked it with scenes of brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned.” When Craven’s controversial adaptation premiered in 1972, it was banned in the United Kingdom until 2003. Though, in terms of gore, by today’s torture-porn standards, these two movies might seem tame, there is a level of emotion that sets them apart from movies like the Hostel series.
Revenge horror films are a fascinating sub-genre of horror cinema, because they feature a switch halfway through the picture: the victims are transformed into the aggressors before our very eyes. And, as most victims in horror films in this period and well into the 21st century are female, watching female victims become vehicles of justice is nothing short of inspiring. That these movies act as an allegory to the women’s movement may be more obvious to modern audiences. When read as products of their time, they are plainly revelatory.
Notorious for its nearly thirty-minute, brutal gang-rape sequence, 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave epitomizes the rape-revenge genre. When the film debuted, Roger Ebert called it “a vile bag of garbage… without a shred of artistic distinction,” and said “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Critics claimed that the movie seemed to take more pleasure in the rape and brutalization of its heroine, Jennifer, than in the second half of the film when she exacts her revenge.
Others, like Mick Morton and Marsha Porter, wrote that aspects of Jennifer’s revenge (specifically a vibrant castration scene) was “one of the most appalling moments in cinema history.” Feminist critics have since disagreed. In her groundbreaking 1992 book on horror and gender, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws,” Carol J. Clover astutely argues that to paint the castration scene thus “is itself a pretty appalling testimony to the double standard in matters of sexual violence.”
That double standard is one that continues today. There are several lawmakers in this country, like former Congressman Todd Akin, who believe that a woman’s body can “shut things down,” if it’s a “legitimate rape.” Other lawmakers, like the current President of the United States, believe that abortion should never be a woman’s legal right, even if she’s been the victim of rape. He went even farther to state that women should be punished for having an abortion, then recanted. That critics of I Spit on Your Grave have more of an issue with the violence committed against the rapists than the obscene violence that begins the film speaks to the misogyny so deeply embedded in our culture. It’s the same misogyny that gives male lawmakers -who most likely will never be the victims of rape or become pregnant- the disgusting and despicable audacity to say they decide when it’s “legitimate rape.” Rape is rape.
At their core, most horror films cash in on our deepest fears of bodily harm. In general, it’s the female body that takes the most brutal violence. Given the extremity of Jennifer’s ordeal in I Spit on Your Grave, I’d say the castration scene is right on target. If only all of Jennifer’s rapists (there are four in total) met that same fate.
Another rape-revenge horror film that empowers its heroine is 1981’s Ms. 45 – though this time her weapon of choice is a gun, as the title indicates. When Thana is raped not once but twice on her way home from work in New York City, she manages to wrestle free and bludgeon him to death with an iron. Keeping her rapist’s .45 caliber gun for protection, Thana becomes kind of a vigilante, killing criminals and would-be criminals alike. “Thana kills not only for her own literal rape,” Carol Clover writes, “but for the figurative rape of all women.”
Though the theme of revenge is a tale as old as time, there’s one category of filmmakers that have taken the tale to a new level – the J-Horror and K-Horror schools. Perhaps because the rebellion against the inherent misogyny of that patriarchy has been more of a slow-burn, these subtle feminist or even misandrist movies are only now just appearing. But they have their basis in old-school exploitation films and classic revenge tales. One only has to look at the intense success of the movies of Quentin Tarantino, in particular, of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and Inglorious Basterds, to see the brilliance of the revenge plot. And with those, Tarantino is standing on the backs of classic Japanese revenge fantasy films such as Female Prisoner No. 71: Scorpion (1972) and Lady Snowblood (1973).
One movie that comes up in any conversation I have about horror movies is 1999’s Audition, from controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike. If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s one of the most of the most upsetting horror movies ever made. People often ask me what this film is about – or what its message is. It’s fascinating that the violence at the end of the film makes its audience search for Asami’s motivation. To me, it’s plainly obvious – the movie is about a man and his son who hold wife auditions… this film is about revenge.
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