Making Sense of Senselessness: The Bloody History of Rape Revenge Films

For decades now, rape revenge films have been a subject of contention. Do they cheapen rape by depicting it, or do they show just how serious of an issue it is?

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Nov 3 2015, 7:50pm

Image via Flickr user Hannes Engelbrecht

Those who deride rape-revenge films tend to focus way more on the rape than the revenge. Though this interpretation is unfair in its overt simplicity, it isn't hard to see why many take this approach: In their most essential forms, these movies demand their audiences sit through brutal depictions of rape in the first half, only to have those rapes avenged (typically by the woman who survived them) in the second half. The extreme violence that vengeance calls for is old hat, available in all sorts of forms throughout cinematic history. The graphic depictions of rape, however, are still rare enough to shock.

Roger Ebert's review of Meir Zarchi's 1980 classic I Spit on Your Grave perfectly exemplifies the simplified reading of rape-revenge movies (and the suspicions guiding this interpretation):

How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: 'That was a good one!' After the second: 'That'll show her!' After the third: 'I've seen some good ones, but this is the best.' When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: 'Cut him up, sister!' In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience. I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film's end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.

During his decades as a movie critic, Ebert periodically expressed belief that those who did not adhere to his specific interpretation of films were somehow mentally or morally bankrupt, but he was never more condescending than in this particular review. (He and his onscreen sparring partner, Gene Siskel, would go on to devote a full episode of their Sneak Previews shows to "women in danger" movies, which relied on selective recapping to sell the audience on why slasher movies like Friday the 13th, in which male and female characters are hacked up in virtually equal numbers, were misogynistic.)

Read More: Helping Rape Victims Get Justice

Perhaps the woman in the back would have responded to Ebert, "Because, for the first time in cinematic history, rape is actually being taken seriously as an issue." Academic Carol J. Clover, in her seminal and brilliant book of horror movie criticism, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, points out that the rise of the rape-revenge movie in the '70s coincided with rape being taken seriously as a social issue. No longer seen as a natural consequence of boys being boys, rape was finally being examined for what it was: a devastating, life-altering violation of humanity that had no place within civil society. Clover wrote that Grave "reduces the genre to its essence." Ebert called it a "vile bag of garbage." I Spit on Your Grave actor Camille Keaton, whose Jennifer character endures about 21 minutes of onscreen gang rape and then exacts her revenge on the men who assaulted her for the movie's final 45-minute stretch, reported (via Clover) that Grave "made males in our audience singularly uncomfortable."

No longer seen as a natural consequence of boys being boys, rape was finally being examined for what it was.

Brutal depictions of rape should make people uncomfortable, as any atrocity should. That discomfort, though, often extends beyond the fact of physically sitting through a representation of rape and into the question of what it means for rape to be shown, at times in pornographic detail, in entertainment. Could rape be entertainment? Should rape be entertainment? What if people like it too much? There aren't easy answers here, especially given the realism people expect in movies and the complicated nature of rape-revenge movies themselves.

Consider, too, that being despicable and being effective go hand-in-hand in horror—Cannibal Holocaust stays seared in people's minds over 35 years after its initial release, and a big part of the reason is the real-life animal mutilation that movie employs in regular intervals. Some things you can't unsee even if they are ultimately cheap stunts. Legends are built on depravity. But if the argument is that rape-revenge movies somehow cheapen rape in their depictions of it, wouldn't a glossing over cheapen them further? If we're worried about desensitization, isn't the PG-13ification—in which everything can go down easy if it comes in the form of a mention or bloodless death—a far greater concern? A movie that is shocking enough will shake even the most hardened cynical viewer to the core. Rape-revenge movies grab the viewer by the throat and say, "Take rape seriously. Let it bother the shit out of you." Surely that is more pro-social than avoiding the issue all together.

Rape-revenge movies have been bothering the shit out of people since their inception, which most trace back to Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which won the 1961 Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a medieval poem, its graphic depiction of a young girl getting raped and then her father's ensuing revenge on her two attackers (and younger accomplice) provided the basis for Wes Craven's 1972 shocker The Last House on the Left, which overlaid modern sensibilities on that template and involved even more graphic torture for the two victims, Mari (Sandra Peabody) and Lucy (Phyllis Stone). The group of maniacs that these country girls run into during their ill-advised trip to the big city goes as far as to make one piss herself for their entertainment—certainly the earliest example of coerced watersports in a cinematic narrative.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas's 2011 book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study points to examples even earlier than Bergman's that incorporated aspects of rape-revenge into their narratives: 1931's Safe in Hell, 1950's Outrage, and 1961's Something Wild, all examined, however obliquely, what it was to survive rape. Even D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation had traces of the genre. It would be a mistake to completely overlook John Boorman's 1972 backwoods classic Deliverance and Sam Peckinpah's 1971 high-exploitation flick Straw Dogs, though neither ultimately serves the purposes of the specific type of film that is examined in this piece. Rape is but one element in the survival narrative of Deliverance (and it's a man who gets violated), whereas the first rape that occurs in Straw Dogs is so ambiguous in its portrayal of consent (Susan George's Amy's character's no turns to yes) that its politics are a mess. Besides, in Straw Dogs Dustin Hoffman's David character ultimately exacts the revenge, not Susan.

In Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky writes that films in which the woman receives the rape and the man gets to exact revenge "depend on rape to motivate a and justify a particularly violent version of masculinity, relegating the women to minor 'props' in the narrative." In addition to Straw Dogs, this category includes things like Michael Winner's 1974 thriller Death Wish, which has its fans but is ultimately beside the point of our current focus.

We weren't influenced by feminism, we were influenced by women.

One would have to twist his or her intellect in to knots to come up with a feminist reading for a movie in which a damsel in peak distress (that which comes from sexual violation) is redeemed by a man's handiwork. At least movies in which a woman or women are raped and reclaim their power through revenge could be feminist. That possibility alone is what makes them so debated, so pondered, and, ultimately, so important. The best rape revenge movies will make nothing easy for you. "We weren't influenced by feminism, we were influenced by women," wildman director Abel Ferrara is quoted as saying in Brad Stevens's book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision regarding his 1981 rape-revenge movie Ms. 45.

In it, an already mute woman named Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) is raped twice in one day. She survives and goes on a killing spree—first it takes the form of self-defense (she attacks men who harass her), then vigilantism (she attacks men who attack other women), and then flat-out misandry as she attacks anything with a dick. Ferrara's vision is one of extremes—what cures total helplessness is absolute power (though even absolute power has its limits—Thana is ultimately killed by being stabbed in the back by a feminist co-worker). What is it saying (besides nobody could captured the grit underneath New York's fingernails in the early '80s like Ferrara)? That question is not the question but the point. As Steven writes, "Ms. 45 draws no conclusions, contains no didactic statements on gender, and rejects that either/or mentality permeating virtually all American films which tackle 'serious' issues."

Jonathan Kaplan's 1989 film The Accused is the kind of "serious issues" movie that wins Oscars—Jodie Foster won her first for her portrayal of Sarah Tobias, a drunk woman with a reputation who gets gang-raped in a bar as a surrounding crowd cheers (the movie was based on the real-life rape of Cheryl Araujo, who was gang-raped in a bar in New Bedford, Connecticut, in 1983). While it is not without its subtlety (the inescapability of rape culture is telegraphed by the Slam Dunk pinball machine featuring a hot, scantily clad drawn figure of a woman that Sarah is raped on), The Accused hammers its issues with a melodrama's heavy hand. The upside of that is it takes seriously—gravely seriously—the psychic damage rape exacts as well as the considerable failings of the system (Sarah's rapists get a reduced charge via her female lawyer's deal with their lawyers, and the ultimate courtroom victory comes essentially via technicality). The six-minute rape scene is saved till the very end—the grandest guignol. Though the plot follows the narrative of Sarah's lawyer (Kelly McGillis) most closely, it is finally through a man's recounting of the rape on the stand (a witness testifying against the rapists and their cheering onlookers) that we finally see what happened in the movie's final moments. Is that an endorsement of patriarchy or merely a reflection of the sad truth that a man's word carries more weight than a woman's, that women's stories are more believable to hear a man tell them?

All of the films mentioned so far have been directed and written by men, and so much of the defining mainstream discourse is via men, too.

That's a question well worth asking when you consider how male-dominated this genre is, and the medium of film as a whole—in 2013 an IndieWire piece reported that "when looking at women directors over the last decade, only 41 women have made films in the top 100 released films every year across the decade, compared to 625 men." All of the films mentioned so far have been directed and written by men, and so much of the defining mainstream discourse—that these movies are garbage and possibly dangerous—is via men, too. Men speaking to men about women's issues—the film industry might as well be the government. Some of these men talk the talk—Quentin Tarantino called Kill Bill a "feminist statement" (note that Beatrix Kiddo is avenging more than just her string of comatose rapes, but it is a rape on her hospital bed that provides the catalyst for her slicing and dicing through four hours of cinema). But it's just as much political as it is pop cultural—Tarantino wears his references on his sleeve, and here the discernible source of inspiration includes Bo Arne Vibenius's 1973 Swedish exploitation flick Thriller – A Cruel Picture. The Kill Bill movies may provide the catharsis that any rape-revenge movie is capable of doing, but also keep in mind that Tarantino invoked Spice Girls rhetoric when following up on his "feminist statement" statement: He said he made "a film about girl power." Take him seriously at your own risk.

Women do have, on occasion, a hand in making these things. Callie Khouri wrote Thelma & Louise, in which no rape takes place but its threat and grip from the past provides the inspiration for the titular characters' Western rampage. Janet Greek's 1986 movie The Ladies Club opens with a rape (via home invasion) but soon settles into a narrative about female solidarity—after a cop's rapists walk free, she forms a support group with other survivors, along with some friends and family members of survivors. The message is that rape isn't a survivor issue—it's a women's issue, period. The system is fucked up and it's only through the systematic castration of men that our heroes can feel safe to walk the world.

The castrations in The Ladies Club are practically civilized compared to the rest of the genre, whose narratives often climax on the removal of male genitals. It's practically ritualistic. The Ladies Club's doctor character Constance Lewis (Christine Belford) performs hers by surgery on men who attempt to attack the women in her support group. She anesthetizes them and everything—it's practically humane. Compare that to the mid-blowjob dick-biting performed by Mari's mother in The Last House on the Left, or any of the number of ways male genitals are massacred in the I Spit On Your Grave remake franchise. One involves a vice. Another, in this year's I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine, features probably the most graphic dick mutilation committed to film—Jennifer, who endured a brutal gang rape in the first movie and is now sort of a one-woman Ladies Club, starts blowing a guy in an alley, only to stab the underside of his dick with a knife, and slice it toward his body. She bites off his head and pulls the rest of the shaft apart, with her hands. She spits the head out and spits back at him the guidance he had just given her: "Not just the tip, sweetie." She is really something.

Serializing I Spit On Your Grave sort of cheapens it, though—it becomes yet another horror franchise, in which politics are sidelined for the sake of increasingly heinous set pieces. At least the movies attempt to outdo their sequels with increasingly gruesome creativity in revenge, not so much rape. "Do you get sadistic pleasure from acts of cruelty?" Jennifer's therapist asks her. "Fuck yeah, I do," is Jennifer's reply. Catharsis is like an opiate she's hooked on, and you get the sense that the franchise could continue on like this indefinitely.

Read More: Trying to Move Forward After 60 Years of Rape

The format of rape-revenge movies is fairly consistent throughout the subgenre (there is rape, and then there is revenge), which makes Gaspar Noe's 2002 movie Irréversible completely subversive. Its scenes are shown in reverse order so that the rape catalyst to the frenzied vengeance isn't seen until well into the movie. Irréversible is singularly miserable—it's particularly punishing to viewers in requiring more than one viewing given its storytelling device. The movie achieves chaos reminiscent of another French movie from the early 2000's, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-moi (Fuck Me), which is like Thelma & Louise with real balls (literally—there's hardcore sex in the movie). The rape that occurs in Baise-moi's first act seems almost beside the point to the greater liberation its characters achieve as they fuck and rob their way through France ("They could have done worse—we're still alive right?" says one character to another after they've both been violated). Baise-moi, to some extent, and Irréversible, to a greater one, suggest that all violence is senseless, that a rational approach to devastation is foolhardy. Given the way so many of the movies described here have been cut and thrown up on YouTube, their scenes disembodied from their context, it's easier than ever to lose the point, to get only the rape or only the revenge, depending on your taste. Senseless chaos, it turns out, could be the most modern of interpretations of the rape-revenge subgenre.