Through some of my writings as of late, I’ve come to discover that I have a greater concern for the way women are treated in horror films. If you call me a feminist, I’ll just say thank you. However, this new ideal system seems to be in direct contradiction with a subgenre of horror that I often find myself looking highly upon–the rape-revenge movie. It almost feels dirty for one to say that they “like” or “enjoy” these types of films, because, understandably, the subject matter puts a lot of people off. But I like them. I, in fact, watch as many of them as I can and actively seek them out.
Why? Because sometimes when I want to watch a horror film, I want to watch something that is actually horrifying–something that will affect me on a deep emotional level. What subgenre of horror is better for this than rape-revenge? These films provide an emotional rollercoaster that is experienced more by the audience than by the characters in the film. I applaud any film that attempts to tackle the subject at all. Rape is a very violent, personal crime that most people have a hard time talking about. But it’s real, and it happens, and it’s ugly. These films not only show us, but also make us really feel the ugliness of the act, and then provide us with satisfactory revenge. To me, that’s a healthy experience, not a harmful one. There’s a circular logic to the idea of vengeance in real life because of the emotion involved, but for a movie, a brutal act of violence is reason enough for the audience to endure another brutal act of violence when it is clear who the real bad guy is.
I suppose that some might think that as a woman, I shouldn’t like rape-revenge movies at all. I should be offended by them, and hate the way they represent women. I don’t. The rape-revenge subgenre of horror is a controversial one, with fans still debating the merit of the two films most often associated with it–I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left. But do these films really do nothing more than degrade and dehumanize women because they show scenes of graphic rape? Does the revenge they get later then mean nothing because of what they were subjected to before? I wonder how this can actually be true when the very idea behind these films is basically to satisfy the audience’s bloodlust in a way that they can get behind because instead of innocent teenagers being slaughtered, the people who meet the most violent and gruesome deaths in these movies are rapists–the worst criminals imaginable.
It is often said about certain types of horror films that what you don’t show is scarier than what you do. Meaning, that what an audience member can picture in their head is probably horrible enough for a certain movie or scene to be effective. This is why people may criticize rape-revenge movies that actually show the rape in graphic detail, saying that it is unnecessary. I do partly agree that it is perhaps not necessary to be as graphic as some films get, like the uncut 9-minute rape in Irreversible. But to be truly shocking and effective, I’m actually okay with rape scenes, as long as they are handled the right way. This doesn’t mean I (or anybody else) “like” these scenes. But sometimes I need them. When the revenge violence comes later, I want to be able to understand what the victim or revenge-taker is going through to justify it, and I want the bad guys to really deserve what’s coming to them. Though I love the film, the extended rape scene in The Last House on the Left remake is probably the most difficult one for me to watch, no matter how many times I subject myself to it. But I will still defend its inclusion in the film because it solidifies Krug’s status as the worst criminal of the gang, as well as the others for just sitting by and letting it happen.
Just because a movie has a rape scene in it does not automatically mean that it is degrading to women. Personally, I have never really understood the people that argue that rape scenes sexualize the situation too much and actually titillates the audience. As I sit here and think about all the rape scenes I’ve seen in films, I can’t think of one that anybody could construe as being “exciting” at all. Okay, the sleaziness of the rape in something like Gutterballs comes close, but even then, they still make sure that the rapists are seen as the most horrible men ever. Even if parts of the victim’s naked body are shown in a rape scene, it should only further the audience’s feeling of uncomfortableness about the context, instead of sexually exciting them. These scenes are usually shown from the victim’s point of view which also puts the audience in place of the victim. It is not about cashing in on seeing the victim–the woman–suffer.
If the criticism of the treatment of women in rape-revenge films is that they are all sexual objects, then the criticism of men in these films is that they are all rapists, or that they somehow condone the rape. Of course this is not true. I believe that rape-revenge films are actually capable of showing men in a much more positive light. And no, of course I am not talking about the rapists here. A rape-revenge movie is not always about the rape victim taking her own vengeance against her attacker or attackers. Sometimes the revenge is committed by a male character who is close to her–more often than not, this ends up being the girl’s father. I love seeing how these situations are handled in film because it shows the audience how deeply rape affects men as well. It shows them that they don’t have to be uncomfortable expressing their emotions about it, that they in fact have just as much of a right to have feelings and an opinion about it as women do.
My favorite example of this kind of situation is the French-language Canadian film Seven Days. In it, a grieving father kidnaps and tortures the man who raped and murdered his eight-year-old daughter. During most of the film and even the brutal torture scenes, the father, Bruno, hardly sheds a tear or shows any emotion. He doesn’t say a word to his daughter’s murderer, no matter what the guy says to him. And yet the audience can feel for themselves everything that Bruno is going through in his heart and mind–grief, guilt, anger. I Spit on Your Grave 2 from 2013 also did a great job at accomplishing this. As a break from the first film, and in turn the original from 1978, not every man in the small cast of characters is a raping bastard. There is a wonderful side story involving a local priest and police officer who try to help the victim and who show their sympathy and abhorrence for what happened to her very well.
I would never say that everyone should feel the same way I do about rape-revenge films. They can be too much for some people and that is just fine. But I do believe that these pictures are judged far too harshly, and that the detractors ignore the things that they get right when dealing with the subject matter. It should also be known that not every woman is automatically against these movies and that it is okay for us to say that we like them. Men, it’s okay for you to say it, too. The act of the rape itself is not the sole focus of these movies, just as it is not the sole reason why we watch them. Other horror films no doubt give us sympathetic characters in situations in which we would rather not see them, but there is no comparison to the raw emotion provided by rape-revenge films. Though the experience of watching them is not pleasant, they are brave, thought-provoking movies that deserve more respect.