By Victoria Tickle.
Rape-revenge films are a controversial sub-genre of films that have been the subject of many critical debates surrounding feminism, moral issues and ethics, as well as the representations of women, violence and gender roles. Rape-revenge films are often categorised as a sub-genre of other larger and more established genres such as “horror” or “exploitation” and had its initial boom in the 1970s. The rape-revenge narrative in film has had many manifestations since then and has divided itself further into several niches such as rape-as-revenge (Descent, 2007), men as victims of rape (Deliverance, 1972), the family taking revenge for the raped woman (The Last House on the Left, 1972 & 2009) or the victims taking revenge into their own hands (I Spit on Your Grave, 1978 & 2010).
Regardless of which niche the rape-revenge film falls into, almost all of them follow a similar three-act configuration: Act 1: The victim is raped/gang raped/tortured and left for dead. Act 2: The victim survives and rehabilitates herself or, more rarely, himself. Act 3: The victim takes revenge on the rapists by killing them. There are deviations from this pattern, such as the abovementioned The Last House on the Left wherein the female victim is killed at the end of Act 1 (in the 1972 version) and revenge is taken by her parents (in both the 1972 and 2009 versions).
Rape-revenge as a genre of film is relatively new. Up until the late 1960s it was banned outright by the industry’s guide to moral censorship, the Motion Picture Production Code established in 1930, more commonly known as the Hays Code. Since the code was abandoned in 1968, rape-revenge narratives (as well as countless other, formerly prohibited, narratives and tropes) have thrived in the US film industry. Rape-revenge films have proved infamous, notorious, and highly susceptible to criticism yet still watched en masse.
The 2000s saw a comeback of the rape-revenge narrative with releases like Descent and Teeth (2007) as well as three remakes of rape-revenge films from the 1970s: The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Straw Dogs (2011; a remake of the 1971 film of the same title). One possible reason as to why a genre such as this has prospered lies in Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, which could explain why the union of rape and revenge speaks to audiences.
Forty-five years have passed since the abandonment of the Hays Code allowed sexual violence to be shown on screen. In that time there have been many changes to representations of almost everything and everyone, including rape, revenge and gender roles. Some of these changes can be traced by comparing the remakes of The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave with their 1970s originals.
The Last House on the Left (1972), directed and written by Wes Craven, and The Last House on the Left (2009), directed by Dennis Iliadis, both depict a rape-revenge theme, but how both the rapes themselves and the victims of rape are represented differ dramatically between the two films. In the original film, scenes of violence and rape directed towards Phyllis and Mari are cross-narrated with images of Mari’s parents decorating their house for Mari’s birthday. This merging of explicit sexual violence and scenes of commonplace domesticity almost leads to a trivialisation of the ordeal which Mari, and vicariously the audience, are going through.
Krug’s rape of Mari lasts approximately one minute and is shot from the side. The camera angles used are mostly close-ups or extreme close-ups – mostly of the faces of Mari and Phyllis’s attackers, as well as Mari and Krug’s faces and Mari’s hands twisting in the grass. The whole scene is shot from a rather objective, distanced point of view and the audience is never really invited to experience, through cinematography, the exploits that are happening on screen.
Mari’s representation in the original also has faults. Mari is shown from the beginning of the film to be more naïve and irrational than Phyllis, and she doesn’t manage to escape in the way that Phyllis temporarily does. After her rape, she walks through the forest to the lake, where she is shot by Krug three times, which ultimately kills her. She is little more than a prop to further the story – a plot device to shift the focus onto the real arc of the story – the revenge her parents take on Krug and his gang.
The Last House on the Left (1972) seems to shine a very unflattering light on the representation of women, as the film depicts female vulnerability and shows them as having an utter lack of independence. But just under four decades later, the representations got a more positive reboot.
The Last House on the Left (2009) sees the subject of rape handled very differently. Like in the original Krug still rapes Mari, and close-up and extreme close-up shots are still used, but there are no cross-narrative techniques used in this version of events. The rape scene is shown in full, with the camera only ever shifting away briefly to show the audience shots of Krug’s gang or Paige as she slowly bleeds out on the floor after being stabbed three times. Shots of Mari screaming, her hands twisting into the grass, Krug’s face and the faces of Sadie, Francis and Justin are shown, but the audience is never allowed to leave the horrific scene as they were in the original. Shots from just behind and to the side of Krug’s buttocks are also utilised to put the audience in an uncomfortable viewing position.
Rape and death are also overtly linked in the remake, as Krug forces Mari to watch Paige die as he rapes her. Mari is forced to deal with the physical trauma of her rape and the emotional trauma of watching her friend die at the same time. Where the original film seemed to almost (intentionally or otherwise) make light of the rape scene by intersecting it with scenes of domesticity, the remake presents a powerful representation of the reality of rape as more than just a pursuit of sexual pleasure – but as a demand for power and control.
Mari’s representation has also considerably changed in the remake, giving her a stronger and more positive role. To start with, despite severe physical trauma (including getting shot) Mari survives her torment and makes it back to her home. In the original film Mari’s rape seemed dwarfed by the revenge her parents take on her behalf, but here mere presence throughout the remake, even in her weakened and helpless state, serves to constantly remind the audience of the horrors that she underwent so that the actual revenge does not overshadow the reason for it in the first place.
Mari is also shown as intelligent and calculating in the remake. She lies to Krug about the location of the highway they need to take in order to get the car closer to her house. When the car is close enough Mari causes it to crash by causing a distraction, which gives the girls a chance to escape. She also escapes her fate from the first film by attempting to swim across the lake and even when she gets shot she feigns death by floating on the top of the water to trick her attackers. Later in the film, when her strength finally fails her, she once again uses her intelligence to save her life by using a rocking chair to bang the wall of the house to get her parents attention.
The remake offers audiences more ways of empathising and understanding the characters in the film by offering them more realistic representations of both rape and the victim of rape. Mari has become more than a prop to further the storyline; she has become the constant reminder and driving force for revenge that is sought out by both her parents and the audience.
The 1978 cult film I Spit on Your Grave was also remade, with the female victim receiving a more empowering make-over than the original and a different light shone on revenge. Both the original and the remake are often considered the quintessential rape-revenge films. Neither film offers any doubt as to whom is to blame for the rapes. Both films are on Jennifer’s side, there are no possibilities such as ‘was she asking or it?’ or ‘could she have avoided it?’ posed, and it completely avoids the ‘she sort of enjoyed it really’-situation that both the original and remake of Straw Dogs offered, which is a completely irresponsible thing to suggest, even for works of fiction.
In the original version of I Spit on your Grave, directed by Meir Zarchi, Jennifer is represented as a strong and confident woman who is both aware and in control of her sexuality. Over the course of the film she is raped by four men and left for dead. She rehabilitates herself and then systematically takes her revenge on each man by killing them.
The film seems to challenge the pretty common misconception of the time in which it was made that women were often raped because they were either asking for it, or because of what they wore. Instead the film presents the reality; a woman is raped because of her rapists.
The infamous and controversial rape and sexual violence scene last approximately 34 minutes, 3.5 of which depict scenes of sexual assault or rape. The rest of the time is filled with shots of Jennifer trying to escape, or walking slowly away after her attack. In her assault she is vaginally penetrated three times (once with a foreign object), anally penetrated once, and an unsuccessful attempt is made to force her to perform oral sex whilst unconscious.
There has been criticism that this graphic and extended portrayal of rape eroticises it, yet when the scene is examined this is hard to believe. Any close-ups are of faces, either Jennifer’s or her attackers as she is raped. The shots used when Jennifer isn’t being raped are mostly of her legs and feet, and go in and out of focus as the filmmakers attempt to put the audience in Jennifer’s position.
Jennifer’s character is a much stronger one than Mari’s in the 1972 version of The Last House on the Left, as she attempts to fight off her attackers all the way through her ordeal – at one point it takes three out of the four men to subdue her. She is also the one to take revenge for what happened to her.
The film, and audience, maintains Jennifer’s perspective throughout the film post-rape as she systematically and methodically tailors her revenge to each attacker – twice using her sexuality and body, often much to critics’ dismay. To kill Matthew, she uses stereotypes and tropes of romanticism and innocence, such as wearing white, to seduce him, and whilst he has sex with her she slips a noose around his neck to hang him from a tree. To ensnare Johnny, she seduces him to the point where they have a bath together, pleasures him with her hand in the bath and then castrates him with a knife and allows him to bleed out. To kill her other two assailants she terrorises them in the water with a boat before sinking an axe into the head of one and cutting the other one up with the boat propeller before riding away into the sunset at the end of the film.
The 2010 remake offers audiences the same horrors of rape, and a Jennifer that is just as strong and resilient as her predecessor, but the tone is a lot darker. Jennifer is sexually assaulted and tormented in her cabin on her second night by four men. She is forced to simulate oral sex on both a loaded gun and a vodka bottle, the whole time this is going on she is being dehumanised by being called a “pretty little show pony” and being forced to neigh and whinny.
The remake also has the presence of a hand-held video camera in the narrative, used by her attackers to document her trauma. By showing us Jennifer as if seen through the lens if this diegetic camera she is placed in the role of a dehumanised object. This device unwillingly puts the audience in a position of dominance over Jennifer.
Eventually Jennifer manages to momentarily escape by attacking the men before the rape is completed and literally runs into the sheriff, who she quickly finds out is not only corrupt but also the leader of the gang. He sexually assaults her with a shotgun before he anally rapes her and Matthew vaginally rapes her. Whilst it is not shown on camera, it is eluded to that the other men raped her whilst she was unconscious. The film takes Jennifer’s point of view and the film falls in and out of focus as she falls in and out of consciousness.
Like in the original, after Jennifer’s attack she walks naked through the woods in a brave yet feeble attempt to escape. Where the two films differ, though, is in how Jennifer survives. In the original, Matthew spares her life and fakes her death. However in the remake, the men attempt to kill her and she saves herself by throwing herself off a bridge and staying underwater to avoid getting shot. Another key difference is that the audience do not see Jennifer rehabilitate herself and the rest of the film takes the perspective of her rapists as she systematically hunts each one down to kill them.
The audience is further isolated from Jennifer’s point of view through her lack of emotion as she brutally kills each of her attackers through extreme displays of gore. Just like the original, these killings are tailored to each man, but Jennifer does not use her sexuality in order to get to them. Instead, she links their deaths to the same themes that they subjected her to. Johnny is forced (through a pulley system) into a standing position and has a horse-bite in his mouth. Jennifer uses this to force him to show her his teeth as he had once done to her. She then removes three of his teeth and proceeds to castrate him. Like the original Jennifer, this one lets Johnny bleed out from his castration.
During her attack Andy flicked lit matches at Jennifer, so in order to kill Andy she fills a bath with lye acid and forces him to lower himself into it, chemically burning him alive whilst offering gratuitous scenes of gore for the audience. Stanley was the attacker who videotaped her attack, and so Jennifer ties him to a tree and holds his eyelids open with fishing hooks. She then smears fish guts over his face, which attracts crows who then peck out his eyes and kill him that way.
Her revenge on the sheriff is the most elaborate death in the film. After tricking him into thinking she has his daughter, Jennifer manages to capture him and tie him up. Whilst restrained, she anally rapes him with his shotgun, which she leaves inserted into his anus. The trigger is tied to Matthew (whom she had captured previously) by a piece of string and when he moves, the shotgun fires, killing both the sheriff and Matthew. The film ends with Jennifer sat outside, listening to the screams within and subtly smirking.
The film spends a lot of time with each rapist and their torture. Whilst in the original Jennifer’s revenge was brutal, it was simple. The remake’s Jennifer takes her revenge in an elaborate and gory manner. This decision could have been largely influenced by the vastly popular and hugely successful ‘torture-porn’ wave of cinema that seemed to dominate the horror genre in the 2000s.
It used to seem to be that the women, and the suffering that they went through, were not the main focus of the films that they were in; integral plot points yes, but main focus, no. However, in recent years a balance of the extremes (the rape and the revenge) seems to have been obtained. The representations of both rape and its victims seem to have undergone a grittier, more realistic transformation over the past 45 years, which seems to strike a right chord with audiences as both of the remakes discussed in this article outrank their originals on IMDb ratings (at the time of writing).
One thing is certain; rape-revenge movies have thrived since their first appearance despite criticisms and sceptical academic analyses, the only thing that has changed is the representations of rape and its victims, and the gore levels in the methods of murder.
Victoria Tickle is a graduate with joint honors in film & media and journalism.