List of must-see films for the Rape-Revenge section of my taxonomy of horror sub-genres.
“Patricia: Marjorie, a man is badly hurt and you don’t have a case.
Marjorie: That’s why I have a hammer.” (Extremities 1986)
I Spit on Your Grave (1978) Dir. Meir Zarchi, (2010) Dir. Steven R. Monroe
Like most horror fans, I typically have pretty strong feelings about remakes of classic horror films and prefer the original to the remake (some exceptions include House of Wax, Friday the 13th, and My Bloody Valentine). I Spit on Your Grave is among those exceptions. I won’t be coy, the remake is undeniably more violent and more difficult to watch than the original, as befits an update on a film that unflinchingly and unrelentingly deals with rape, sexual assault, and violence against women. A few key differences between the two have to do with how strongly law enforcement is implicated in Jennifer Hills’ rape, a direct address to the “respect women because they could be your wife/daughter/etc.” argument, and a general nod to date rape and the use of alcohol in sexual assault as a major factor in contemporary understandings of violence against women.
Ms. 45 (1981) Dir. Abel Ferrara
Ms. 45 is perhaps the campiest film on this list, which is probably as it should be. It follows a familiar narrative arch: Thana (Zoë Lund) is raped first on her way home from her seamstress job in NYC’s Garment District, and then again in her own apartment by a separate attacker. During the second assault, she manages to bash her assailant over the head with a small paperweight and then bludgeon him to death with an iron (a fitting weapon, given both its inextricable link to domestication, and Thana’s occupation as a seamstress). She then carries him to her bathtub, cuts him up into more manageable pieces, and proceeds throughout the film to deposit bags containing pieces of him in various dumpsters across the city (which draws a pretty clear line between Ms. 45 and the 2013-14 series Darknet which I discuss here). Unlike many other rape-revenge films, Thana does not survive the film unscathed, but instead goes down in a hail of bullets having decided to kill her unsupportive coworkers and lecherous boss at an office party where she is subsequently killed by police fire. One more point that’s important to note here, Thana is mute, which in itself complicates the “but did you say no” question. While Thana’s inability to speak isn’t used to full effect in the film—it feels like a convenient device rather than part of her character or an issue that’s fully and considerately addressed—it does open the genre up to considerations of disability and gendered violence (see my entry on Hush here).
Act of Vengeance (1974) Dir. Bob Kelljan
Act of Vengeance, also known as Rape Squad, starts off much faster than many others in the genre, with Linda’s (Jo Ann Harris) assault occurring within the first ten minutes of the ninety-minute film. I’m not going to pretend that this film is a feat of cinematic genius, or even that it’s particularly inspired within the genre. What it is, however, is an incisive critique of how the patriarchal criminal justice system fails women before they’re able to even begin taking action. It also foregrounds arguments that are still all too familiar like “what were you wearing,” “did you clearly say no,” or a general assessment of women who report rape as being hysterical and therefore unreliable. It also sheds a bit of light on the importance of resources like victim advocates and hotlines (a few links for some resources are below).
The Ladies Club (1986) Dir. Janet Greek
Janet Greek (who also directed an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess in 1998, so extra points to her) follows the rape-revenge formula pretty closely with The Ladies Club. It’s very much “of its era” in terms of cinematography and sound design and the narrative is predictable. What it does bring to this collection of films, however, is the fact that it directly addresses the reactions of men in intimate relationships with women who have been raped. I’m generally not a big fan of centering men in stories that are/should be about women, however, this film makes some important points in terms of personal support systems, and more importantly, how they fail and fall apart when victims/survivors begin to take their agency back.
Extremities (1986) Dir. Robert M. Young
Like with so many films in this category, Extremities prioritizes a woman’s attachment to a man as her first defense against violence, sexual assault, and rape at the hands of another man. What I mean by this is that, like I Spit on Your Grave and other films, when Marjorie (Farrah Fawcett) is confronted with a man who threatens her in her own home, her first response is to claim that she has a husband, who happens to be a cop, asleep upstairs. Like with some many films in this genre, this ploy doesn’t work, in part because it’s clearly a lie, but also because, as Carol Clover points out, sexual violence like that explored in these films is far more concerned with masculine posturing, power, and control rather than sex or sexual pleasure. The film also engages with a discussion of gender and sexual violence that does not automatically assume that all women are automatically sympathetic or willing to aid victims/survivors in taking action against their aggressors.
Image Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment © 2010
Author: Geneveive Newman