Each week on Terror Cult, CraveOnline highlights a particular facet of the horror genre, exploring its significance and history and calling attention to the key examples that make it worthy of commentary. This week, we focus attention on the procative and controversial “revenge horror” subgenre.
The horror genre is inherently about making people feel uncomfortable. It’s also about confrontation – about choosing to go to a dangerous place to see what it feels like, and then come out the other side. Even when the subject appears far removed from reality, an effective horror film is always about things that really exist. Death, isolation, sickness, and the lurking unknown are things that average people deal with every day with full knowledge of how impossible it is to ever completely avoid or control them.
For that reason, horror subgenres that make a point of dealing with real-world issues hit particularly close to home, regardless of how fantastical their treatment may be. Born during the infamous grindhouse era, revenge horror (or “rape revenge,” as it is often more crudely known) is possibly the most controversial niche genre ever conceived, and it flourishes into the present day. Typically, these films begin with the violent attack and degradation of a central female character, then build gradually to a sleazy, bloody climax wherein the assault’s perpetrator experiences retribution – sometimes from a close friend or family member of the victim, but most often at the hands of the victim herself.
Many of the earliest movies fitting this classification are known for their blatant shock and exploitation value, pushing the envelope far more aggressively than even their most amoral contemporaries. At the same time, key vintage examples have frequently been received from a Feminist standpoint as vehicles of progressive catharsis. Whether viewed as irredeemable exploitation or as symbolic battle cries against the unchecked ravages of sexual violence, nobody is disputing the ability of these films to shock, disturb, and discomfit their audiences.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Mier Zarchi’s sleazefest is about as quintessential as you can get when it comes to this subgenre. It’s also notorious for the pure, seething hatred it inspired from prominent film critic Roger Ebert upon its initial release. The movie basically consists of a brief opening sequence involving a cosmopolitan city lady settling down for some R&R in a remote country location, followed by her almost instant cornering and abasement at the hands of some rural thugs. The grueling assault is lovingly detailed onscreen for a painfully gratuitous period, and the bloody revenge that follows is nearly as excruciating (the highlight is a close-up, blood-spurting castration scene in a bathtub). Alternately titled Day of the Woman, I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most maligned films of the grindhouse era, and indeed of all time. It also remains one of the most hotly and frequently debated, defended by many as a triumphant Feminist parable, and decried just as quickly by others for its nastiness and purported misogyny.
Last House on the Left (1972)
Last House on the Left is one of the earliest examples of the revenge subgenre, and is also notable for being one of the first movies directed by genre powerhouse Wes Craven, who would go on to achieve riches, fame, and fanboy worship in the 1980s with the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Last House was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish arthouse drama The Virgin Spring, and despite the brutality of its subject matter and the grittiness of the production, Craven’s film enjoyed a surprisingly warm critical reception upon its initial release. The story concerns two teenage girls who are waylaid on their way to a concert by an escaped band of convicts, subsequent to which the more wide-eyed and innocent young lady’s parents are forced to exact revenge on their daughter’s behalf.
Ms. 45 (1981)
Helmed by dyed-in-the-wool exploitationist Abel Ferrara (responsible as well for genre staples like The Driller Killer and The Addiction, Ms. 45 is perhaps the most frequently lauded vintage entry in the revenge canon, in terms of its perceived Feminist significance. Zoe Tamerlis plays a deaf-mute seamstress whose mind becomes permanently unhinged after she is sexually brutalized twice in a single day – once in an alleyway while walking home, and a second time in her apartment by a patiently lurking home invader. The film’s most unforgettable images come from its climactic sequence, when Tamerlis dons flaming red lipstick and a nun costume and goes on a shooting spree.
House on the Edge of the Park (1980)
Featuring David Hess, who both starred in and composed the soundtrack for Last House, House on the Edge of the Park is an Italian rip-off in that nation’s most classic tradition. The film was directed by Ruggero Deodato, one of Italy’s most notoriously barrel-scraping sleaze merchants, fresh off his most enduringly memorable and frequently banned project, Cannibal Holocaust. Hess plays a home invader who sexually terrorizes the wealthy and supple young guests at a secluded house party, only to have the tables turned on him at the last moment by the party’s effete host. House on the Edge of the Park is the most casually disgusting of all the films listed here, and its dynamic is also notably bizarre, since the house guests and their attackers appear pretty much equally revolting, and the intended sympathies of the viewer are therefore incredibly difficult to discern.
Iconoclastic French art house director Gaspar Noe is responsible for this stylistically disorienting film, which tells the story of a rape and subsequent vengeance murder in reverse, through the lens of a pitching and heaving camera with virtually no visible edits. Beginning with an inexplicable murder in a sex club and traveling backward through time to describe the events ultimately provoked it, Irreversible is as remarkable for its experimental storytelling style and visual element as for the intensity of its subject matter.
Hard Candy (2005)
The events for which vengeance is ultimately exacted appear off-screen in this film, but the revenge conceit is present nonetheless, and many of the themes that define the subgenre are articulated much more clearly here than in classical examples. Hard Candy stars Juno’s Ellen Page as a precocious fourteen-year-old who feigns innocent naivety in order to secure entry into the home of a murderous pedophile. Once there, she drugs him and ties him to a chair, ransacking his home for evidence of his transgressions, and inflicting a variety of physical and psychological tortures on him. The movie’s handling of its deeper themes can get a little heavy-handed at times, but its taut and compelling presentation more than makes up for it.
Strange Circus (2005)
Probably the most obscure and experimental film on the list, Strange Circus is the creation of visionary Japanese weirdo Sion Sono, and tells the surreal and allegorical story of a woman psychologically crippled by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Like most of the director’s films, Strange Circus uses contradictory narratives, absurd humor, and seemingly erroneous hallucinatory imagery to emphasize the overwhelming emotional devastation of his subject. Strange Circus is an incredibly violent movie and sexually graphic film, but what really makes it so powerful and disturbing is its emotional content, which despite the movie’s stylistic garishness, always seems to remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby