Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2011. Paperback. $45.00
Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study opens with Jean-Luc Godard’s well-traveled maxim that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” a fine rhyme for the cover image of the late Zoë Tamerlis Lund packing a .45-calibre pistol in Ms .45.
Introductory passages cite the book’s most significant antecedents. These include Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), Jacinda Read’s The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (2000), and Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theory ur-text, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Each is acknowledged as having shortcomings.
Clover’s celebrated “final girl,” inspired by a reading of notorious rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave, is noted as a rebuttal of Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, allowing for an imagined male viewer to cross gender lines and identify with a slasher film’s female protagonist. However, Heller-Nicholas notes that Jacinda Read, along with Klaus Rieser and Tony Williams before her, have all deemed Clover’s “final girl” “hardly … any cause for feminist celebration” by virtue of her “simply ‘not dying'” (10). One might say the same about her having to forgo all pleasures of the flesh in order to survive as well!
Read is reproached in turn by Heller-Nicholas. The former’s assertion that “the rape-revenge film can be seen to be [Hollywood] attempting to make sense of feminism” (10), in charting trajectories undertaken by feminine rape victims as they transform into feminist avengers, seems fair enough when focusing specifically on the 1970s wave of American rape-revenge flicks. However, a lot more such films have come since, and often from much farther afield.
The central argument underpinning Rape-Revenge Films‘ critical investigation — it becomes almost a mantra — comes from art historian Diane Wolfthal. Her 1999 book Images of Rape: The “Heroic” Tradition and Its Alternatives demonstrates, with respect to representations of rape in medieval and early modern art, that “diverse notions coexisted contemporaneously” (1). Heller-Nicholas’ book carries the same aim for the rape-revenge film, across all its astonishingly broad, transnational manifestations, from its advent through to the present day. She is especially keen to put paid to any notion that rape-revenge films were merely a sinister expression of 1970s Americana.
While Rape-Revenge Films may pivot on the work of an art historian, it maintains a dialogue with feminism and feminist film theory throughout. Sarah Projansky is another key antecedent figure. In Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (2001), Projansky divided the rape-revenge genre into two principal categories. There are those films in which a man avenges the rape of a woman, providing the film’s narrative with a masculine focus and relegating violence perpetrated against women to the sidelines. And there are those wherein the focus is on a woman avenging her wronging herself.
Heller-Nicholas stresses that this issue of focus is crucial to a film’s feminist credentials. However, she notes that many films reject shoehorning into either one of Projansky’s categories, with at least one film, the third Dirty Harry sequel, Sudden Impact, even pitting one approach directly against the other.
She goes on to ponder a calculus of rape-revenge, inspired by Linda Ruth Williams’ consideration of a DVD edition of I Spit on Your Grave issued with its harrowing rape scene suppressed. Heller-Nicholas asserts that an imbalance in the intensity of a film’s rape component vis-à-vis the corresponding revenge is highly problematic. If a rape is overly dwelt upon, or even seems designed to titillate, a film obviously can’t help but come across as exploitative and unsavoury. But equally, when the revenge is too much a film’s focus, in all its gory vigilante glory, then a film risks coming across as fascistic, even if it has a female avenger as its focus.
There’s a delicate balancing act necessarily performed by Heller-Nicholas, too. She states that she has “no intent to rescue, liberate, or defend these films” (5); her comprehensive survey of is not a project of generic recuperation aforethought. Nonetheless, there are many titles given attention in her book that would surely never otherwise even be footnoted in a serious critical film text.
Furthermore, Heller-Nicholas notes Projansky’s identification of “a feminist paradox between a desire to end rape and a need to represent (and therefore perpetuate discursive) rape in order to challenge it” (7), a timeless conundrum Heller-Nicholas’ project can’t help but get caught up in too.
However, addressing that inescapable problem is something that Heller-Nicholas achieves with an elegant critical coup de grâce in the book’s afterword.
Each of these key texts, and many more, are critically scrutinised, with their distinctive contributions to the genre noted and relationships to feminist film theory illuminated. The Accused is offered as an analogue for Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” with its diegetic commentary on spectatorial complicity discomfitingly equating the watching of rape with the performance of it. In Deliverance, rape and revenge ostensibly only concern male bodies, yet Heller-Nicholas argues that it’s the rape of a female body that underpins the narrative nonetheless; the unspoilt wilderness, not long for this world and being traipsed all over by men in the meantime, is gendered feminine. Deliverance is also noted for providing an early example of rape as revenge.
And the opening scene of the otherwise unremarkable Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is noted as making explicitly clear that the line between rapist and avenger can be a worrisomely fine one indeed.
Chapter Two’s title, “The Rape-Revenge Film Across Genres,” is a minor provocation in itself. It suggests, perhaps a little contrary to the advancement of a canon in the previous chapter, that rape-revenge may not necessarily be sui generis but rather a pool of subgeneric tropes and traditions given to interpenetration of established genres.
As one would expect, these include the horror film, but the Western features prominently as well. Heller-Nicholas reminds us of Susan Brownmiller’s explanation of the criminalisation of rape in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) — criminalisation came about “because [rape] was historically deemed a property crime between men” (9). Within the Western, correspondingly, the role of womankind has indeed often been that of chattel.
Science fiction also gets a look-in, including an admirably sober consideration of the early ’90s remote-control cyborg rape-revenge film, Steel and Lace. And whilst not particularly focused on in this chapter, another familiar genre is evoked throughout Rape-Revenge Films, that of the courtroom drama. (Even Steel and Lace is at least some parts courtroom drama). Many rape-revenge films, of course, feature dramatic scenes staged in courts of law, if only for the law’s institutions, representatives, and procedures to prove ineffective or indifferent.
The third chapter provides a survey of “the rape-revenge film around the world.” Heller-Nicholas acknowledges at its outset that cross-cultural analysis, after E. Ann Kaplan, is “fraught with danger” (103), but this is not unsympathetic with Diane Wolfthal’s position that “diverse representations of rape coexist […] contemporaneously” (104), which this chapter further underscores. To this end, the chapter adopts a geocritical-taxonomic approach that would have been quite at home in a Creation Books title of yesteryear.
It covers everything from notorious Hong Kong Category III entry Red to Kill — arguing convincingly that the handover fears of the Hong Kong working class is indexable to the ghastliness of the rapes depicted within it — through to the Indian Bandit Queen and its attendant controversies. Not least, it notes that Phoolan Devi, the subject of that much-lauded biopic, thought the film a grossly simplistic account of her life and struggles.
The travelogue extends to bizarre, bad-taste, Spanish rape-revenge comedies and fascinatingly takes in remake-crazy Turkey, where the collision of Western and Islamic mores makes for some highly ideologically complex cinema indeed.
The final chapter surveys “the contemporary rape-revenge film,” examples of which are many and often decidedly regurgitative.
Perhaps part of the reason for the sudden slew of remakes of the best known and most notorious of 1970s American rape-revenge films is the bankruptcy of ideas — or courage to back original stories — widely held to be prevalent in contemporary Hollywood.
Whatever the impetus behind their production, Heller-Nicholas contends that these remakes “appear far more concerned with issues of genre than ideology” (93), noting that the remakes of both Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave are appreciably influenced by noughties torture-porn aesthetics. Some of these remakes have even adopted lashings of the supernatural, which “may speak to contemporary film style as much as to their politics” (179). However, as the author identifies in the case of the Last House remake, the logic of a film’s narrative can be short-circuited in the process.
These remakes, Heller-Nicholas points out, are doubly problematic when it comes to a calculus of rape-revenge. Do they aspire to — let alone attain — ethical symmetry with respect to the relative intensity of the rapes and revenges represented within them, as well as when considered in historical relief against the originals, made under very different cultural and market preconditions?
Either way, the recent Hollywood remakes of Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Straw Dogs clearly prove that rape-revenge films were not just something that happened way back when, rebutting Jacinda Read’s daft assertion in 2000 that the “cycle has run its course” (155).
In fact, to cite those three films is to only scratch the surface of rape-revenge’s thriving post-millennial ubiquity, which can, in Heller-Nicholas’ argument, even extend to two video clips by the biggest living pop star in the Western world, Lady Gaga (“Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance”). Furthermore, a third Lady Gaga video, “Telephone,” explicitly references Kill Bill Vol. 1, a post-2000 film itself highly beholden to rape-revenge.
Since the release of Rape-Revenge Films, I’ve seen at least another four features — and a notable short in the Italian “My Bow Breathing” — which lend further credence to Heller-Nicholas’ adopted argument that diverse representations of rape coexist contemporaneously.
I speak of the South Korean Bedevilled, in which a remote island’s entire populace is party to the longtime sexual enslavement of a young woman, and the superb Russian Twilight Portrait, which is rape-revenge daringly, but unsensationally, infused with Stockholm Syndrome and which, unusually, has women as its key creative personnel. There’s further diversity to be found in the brilliant but deeply disturbing Australian true crime saga Snowtown, in which a young man is groomed to brutally avenge his rape at the hands of an older brother by a charismatic, predatory serial killer, whose accomplice in multiple murders he subsequently becomes.
There has also recently come and gone Michael Winterbottom’s underwhelming attempt to transpose Tess of the d’Urbervilles into modern-day India with Trishna. On which note, it seems very odd that Roman Polanski is almost wholly absent from Rape-Revenge Films. He is mentioned only fleetingly, with respect to Rosemary’s Baby, overlooking that each of his own Tess adaptations, Death and the Maiden and Repulsion, riff to some degree on rape-revenge themes.
Perhaps this elision is understandable, in that to invoke Polanski’s name at all in connection with rape may be to risk pulling the focus away from the particularity of the enterprise. Maybe, but I’m not convinced.
And while Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity receives its due amongst a surprisingly large number of supernatural rape-revenge flicks, it’s a shame there’s no accompanying consideration of Austrian avant-gardist Peter Tscherkassky’s astonishing Outer Space, in which Barbara Hershey’s supernaturally raped protagonist from The Entity wreaks her revenge on the very medium, the material, indeed, the very apparatus that represented her rape in The Entity in the first place.
This would also have underscored one of the final, key points made in Rape-Revenge Films. As described by Heller-Nicholas, the 2006 film Rape Is a Circle, directed by “Bill Zebub,” sounds deplorably cretinous. Nonetheless, she applauds its eponymous profundity, for the violence of rape does indeed beget the subsequent violence of revenge. “Victims become perpetrators who in turn become victims” (186). Such is rape-revenge.
Dario Argento hadn’t hitherto rated a mention in the book, but it was his highly underrated 1996 film The Stendhal Syndrome that provided the eureka moment that first inspired the author to set pen to paper. For Heller-Nicholas, The Stendhal Syndrome is the film that most profoundly addresses the problems inherent in the representation of rape on screen. This is because “Argento has constructed a rape-revenge film about a woman literally trapped within the apparatus of artistic representation” (190):[Anna, The Stendhal Syndrome‘s protagonist] cannot move, and in the scenes where she literally paints her own body, she explicitly acknowledges — even from within the diegesis of her own rape-revenge story — that her body is simply a forum (a canvas, if you like) for the historical representation of rape, from painting to cinema, to play out on yet again. When Anna collapses at the end of the film, she is crushed by a combination of both diegetic and non-diegetic weight. It is not just a case of her suffering from rape trauma, but … there is the added knowledge that she cannot escape the historically entrenched patterns of how rape (and rape victims) have been represented. (191)
This acute reading of The Stendhal Syndrome‘s accomplishment goes some way to redeem the film against the unignorable ickiness of the casting of the director’s daughter, Asia, in the lead role.
Still, as incisive as Heller-Nicholas’ afterword is, it surely won’t prove to be the last word on rape in the cinema. On current form, rape-revenge films will keep on coming, cannibalising predecessors august and tawdry alike, whilst ever evolving new cross-cultural variations on their time-worn themes and narrative, aesthetic and generic manoeuvres.
Meanwhile, Heller-Nicholas’ excellent critical study shows that rape-revenge films carry much more richness and ideological complexity than had previously been attributed to them. I hope for a second edition before overlong, which would afford the author the opportunity to catch up with a slew of new releases and to write further on films she’s called in this edition for further critical consideration of, like the powerful recent Australian feature The Horseman and the wider oeuvre of Freeze Me director Takashi Ishii. I can’t think of anyone who’d be a better fit to provide it.