As you can see, I’m returning at long last to my “Creepiest Movie Scenes” series, but with a slight twist. While I usually like to discuss films with that eerie, unsettling supernatural vibe that I love so much (such as The Haunting, The Tenant, or Don’t Look Now), today I want to go more visceral, and descend into the kind of creepy that encompasses disgust, intense discomfort, and perhaps a hint of exploitation.
The so-called “rape-revenge” subgenre reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the two films I want to talk about are probably the most cited and controversial examples of this type of cinema. I have to say right out of the gate that rape is one of the most stomach-turning things for me to watch on film or hear about in real life; merely hearing someone talk about it (either in a movie or in meatspace) makes my skin crawl with revulsion more than anything else, whether the victim is man, woman, or child. For this reason, these two movies were probably the most difficult films I ever sat through, but ultimately, I found the experience of them bizarrely rewarding, and I will do my best to articulate why.
Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman, 1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance, 1981) were both dogged with criticism from the moment they were released, and both were either heavily edited or outright banned in several countries; I Spit On Your Grave in particular is banned from sale to this day in Ireland (according to Wikipedia) and is only available in severely cut versions elsewhere. The overriding justification for these bans, then as now, was that the films “glorified” violence against women. While I would agree that many films in the rape-revenge genre do indeed use rape solely as a means of titillation, thus making them guilty of accusations of glorification, I would argue that these two films pretty clearly do the exact opposite, and have been unfairly lumped in with lesser, more exploitative examples of the genre. I’d also like to point out here that films that supposedly glorify violence against men are rarely subjected to the same treatment, and while some may point to misguided feminism as the reason for this, I would argue that banning films containing explicit sexual violence against women is actually an inversion of the very idea of feminism, as it still plays into the antiquated view of women as lesser beings who are unable to protect themselves or take action to right the violence visited upon them.
Here’s the thing that I find strange. In my humble estimation, both of these films possess so-called “male perspective” counterparts: I consider I Spit On Your Grave to be a woman-centric version of Deliverance, for example, while I would put Ms. 45 on a similar plane as, say, Death Wish. Both Deliverance and Death Wish, you’ll note, are pretty universally lauded by critics, so I’m always left wondering why, when the sexual violence and later revenge is perpetrated against and subsequently by a woman, critics seem to suddenly and utterly lose their shit. Roger Ebert, whose opinions I mostly agreed with, famously called I Spit On Your Grave “a vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction,” and along with his then-partner Gene Siskel, named it the worst film ever made. When I read about the initial critical reaction to both of these films, I have to say that I’m completely puzzled. Did these dudes watch the same movies I did? Because it seems to me that they entirely missed the point. Some critics have rightly reconsidered their earlier opinions in later years, which is something I’m happy to see, but both movies are still generally looked askance at in “serious” film-critic circles.
I would be the first to admit that there is a paper-thin line between simply portraying rape on screen and glamorizing it, but for my money, neither I Spit On Your Grave nor Ms. 45 glamorized the crimes in the least, and in fact, I would argue that both films portrayed the rapes in such a horrific manner that viewers could not help but identify and empathize with their female protagonists. The brutally drawn-out rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave in particular were so awful that they gave me nightmares for weeks, and I would argue that this is exactly what they should do, if the film is portraying the crime responsibly. Real rape is not sexy or glamorous; it is low and odious and degrading, and that is exactly what the scene depicted, in grueling, unrelenting detail. It had no harrowing background music, it had no flattering camera angles or arty lighting. It was simply a long, flatly presented, almost unendurably ugly portrayal of four men using a blameless woman in the most repugnant, objectifying way possible (even denigrating her personhood further by destroying the manuscript she’d been working on), and then leaving her for dead. I feel that it is far more artistically justifiable to portray rape as disgusting and vile—that is to say, realistically—rather than glossing over it and thus lessening its revolting impact. As I implied earlier, the rape of Ned Beatty’s character in Deliverance was depicted in a very similar way to the rape of Camille Keaton’s character in I Spit On Your Grave, but for whatever reason, Deliverance is considered a cultural and artistic milestone, while I Spit On Your Grave (and Ms. 45, to a lesser extent) is relegated to cult, “video nasty” status, even though the outcomes of both films were almost exactly the same. While I’m not going to argue that I Spit On Your Grave was an artistically better film than Deliverance, because that would just be stupid, I still have to wonder about the vitriol that was hurled at the former when similar criticisms could be leveled at the latter. The only significant difference that I can see was the gender (and, it must be said, attractiveness) of the victim(s).
There is also, of course, another more subtle difference that may hint at the reasons for the disparity in critical reception. In both I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45, the victimized women ultimately end up using the purported “weakness” that made them victims in the first place—their femininity—as weapons of revenge against their attackers. In I Spit On Your Grave, Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) uses the promise of willing sex to lure her rapists back into her clutches with the aim of murdering them one by one (in a memorable instance slicing off a man’s penis while giving him a handjob in a bathtub). I actually liked this aspect of the film very much, as during her attack, the rapists accuse Jennifer of essentially “asking for it” by traipsing around her very secluded cabin in “revealing” clothing (like, y’know, a bathing suit when she went swimming) and “flirting” with them and leading them on (by, y’know, being polite to them when she came into town for groceries). So I found it particularly gratifying that Jennifer had the presence of mind to use these very accusations (which are still depressingly common in real-life rape cases) to her advantage when it came time for payback.
Likewise, in Ms. 45, the mute Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund), who was the victim of two savage rapes in one day, eventually reinvents herself as an overtly sexualized nun who then goes on a man-hunting shooting spree. Is this the aspect of these films that made (largely male) critics so uncomfortable, that their unexamined feelings about women as passive sexual receptacles for their own desires could possibly be used against them by the very objects of those desires? I’m not entirely sure, but honestly, I don’t see much difference between the dudes in Deliverance wasting the rednecks in revenge for Ned Beatty’s rape and Camille Keaton emasculating and killing her attackers in justifiable revenge for what they did to her. And in much the same way as viewers were meant to sympathize with and cheer on the city boys of Deliverance as they enacted some backwoods justice on the agents of their degradation, I feel that I Spit On Your Grave pretty obviously wanted you to sympathize with and cheer on Jennifer as she took out the trash in the exact same way. And sure, I will admit that Ms. 45 is perhaps more problematic in this regard, since Thana took things a tad overboard and began blowing away more-or-less innocent men who had not directly victimized her, I will say that her actions were clearly mitigated in the film’s narrative somewhat, as she was portrayed as not entirely stable from the get-go, and thus her trauma-induced push into full-on murder mode was made completely understandable and even relatable to viewers, as even some of her more “innocent” victims had objectified her in more subtle ways.
Would I go so far as to call these two films “feminist?” I think I would, in the sense that the protagonists of both films used a trauma perpetrated against them as a spur to find their power and drive them to action. It’s clear to me that both directors were purposely making films with a point of view sympathetic to their female protagonists, one that got inside the heads of the characters and made the viewer understand events through their eyes. While I did have a problem, as I mentioned earlier, with Thana’s somewhat indiscriminate killings in Ms. 45, and I was also slightly uncomfortable with Jennifer’s killing of the mentally retarded rapist (who had only raped her at the urging of his irredeemable fuckwit cohorts, even though he was astute enough to know what he was doing was wrong), in the end any sense of discomfort I felt was overridden by my ultimate satisfaction at the deserved outcome for the bad guys. I would have experienced the same gleeful sense of righteous justice had the perpetrator been a man avenging similar wrongs done against him, and that is the entire point that I felt a lot of critics missed. While I’m of the opinion that attitudes toward women in film have improved somewhat since these films were released, it disturbs me that they haven’t changed as much as I feel they should have (as the internet-fueled “controversy” about Mad Max: Fury Road made starkly clear). In that sense, I feel that both I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45 were important cinematic experiments that highlighted some of the more problematic aspects of the way women characters were viewed by using the very tropes of the exploitation film against themselves. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d be interested to hear other perspectives, if anyone would care to share them.
And with that, I will bring another long-winded and scattershot post to a close. Until next time, Goddess out.