The Rape-Revenge Girl, part deux.

Baise-moi, si vous plaît.

The sex-club massacre scene from "Baise-moi" (2000). In English, the film's title would be correctly translated as "Fuck me", and not "Rape me" under which it was originally released in North America.

When the French film Baise-moi was released in 2000, it garnered a great deal of media attention for its highly graphic violence and depictions of unsimulated sex. The film was banned in Ontario, initially because it was deemed too pornographic. The producers asked for it to be re-rated with a pornographic rating, only for it to be banned because there was too much violence for a pornographic film. It was finally passed with an “18A license” after — one assumes — some strategic edits being made. I caught up with the film on DVD that year, and have recently rewatched it online — you can find most of the film on Youtube, but hurry as it’s likely to be removed due to its content and copyright infringement. I came away from my recent viewing with these two impressions: firstly, that it is a far better film than I remember, and second, that I still don’t know what all the hullabaloo was about.

Here’s a quick synopsis: the main characters Nadine (Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) are women who live on the precarious fringe of a very disenfranchised lower-class in contemporary France. Nadine is a part-time prostitute involved with some very shady individuals, while the perpetually unemployed Manu spends much of her time trying to get stoned. When Manu is gang raped by a group of thugs, her brother — with whom she has a strangely complex and conflicted relationship — accuses her of “enjoying” the rape and calls her a “slut.” A physical struggle ensues, during which Manu grabs her brother’s handgun and shoots him dead. Meanwhile, Nadine has a violent scuffle with her female roommate that ends with her friend’s demise. So, a bad day for all parties involved. The women meet up at a railway station by pure coincidence, and the two decide to “go on the lamb” from the police that will soon pursue them. And thus famously begins their violent, drug-addled, pornographic and completely nihilistic crime spree.

Nadine pays homage to Travis Bickle's famous "Are you talking to me?" scene from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." No, seriously. Compare both scenes.

In my previous post on The Rape-Revenge Girl I discussed Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and how that film ultimately failed as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film. Where Zarchi’s film falters and, conversely, Baise-moi succeeds is in the depiction of rape. The protracted and rather gratuitous rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave offer up much screaming, nakedness, and salacious close-ups of Jennifer Hill’s anguished face and bloodied body. While the audience understands that bloody vengeance will come before the credits roll, it’s not until after we all get a good, long look at Jennifer’s breasts. The whole deal feels exploitative. While the rape scene in Baise-moi is undeniably graphic — as it involves actual penetration — the filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi simultaneously reject the sadism inherent in a rape scene. Much to the dismay of one of her rapists, Manu stares ahead in a detached manner during her attack. She has recognized that although she’s powerless to prevent the assault, she can assert power through her refusal to “play” the role of the victim. The fact that her lack of response clearly annoys her rapist underscores the politics that inform the scene: that rape is about power, not sex.

Once Nadine and Manu are on the road, the film becomes a sort of X-rated buddy-flick. The sex is graphic, true, but no more so than anything you’ve seen in a standard, mainstream pornographic film. Much like films of that ilk, it’s also completely mechanical and nonerotic. The violence of the main characters is sudden, impulsive and seemingly fueled by a rage against society as a whole, which is partly the reason it all works so well. The scene of the bloody massacre that takes place within a sex club is positively operatic in its excessive violence. For no other reason, you should watch this film for that scene.

OK, I believe I’ve finished with my “female tropes in horror films” series of posts. Next up, I’ll write about the latest release from Pixar. No, not really.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part IV.

The Rape-Revenge Girl.

Jennifer (Camille Keaton) exacts revenge on one of her rapists in ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978).

Horror fiction tends to narrowly focus on two main themes: sex and death. (In fact, an argument can be made that most art is preoccupied with these two topics). A corollary subject that often arises from this thematic pairing is the violent cruelty of mankind that ultimately leads to sex and/or death. The writings of the Marquis de Sade and films of both Pasolini and Hanneke are almost entirely devoted to the examination of power dynamics and the innate viciousness of humanity. The reader/audience is also strongly implicated as willing participants in this parade of cruelty served up for our (presumably) voyeuristic consumption.

The Rape-Revenge scenario is the perfect encapsulation of this sex + death equation: a young, beautiful woman is sexually and physically brutalized, but survives to exact bloody vengeance upon her tormentor/s. This scenario is one that is strongly favoured by the various subgenres of exploitation cinema because its, well, basically lurid and exploitative. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your point-of-view) of the Rape-Revenge subgenre is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman (1978), better known by its re-release title, I Spit on Your Grave. Now, let’s place this film in it’s proper context. Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave is a base, low-budget, and poorly acted film. It’s pure exploitation cinema, and a far cry from the critically-lauded work of Sade, Pasolini and Hanneke. That being said, it has been the subject of a great deal of feminist critical discourse since its release, with academics such as Carol Clover and Julie Bindel championing its “feminist” viewpoint.

The plot is threadbare. Jennifer Hills, an aspiring writer from “the big city”, seeks solitude in a rental cottage so that she may focus on her craft. The local country bumpkins have different plans for Ms. Hills, however, for no apparent reason other than the fact that she’s young, pretty and unaccompanied. They systematically terrorize, gang rape, and then murder their victim. Or so they believe. Jennifer survives her attack, and returns for revenge. One by one, her former tormentors are dispatched in ever increasingly gruesome ways and we, the audience, cheer her on through this exercise in catharsis.

Dude, rape victims don’t generally seduce their rapists into bathtubs after the attack. Darwinism claims yet another deserved victim.

I had two major misgivings with Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave. I’ll list them in point form.

1. One is forced to sit through a protracted series of rapes before we arrive at the satisfaction of revenge. This is the ‘Faustian bargain’ to which we females tacitly agree when viewing such films: howls of naked protest from the heroine in Act One, to be followed by bloody vengeance. The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge. At least, the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste. The only death scene that worked for me was the castration-in-the-bathtub scene. Gallons of fake blood, off-screen howls and much left to the imagination of the viewer make this scene an effective one.

2. The rapists are portrayed as complete imbeciles, with one of them a mildly retarded, Gomer Pyle-like character. Did Zarchi intend this as a further insult-to-injury for poor Jennifer Hills? That an independent, educated woman like her could be bested by this group of inbreds? The convincing performance of Camille Keaton in the infamous ‘sodomy scene’ is completely undercut by the spastic gyrations of her attacker. What the hell is the actor doing back there? Was he directed to look that ridiculous? Even during a scene as horrendous as this, I could not suppress my laughter.

Where is the ‘deviance’ and the ‘aberrant female’ in all this, you ask? Carol Clover wrote in the third chapter of her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that she can “appreciate, however grudgingly, the way in which [the movie’s] brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture.” Women are typically cast as victims in exploitation films, and their suffering has become a form of sadistic entertainment. Zarchi’s film attempts to address this issue. Rather than rely on the sporadic justice of the judiciary system, Jennifer Hills takes matters into her own hands. She embodies the rage we feel against the cruel reality of rape, and we sit through her violation in order to experience the vicarious thrill of revenge without ever getting our hands bloodied.

While Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t entirely work for me as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film, my next post will focus on a film in this genre that does work: the equally controversial French film Baise-moi (2000).

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part III.

The Lesbian Vampire.

Theodora: Is this another one of your crazy ideas?
Eleanor: I’m not crazy!
Theodora: Crazy as a loon! You really expect me to believe that you’re sane and the rest of the world is mad?
Eleanor: Well why not? The world is full of inconsistencies. Full of unnatural beings, nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!

The text above is dialogue from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) in which Dr. Markway, a researcher into paranormal activity, has assembled a group to investigate the reputed haunting of the gothic New England mansion Hill House. Amongst the group are the clairvoyant Theodora, a bold, outspoken woman who exudes worldly sophistication, and Eleanor, an awkward spinster who’s spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. In spite of their differences, Theodora befriends the mousy Eleanor, and there’s even the hint of romantic interest — however unlikely — emanating from Theodora. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding conceived of the Theodora character as lesbian, which would be one of the earliest appearances of a queer character in cinematic horror. Of course, the social climate of the early 1960’s meant that references to Theodora’s sexual orientation were all very codified and subtle, but Eleanor’s accusation of  “…unnatural beings…” and “nature’s mistakes…” allude not only to Theo’s preference in romantic partners, but they clearly establish homosexuality as an indication of deviance and ‘unnaturalness’.

Claire Bloom stars as Theodora (far left), Julie Harris as Eleanor (centre) and Rosalie Crutchley as the stony and gloriously creepy groundskeeper Mrs. Dudley in Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).

As was discussed in my earlier post on gender & the slasher film, queerness and the fluidity of gender identity in horror fiction is frequently a sign of mental illness. The cross-dressing serial killer — Norman Bates, for instance — and the homicidal, lovesick lesbian from Aja’s Haute Tension are examples of blurred gender boundaries being symptomatic of mental instability. While the character of Theodora in Wise’s The Haunting is not portrayed as violent nor mentally ill, her lesbianism marks her as ‘unnatural’ as the haunted Hill House in which the drama unfolds. This notion is certainly ironic given that it is the socially-awkward Eleanor, and not Theodora, who stands out as “the one who doesn’t belong” within the group.

“Hey! That’s not my neck!” Vampire love bite from “Twins of Evil” (1971).

This takes us to the third most common female trope in horror fiction: the Lesbian, and specifically the Lesbian Vampire. Why vampire, you ask? Simple. This trope has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) about the predatory love of a female vampire for a young woman. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which it predated by 25 years — but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the female vampire. (See my post on The Vampiress for more on this topic). The reason for the popularity of the Lesbian Vampire seems fairly straightforward: titillation, pure and simple. Wikipedia sums this up neatly:

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Weiss 1993). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably straight women or girls by lesbian vampires.

In the early 1970’s, Britian’s Hammer Studios created the much beloved Karnstein Trilogy, a series of lesbian vampire films very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novella: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). I’ve only seen the first film, which stars the iconic ‘Hammer Girl’ Ingrid Pitt and is quite giggle-worthy. File under ‘guilty pleasure.’

For the most part, the Lesbian Vampire is more softcore than horror, and bears little resemblance to the gender-bending serial killers mentioned earlier. What they do have in common, however, is the demarcation of Otherness — even the racy, breast-biting vampire of Twins of Evil is ultimately portrayed as ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant.’

In Part IV of this series of posts, I’ll address the Rape-Revenge Girl.

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part II.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Cécile De France as the chainsaw-wielding Marie in “Haute Tension” (2003).

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points of Aja’s Haute Tension are discussed, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first.

In my previous post on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’, part I, I identified two of the most common female tropes in horror cinema: the Final Girl and her counterpoint, the Slut. These two form a polarity necessary to the moral undertone of the ‘slasher’ horror film: the virtuous Final Girl survives to confront and (usually) destroy her tormentor, while the Slut provides titillation by disrobing and being sexual, offering up a canvas of eroticized female flesh that the (invariably) male serial killer can cut, slash, mutilate and otherwise penetrate. American film theorist Carol Clover, who coined the term ‘Final Girl’ in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, writes on the integral role the Final Girl plays in the slasher genre:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone must also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). — Carol Clover, from Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992.

The psychopathic urge that drives the serial killer to commit his atrocities is often imbued with a sexual energy. The killer is simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, the sexual desirability of his young female victims. As Clover points out, he is often depicted as “…a male whose masculinity, and sexuality more generally, are in crisis…”, with prime examples being the cross-dressing of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The serial killer’s fluid gender identity marks him as a sexual deviant — and deviance in horror fiction is indicative of that which causes fear and anxiety.

Marie hides from her Serial Killer Cliché in “Haute Tension” (2003).

This point brings us back to Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, in which one of the main female characters, Marie, is identified as lesbian. Her sexual orientation is relevant to the plot, as it supplies the motivation behind her actions. She harbours a secret passion for her friend Alexa who, evidently, is completely oblivious to Marie’s romantic feelings. When her friend’s family is brutally murdered and Alexa kidnapped by a male psychopathic killer, Marie quickly adopts the Final Girl role and leaps to her friend’s rescue. From the outset, Marie’s short, boyish hair, androgynous clothing and slim, tautly muscled body appears to conform to the masculinized tradition of the Final Girl. As the plot progresses, Marie is poised for her final confrontation with the killer: a large, stout middle-aged man dressed in grimy overalls, his physical appearance every bit a slasher film cliché as hers.

And then comes the Big Reveal. The clichéd male serial killer is exactly that. He is a creation of Marie’s imbalanced mind, as the surveillance camera at the gas station films Marie — and not the stout, grimy man — as she sinks an axe into the back of the unsuspecting male attendant. The Final Girl and the Serial Killer conflate into one: the homicidal, mentally-unstable lesbian. Is this depiction of a queer woman homophobic? There is, arguably, a trace of homophobia in Haute Tension, as Marie’s sexual orientation serves not only as a plot device, but clearly distinguishes her as ‘the Other’, the deviant that is to be feared. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of LGBT themes in horror fiction and the use of ‘queerness’ as a demarcation of Otherness, and this will be the topic of my next post…

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part I.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Unrequited lesbian love gone terribly, terribly wrong in Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” (2003).

Recently, I settled down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), a masterpiece of ‘New French Extremity‘ which had eluded me until now. Like many films of its pedigree, Haute Tension features sadistic sexuality, extreme violence, and generous amounts of gore. Without spoiling the end — as the real strength of this film lies near the end — there was also a clever plot twist that plays with gender and the roles typically associated with female characters in the genre. Women are still traditionally cast as victims in horror, and most particularly in the ‘slasher’ or serial-killer subgenre, so it is considered subversive when they are portrayed as the perpetrators of violence. In fact, it is so outside of the ‘norm’ that an additional reason is frequently given for the violent woman’s aberrant behaviour. In the 1978 ‘exploitation’ film I Spit On Your Grave, the motivation behind the female lead’s murderous rampage is revenge for her brutal gang rape. The homicidal intruder in À l’intérieur (2007) has been driven insane by her obsessive desire for a child. In Haute Tension, unrequited lesbian love factors into the killer’s actions. These various reasons — trauma, mental instability, and homosexuality — firmly place the behaviour of these women outside of ‘normal’ and in the realm of the deviant.

The depiction of deviance, women & gender in horror cinema is a big, big topic indeed — one that warrants more than one blog post. Let’s start by looking at two of the most common tropes in the horror genre:

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” (1979).

1. The ‘Final Girl’ or ‘The Virgin.’ She’s that pretty, but not too sexy, girl-next-door who just might have a boyfriend, but he’s never gotten passed First Base. In the formulaic ‘slasher’ film — a subgenre of horror that dominated the late 70’s and the decade of the 1980’s — she’s the only girl left standing at the finale. The slasher film is a modern-day cautionary tale, and the Final Girl is spared the violent deaths visited upon her sexier classmates by reason of her virtue. She is frequently characterized as tom-boyish, even androgynous. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series is a prime example of the masculinized Final Girl. Recent horror cinema has reconfigured and, at times, even subverted the Final Girl: an argument can be made that Marie in Aja’s Haute Tension is a subversion of this trope (her very short boyish hair, her extreme athleticism, apparent heroism, and her sexual orientation).

Margot Kidder plays Barb, the drinking, smoking, sexually active Slut in Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” (1974).

2. The Slut. She’s the counterpoint to the Final Girl, the girl in the film who engages in all sorts of nasty vice and most likely has a nasty attitude to match. According to the morality play/slasher film, she’s destined to meet a grisly end, probably twitching at the end of a pitchfork. A big, rigid pitchfork. The chain-smoking Barb (Margot Kidder) from Bob Clark’s genre-defining Black Christmas (1974) fits this role perfectly. While her lifestyle has her marked for an untimely death, she’s also the sororiety sister with the most moxy. (You can read more about Black Christmas in my earlier post on the film.)

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Horror Films 101: The Vampiress.

Carmilla, illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

The vampiress. The very word itself is seductive. From its first syllable vamp we arrive at the image of the aggressively sensual woman, the predatory femme fatale. Then, as if to underscore her dangerous nature, the word ends with an echoic warning: esssssss. The hiss of a snake.

She’s lurked in the shadows of our collective unconscious for just under 150 years. The legend of the female vampire, as we presently know her, began with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla, a story that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Stoker’s masterpiece, but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the vampiress. Much like her male counterpart, the female vampire is a captivating creature possessed of unearthly powers and the ability to shape-shift into various forms. Almost invariably, she is lesbian or bisexual. It is this latter characteristic which makes her an especially compelling figure. Embodying the male heterosexual fantasy of the ‘femme’ lesbian, her predatory seduction of women is inevitably thwarted by the male hero wielding a pointed, and most assuredly phallic, stake.

OK, I’ll spare you my feminist/queer politics tirade. We’re all grown-ups here. Let’s leave the sexual politics aside — though it does warrant a passing mention — and check out some of my all-time favourite films featuring the female vampire.

1. Roger Vadim’s 1960 vampire film Et mourir de plaisir (translates literally to ‘And to die of pleasure’ but released under the considerably less evocative English title Blood and Roses) is perhaps one of the most stylish and artful treatments of the Carmilla story. Impressionistic and dreamlike, it’s impossibly convoluted plot and bevy of look-alike Gallic beauties make it a gorgeous mess of a film.

2. Britain’s Hammer Studios released The Vampire Lovers in 1970 during a period of increased competition in the market, prompting some film studios to add more graphic content in order to attract an audience. They found it in this softcore account of female vampirism. The cheekbones are high and the bosoms heaving in this campy classic. Ingrid Pitt stars as the sultry Marcilla and Peter Cushing cashes a paycheque in this slap-n-tickle vampire romp.

3. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is chaste by comparison to The Vampire Lovers. The emphasis of the film rests on story and atmosphere rather than bosoms or gore. Contrary to its title, it’s not especially scary. It does, however, have one memorably creepy scene that involves the female vampire emerging out of a lake.

4. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) opens with a near-perfect sequence that interweaves an eventful trip home from a Goth nightclub with Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy and a violent monkey attack in a research facility. Stylish and profoundly erotic, it’s a clever update to the mythology of the female vampire. Oh, and it features David Bowie. And Susan Sarandon’s breasts.

5. Although she’s only an ancillary character in Dracula (1979), the appearance of Mina as a vampire is an effectively creepalicious moment in this otherwise lacklustre version of the Dracula story. This scene also boasts Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier (??!!) in the role of Van Helsing.