Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

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).

Next post–>