Women have rarely emerged well from horror movies. Indeed, they’ve mostly crawled out, slashed, burned and tortured, psychologically or physically. Look through horror history and you see a set of clichéd roles: the Final Girl, the Dysfunctional Mother, the Scream Queen, the Punished Slut, the Possessed Girl in a Nightie and, inevitably, the Rape Victim.
Male directors have often justified using a long, juicily graphic rape scene early on because it is followed by gory revenge and even castration afterwards upon the perpetrators. But the gaze was almost always male. This week, however, the tables and the assault rifles have been turned, with a new feminist horror, Revenge, from first-time writer-director Coralie Fargeat. She has reclaimed the rape-revenge genre and created a fresh, funny and actually quite stylish horror flick, which puts sexual politics right upfront in the story.
Her heroine, Jen, played by Matilda Lutz, goes from being a hot, lollipop-sucking Lolita-figure to an avenging assassin – sort of like Schwarzenegger in a black bikini.
Jen is the young lover of married man Richard (Kevin Janssens). The two, who look a bit like a perfect Barbie and Ken at the start, take a helicopter trip to a designer glass villa with an infinity pool in a gorgeous desert setting. But when two of Richard’s heavily armed hunting pals turn up, the romance turns nasty. (Minor spoilers coming.) Jen takes pleasure in wearing tiny shorts and dresses, watched by a seemingly crotch-hugging camera, and dances sexily with one of the hunters. In the men’s minds, this is an open invitation to violation.
In these days of hate-speak spouted by ‘incels’ who believe that women who refuse them must be punished, Revenge is a powerful tonic
But Fargeat, who is French but made the film mostly in English, shows the eventual rape scene quickly and elliptically, mostly off screen. It is the revenge that we are here to witness and enjoy in all its squelching, inventive, stomach-churning hilarity. The result is not merely buckets, but what seem like tankers, of blood, as the hunted turns huntress.
In London to launch the film, out this Friday, Fargeat explained: “At the beginning Jen is presented as very sexualised, superficial and weak, but then there is a sort of resurrection and she becomes strong and grounded, creating her own destiny.”
After the rape, Jen is chased by the men and ends up impaled on a spike and left for dead. When she comes back to life, she is forged by fire (almost literally at one point) into a cool badass, and starts to hunt down the men who tried to rape and kill her. The male gaze is replaced by the female gaze, as the camera turns on the men. “The cliché that because the girl is sexy you can do whatever you want to her is turned on its head,” says Fargeat. “She can be whoever she wants to be, wear what she wants, and she shouldn’t attract this kind of violence, physical, verbal, or psychological.”
In these days of hate-speak spouted by “incels” who believe that women who refuse them must be punished, Revenge is a powerful tonic.
Fargeat said she had not steeped herself in the rape-revenge genre but she had seen Wes Craven’s 1972 film The Last House on the Left, in which teenage girls are taken into the woods and raped and tortured by a gang of murderous thugs. The revenge element here includes a bitten-off penis. In The Evil Dead, a tree infamously rapes a woman with its roots. In Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger’s knife-blade fingers appear between a girl’s legs in the bath.
Perhaps the most famous and excoriated film in the genre was I Spit On Your Grave, written and directed by a man back in 1978. This was the sales pitch at the time: “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition...but no jury in America would ever convict her!" But before the vengeance, I Spit On Your Grave showed graphic gang-rape scenes lasting over 30 minutes in total. It was censored in the UK as a “video nasty”, although some pointed to its cathartic justice.
Fargeat is doing something much more intelligent here, and, for her, rape is just one element in the many different kinds of violence, and verbal and physical male control, in the picture. As Jen loses her pink T-shirt, her pink star-shaped glitter earrings and her fear, and takes on more of a bra-and-gunbelt look, audiences are cheering along.
The horror genre is ripe for reinvention, and there are riches to be plundered from a female point of view. For now, though, Revenge can deservedly take its place in the new wave of smart, feminist horror films, like the The Babadook and Prevenge.
Revenge opens the non-profit Reclaim The Frame campaign, which promotes female-led films with debates afterwards at cinemas around the country – next in Newcastle, Birmingham, London and Manchester (For details, see Birds Eye View)