Friday, October 8, 2010
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, dir. wes craven, 1972
DAY OF THE WOMAN a.k.a. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, dir. meir zarchi, 1978
the last house on the left
an 'innocent' teenage girl, mari, and her friend phyllis accidentally befriend a group of criminals who proceed to kidnap, rape, and murder them, just on the outskirts of the farm that mari lives on. the criminals then find refuge at this 'last house on the left,' where mari's parents discover what has happened and decide to take revenge.
i spit on your grave
a female writer, jenny, leaves the city and goes to her cabin for the summer to work on her new book. while there, she is visciously attacked and brutally raped by a group of men for the first half of the film. for the second half, she has her revenge.
these low-budget, crude, nihilistic films were taboo-breaking in their depiction of rape and violence. they have long been considered to be 'exploitation.'
controversy rating: 4/10 (house), 7/10 (grave)
overall rating: 1/10 (house), 5/10 (grave)
the original tag-line to sell the last house on the left was: TO AVOID FAINTING - JUST KEEP REPEATING - IT'S ONLY A MOVIE. and apparently a lot of people did do just that when this film originally screened: fainted. so it sounds like it's going to be hard to sit through, right?
mostly: (i'm not the first to say it, i'm sure) i found this movie insanely cheesy. i'm not talking about the grainy 16mm film, or the fact that it was made with a shoestring budget, or even that the acting is at times (ie. most of the time) pretty poor (ie. very poor). those aspects may have even worked in favour of the film (please remember always my obsession with that which is trashy & beautiful & pure in the great name of CAMP), but unfortunately the backbone meant to hold everything together here to begin with is so unsturdy that the entire thing collapses.
there's a lot of stylist issues, for one. the folky soundtrack that doesn't fit in with the mood of the film at all? the editing back and forth between the slapstick cop humour and the rape scene? any and all tension / terror that could have been created by what is, and this is what does seem to be agreed on, a very uncomfortable rape scene, is ruined entirely by craven's inability to decide whether or not he wants to make a film that's terrifying and vile or whether or not he's just getting some sort of sick humour out of putting his characters through hell. inevitably: i feel no remorse for the characters because i think the director has no remorse for his characters. it's hard, then, to feel... shocked? scared? anything at all? of course the subject matter is terrible, but the film has to be believable to some degree for me to feel that it's terrible.
on top of that, i think what was just as troubling is that the film wasn't even cheesy enough to be funny. not that rape should be funny at all - i'm not saying that. but wes craven, later in his career, at least realizes that he's not actually very good at scaring people or creating any kind of tension, that most of what he's good at is punch-lines and shock value, so he ups the humour (see: every single nightmare on elm street film - and they get funnier with each one - and the scream trilogy). this film doesn't really have that going for it, because the rape scenes are still incredibly vile, and long, and not exactly something "easy" to watch. and then there's the music though? and the cuts? and i have no idea what i'm watching? it's like this film has no idea what it wants to be.
i would like to be able to say that for all it's boundary-pushing, i found something redeeming in this film, but the truth is that i couldn't, and i don't think i would ever watch it again.
it makes sense to me, though, to talk about house in relation to the (far superior) 1978 similarly-themed rape-and-revenge film, day of the woman, better known now as i spit on your grave. not only have both films been treated to re-makes very recently (the grave remake hits theaters today), but because they share a similar mythological history in the controversial film canon. you hear about them forever and ever, how they're so terrible and hard to sit through, there's so much emphasis put on just how long the rape scenes in these films are...
and really, they are. and house definitely isn't "comfortable" to watch. it's not really so much that i enjoyed (for lack of a better word) grave all that much, but in comparison to house, which we had watched not too long before, it was a big step up. all of the things that were problematic for me in house (in terms of the film-making) are gone here, for the most part. there are still some cheesy moments in the film (as it to be expected, maybe, from a 70s exploitation film), but overall the dramatic tension is at least there (i emphasize this because really - it's necessary that the film not be completely ridiculous if it actually plans to make me uncomfortable). the rape scenes are fucking silent except for panicked, terrible screaming and they never feel like they're going to end. they are gut-wrenching, and extremely difficult to watch. and because of this, you actually do give a shit about jenny, and you want her to get her revenge. thus, the second half of the film is fulfilling and (dare i say it?) fun to watch. it's not exactly a great work of art, but i think it holds up as one of the better films of this variety from the time period.
now, i've kept this in mind of course: these images, shocking as they are now, definitely would have been much more devastating to the audience that first viewed them, and house, at least, feels somewhat "tame" by today's standards. and at the end of the day, you have to remember what these films are: they are films that show women being degraded for, possibly, the purpose of "entertainment," which we should all agree, regardless of intent by the director, is fucked. but these films are unrelenting and boundary-pushing in this regard. grave stands the test of time; house does not.
controversy rating: 5/10 (house), 6/10 (grave)
overall rating: 2/10 (house), 6/10 (grave)
there's a certain touchiness and discomfort in being a man and reviewing these types of films. i simply cannot imagine how it would feel to be female and watching them. it almost seems like i can't experience the full extent of their disturbing impact and that i am less qualified to comment on them because of this.
that caveat aside, there’s one specific aspect that i would like to look at which comes out especially clearly when you compare these two films to each other. each presents a very different enactment of the revenge portion of the rape and revenge theme: in house, it is mari’s family who exacts revenge; she (along with phyllis, who is killed earlier and is not as prominent in the film) is killed. in grave, it is jennifer herself who exacts revenge; she isn’t killed.
we all understand the point behind the two act rape and revenge structure. the first is designed to be as brutal as possible to build up our sympathies with the main female character and our hatred of the rapists, while the latter is designed to give us some extreme form of emotional catharsis, pleasure and sense of justice in retribution. there is often also thought to be some sort of female-empowering element to the revenge portion of the films (this seems to often be the director’s intent, when the director is at least skilled enough to have a thought-out intent, unlike wes craven; grave is, after all, also known as day of the woman, which seems to suggest this feature). how do these two films compare with respect to this latter intent, of the revenge as having something (however nebulously stated) to do with female strength?
it seems clear that if we judge a rape and revenge film by how it executes this latter intent, grave succeeds and house fails. this is obvious. in grave, jennifer is the one exacting the revenge. she has gone through this atrocious experience, but at least she gets her own revenge, on her own terms. if the point of these films is about showing a female character as strong in her retaliation, well, jennifer cutting off the rapist’s balls and letting him bleed out in a bathtub does that.
in house, though, mari doesn’t get her own revenge (particularly troubling is the fact that phyllis is completely forgotten here. there is no sense that this revenge is even remotely about her). the film seems to be saying that not only does mari have to go through this atrocious experience, but she’s not even tough enough to get her own revenge, she’s not allowed to. she has to die and she has to be reliant on her parents to exact the revenge for her. but of course, she can’t even witness any of this that's done on her behalf. so where is the actual revenge portion of the film, if that revenge is taken to be for the sake of or on behalf of the female character? it’s simply not there, and the revenge shown seems more for the sake of her family and their pain (though obviously closely linked to mari's).
it’s no doubt stifling to hold that a type/structure of film should have a particular ending or content, and i don’t want to say anything that definitive. however, when a film has such emotionally charged content, we do need to question not just whether the film is "good" but what sort of statement the director is using the rape and revenge trope to make. grave's at the very least seems a bit more respectable.
no film from this subgenre is ever pleasant, and all are offensive and questionable in intent, but in the end, grave at least works as a rape and revenge film while house fails. last house on the left is a laughably idiotic, terrible, poorly made film while i spit on your grave is a genuinely uncomfortable, not great but not awful, sometimes well shot and composed film.