The revenge narrative structure remains a stalwart of the horror genre despite being one of cinema’s oldest formulas. Well before seventies exploitation films made the rape/revenge formula a sleazy regular of grindhouse cinema, vigilantes populated Westerns and even the great “art house” director, Ingmar Bergman, directed the gorgeously devastating The Virgin Spring that inspired more traditionally generic fare such as The Last House on the Left.
Nevertheless, filmmakers continue to rework the revenge formula for new audiences. Revenge remakes have enjoyed a revival of sorts (see my speculation on one such effort), but new stories have emerged as well. Two recent screenings I attended reminded me of how divergent the uses of revenge can be despite the simple formula. The films, Hobo with a Shotgun and Red White and Blue, both use the revenge formula for a contemporary audience but in drastically divergent ways.
The more conventional of the two, Hobo with a Shotgun casts the legendary (I don’t banty the term about lightly) Rutger Hauer in the titular role of a homeless man just trying to survive peacefully in a nightmarish urban Nova Scotia landscape. After witnessing the cartoonish cruelty of the city’s thugs, however, he takes up arms against criminal elements. Watch the red band trailer below:
The trailer highlights the stylistic flourishes of the film, harkening back to an eighties action film aesthetic of urban lawlessness (think Robocop or Cobra). The film, in other words, exemplifies pastiche much like related efforts Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Hobo began, after all, as a trailer for a contest associated with the release of Grindhouse before becoming a full-length feature as did Machete. The results are predictably gratuitous and campy, and while it may have fallen slightly short of my high expectations, it delivered on its promise gory action sequences and hilariously stilted dialog.
Red White and Blue differs dramatically from Hobo in both its aims and execution. The film follows a group of characters all residing in Austin, Texas, beginning with the detached and promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller). Despite her reckless sexual exploits, she attracts the attention of the pensive Nate, (Noah Taylor in an impressive turn), whose vague military career and stories of childhood hint at psychopathology. Despite their flaws, the two reluctantly form a bond, violently shattered by the entrance of Franki (Marc Senter), a musician whose tryst with Erica proves life-changing.
What differentiates Red White and Blue from so many other revenge narratives is the way in which complex grievances and motivations entangle the characters. The downward spiral begins when Franki discovers that he contracted HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with Erica. While the implications for his own life prove devastating enough, the impact multiplies since Franki donated blood to his mother who suffers from cancer. Franki and his friends then kidnap Erica. Upon confronting her, Erica admits to the knowledge of her own HIV positive status to Franki, both downplaying the significance of the disease and explaining her behavior in terms of her own sexual trauma. It could be Erica’s vulnerability in this scene that leads to a strange kind of violation: Franki, in a supposed effort to make amends, rapes Erica before proposing to her. (Note: Some viewers might not interpret this scene as rape since Erica hardly resists, but Fuller’s performance clearly conveys a lack of consent; it is a disturbing scene because the violence is as much emotional as it is physical.) After Erica attempts to escape, Franki fatally stabs her, dismembering and stowing away the body with the help of his friends. Soon thereafter, Nate tracks down and brutally attacks, interrogates, and tortures Franki and his accomplices. These scenes of calculated violence reveal the monstrous interior hiding beneath Nate’s tranquil exterior, making it difficult to root for Nate as avenger.
Ultimately, then, Red White and Blue refuses to give its audience a character to root for but makes each of its principal players multifaceted and sympathetic (to varying degrees). Hobo with a Shotgun, by contrast, simplifies the intentions of its characters: the hobo along with his sidekick hooker with a heart of gold represent marginalized goodness while crime boss, The Drake, and his spoiled sadistic sons embody evil fueled by unchecked greed. While I found Hobo far more satisfying as a spectacle, Red White and Blue challenged me in its conception of revenge and, in the process, critiqued our culture’s simplistic notions of justice. Red White and Blue showed that the myth of the vigilante portrayed in Hobo may be comforting, but rarely does it translate to life beyond the screen.
Apologies for the dirth of posts–my spouse and I traveled to Oregon to visit his family for a week and their dial-up connection made it impossible to post. It actually was a nice vacation from the internet, but I did feel a bit neglectful.
I’m working on some longer pieces, so at the moment, I would encourage you to take a look at an interesting article on Salon.Com. It’s called “The Meaning of Torture Porn” and it discusses the Saw films, The Human Centipede, and the I Spit on Your Grave remake, among others. In the process, writer Thomas Rodgers interviews Thomas Fahy, editor of a new anthology called The Philosophy of Horror. Exciting, fascinating stuff–even if it’s the hundredth article on the topic, it never seems to get old.
***Many spoilers follow, so if you’ve not yet seen the original ISOYG, skip this review
Of all the horror films to remake, 1979′s I Spit on Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) seems a somewhat unlikely choice. That brutal, rape-revenge film made waves upon its first release with the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who critiqued its prolonged scenes of sexual assault. It also featured problematic portrayals of the working class and mentally disabled. Though the linkage between lower-classness and sadistic violence remains acceptable mainstream fare, negative representations of disability seem more touchy these days. In short, an I Spit on Your Grave remake seems like a huge risk. Check out the original trailer and see for yourself:
Then again, I Spit on Your Grave does fit in nicely with two concurrent cycles in American horror: torture porn and remakes. As you can see in the trailer, the film involves the gang-rape of Jennifer, a big city writer renting a cabin in a rural area. After surviving her ordeal, Jennifer hunts down each of her attackers, dispatching them with gruesome precision. Based on the IMDB synopsis, it appears that the remake retains much of the original’s basic structure with a few adjustments that I will discuss below. But first, the trailer:
A few observations:
1) Night and Day Aesthetics – Hand-held camera work seems to have replaced the more detached cinematography of the original. The overall color-scheme feels darker than the original, with lots of night scenes and a heightening of blues and greens (probably through filters). This change interests me, given that one of the more shocking elements of the original was the way that the gang-rape occurred in broad daylight. From all appearances, the new film presents Jennifer’s rape as occurring at night and following a break in into her home. My guess would be that filmmakers felt these changes would be a) more realistic to today’s audiences and b) more creepy and atmospheric.
2) Context? – The original ISOYG contextualizes the violence against Jennifer in terms of tensions based on class and gender; the male perpetrators regularly make sexist remarks and criticize Jennifer’s urban sophistication. Surprisingly, the trailer for the latest ISOYG provides very little information about what motivates the rapists, instead focusing on Jennifer. I wonder if the remake will make these connections between misogyny and rape clear or merely assume them to be implied.
3) Targeting – Siskel and Ebert claimed that the audiences that attended screenings of the original consisted primarily of men who cheered on the perpetrators during the rape scenes. While I have some skepticism about Siskel and Ebert’s accounts, I imagine that it’s highly likely that men attended these screenings more than women due to the cultural presumptions about the appropriateness of violent films for women. The remake’s trailer, though, seems targeted primarily toward lady viewers by encouraging viewer identification with Jennifer (generally, Hollywood marketers assume that women identify with women characters and men with men). This doesn’t surprise me, given the recent marketing research that suggests women comprise the majority of horror audiences.
In the end, I am pretty lukewarm on this project, primarily because of my mixed feelings about the original. Given the involvement of the original film’s producers and director, I expect that the motivation for revisiting this material has more to do with cashing in than fleshing out the implications of the original. I hope the new film proves me wrong, but with the tagline “It’s date night,” I shudder to think.
In several previous posts, I have featured clips of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s reviews to contextualize the reception of a movie up for discussion. Of course, this should come as no surprise given the influence of their long-running programs: with hundreds of movie covers sporting the “Two thumbs up!” quote like a badge of honor, Siskel (RIP) and Ebert became and remain household names, notwithstanding Richard Roeper.
My relationship with these two critics has always been a tense one. This started during childhood when my family would deliberate over our choice of rentals. “This one says ‘two thumbs up’,” my dad would say. Invariably, us kids would hate the movie and swear never to fall for the Siskel and Ebert endorsement tool again. Still, as my movie fandom developed, I could not help but gravitate toward At the Movies when it played on its awkward early Saturday evening time slot. Watching their reviews gave me the language to talk about film and a bit of insight into understanding its production (though certainly, Shawn Levy‘s reviews in the Oregonian also played a critical role for this Eastern Oregon girl). With the language of film criticism, I could dispute Ebert and Siskel with my own evaluations of films, and eventually, I found myself writing movie reviews for pleasure and eventually a few for my school newspaper.
As a film scholar in my adulthood, my interest in popular criticism persists but in a slightly different fashion. I see the video recorded ramblings of these two men as fascinating artifacts that tell us a little about the public discourse surrounding movies of the past. It helps that some of my favorite film scholars–particularly Carol Clover–have used Siskel and Ebert to discuss the horror genre. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she challenges what she calls “the Siskel-Ebert position” that the rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave “makes rapists of us all” (228-229). Such a hysterical reaction may seem like an overstatement, but when you actually take a look at the footage, it’s not far from the truth: Siskel and Ebert regularly deemed horror films an abomination to humanity, in effect implying that audiences failed to see the camp or irony of such movies.
But here, I present to you the most hysterical of Siskel and Ebert reviews: the famous “Women in Danger” episode from 1980. In three parts, here it is:
Siskel and Ebert make legitimate points about the problematic nature of these films. I especially agree that the slasher genre at times exemplifies a backlash against the women’s movement; still, the critics cleverly pick and choose which films to discuss and which clips to use as evidence for their thesis without fully contextualizing these moments. Rhetorically, these omissions benefit the argument but at the expense of the facts. For example, Ebert characterizes the first-person camera angles often used in the slasher as a device strictly used for the purposes of identifying with the killer; he neglects to mention, however, that it also generates suspense by obscuring the killer’s identity (as is the case in Friday the 13th, discussed in the second clip). And speaking of Friday, I love the way Siskel uses Easy Rider as a counter-example of men behaving risky and evading punishment…even though those characters get murdered in the end. They also fail to mention that men get killed in these films, and sometimes, it’s the final girl that does the killing in the end! Sure, they use Halloween as a token positive example, but they fail to notice that some of the qualities they like in Halloween (i.e., strong women who get the killer in the end) persist in the movies they decry, while some of the qualities they loath about the slasher (i.e. the alignment between sex and violence) can also be attributed to Halloween.
In short, while Siskel and Ebert couch their arguments in terms of gender politics, the core of their dispute with these films has more to do with quality than content. Notice the way that they discuss Halloween in terms of John Carpenter’s authorship (side note: I love the way that Siskel and Ebert deem these films sexist in one breath and then use the masculine pronoun to describe “the artist” in another). What really offends them, more than anything, is the way in which the content is presented, rather than the content itself. Compound this with the fact that Sneak Preview aired on PBS, a public venture notoriously steeped in problematic notions of middle-classness according to Laurie Oullette (confession: I love public TV and radio in spite of this tendency–what can I say? I’m a white, liberal intellectual).
The politics of taste become more interesting when Ebert and Siskel review so-called “art house” horror movies, like Blue Velvet below:
Here, Ebert protests the exploitation of actress Isabella Rossellini while Siskel defends the film’s content for its critique of small town life. For Siskel, the artistic intent trumps concerns about gender. By contrast, Ebert assumes that poor Rossellini must have been ignorant of David Lynch‘s artistic intentions (since he is the one with all the control) when she exposed her naked body before the camera–the two were only dating at the time, so I’m sure she knew nothing of the content filmed after her scheduled appearances. Once again, Ebert bases his “feminist” arguments on masculinist assumptions, while Siskel finds that the artistry and commentary override such concerns.
In terms of discomfort with content, a role-reversal between the critics occurs in the clip below reviewing Crash:
Here, Ebert schools Siskel about the film’s commentary on the eroticization of violence in cinema. I actually agree with Ebert and find Siskel’s observations incredibly obtuse, but I do find it hilarious that both men seem to imply that if the scenes were erotic that this would somehow be a bad thing. Again, one reviewer takes a principled stance against the content, while the other defends it on the basis of artistic merit.
In short, Siskel and Ebert’s work on horror films (both of the “exploitive” and “art house” variety) demonstrates the class and gender politics that film critics often engage in as arbiters of taste. Of course, I’m not making a new point here, but its one worth reconsidering, especially when examining the horror genre.