Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Day of the Woman: Defending 'I Spit On Your Grave' as Feminist Horror

So, we're going to be doing something a little different with the blog today, but it's something I'd like to do more of in the future. Basically, this is going to be somewhere between a rant and an essay, and I'll be getting into actual analysis of a particular film. In this case, Meir Zachi's 1978 film, 'I Spit On Your Grave.'

As someone who does nothing but sit around and talk (often thoughtfully, I hope, though it does depend on the movie) about horror movies, I was recently drawn back into the seemingly endless debate about whether "I Spit On Your Grave" has any merit. With a sequel (an ambiguous sequel unrelated to either the original film or the 2010 remake) finally on the way, I have to wonder why it is that this film is suddenly being revisited. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. But we'll get to that.

When "I Spit On Your Grave" was released in 1978, it was not only panned by critics, but called vile, repulsive and harmful. The critics at this time responded the same to every slasher film. The argument was different here, though. Slasher films were entertainment, they wanted to keep you on the edge of your seat, they were violent, but the violence was exciting, and passing. It never lingered. Basically, they wanted you to have fun.

This movie did not. And for that, it is a mistake to call it harmful. The only thing is, now critics have forgotten all of those slasher movies, and the fans have always ignored the reviews that did call them repulsive, but even a good many lovers of the horror film, well, this is one movie they've sided with the critics with. That or you get, "yes, it's sick and hateful, but I like, sick and hateful movies." And the thing that drove me off the deep end regarding this movie was something I read last night, from one of the most well-thought-out books on exploitation films out there.

Basically, they stated that even though it became a cult film and has its fans, there is no one who could argue "I Spit On Your Grave" as anything remotely feminist.

Well, hello, there. Here I am. And for better or worse, that's just what I plan to do.

For those of you who don't know, the movie follows a young woman, a writer, who moves into a small house in the country to work on her book. She immediately attracts the attention of the local men. They play nice, they watch her, and then they break in, rape her, and leave her for dead in the woods. But she doesn't die. She crawls home. She stares at the wall for about a day and a half. And then with quiet, casual reserve she exacts her revenge on every single one of them. It's not pleasant to watch, even if there is some cosmic, primal satisfaction in watching a woman castrate the man who raped her.

My first point is, if we're not supposed to take violence in film literally (and believe me, we're not) "I Spit On Your Grave" should not be the one exception. Literally, this is not a way that any problem should be solved, but in a primal form of expression, yes it damn well should. The violence in this film represents one thing: power. When the men are violent to her, they are brutal, and the camera soaks it all in. This is harsh, and perhaps too long, but almost necessary for her to do what she has to do afterward. When she kills them, the murders are increasingly violent, but only because she has taken that power from them and is now spitting it back out. By knife, by rope, by ax. One by one.

Should a woman kill her rapist? Not at all. Duh. But there has to be a satisfaction in seeing that trade off of power. Ideally, it needs to happen. In a better world, the tradeoff of power is there. A woman will identify her rapist, take him to court, and he will go to prison. That is a restoration of power. It is not the world we live in today. That is why I think "I Spit On Your Grave" is not only feminist horror, but necessary feminist horror, and why I don't find it remotely surprising to see a sudden remake and sequel come about in the last couple years.

The words "rape culture" are something you hear tossed around a lot. And the more I think about it, the more it's kind of true. We're in a world right now when news coverage of a rape in which the men were charged and convicted will still talk about what a shame their being caught for rape will do to their athletic careers. If this is rape culture, I Spit On Your Grave is counter-culture.

Watching the film again, as every rapist pleads for their life, you could take every word they say and it sounds exactly like something that's come out of FOX news in the last week. One claims she "deserved it because of what she was wearing" another tells her that "you can't blame me, a man's just a man" all excuses that are not only made frequently by alleged rapists, but by the media reporting on them. So when the main argument against I Spit On Your Grave as feminism pipes up: "if the movie is feminist, why is the rape shown in detail? Why doesn't the camera turn away?" Then I still have an answer, even though I don't like it.

The world we live in is both violent and not entirely un-chauvanistic. As sick as it sounds, showing what happens to the lead character in detail is probably the only way to ensure the entire audience is on her side. Because while the rapists still claim she deserves it for what she was wearing, nobody in the audience sounds an agreement. Because they saw it. They were right there in the dirt with her. They saw the whole thing from the woman's perspective, and that is precisely what all of these stories reporting on rape seem so frighteningly anxious to avoid. They don't want to think about it. This film makes you think about it. Tough love, yes, but I think we're all better off for it.

This is why I feel the film is both important as a horror film and a work of feminism. Why I think it is the perfect movie to revisit now. Is it an exploitation film? Of course. Was it intended to be as deeply read as I just went through? I kind of doubt it. But the film stands on its own regardless. It is a violent, cold statement against a subject that will never be anything but violent and cold. It is a film about power, and about putting it in the woman's hands and shutting up about it. We shouldn't have to go through a violent statement like this just to see the subject of rape from the victim's perspective. That should be obvious. But until 100%, as a country, we don't have to, then at least we do have violent statements like this. A powerful film that will show you everything you need to see, if you can stomach a look.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

25 Greatest Horror Movies of the Decade (So Far) - Part Two

And so the list continues...

10. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012). Why aren't more people seeing this movie? It's on Netflix. That's the only requirement people have to watch movies, right? Anyway, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a psychadelic, retro acid trip of a subversive horror film. It's what you'd get if Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento were still making movies. It's a very psychological, non-linear horror that is pretty rare for today. And the score is motherfucking phenomenal.

09. Stake Land (2011). I've got a full review somewhere on the blog, but Stake Land is a great, well-acted post-apocalyptic thriller that injects a breath of fresh air into the vampire genre. In addition to making the monsters monstrous once again, there's an underlying theme of the definition (or re-definition) of family after the world has ended.

08. Attack the Block (2011). What is Joe Cornish doing right now? Because the answer should be everything. The brilliance of this movie (produced by God among Brit directors, Edgar Wright) cannot be understated. So there are these British thugs, and we see them rob a woman in the first scene so that we know they're thugs and it's not just the way they dress. But then, BAM, aliens. Aliens all over the damn place, and now the thugs have to defend their neighborhood, people who don't trust them and people they don't particularly trust. And the fuzzy blacklight aliens look awesome.

07. John Dies at the End (2012). Don Coscarelli only seems to direct a movie about once every ten years but when he does, it's truly something to behold. His last movie before John Dies was, for the record, Bubba Ho-Tep, a winner in every sense of the word. In this case, a lot of credit also goes to David Wong's brilliant novel on which this is based. As a film, it is unlike anything you will probably experience this decade. Basically, there's this drug called soy-sauce that is no simple hallucinogen. It doesn't alter your perception of reality, it alters reality itself. The movie is side-splittingly funny, the characters are believable despite themselves, and it raises some actually thought-provoking questions between dick jokes.

06. I Saw the Devil (2011). Hard-hitting, insane Korean film and that should be enough for you to see it. It's insanely violent, for the record, and there's an action element too that is actually pretty easy to go along with. It makes you enjoy watching a film you really don't want to enjoy watching. It's a pretty unique experience as only Korea can offer and the cinematography provided herein is absolute perfection.

05. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011). Of all the movies on this list, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil might be the most absolute fun. Like the best horror comedies, this is great fun and brilliant satire at the same time. Tucker and Dale are two good ol' boys on their way up to the family cabin, and through a wacky series of misunderstandings, teenagers end up suffering horrific deaths and the backwoods rednecks have a doosy of a day dodging the psychotic preppy college student who blames them for the deaths of his friends (but is actually just SO horny to kill something.)

04. A Horrible Way to Die (2011). Talked about Adam Wingard a little bit down the list as he worked on V/H/S, but that didn't showcase his incredible talent as a director nearly as much as this movie, which is haunting. A woman is trying to move on and pull her life together after the discovery that her boyfriend was a serial killer and the subsequent arrest left her a broken, sheltered alcoholic. As she puts the pieces together one by one, she meets someone in AA who gives her something she hasn't felt in a long time: hope. But the old boyfriend has just broken out of prison, and there's only one place he wants to be.

03. Let Me In (2010). Well, look at this. A list of 25 movies over the past three years, and only one remake. But a fantastic remake it is. This American adaptation of Let the Right One In followed closely on the other's heels, but it stands on its own and the two films compliment each other nicely. The American version can't play up the gender questions as well as the Swedish version, but it does focus a little more on the relationship between two children, one who is a monster and one who has great potential to become a monster, and never makes excuses for the actions of its young protagonists, or villifies them. The film constantly walks a line and the two young stars, Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee deliver more genuine, heartfelt and adult performances than most actors out there right now.

02. The Woman (2011). The Woman is the collaborative effort of writer Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door, The Lost) and director Lucky McKee (May). It therefore should be expected that the resulting film would be both extremely impactful and extremely, extremely disturbing. And yet no one was expecting this. The Woman plays on the traditional American family, the structure of such, and the very ideas of nature/nuture, male power, and violence in general. The woman is the last survivor of a cannibalistic clan of savages living in secret in the Maine wilderness. She is discovered by a man while out hunting, a man who is well-respected and adored in his community, who then takes her home to chain in his basement in attempt to "civilize" her, despite her never having so much as set foot in a house in her life. While the woman is a cannibal, the clean-cut American family becomes the monster as father and son bond over raping and torturing her, and the poor mother keeps quiet over the whole thing, while the daughter--who hides a secret of her own--hopes to somehow save this situation, but fears for her life in doing so.

01. The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Joss Whedon and longtime writing partner Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield) team-up to write a deconstruction of the horror genre told through a horror movie that is, in a way, every horror movie all at once, and what a surprise, the results are something insanely genius that will be written about for a long time to come. The Cabin in the Woods is not merely a game changer, it has cleared the table and laid down a whole new game. It's hard to reveal absolutely anything about the film because to reveal anything is to begin to reveal everything. Within the (hilarious) text of the movie, there is biting social commentary, societal commentary, commentary on the people who make the movies as well as the people who watch them. Whether you've seen a single horror movie or a thousand, you will be able to see the brilliance in the entirely new form of genre-filmmaking that is presented herein. If you stayed away from the film because of it's title, in that it sounds like every horror movie ever, that's exactly why you need to see it. It isn't. And it isn't because it kind of is.

Monday, May 6, 2013

25 Greatest Horror Movies of the Decade (So Far) - Part One

Well, we're coming fresh off of the Cadaver Awards, so my mind's still on the new shit and proving that there's a lot of good stuff out there right now that everybody should be checking out. Once I get this out of my system, we'll move on back to the old shit. For now, we're moving up on half-way through 2013, barely into the new decade. But it is a decade, nonetheless, of even more people complaining about a lack of decent horror than we had on the last go-round. So, for the hopeful resurrection of your viewing pleasure, here are the movies you clearly aren't watching, but you really should.

25. The Ward (2010). John Carpenter returned to feature filmmaking after a 10 year hiatus with this film, and while it doesn't live up to his glory days (can anything ever?) it was pretty worth the wait. Films like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog, proved that while Carpenter would be known for the more "man's man" characters like Snake Plissken, there were no shortage of strong women in his best work, so it was really interesting to see Carpenter at work with an all-female cast in this story about a young woman moving into a mental health facility with a dark past (sounds cliche, maybe is, but I'm also trying not to give away the twist.) I only wish he'd scored the film as well.

24. The Hole (2012). Shot in 2009 but released in 2012, this film--like The Ward--marks the long-awaited return of another celebrated horror director. In this case it's Joe Dante (of Piranha, Howling, Gremlins and Twilight Zone: The Movie fame) who takes what looks to be a standard "new family moving into a haunted house" story and has great delight turning the whole thing on it's head. There are some definite scares here, although the movie is pretty tame, proving once again that nobody can pull off family-friendly horror like Joe Dante. Probably nobody should even try.

23. The Tall Man (2012). This is the American debut of French filmmaker Pascal Laughier who directed the absolutely brilliant and absolutely intense film, Martyrs. The Tall Man tells the story of a small rural town plagued by disappearances. While not as violent as Martyrs (because nothing really can be...) Laughier brings the same fevered intensity to this. Jessica Biel may feel miscast, but young Jodelle Ferland's importance really carries the acting of the whole picture. Another atmospheric and hard-hitting piece dampened only by an unnecessary and painfully obvious twist.

22. The Innkeepers (2012). Ti West is a director to watch. The House of the Devil was one of the absolutely best films of the previous decade and this one holds up as well. Filmed in on location in VT in a hotel who's creepiness I can personally attest to, The Innkeepers follows two young caretakers in a mostly empty hotel who double as paranormal investigators at night. Sara Paxton carries the film more than most leading ladies in horror these days and is an absolute delight to watch. The film packs on the scares but maintains a witty, at times almost Whedon-ish sense of humor that was fairly absent in House of the Devil. West is proving to be a versatile director, even within the genre, and I'm definitely looking forward to what he comes up with next.

21. Wake Wood (2011). This Irish horror film is another home-run for recently resurrected Hammer Studios (infamous British horror studio of the 50's and 60's producing hundreds of classic horror films, most of which starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing). It's moody, atmospheric, very Irish, and raises a lot of unsettling questions as only the best horror films do. The story is centered around a man and his wife who, after losing their daughter, move to the small country village of Wake Wood. A town with pagan roots, a town of dark magic, and one that can even raise their daughter back to life. At a cost. Timothy Spall is, as always, absolutely wonderful to watch.

20. V/H/S (2012). I am an absolute sucker for anthology movies and absolutely nostalgic for the days of VHS so this movie was on my radar from the get-go. It didn't disappoint. The movie is the collective brainchild of some of the best rising horror directors, including Ti West and Adam Wingard. Some segments hold up better than others, but the ones that are great are truly great and worth the price of admission. After seeing this film, I have allowed found-footage to stay around another year. It's your last, though, and I won't be changing my mind again (until V/H/S 2 comes out.)

19. Cloverfield (2010). Speaking of found footage. This one remains one of the best uses of that style (probably in a neat trio with the original Paranormal Activity and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon) Cloverfield is a bit massive for a horror film, but the hand-held, POV camera always makes it feel constricted. The characters have no idea what's going on as a giant monster invades New York, and they never find out. That very notion is horror to its core. The movie is well-paced and manages to somehow feel realistic, in part due to smartly keeping the monster hidden (or blurred out) for most of the film.

18. Dream Home (2011). This film is Korean. This film is also incredibly, incredibly messed up. The two are directly related. This is not the Daniel Craig film that happened to come out around the same time. This is about a woman who will do absolutely anything (in escalating, messy and inventive ways) to obtain the apartment she feels she deserves. Something that, unfortunately, anyone in their twenties can relate to kind of easily.

17. Chronicle (2012). Okay, it's another found-footage movie. Most people categorize it with the superhero films of recent, but horror is a much more appropriate place. There are a lot of superhero movies bouncing around right now. There are not so many super villain movies. This is the brilliance of Chronicle. Where there is, yes, neat powers and action, there is also a disturbing character study (even more disturbing in POV) of a boy who obtains great power and manages to avoid the lesson of great responsibility at every turn as he moves down a darker and darker path.

16. Troll Hunter (2011). We'll, um, we'll run out of found footage movies eventually, I promise. But this one! This one is so... Norse. The basic setup is that of basically the Norwegian version of Ghost Hunters (awesome), only they hunt trolls (awesome), and when they tag along with some crazy Crocodile Dundee-looking motherfucker (awesome) they find actual trolls (awesome!) only, these aren't Ernest Scared Stupid style trolls, which is good, because that troll was absolutely terrifying. These trolls are enormous and ravenous and Norse and why are you still listening to me talk about it? Call Thor, tell him to bring the finest of mead, sit down in one of our more sturdy chairs, and enjoy.

15. We Are The Night (2011). It's a lesbian Lost Boys.

...Oh, you need me to go on? Okay. I guess so. This film is about a young woman who is, well, bitten by a vampire and drawn into a sisterhood of crazy psychotic vamp chicks. It's a rare sort of vampire film that manages to keep the hotness of vampires and monstrousness of vampires perfectly balanced. Also, it's German, in case you start watching and wonder why everyone's speaking German. The vampires in this film are treated as realistic characters who wear their condition as both a badge of honor and an excuse to be pants-shittingly psychotic.

14. Red State (2011). Kevin Smith is a big, fat comedy guy. That's been his thing. He's done it for quite some time, but this time he decided to switch the gig up to big, fat horror guy. And so he went and made a horror film about the Westboro Baptist Church, because my God, somebody had to. The characters are not actually the Phelps' in name but the inspiration is abundantly clear. Michael Parks owns this movie (John Goodman also rocks it, but when doesn't he?) and there is a deep intensity and disquiet to the acting. What is depicted herein is extreme, but probably not so far from the truth, so it's a bit of an awareness film in that regard as well.

13. Lovely Molly (2012). This movie is from the director of The Blair Witch Project and in my opinion it is far, far superior to that supposed horror classic. Molly has moved into her childhood home with her guy, and the experience has brought back some demons, both metaphorical and literal, because this is horror. But the poor girl has succumbed to illness in the past, and the question persistent throughout the film is whether or not the experiences (which are only happening to her) are actual manifestations, or her mind is simply proving too haunted to keep itself functioning.

12. The Bleeding House (2011). This one was a sleeper, even for me. I heard nothing about it, no reviews, saw it blind on Netflix when I was looking for movies to compile for 2012's Cadaver Awards. So glad I did, though. It's a small, character horror about a kind, Priestly stranger who comes in out of the rain into the home of a family that doesn't see many visitors after a tragic accident that the whole town has come to blame them for. Their daughter, after said event, has begun developing some... unnerving tendencies that her parents are trying to repress. But when the kindly Baptist proves to be more than he claims, the daughter's burgeoning psychotic side might prove to be the only thing that can save her family.

11. The Snowtown Murders (2012). Goddamn, Australia, you crazy. This is inspired by a real case, but the film feels very, very real. It's not found footage, it's not particularly documentary-style, but you feel completely as though you are watching something real unfold. Not one person in this film feels like an actor. Everything feels real. The colors are dulled, the sound is dulled, there is little to no music and you can never look away as this one boy is being trained to kill in a town that has made an art of turning a blind eye. Gripping horror that feels entirely like a character drama until it carries you into very dark places.

...so that's 25-11, hope you enjoyed everything so far. Check back in tomorrow for the top ten horror movies of the decade so far!