WARNING! THIS ARTICLE DEALS WITH EXPLICIT CONTENT THAT MAY OFFEND SOME.
Horror has a long and celebrated cinematic history. It has provided iconic villains, fantastic movies, and of course, some of the scariest movies of all time. Unfortunately, this also includes some moments that even the biggest genre fans are unable to defend. Some of the worst moments in horror history have been the treatment of women.
A strong case can be made that horror has been ahead of the curve when it comes to its portrayal of women. Horror movies were unafraid to have strong female leads long before other genres. People still talk about Ripley when it comes to powerful female characters. And even though the original idea of the Final Girl was rooted in antiquated ideas of what a good girl should be, it still cast women in the lead of the heroine.
But when it has been bad, it has been horrible. The most striking example is arguably the female revenge sub genre. These movies follow a very simple structure. A woman gets raped, beaten, and left for dead. She barely survives and rehabilitates herself. It is strongly suggested she is now crazy. She is definitely obsessed. Finally, she brutally kills her assailants.
Understandably, these movies were met with much controversy. They gleefully objectified women, titillated through a mix of sex and violence, and fetishized rape. These movies are almost universally considered awful, yet hold a cult status. Even more shocking is how the creators of these movies would try to pawn them off as empowering. To this day, some will try to defend these movies. The most notorious example would be the original I Spit on Your Grave. Its original title of Day of the Woman sounds like it would be a feminist rallying cry instead of a movie about a woman being raped by four men.
These types of movies may have received notoriety, but they were not commercially viable. Before long, studios found it was more profitable to continue killing nude women and to leave out the rape. Rape revenge movies begat the Final Girl. However, in a complete reversal, the one who defeated the Big Bad was the girl who did not have sex.
The idea was the same in theory. In rape revenge movies, a woman gets brutalized because she “deserved” it. The non consensual sex is ugly yet shot to be titillating. The woman gets her revenge, but also learns a lesson. In the case of the Final Girl, she is rewarded for not having sex. Essentially by saving herself for someone special, she is saving her life.
In recent years, female revenge thrillers have made a return. There seems to be more now than even in their exploitation heyday. There has been a very noticeable change, however. This new wave of vengeance films is not about glamourizing rape or objectifying women. The stories now focus on the trauma of the attacks and the revenge.
What is really great to see, is that male creators have been a part of this movement. Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Hunted from Vincent Paronnaud are just two examples. Both movies put their own spin on the sub genre by using emotion and questioning primal human desires. The male gaze is virtually nonexistent.
Female filmmakers have also entered into this once male dominated field. This has led to stories being told from the female perspective. Violation is a wonderful example of the old rape revenge premise turned completely on its head. It has the extreme violence these films are known for, but told from an entirely different point of view.
Unlike the exploitation films of past years, the rape scene here is short. There are no lingering camera shots; nothing is made to look sexy or titillating. It is framed in a way that makes it difficult to tell what is going on. There is also the complete reversal of nudity. For decades, nude women have been slaughtered by fully clothed men. Violation literally turns this trope upside down in some of the film’s most gratifying moments.
Female revenge movies have come a long way over the decades. From exploitive grindhouse flicks that were little more than rape fantasies to entire sections on Shudder devoted to well told tales of vengeance, the sub genre has essentially evolved into something entirely different. And horror is better for it.
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