Rape in Horror Films

Rape in film is a touchy and challenging subject.  Even dealt with in ‘serious films’ like Jodie Foster’s The Accused, audiences may be rendered uncomfortable. Critics and the general public don’t seem to object as much when sexual assault is depicted in award-bait films.  Someone will probably even get an award out of it.  But the knee-jerk reaction when it’s shown in horror films is for the morality police to start screaming Objection!  In horror, rape is considered extreme, prurient, and even exploitative.  While there is exploitation in many horror films – the same could be said of any genre.  How many times has rape been featured as a source of humor in a comedy film?  Plenty.  Think:  Top Secret, Trading Places, Scary Movie, Idiocracy to just name a handful.  There’s nothing wrong with shedding light on a touchy subject through humor or High Drama.  But depict a rape in an honest, unblinking, and genuine way in a horror film  and people get their knickers in a twist.
Monica Belluci, in Irreversible

Monica Belluci in Irreversible

I argue that this uncomfortable feeling – this true horror we experience when a character is violated – is as it should be.  Watching a fellow human being subjected to the worst kind of humiliating violation should not be enjoyable.  This is one of the reasons that I champion darker, more-extreme horror flicks over other subgenres – because as unreal as they can get, when it comes to sexual assault they’re often brilliant.  Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is a prime example of this genius.  The entire film is an experience told in reverse about the rape of a young woman (Monica Belluci) and the questionable vengeance carried out by the people who love her.  It contains the single most difficult 10 minutes of film  I’ve ever sat through – in a film that attacks every sense from its opening scenes.  As I’ve often said, it is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen that I never want to see again – a condemnation of violence bathed in brutality.  It’s a masterpiece in every way that should have given Noe and Belluci awards into the next year.

But it’s a French horror movie… so no one outside Cannes paid attention.  Meanwhile,  nice, predictable, little films with positive messages and leave few with any lasting impressions (I’m looking right at you, Oscar-winner The King’s Speech) get all of the awards, all of the accolades, and all of the endless speeches about how brave everyone involved was for making such an important tale.
To hell with that.  Show me painful drama.  Show me reality.  Show me the real darkness that exists in people without looking away because it’s hard to watch.  It’s supposed to be hard to watch – it’s horror.  Looking away is complacency – it’s the worst kind of insult to turn a blind eye to truth.  All people are raped – men, women, children – all over the world.  It is a universal  fear shared by all human beings in one way or another – like death.  So if horror films can deal with our fears of death, why not our fears of violation too?  And while we’re at it – why not make it as dark, real, and ugly as we can?  Not to titillate or excite but for the opposite purpose:  To shine a bright light onto a terrible subject, to talk about it openly and honestly.  To show the truth of it.  Rape is not karma.  Both the “good” and the “bad” can be victims of crime.  Innocent, guilty, old, young, good, bad – there’s no such thing as an acceptable rape – no one “deserves” it, not even jailed prisoners.
The original (and best) Last House on the Left

The original (and best) Last House on the Left

It is my belief that as a whole, horror films are far better at expressing the true nightmares of sexual assault.  While dramatic films whose stories are rape-based – like The Accused or Angelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina – are meant to convey laudable messages of hope, survival, and justice. Horror films instead deal with the immediate terror, the savagery and shame, the after-effects, and the lifelong disorders. They don’t intend to uplift – instead, they often serve no other purpose than to make the viewer feel as unpleasant as possible in order to share the survivor’s ordeal. To share the pain, the shame, or even the madness and sometimes to be complicit in the desire for Eye-for-an-Eye vengeance.  For this reason, I never rule these types of films out even though it means I might occasionally stumble upon one that makes me seriously question the filmmakers intent.
I classify depictions of rape into three different types in horror films.  I’ve found that most fit neatly into these categories with a few exceptions.
  1. Story. Rape is integral to the story.
    • The violent act is the focal point of the film as exampled in the classic rape/revenge tale.  Films like The Virgin Spring, I Spit on Your Grave, France’s Baise-Moi and Irreversible, and both of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left films (each re-tellings of Virgin Spring.)  The Story calcification is not limited to rape/revenge (Alien – despite it’s sci-fi surroundings is essentially a film about the horrors of violation),  nor is the Story always worthy of praise.  2008’s Deadgirl is an hour and a half of a group of teenaged assholes violating a writhing zombie babe (yuck, in every way); 1977’s Demon Seed is little more than watching Julie Christie get alluringly (!) violated (!!) by an AI so it can impregnate her (!!!) in between psychedelic-trip vignettes (!!!!)  Films that tempt to turn the viewer with sexual crime like these would be unforgivable if they weren’t so appallingly bad.
  2. Character.  Rape is integral to one or more characters.
    Nasty man, Otis Driftwood. But funny!

    Nasty man, Otis Driftwood. But funny!

    • The violent act is not the focus of the story, instead it serves to highlight the underlying reasons for a character’s actions, mood, or personality.  While often used to elicit sympathy for a character – my least favorite use of sexual assault in story – that’s not all that this classification has to offer.  Takashi Miike’s Audition is a prime example of the potential for elevated storytelling.  The past abuse of a character is what leads to it’s ultra-violent climax – but it is not the focal point of the story nor is it intended as a sympathetic plot device.  Indeed, Audition is primarily the tale of a lonely, traditional man and how little he really knows about his deeply troubled new girlfriend.  On the flip side, The Devil’s Rejects‘s Otis is a character who exists solely to violate  the living, the dead, the law, society, and normalcy.  He’s walking talking Rape in a world that rejects him, but the laughingly despicable, necrophiliac, rapist is only one of the players in the tale.  The fact that the viewer almost sympathizes with the killers in the end of the film is a cruel bit of genius and one of the reasons I respect the film so much.  It’s a nifty reminder that not all is black & white in this world – that you might find yourself liking a terrible person or disliking an innocent one.  In more troubling waters is 1971’s Straw Dogs.  In this controversial movie, Sam Peckinpah put the rape of a character into so much ambiguous light that its message (if there is any) is muddled.  Did she set herself up for this?  Did she enjoy it?  Is Peckinpah stating that some victims are in fact asking to be raped?  It’s a debatable argument and one which we’ll likely be discussing again soon as a remake is being made.  One wonders if the stories will be watered down to appeal to a wider audience – like the recent remake of Last House.
  3. Shock.  Rape is used as a device.
    Aja's Hills unpleasantness

    Aja's Hills unpleasantness

    • Unlike the other two classifications, sexual assault when used for shock value is not used to further an existing story.  The act of rape exists primarily to create an unexpected moment of terror in the current circumstances.  Deliverance fits very well here.  While the notorious “Squeal like a Pig!” movie may end with a bit of vengeance – it is primarily survivalist horror.  Those men would have continued having major issues with the locals and environment whether or not the startling violation of a couple of characters had occurred.  The acts serve to heighten terror and shock the viewer.  Similarly, the assaults in both versions of The Hills Have Eyes did not add to the story but instead came across as unexpected moments which leave the viewer in a state of  ‘WTF just happened ‘paralysis.  For the remainder of the films, one stays in a hypersensitive state unsure of what appalling bit of insanity may be coming next.  This classification for me is the one with the most potential for offending audiences.  Japanese “pink films,” “women in prison” films, and quite a bit of Hentai tend to piss me right off.  In films like these, women are little more than objects for the gratification of the men (and sometimes women) around them.  A lot of these films promote thinly veiled messages of misogyny: Women are Bad; Females Don’t Have Right to Deny Males; Woman Serves Man; Raped Women Deserve It, and on and on.  But these types of films are few and far between.  Even shock in current horror has underlying connotations.  The  rape from Rob Zombie’s Director’s Cut of Halloween is not the gratuitous scene that critics panned, but a brief and unsexy scene which shocks the viewer while making a point of showing that it ends badly for the rapists and that Myers wasn’t interested in participating – something that separates him from many of his serial-killing counterparts.

What are your thoughts, readers?  Is there a place for the worst of human nature in horror?  Or are there some taboos that shouldn’t be crossed?  Is there no limit in art or should there always be a clear moral compass?

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About De7en

Don't let the day job fool you, this computer consultant knows the Ooky Spooky. De7en was weaned by Jaws, suffered through puberty with Carrie, and tore into adulthood hand-in-glove with Freddy. From foreign frights and classic cuts to gallons of gore and more extreme fare, De7en is always ready to dig into something fresh.