Archive for October, 2010


Revenge Best Served…?

"The Virgin Spring"

In honor of Halloween, I’ve come across three revenge films that have the same basic premise but different ways of exploring (exploiting?) their plots, characters, themes, and questions about guilt, justice, redemption, and female empowerment and subjugation. Warning: This post will contain spoilers in order to fully discuss the implications of these elements.

“The Virgin Spring” (1960), directed by Ingmar Bergman, follows a young 14th-century Swedish girl as she is raped and murdered by shepherds in the woods. When the shepherds unknowingly seek shelter with the dead girl’s family, the father, who has discovered what the shepherds have done, kills them to avenge his daughter. Although shocking for its time, the film’s violence and lack of nudity is tame by today’s standards.

“The Last House on the Left” (1972), Wes Craven’s directorial debut, is a loose remake of “The Virgin Spring.” Here, two teenage girls are attacked in the woods by escaped convicts and their accomplices. When the criminals stay the night at the home of one of the girls, her parents brutally kill them. As graphic as “Last House” is in its violence and nudity, “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) takes everything to a whole new level. Directed by Meir Zarchi, “I Spit on Your Grave,” also known as “Day of the Woman,” is a variation on the women’s revenge plot rather than a direct remake of anything. Its nudity and violence are so extreme and disturbing that in his original review, Roger Ebert gave it zero stars, an “honor” which he usually reserves for films he considers morally irresponsible, and shared the disgusting reactions of his fellow audience members. This film caused a physical sensation of sickness in me that the others two films didn’t, a feeling I haven’t experienced with a movie since watching “Caligula” (during a Malcolm McDowell film festival at Lincoln Center. Malc didn’t show up for that one.) But I didn’t stop watching “Grave”, so what does that say about me?

“The Virgin Spring” is almost presented like a fairy tale, supported by its 14th-century bucolic setting, its beautiful heroine, the magical setting of the woods (which is subverted here), and the spring that mysteriously emerges from where the girl’s body lays. These fairy tale elements are not found in the other films. Here, redemption is found through New Testament forgiveness; in the latter films, redemption is found through Old Testament revenge. In “Last House,” the teen girls are hardly angels, breaking the stereotypes of the pristine maiden and more reflective on 1970s American culture. “I Spit on Your Grave” presents an independent (no family and friends to protect her), creatively vibrant, single female writer (Jennifer) who is renting a summer house in the country. She is attacked by country bumpkins who seem simultaneously attracted and repulsed by her big-city sophistication and independence.

While the crime in “The Virgin Spring” is painful to watch, Bergman has a purpose of showing it: to introduce those philosophical questions that will come into play later in the plot. “Last House” and “Grave” have left those higher questions behind to focus more on entertainment and voyeurism. Although both films bring up issues of feminism, they verge on exploitation because of the over-the-top amount of nudity and violence for no purpose other than to titillate. In both instances, the women are chased and captured like prey and punished for their independence and rebellion against gender and family roles. What is shown onscreen in “Last House” and “Grave” is therefore simultaneously a reflection and backlash against 1970s feminism.

In the second half of each film, the revenge sequences start to highlight the female empowerment of each film in ascending order. While the father primarily enacts the revenge in “The Virgin Spring,” the mother participates in “Last House,” and Jennifer does it all on her own in “Grave.” After her rapists have torn up her manuscript, she tapes it back up, finding her “voice” again.

Female empowerment aside, are we rooting for the parents and Jennifer when *they* go on *their* killing sprees? If so, are they no better than the criminals? Are we no better than the criminals for watching and finding fulfillment from the actions of our onscreen surrogates? And the boundaries aren’t so clear anymore because in each film, the director uses moral ambiguity to make us question our initial allegiances. In “The Virgin Spring,” a child, the son of one of the shepherds, is a confused and innocent onlooker, but the father still kills him and later regrets it. In “Last House,” a woman is an accomplice, although that doesn’t exempt her from guilt and punishment in this context. In “Grave,” one of the culprits is mentally challenged, so although he did technically participate, he was manipulated by the others, making his murder by Jennifer questionable.

Although inherently chaotic, “Virgin Spring” and “Last House” are firmly grounded in family units. Even the shepherds in “The Virgin Spring” and the criminals in “Last House” are alternative families which each include a father and son. As a career woman, the heroine of “Grave” has made sacrifices of family and friends.

“Last House” and “Grave” have both recently been remade, showing how they are still attractive to certain filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, and moviegoers and have contributed to the prevalence of today’s “torture porn” movies.