‘Revenge:’ Exploitation Films Are Back with a Vengeance

So-called “exploitation” films — and in particular the rape-revenge subgenre — have always occupied an uneasy place in the American pop culture.  Even when they were in vogue as one half of a lurid grindhouse double-feature, they were always pretty touch-and-go productions.

Ostensibly, they lionized the virtues of the liberated woman: a educated, forward-thinking and decidedly modern heroine brought low by the most reprehensible manifestation of the patriarchy in general and entitled, toxic masculinity in particular.  But our heroine would endure.  She would recover.  She would, in a word, overcome, and take her righteous vengeance on those that wronged her, ultimately becoming a stronger, wiser and more wary person in the process: learning not just about herself, but what she is ultimately capable of.

The truth of the matter often strayed far afield from this pretense.  In fact, many entries in the rape-revenge subgenre could be justifiably accused of fetishizing sexual and physical assaults and demonizing the woman who survives them.  You could essentially think of them as horror movies where our first act protagonist becomes the third-act monster, whose transformation between the two is nothing more than an excuse to nakedly titillate the audience with as much sexual depravity as possible.

The poster child for this is the 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave: actually the first movie that I reviewed online and was streamable on Netflix of all places for the longest time.  The film is split neatly into thirds: one in which our protagonist (a Manhattan author named Jennifer) moves out into the country to get some writing done, a second in which she is repeatedly raped and assaulted across several locations and a third in which she plot revenge on the four men who attacked her and left her for dead.  Between the protracted and extremely difficult to watch assault that takes up nearly a full half-hour of the movie’s runtime to her increasingly outlandish counter-assault on the men responsible (which at one point includes her bearing down on a swimmer in a motorboat while whipping an axe around over her head), it is nothing if not memorable: spawning a decades-belated sequel, a remake trilogy and an infamous reputation that continues to beleaguer it to this day.

It’s no wonder why the genre fell out of favor with modern audiences, even though the subgenre produced several genuine classics made by masters of the craft (including Swedish arthouse director Ingmar Bergman, controversial American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, horror icon Wes Craven and esteemed auteur Quentin Tarantino).  The central conflict of the films was distasteful at best and the violence depicted was reprehensible at worse

Regardless of this checkered history, however, a new and noteworthy entry into this long-since defunct type of movie has just been released to the movie-going public: Revenge.  It follows the exploits of Jen, an aspiring actress who is embroiled in a lurid affair with Richard, a married French millionaire.  Their dalliances are cut short when Richard’s two friends, Stan and Dimitri, show up for their annual hunting trip in the American Southwest a day early and are instantly enamored by the attractive, flirtatious and fun-loving Jen.  When Richard steps out one morning to attend to some business, she is raped by Stan and Dimitri, who walks in on them, callously walks away and ignores the assault.  Upon his return, Richard throws her off of a cliff in order to cover up the crime, only to have her survive and escape into the desert, where she hunts the men down one-by-one in order to escape from her assailants and the inhospitable desert.

Perhaps the most striking difference between this film and so-called classics of the genre is the fact that its director, Coralie Fargeat, is a woman.  As such, the events depicted in it are not as blatantly sexualized and consciously titillating as other, similar films.  In fact, the relatively brief time devoted to the assault occurs overwhelmingly off-screen, with the emphasis placed on the cruelty of the man who ignored what his friend was doing and the eventual betrayal by her absentee host.  Similarly, Jen’s second and third act turn into a vengeful force of nature exacting divine retribution on the three men is framed less as some kind of yonic monster and more of a self-made survivalist in the same sense as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from The Revenant.  In that sense, it genuinely does live up to the promise of empowering a (both physically and psychologically) damaged woman by allowing her to take on her abusers and having her emerged a changed woman for having endured and indeed survived the experience.

The film is genuinely brutal, right up there with the likes of Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes and Xavier Gen’s Frontier(s).  Its kills, although necessarily sparse, are visceral, bloody and imminently impactful.  It is a testament to both writer-director Fargeat’s and actress Matilda Lutz’s incredible skills as filmmakers that they are able to deliver such a powerful narrative with such a barebones framework.  In a just world, both women would be given the keys to the kingdom for their work here: both demonstrating the chops and range necessary for bigger and better projects in the future (especially in, but not limited to, the action and horror genres).

Revenge is absolutely not the kind of movie for everybody.  It is a brutal and at times difficult to watch experience that is far bloodier and more violent than the typical summer movie.  But if you’re in the mood for something a little different (even, dare I say, a little old fashioned), this is definitely the one for you.

Rating: 4/5

Buy on BluRay:  Only if you have a strong stomach.

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