If the exploitation film is the dark underbelly of mainstream cinema, then the rape revenge movie is the dark underbelly (or one of those dark underbellies) of the exploitation film. It is a form that has more exemplars than many would like to think, and has extended its tendrils into the mainstream, whether that be in the form of made-for-TV movies or theatrical ones. Carol Clover, in her excellent study Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film sees a direct link between the most notorious o… the rape revenge films – I Spit On Your Grave (1978) – and the Oscar -winner The Accused (1988). One, though, she argues, is more honest in the way it confronts the issues than the other, and the honest one is not the one starring Jodie Foster.
I Spit On Your Grave is undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, what with its near-interminable rape scene that makes one sigh with relief once the castration gets going, but there is another film arguably even more unpleasant, and certainly even more peculiar: Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974). This was released, in truncated form, in the States as They Call Her One Eye, and its eye-patched heroine is the obvious visual inspiration for the Elle Driver character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
In his liner notes for The Car (one of the most glorious misfires of the 70’s, but that’s a story for another time), Jim Knipfel makes the startling claim that “if Ingmar Bergman had made a horror movie about a murderous automobile, he would have made The Car.” That is, of course, a mighty big “if,” and frankly, much as I love The Car, I find the claim to be completely unsupportable. But having said that, I will now go on to maintain that if Bergman had made a rape revenge film, it would have been Thriller. Wait. Hang on. Bergman DID make a film very closely connected to the sub-genre: The Virgin Spring (1959), which of course served as the basis for Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972). Let me rephrase, then. If Bergman had made a rape revenge film with hardcore inserts and slow-motion shotgun deaths, then this would have been it.
With its long, chilly yet beautiful takes of the Swedish countryside and its stately, rather subdued pace (despite the awful events portrayed), the movie visually echoes Bergman, and this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, since the writer/producer/director, Bo Arne Vibenius, was Bergman’s assistant director on Persona and unit director on Hour of the Wolf. Here, he applies what he learned to the tale of a young woman (Christina Lindberg) who is kidnaped, drugged, and forced into prostitution. When she tries to escape, her pimp stabs out one of her eyes, in a scene that is no easier to watch now than it was over thirty years ago. No more easy to watch are the hardcore scenes. They have all the earmarks of being inserts (merely close-ups of anonymous genitals), but they do contribute to the disturbing clash of beauty and extreme ugliness that characterize the picture. Eventually, of course, Lindberg learns to defend herself, dons a trenchcoat, straps a shotgun, and proceeds to blow away, in slow motion, everybody who has done her wrong. All this without saying a word (she’s been mute since being raped as a little girl in the opening scene).
The film is, in every sense, exactly what its subtitle claims: it is cruel. But it is also surprisingly well put together, and is an essential piece of exploitation history. Synapse’s limited edition disc is completely uncut, and while it has plenty of visual extras, doesn’t have as much critical apparatus as one might like. Still, a very important release.