This movie is probably racist, sexist, and homophobic. And I'm gonna talk about it, even though it's not remotely current.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Virgin Spring/Last House Part 1: The Moral VIP Pass

It starts with a virgin. Doesn't it always?

There is an arm of rape-revenge movies in which revenge is taken, not by the victim, but by her family. Taken is a great example of a movie that is a single pube's breath away from a rape-revenge film: Liam Neeson gets to do anything he wants, which includes not just shooting the wife of an old colleague, but also sticking nails to an informant's thighs, clamping them to the wall outlet, and electrocuting the shit out of him. Why does Liam Neeson get a free pass to kill, drive over, and blow up things all over France? Because his snow white virgin daughter has been kidnapped into the sex trade. Poor Kim (played by Maggie Grace, who, fortunately, looks like she might do something in the sequel other than Be About to Get Raped for an hour and a half) functions as a moral trump card. She is Neeson's executive account, his VIP pass to deploy whatever gritty violence he deems necessary against people of whatever nationalities, and to still remain a card-carrying Good Guy. The movie only reinforces this weird "My daughter is a virgin, god damn it!" VIP pass when Neeson rescues his daughter at literally the last minute possible to still save her "purity"; it couldn't have come closer if there were a stopwatch installed in her hymen.

It's a refreshing story on some level: that some girl's father, somewhere, would go to great lengths to restore his daughter's sense of safety, because so many fathers are oblivious or behave with ignorance when their children are raped. But the villains that real families face are not so much "Albanians" or "Possibly Saudi Sex Trade Customers" as they are rape culture, fear, silence, and denial.

You can hammer a nail into the leg of the dude from the conveniently unpopular Eastern European country, but you can't electrocute silence. You can't intimidate it. You can't empty your clip into it and watch it die.

In my work with real families of real survivors, I have seen that paternalistic, murderous rage. The chief difference is that in real life, it never helps the fucking victim. It usually serves to add to the victim's burden, so that s/he feels like s/he must take care of her family (and possibly mitigate more violence) in the aftermath of one of the worst human experiences that exists. When a parent or relative is angry enough to kill, and can't keep that in check, at minimum they disturb the process of the survivor restoring a sense of safety. It can be damaging to the family relationship. It is ultimately a way of looking away, of emotionally distancing oneself from the victim and/or the inescapable, broken heart of the matter: you can't un-rape someone.

Can't be done. Not with a nail under the kneecap, not even with a movie gun.

The vendetta trope can be an insult to real victims, because if she discloses or if the violence is uncovered, the first thing a sexual assault victim need is to feel like s/he has choices about what happens next. Unstable, vicariously traumatized family members inevitably have to be reminded to shut the fuck up about their own reactions and listen to the real injured party. It's Not About Them. (Which is why I went cross-eyed and smoke came out of my ears for that half an hour of It's All About Clive Owen in the otherwise fairly solid drama Trust).

So, putting reality aside and turning back to the symbolic in horror and suspense movies, a threatened virgin is an emotionally backward shorthand for a moral shield against doing really shitty things. In 1960s, Ingmar Bergman made The Virgin Spring, which took a Medieval Swedish Ballad about a man who kills the men who killed his daughters, only to learn they are his estranged sons. Feeling sad about killing his own kin, and presumably the bloodshed in general, he vows to make a church. In the old ballad, a man is forced to see the full humanity of his victims, realizes he shouldn't kill and, makes a change in the culture: not the worst story of all time, even if it's a little overtly Christian and parochial.

Bergman's version either invents or makes explicit the rape aspect of the story. One way of understanding it is that Bergman wanted to test that righteousness, that sense of entitlement to violence: in order to evoke regret, he makes it so that the audience feels aligned with the urge for violence, no matter what. That is not the end, however. The humanizing moment in Virgin Spring comes when the father realizes he has killed not his kin as in the old stories, but simply a child, any child. From there he must address not only his new grief but also deal with his daughter's body. Bergman's story stays with the morally rebuffed character through his righteousness, his remorse, and his redemption, indicated by a miraculous spring that forms at the site where he vows to make a church.

Redemption is the aspect to which that neither US remake felt any allegiance.

Wes Craven plays with the theater of the sexual in more than a few of his projects. While Bergman had already established himself as a director, and did not regard this film as a seminal product of his legacy, 1972 marked Craven's directorial debut when he updated and "remade" Virgin Spring into Last House on the Left. Long before there was Freddy Kreuger, there was his distant predecessor, the psychological tormentor and killer, Krug. Krug is the patriarch in a family of psychopaths: he's got his stabby pal, his enthusiastically violent lady friend, and Junior, his adult child-in-tow, who is not as violent as the rest and requires frequent manipulation. This is pretty much Bergman's bandit formula, with the except of the enthusiastically violent lady (The closest Bergman had was a witchy bastard daughter who got her shit together at the end).

Last House 2009 has a similar construction. The "three bandit men" from the medieval tale have become Krug, his stabby brother Francis, Sadie, his enthusiastically violent lady friend. They also have Krug's just-barely adult child, Justin, in tow, though Justin shows a stronger moral compass that Junior.

Both Last Houses juxtapose the psycho family with a more normative family, a family with (you guessed it) a virgin daughter, Mari. Both Mari's get mixed up with the psycho families on an innocent pot run with their townie friend. (LHOL '09 has a nice tongue in cheek moment where Paige, her friend gives such a deadpan after school special line, "One joint won't hurt you.")

The bad guys are established, intercut with idyllic family scenes with their respective "Mari"'s, mid-teens; in '72, Mari bonds with her townie friend over her freshly-developed breasts and some good old underage drinking. Last House '72 is marked by a campy violence that is menacing by nature of the gleeful nature of the psychopaths. At one point, in addition to the sexual humiliation and assault, they literally chop off one of the girls' arms with an axe. The bad guys are almost comically vile, even for their time. To be fair, there is a decent and fairly compelling moment of remorse among the violent trio when they have finished with Mari, and exchange looks with one another while wiping the blood and straw from their hands and bodies. After that, it's the good old "shoot her while she collapses into the stream" scene, which seems to be the default mode of killing a woman you just raped in a commercial horror movie. Then the families meet under the guise of the psychopaths needing hospitality, the parents find out Mari is dead, find her body, and they kill the shit out of Krug's gang. The father uses his military background to rig up some serious Home Alone-type kills, but it is the mother who really puts her heart into it, not only slashing the throat of the violent lady-friend, but also biting off the dick of the stabby bandit-pal.

So, yeah. Rapesploitation is really fond of seduction that leads to castration of the adult male. Damn, do movies like to cash in on that shit: gross. It's the visceral, visual consequence of being a movie rapist. It's the most distilled, symbolic phallic nightmare: being severed from your wand/weapon/power thing.

Also, interestingly, exponentially WAY less common than sexual assault.

Anyway, for all its campy arm-severing and raucous bad people and comical sheriffs, Craven shows two moments of remorse that show an emotional faithfulness to Bergman's story: the first is the criminal remorse over Mari, already mentioned. The second is the end, which lingers in stark contrast to the pulp-y buildup of the film. It's the tragic punchline, the Oedipus-level of pain that culminates when the cops get to the normative family's home, finding the husband and wife covered in blood. The credits come in fast, but not so fast that we miss the point: as much as they will never get over the violation and loss of their daughter, these two people are never gonna get over what they've just done.

The Craven version holds huge appeal for thrill-seekers, for squalor aficionados for folks who just want to see a grotesque theater of human pain and misogyny: it draws its audience in, and delivers a moral slap in the face: you could miss it, but the heart of Craven's Last House on the Left is not the pulp that fills out the movie; it's a stance that tacitly challenges the same audience it draws in. It argues that all that separates good people from bad is their capacity for remorse. The movie doesn't seek to redeem itself for being made, but it does accuse its audience for watching. It seems to say that the audience got what they wanted, just like the "good" family got what they wanted; and if you're not affected by that, not able to appreciate the misery of that, than you're no less a caricature of humanity than Krug.

Stay tuned for part two, in which I justify my love for LHOL '09, even though it is probably the worst one of them all.

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