Spitting on Graves: Feminism and the Horror Tradition Part 2

I Spit on Your Grave DVD coverIn a recent, informal Facebook exchange, I asked actress Camille Keaton to tell me a bit about what it was like to play the lead in the infamous film I Spit on Your Grave. If you were a teenager in the eighties, you remember the lurid VHS cover and how watching it seemed to represent something far beyond the pale of all that was good and right with the world.

If you don’t know the I Spit on Your Grave story, here’s a brief synopsis.  First of all, this is not the French civil rights drama from 1963 that some of you art house aficionados may know. Released on the drive-in and grind house circuit in 1978, I Spit tells the tale of a rape victim who wreaks a terrible vengeance on her attackers, offing them in various horrific ways. British “video nasty” laws banned the film and, in most of the US, viewers could only see it after the VCR revolution.

Keaton herself remembers it as a difficult film to shoot, for obvious reasons. The rape scene takes up close to fifteen minutes of run time and is utterly graphic and intensely brutal. Notably, however, many of the critics who derided the film as “vile” focused on the intense and bloody scenes that show Keaton taking vengeance on her male attackers, rather than on the vicious gang rape that starts the cycle of violence.

I couldn’t really get Ms. Keaton to tell me if she thought this was a feminist film or not (she literally just said “yes and no”).  For some, it’s an absurd question. How can a film that graphically portrays violence against women have any meaning, other than a purely negative one, for dedicated feminists?

Actually, it’s a film that strengthens the argument of scholars like Carol Clover who have written about horror from a feminist perspective. Clover notes (in her work Men, Women and Chainsaws) that critics of the horror film have tended to assume that the audience experiences the violence from the perspective of the knife-wielding maniacs.

Clover points out that the audience just as frequently sympathizes with the victim, that male fans tend to cheer for “the final girl” who is almost always responsible for defeating the monster and surviving the night. Perhaps you could even argue that the final girl helped prepare the way for the female action hero, now more or less omnipresent in popular culture.

Feminism and horror may then be natural allies, rather than enemies. It’s a question I explore further in the book when I look at the history of the slasher film and the context of cultural politics in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Next post, I’ll be talking a bit about my favorite horror film…and one of the most politically and culturally subversive films of the 1930s. In the coming weeks, I’ll be using the blog to review a great new documentary about Heather Langenkamp of Nightmare on Elm Street fame called I am Nancy. I’ll also reflect on my experience with the new hit zombie game Dead Island and, by mid-October, I’ll be blogging a bit about what’s happening with the book tour as Monsters in America goes on the road to Chicago, Atlanta, upstate SC and western NC, Boston, DC and, undoubtedly, places yet unknown.

What I’m reading: Scott Snyder’s comic series Severed. If you missed his American Vampire, you missed an powerful interweaving of the dark places of American history with pure, undistilled horror.  Severed may not turn out to be as much of a classic but I like where he seems to be headed. Also, hoping to catch up with his new Batman series. I’ve also been reading Theodore Roszak’s The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein. This is an incredibly interesting exploration of the inner life of the “real” bride of Frankenstein. I love how it breathes the air of the age of revolution and comes with a healthy dose of old-school feminism from Mary Shelley’s mom!

What I’m watching: Re-watched Danny Boyle’s unforgettable take on the zombie genre today, 28 Days Later. Over the weekend I also caught Roger Corman’s 50’s cult classic Bucket of Blood, a bizarre interpretation of the beatnik scene. It’s a completely insane premise and, of course, Corman is at his best with those.

What I’m listening to:  Doing a lot of small writing projects these days and, since I listen to music while I write, that means I’ve had a bit of everything on the turntable. Today some Dinosaur Jr., some Dylan, the Vaselines and some Mudhoney. Caught up on the new Robert Earl Keene as well. My local indie record store is having a big, fat record expo this weekend so I hope to have great new stacks of vinyl to report on soon.

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