Monday, October 11, 2010

Can One Distinguish I Spit On Your Grave from Death Wish?

I'm tired of all the remakes of 1970s and 1980s horror films. So many remakes over the last 15 years; most of them inferior or no better than the original.

But the recent release of the new I Spit On Your Grave raises another issue. This film played this past weekend at the Screamfest L.A. horror film festival. The film is being marketed and critiqued as a horror film.

But is it horror?

I've not seen the remake, but I've seen the original. I've been told by those who've seen both films that the remake's story is faithful to that of the original.

How does this story (the same in both versions), differ from the story in Death Wish?

It doesn't. All three stories are fundamentally identical. A woman is brutally raped and killed. This gives the audience permission to enjoy the bloody vengeance that is then visited upon criminals and thugs. All three films are not horror, but revenge fantasies.

Yes, there are minor variations, but do any of these elements differentiate I Spit on Your Grave from Death Wish so that the one is horror, but not the other?

In I Spit on Your Grave, the rape victim takes revenge, whereas in Death Wish, it's the victim's husband who takes vengeance. This may qualify I Spit on Your Grave as more feminist than is Death Wish, but not more of a horror film.

Another variation is that I Spit on Your Grave punishes the men who injured the woman, whereas Death Wish punishes any and all criminals (i.e., those who prey on women, and men, other than just the husband/vigilante's wife). This makes the revenge killings in I Spit on Your Grave more personal, but not more of the horror genre.

I Spit on Your Grave is more graphic than is Death Wish. The women are brutally raped in both films, but a man is castrated in I Spit on Your Grave, whereas the criminals are mostly shot in Death Wish.

But if I Spit on Your Grave is horror because of the rapist's more graphic death, are we not being asked to identify with the rapist? Is that what makes the film horror?

No, because horror requires that we identify/sympathize with the victim, not with the monster. This is why revenge fantasies by their very nature risk undermining the horror elements.

A final variation is that I Spit on Your Grave is a low-budget, indie film, whereas Death Wish is a big studio product. This is also why the former is more graphic; indie films were more graphic than studio fare in the 1970s.

This may be the key reason to the (false) perception that I Spit on Your Grave is a horror film. Back then, horror was more likely associated with low-budget, indie trash. Because I Spit on Your Grave was a low-budget indie film, and a highly graphic one, it was more likely to be marketed by the distributor, and accepted by the audience, as a horror film.

It's a marketing thing. Another example of people's genre perception being formed by marketing rather than by objective, rationally derived, aesthetic criteria.

Horror requires an Unnatural Threat. Something "not of this world." Some dramatic element that, as H.P. Lovecraft wrote, creates "a malign and particular suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."

An Unnatural Threat can take the form of the supernatural (e.g., The Sixth Sense, The Haunting, The Exorcist, The Mothman Prophecies, The Grudge, Lost Souls).

But an Unnatural Threat can also be an "unnatural creature" of science. That is, some creature that is unnatural to our current understanding of nature (Alien, The X-Files).

Can a slasher make for a horror film? Yes, provided that it is an unnatural slasher. Halloween was the first slasher horror film. This was because Michael Myers could not be killed. He was unnatural.

Myers was the first of what I term the Uberpsychos. Halloween's great contribution to horror was the invention of the Uberpsycho, a new type of monster. It was with Halloween's introduction of the Uberpsycho that the psycho crossed from the crime/suspense/mystery genres into horror.

But there is no Uberpsycho in I Spit on Your Grave. Just tawdry, sleazy, pathetic villains -- cruel, but ultimately weak and mortal. Can you imagine the heroine in I Spit on Your Grave defeating Myers or Jason? Of course not. Horror monsters are not so easily killed.

I have grudgingly carved an exception to the Unnatural Threat. I'm willing to concede that there is a second horror genre, which I call the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, wherein the victim is terrorized by mortal humans (e.g., Saw, The Devil's Rejects, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But even in these films, there must be something that removes this stories from the natural and normal. Some especially bizarre or deranged psycho, or an especially unusual environment or situation.

I see nothing in I Spit on Your Grave that removes it from the realm of crime drama/suspense/revenge fantasy.


For more about my thinking on Unnatural Threats and the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

No comments:

Post a Comment