Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Filtering by Category: Pretentious Essays

Repost - The Big Hurt

Once upon a time a person could reasonably expect that whenever they went to see a movie one of the last things they would ever have to watch was the sight of a man’s penis being forcibly removed from his body.

Those times are over.
In the past few years a handful of filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to break what could be consider one of the last remaining cinematic taboos and deliver unto their audiences startlingly graphic depictions of castration.  Now that’s not to say they were the first to do this, as the history of exploitation cinema is peppered with titles that were willing to take aim straight at the area responsible for their male audiences’ most common and immediate fears.

For example, there’s the famous scene in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., in which the title character (memorably played by the unforgettable Dyanne Thorne) informs her now-former lover that it is her habit to neuter a man once he is no longer able to satisfy her insatiable sexual demands and then goes on to prove it with a very sharp surgical implement (an act that allows for the irony of her eventually being undone by his replacement, a Polish soldier whose priapism leads to her finally meeting her match).  Although the scene is nowhere near as graphic as the ones about to be discussed, it is interesting insofar as it’s the one significant act of violence against a male character in a film whose central theme is literally built upon the presentation of violence against women (Ilsa’s pet theory being that women are naturally capable of absorbing more pain than men, which she attempts to prove by inflicting a series of graphic tortures against every busty soft-core actress who was working in 1975).  One gets the sense that by presenting us with what most would consider the ultimate form of brutality that can be committed against a man, the filmmakers were hoping to offset the blatant misogyny of the rest of the film. 
It doesn’t, but at least they made the effort.
A much, much, much more extreme historic example of cinematic castration came courtesy of Doris Wishman, the infamous Floridian filmmaker whose oeuvre of soft-core sex flicks rank among the most ostentatiously repellent films ever made.  For her 1978 “documentary” (note: the term documentary generally implies a level of professionalism Wishman was never capable of at any time during her career, thus the use of quotation marks in this instance) Let Me Die A Woman, Wishman went so far as to film an actual sexual reassignment surgery, thus giving the world the most graphic depiction of male genital mutilation ever shown in an actual movie theater.  One can only assume that there was a dramatic drop in popcorn sales wherever the movie was shown.  Suffice it to say, I myself know this film only by its reputation and will happily spend the rest of my life never having seen it.  And lest you think me a lightweight for this admission, I have sat through her 1974 “classic” Double Agent 73--in which the supremely unattractive Chesty Morgan plays a spy with a special camera surgically implanted in one of her enormously floppy breasts--and in so doing suffered more than many of you can possibly imagine.

And, of course, there’s the scene I discussed in Day of the Woman where Camille Keaton gets revenge for her vicious, extended gang-rape by cutting off the junk of the guy who made it happen, as well as several more examples I’m too lazy to mention because if I did I’d have to link to their IMDb pages and that takes more time and effort than you’d ever think it would.  So, yes, there is a precedent of cinematic castration throughout the history of the art, but it’s only in the past few years that filmmakers have been so increasingly happy to take it to the furthest possible cringe-inducing level.
The most successful of these new castration films, both financially and critically, has to be Robert Rodriguez’s highly stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic noir comic book, Sin City.  In that film, Bruce Willis, playing Hartigan—a cop who has spent years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit—finally gets his revenge against the deformed pedophilic senator’s son whose depraved acts sent him there.  After rescuing the young stripper whose jailhouse letters kept him alive, Hartigan vents his rage against that yellow bastard by grabbing his yellow cock and pulling it right off of his yellow body.  It’s a startling scene, especially since it features such an iconic performer in Willis doing the deed (and, yes, we have reached an age where Willis can justifiably be considered iconic), but this is the only time I’m going to mention it in this post because it doesn’t fit in with the previously unmentioned sub-theme I want to discuss, insofar that it involves a dude ripping off another dude’s dick, while all of the others involve much less craggy and more attractive usurpers of male penile domination.

The reality is that my interest in this recent phenomenon has less to do with any natural fascination with castration (I am, after all, a man and I happen to revere my phallus as much as any other Tom, Dick or Harry), but rather with the characters shown to be doing the castrating.  One is a wealthy young woman who is driven to commit her violent act as a desperate means of survival.  Another is a girl whose motives and identity are so clouded in mystery it’s possible to assume she’s not even human, but instead a divine angel of vengeance sent forth to avenge a terrible crime.  And the last is a true innocent whose strange “adaptation” turns her into the living embodiment of one of the world’s oldest and most universal of myths.  All three of them begin their stories as victims, but end them stronger than they were before—proving that the most extreme feminists were right, female empowerment really is just a matter of slicing off some dick's dick.

When I say that I am stunned and perplexed by the reaction Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II received when it was released, I am speaking just as much as the serious cineste who can spend hours talking about the films of the usual gang of European arthouse auteurs as I am the genre enthusiast who’s devoted hours of his life deconstructing the thematic intricacies of Slumber Party Massacre II.  While my low-opinion of mainstream critics allowed me to expect that they would lack the insight to look beyond its premise and controversially graphic torture set pieces, I was shocked when many genre fans equally failed to grasp how successfully it worked as a sophisticated piece of Swiftian style satire.  Rather than acknowledge the interesting themes Roth chose to explore in this second film, both groups focused solely on its scenes of violence and dubbed the film a mere gender-reversed replica of the original.
But I would argue that by simply reversing the genders of his protagonists, Roth created what was both an inherently more interesting and thematically insightful film.  Whereas the first film focused on the irony of foreign tourists who use their wealth to exploit people in other countries, only to themselves become much more heinously exploited by far wealthier tourists with much more depraved tastes, the second takes a broader look at the global society in which such an underground industry could actively flourish.  In Hostel it is easy to imagine that had he not been lured into the enterprise as a victim, Jay Hernandez’s character, Paxton, would eventually grow up to become one of its customers, if only because of his stereotypical alpha-male tendencies and willingness to use the misfortune of others as a means to satisfy his own carnal pleasures.  The same cannot be said for Beth (Laura Germain) the second film’s protagonist, who—largely by virtue of her femininity—is infinitely more sympathetic and vulnerable than her predecessor, which makes her final transformation that much more dramatic and interesting.

For those of you who have yet to see either film, both are about a small town in Slovakia whose local economy revolves around luring young tourists into their quaint hostel, where they are subsequently kidnapped and sent to an abandoned Soviet-era concrete monstrosity.  There they are sold to wealthy businessmen who travel from across the world for the opportunity to enjoy the experience of torturing and killing another person without consequence.  While for most viewers the horror in both films lies in their graphic depictions of torture, I personally feel this is strongly superseded by the both the existence of the enterprise that allows this torture to happen and its apparent popularity.  As far as I’m concerned the most chilling sequence of the two films occurs in Part II, just after Beth and her two friends, Lorna and Whitney, have arrived at the titular hostel and—without their knowing it—have become the objects of desire in an international bidding war over the right to maim and kill them.

Just as Jonathan Swift satirized the heartless apathy of the ruling class by soberly suggesting that the solution to ending poverty was to eat the children of the poor, so too does Roth take aim at a culture of wealth that has become so bored with its own idle banality that the only way its members can feel something is by killing another human being.  In the second film he pursues this theme far further than in the original by including a B-plot involving the two men who have won the right to kill Beth and Whitney (Lorna having been sold to a Bathory-esque older woman who enjoys bathing in the blood of virgins).  Through them we are given a glimpse into the inner-workings of the business and the rules by which it is operated.

Watching the two friends interact it’s hard not to think of the two similar characters in Neil LaBute’s directorial debut In the Company of Men who decide to avenge their frustrations towards women by deliberately humiliating the most innocent woman they can find.  Todd (Richard Burgi) is the ringleader and alpha-male, while Stuart (Roger Bart) is the follower, who reluctantly goes along on the trip despite his grave moral concerns about what they are doing.  In that way they also resemble the two main protagonists from the first film, Paxton and Josh (Derek Richardson).  The clear subtext in the first Hostel was that Josh allowed himself to be ordered around by his more dominant friend because their manly adventures allowed him to avoid confronting his own closeted homosexuality, while in Part II Stuart follows Todd because their adventures together (all of which the far-wealthier Todd pays for) represent the only times in his life where he is able to escape the stifling bonds of his career and familial obligations.

But as their stories continue and the two friends at last find themselves in their leather butcher aprons and alone with the women they are now contractually obligated to murder (the organization’s secrecy is maintained by a kind of mutually assured destruction in which everyone who takes part is as guilty as everyone else) the true nature of their personalities come out.  Todd, the pure hedonist, who has dressed Whitney in the costume of a low-rent prostitute, at first seems to enjoy the experience, teasing his victim with a circular saw.  But when he slips and the weapon connects with her face and does actual damage, the seriousness and horror of the situation finally dawns on him.  Suddenly aware that this is not a game and that he is in a room with a real human being who screams and bleeds when she is injured, he panics and runs out of the room.  Informed that he must finish her off in order to meet his obligation, he refuses and is then mauled to death by a group of dogs kept around for just such occasions.

Stuart’s first instincts, on the other hand, are to attempt to rescue Beth—who he has dressed in the casual business attire worn by the women in his day-to-day life—but as the reality of the situation becomes more apparent to him he realizes he really does want to kill her.  Finally given a true outlet for all of the frustrations and humiliations he has swallowed down over the years, he realizes he actually relishes the chance to take it.  Given the opportunity to finish off Whitney for a reasonable discount, he happily decapitates her with a machete before returning to Beth, who has come to represent in his mind all of the women who have embarrassed and "castrated" him throughout his life.

But Beth is a very resourceful young woman.

More than anything it is her journey that I feel elevates Hostel: Part II to a far greater level than its detractors allow.  A very wealthy young woman following the death of her father, Beth has not only the will but also the resources required to be a kind and generous person.  Far more sensible than her party-girl friend Whitney, but also more cautious than the naïve Lorna, Beth is the most grounded and centered character in the film (her one quirk being her very strong and visceral reaction to anyone who calls her the dreaded c-word).  For this reason she is able to keep her head and figure out a way out of the torture chamber fate has thrown her into.  When Stuart returns to kill her, she is able to reverse their situations and attempts to bargain her way out with the man in charge.  The fate of his manhood (and life) literally in her hands, Stuart is unable to contain his rage and says the one thing guaranteed to ensure his emasculation.
Beth's transformation from pure victim to tattooed member of the exclusive Hostel club suggests that the truly unequal dynamic in Western culture isn't Male/Female, but instead Rich/Poor.  Paxton's luck and resourcefulness allowed him a small modicum of revenge against his tormentors, but ultimately his relative poverty doomed him to an inevitably violent death (the second film begins with his being decapitated in the one place where he feels safe and, later on in the film, his severed head is shown as the centerpiece in the Chairman's grotesque trophy room), whereas Beth is able to ensure her continued survival thanks to her inherited wealth.  For this reason there is a tremendous amount of sadness in her victory.  Despite her tremendous courage and intelligence, she escapes only because Stuart lacks the financial resources of his dead friend.  In the twisted logic of the world in which they live, she emasculates Stuart before she cuts off his dick simply by having a larger net worth than he does.
It is, in fact, this feeling of being less than--which he blames on his wife--that causes Stuart to forget his heroic instincts and embrace the worst impulses of his wounded masculinity.  Thus fate ensures that his symbolic castration becomes a literal one at the hands of a woman who he has subconsciously dressed in the attire of his metaphorical emasculater.
If one truly wanted to criticize Roth's film, you could argue that it lacks subtlety and his conclusions are fairly obvious.  I would disagree insofar as I believe that subtle satire is an oxymoron and that those filmmakers who attempt it inevitably create trite works of little to no impact.  And being obvious is usually only considered a fault by those viewers whose own detachment leads them to believe that "truth" is a  fantasy of the bourgeoisie (ie. most professional critics).  The problem is that either through deliberate obtuseness or inadvertent obliviousness many commentators, both mainstream and genre, refuse to acknowledge that the Hostel films exist on any other level than the showcasing of graphic violence--neglecting to criticize their themes not because they disagree with them but because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they exist.  However, even as shallow a deconstruction as the one provided above proves this to be demonstrably not the case.  As far as I'm concerned it's perfectly acceptable to dismiss Roth's work because you find his conclusions shallow or abhorrent, but it's an act of pure intellectual laziness to blithely ignore those conclusions and glibly negate the films by classifying them as "Torture Porn" or "Gorno".  And by "pure intellectual laziness" I, of course, mean utter stupidity.
Compared to the Hostel films, Hard Candy fared a lot better with critics, but not quite as well with several men I happen to know personally—some of who saw the film purely based on my recommendation of it.  Considering how much it affected me, I found their reticence towards it somewhat surprising.  Whenever I probed them to find out what it was they didn’t like about the film I found they were reluctant to say anything specific, but in each case it eventually became clear that their major problem was with the film’s young, female protagonist.

A two-handed character piece, the film is a psychological thriller about the dangers of online sexual predation, but not quite in the way most people would expect.  While Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) completely matches the profile of one of those idiots regularly caught on camera on Dateline NBC’s now infamous “To Catch a Predator” segments (if only a bit smoother, stylish and less obviously creepy) his young prey, Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), is not what you would call a typical 14 year old girl.  Not only is she the one who suggests that they meet together after flirting online, but it also soon becomes clear that she is nowhere near as innocent or defenseless as Jeff (and us viewers) assume.

It turns out that Hayley believes Jeff is guilty of a terrible crime and is willing to take dramatic action to ensure he is punished and doesn’t do it again.

Though they were loath to admit it, the reason my male friends refused to praise the film was because it forced them to make a choice they did not want to make—to either sympathize with a man who at best was a sleazy pedophile and at worst a rapist/murderer or the possibly delusional young woman who wanted to cut his balls off.  As loathsome as they found Jeff to be, they still could not bring themselves to endorse Hayley’s mission, because—as much as they didn’t want to—they identified with his plight and imagined themselves in his situation. 

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that the castration sequence in Hard Candy is the male equivalent of Camille Keaton’s extended rape in Day of the Woman (aka I Spit On Your Grave), not only in terms of length (Jeff spends 34 of the film’s 100 minutes strapped to the table where the “operation” is performed) but also in its ability to shock and divide its audience.  As I noted in my way-too-long discussion of Meir Zarchi’s classic, film critic Roger Ebert denounced Day of the Woman as the worst film ever made because of his belief that the filmmaker had intended the audience to cheer on the brutal rape of its female protagonist, while it is my belief that Zarchi clearly wanted the audience to be disgusted by what they saw.  In much the same way, a person’s appreciation of Hard Candy depends on whether or not they believe that Hayley is acting rationally and that her actions are just.

There is much evidence to suggest that Jeff is guilty of the crime he is accused of, but it is all circumstantial at best.  It also doesn’t help Hayley’s cause that she cruelly toys with him as she makes her surgical preparations.  Justice should not be a game and sometimes it seems as though she is having too much fun playing vigilante.

Interestingly, though, one way this sequence differs from Day of the Woman’s rape sequence is that Meir Zarchi leaves nothing to the imagination, while Hard Candy’s David Slade is very careful to obscure what is going on.  Of course it later turns out that this is as much for narrative reasons as anything else, but his reticence does little to dull the impact of the sequence, which is the very definition of cringe inducing.  Due largely to its length and distressing ambivalence (Slade never allows us to assume that he sympathizes with either character) it is easily the hardest of the sequences discussed in this post for a person to sit through.
That said, I can admit now that unlike my peers who found themselves so troubled by Hayley’s actions they could not enjoy the film, I found myself unwaveringly with her 100% of the time.  Part of this is due to the strength of Ellen Page’s performance, which elevated her in my personal pantheon long before everyone caught up with Juno and part of it is due to my natural instinct to side with fictional female vigilantes, even when they do things I would never advocate a real person (female or otherwise) doing.

Some people find it impossible to separate their personal politics from their enjoyment of a film.  For the most part, these are people I try hard to avoid.  For me part of the fun of a film like this is that it allows me to embrace a dark side of my own personality I prefer to sublimate in my actual life.  Whereas in the world actual I believe there is no room for revenge in the pursuit of justice and therefore abhor capital or physical punishment of any kind (believing that the ultimate form of hypocrisy is for a government to claim that the only way the worst possible crime can be punished is by committing that crime itself), in the cinematic world I am allowed the freedom to embrace my inner redneck and cheer on Hayley as she cuts that pervert’s nuts off.

For this reason I found watching this sequence filled me with both revulsion and exhilaration—I squirmed in sympathy with Jeff, while cheering on Hayley’s act of so-called “preventative maintenance.”  As a result for me the truest moment of ambivalence came at the end of the sequence when Jeff, finally left alone, escapes from his bonds and discovers that Hayley has been fucking with him (and, in turn, Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson, have been fucking with us).
Thus one of the most anxiety provoking castration sequences
in cinematic history is one in which no actual castration occurs at all.
In the final moments of the film, Hayley is able to get Jeff to finally confess his involvement in the crime she has accused him of.  He insists that all he did was watch and tells her the name of the real murderer, a man named Aaron.  Hayley tells him she's already visited Aaron and that he said the same thing about Jeff.  Confronted by his monstrosity and Hayley's (false) assurances that she will keep the one woman he's always loved from discovering his secret, Jeff commits suicide by hanging himself from his roof--a fate that seems almost anti-climatic following his pseudo-castration.
At the end of his extremely well-written and perceptive review of the film, online genre critic El Santo, points out that another reason--beyond her mere actions--that some people are put off by Hayley's character is her unnatural precocity and near-superhuman abilities, but the reason I didn't find this troubling was because I believed Slade and Nelson inserted subtle clues into the film that suggested that Hayley is not what she appears but rather something supernatural or possibly divine. 
When it comes to "accepting" a film, viewers have two options.  They can either compare it to the everyday reality they themselves know or they can judge what they see based on the world presented in the film.  You can either dismiss Hard Candy out of hand for never explaining how an 80 lb girl can so easily manhandle a man literally twice her size or you can use your imagination and come to your own conclusions on how she is able to do everything she does.
I made my decision in the film's final shot.  Though the red hood she wears is an obviously iconic reference to Little Red Riding Hood and her encounter with the Big Bad Wolf (an encounter whose final conclusion differs from telling to telling), I focused more on the look on her face.  She had done this before and would do this again, her focus and determination so ineffable that I couldn't help but assume that she was on a mission directly given to her by a vengeful and angry god.  It definitely helped when I heard the first word of the song that plays as the screen fades to black and goes to the final credits.
When I say that the last film in this post’s trilogy of modern castration classics surprised me, that is something of an understatement.  Not so much for its content—I knew going in what to expect on that end—but by rather how much I enjoyed it.  With all apologies to Christopher Nolan, Teeth remains my pick for best movie I’ve seen this year, although it does seem strange to compare this low-budget combination of horror and comedy to a project as monolithic as The Dark Knight.  

The film’s most immediate cinematic peer is the justly heralded cult classic Ginger Snaps, which remains one of my favourite films from this decade.  Both are horror tales about young female outcasts whose ascent into womanhood turns deadly due to forces within their own bodies they cannot control.  In Ginger Snaps, that force is the lycanthropy that causes young Ginger to embrace her carnal side as she descends into a state of permanent beastliness, while in Teeth it is the virginal Dawn’s discovery that she is the flesh and blood incarnation of one of the Earth’s oldest and most widespread myths.

One of the things I loved most about Mitchell Lichtenstein’s script is the risk he takes in making his protagonist a character most horror movies fans by nature would abhor—an abstinence-preaching goodie-goodie who wears her virginity on her sleeve and hangs out with friends so pious they refuse to see an R-rated movie.  In less deft hands Dawn (Jess Wexler) could have turned out to be as obnoxious a character as Mandy Moore’s in the supremely tiresome A Walk to Remember (not to be confused with her deliberately obnoxious character in the brilliant Saved!), but in one short sequence he gains her our sympathy by showing us that she is just as much an outcast as any black-shirted malcontent.

As audacious as Lichtenstein’s choice is, it does make perfect narrative sense, insofar as Dawn’s veneration of her own virtue explains away the story's potential biggest plot hole.  By making her essentially afraid of her own sexuality (as exemplified by her horrified reactions to her intensely erotic dreams) it becomes possible to appreciate how she has been able to avoid any potential physical examination that would expose her strange mutation.

Though the cause of this mutation is most likely linked to the presence of the enormous nuclear cooling tower visible just a few miles from her house (as is the cancer slowing killing her mother) Lichtenstein’s script also suggests that it is a natural evolutionary step—one that is necessary if women are ever to wrest themselves from the physical dominance of brutal, sex-obsessed males.

If ever there was a subject begging to be exploited in a horror movie setting, Vagina dentata has to take first prize.  While it has been used as a subtext (both consciously and accidentally) in many films, Teeth is one of the first to chuck metaphor out the window in favour of a direct representation of man’s biggest unspoken fear.  It’s genius, though, comes in the way it allows us to subvert that fear and compels us to cheer on the young woman who is the unwitting symbol of primal emasculation.  Rather than terrify us with a horrific descent into Dawn’s monstrosity, Lichtenstein chooses to create a story of empowerment in which Dawn’s mutation makes the slow transformation from inexplicable curse to exploitable gift.


Like Roth, Lichtenstein’s intentions are clearly satirical, which means its characters have been drawn to serve his thematic purposes rather than serve as three-dimensional representations of people found in our own non-cinematic reality.  That said it does seem only fair that in a film where its female protagonist is partially defined by the devastating power of her vagina, all of the male characters are shown to be incapable of making any decision not immediately linked to the desires of their penises.  In the world of Teeth, every male is a potential sexual predator, especially the nice ones who say all the right things.

This is a completely accurate depiction of the world as it really is.

I don’t mean to propagate the hoary old feminist cliché that every man is a wannabe rapist, but rather that the biological impulse to procreate remains strong enough that few men possess the inner-strength to ever completely disregard it.  In Teeth this is best represented by the character Tobey (Hale Appleman), a fellow “abstainer” whose chaste flirtations with Dawn quickly escalates into violence as a result of his own pent-up sexual frustration (“I haven’t even jerked off since Easter,” he shouts at her in an attempted mitigation of his assault).  During this, her first experience with intercourse, Dawn and Tobey both discover her hidden secret and following his entirely unexpected castration, he falls into the water they had been swimming in and does not come back up to the surface.

With this Dawn is not only forced to contemplate her mutation, but also her own sexuality for the first time in her life.  This leads to her first ever visit to a gynecologist in a scene that best exemplifies the film’s darkly humourous  tone.  Perhaps it says something about my own twisted sense of humour, but I laughed longer and harder the first time I watched this moment than during any other scene I’ve seen this year.

With this second incident a clear pattern begins to emerge.  Sensing Dawn’s unusual innocence, the men around her seek to exploit her sexual naiveté only to find out too late that they do so at their peril.  Though she lacks the experience to immediately recognize the inappropriateness of the doctor’s actions (his gloveless probing clearly treading past the line from routine examination into outright molestation), subconsciously she identifies the violation for what it is and her body takes action against it.  As will become clear with her next sexual experience, her strange “adaptation” does not act in opposition to her impulses, but directly with them.  Though she does not know it yet, she is in complete control of her sexuality—it is merely a matter of accepting and embracing it.

Overcome by her role in Tobey’s death, the doctor’s mutilation and her mother’s collapse and subsequent hospitalization, Dawn finds herself drawn to Ryan (Ashley Springer), a boy from school whose crush on her has always been flagrantly apparent.  He does his best to comfort her anxiety (including giving her some pills purloined from his mother), while also exploiting her duress for his benefit.  He decorates his room with candles and gives her wine, having correctly identified the romantic tropes she associates with the abdication of her virginity.  Touched by his gentleness and attention, Dawn engages with him in her first act of consensual intercourse and is shocked to find that when it ends he is none the worse for it.  Afterwards she examines her topless body in the mirror and already a new self-confidence is apparent in her bearing and demeanor.  In that moment she makes the visible transition from being a girl to becoming a woman, which makes what happens next all the more powerful.

About to leave, she is drawn back to Ryan’s bed for one more round of coitus, only to find out—via a phone call from his friend—that he has just successfully won a bet in which he would be the first to claim the pretty virgin’s maidenhood.  In that moment the last vestige of her innocence is extinguished for good and Ryan promptly meets the same painful fate of Tobey and the bad doctor.  Her reaction here is telling.  No longer terrified of what she can do, all she can muster in way of a response is a comic “Oh shit,” as she dismounts Ryan and leaves him screaming in his bed.  “Some hero,” she mutters to herself, having learned the truth behind her girlish romantic fantasies.


It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film allows its male "victims" to suffer.  As a full-on rapist, Tobey’s punishment is death.  The doctor, whose assault—while creepy—was not as violent or as obvious as Tobey’s is shown having his fingers reattached, but is also dramatically traumatized by the incident (“Vagina dentata,” he keeps repeating, “it’s real….”).  Ryan’s initial tenderness is “rewarded” in that he survives the encounter and is—like the doctor—shown having his severed organ reattached to his body, although he too will doubtlessly be traumatized for life.  Of them all it is her final “victim”—her stepbrother, Brad—who is punished with the worst of all the possible fates (at least from a decidedly male viewpoint).  

Dawn’s opposite in every way, Brad’s callousness is the direct result of his resentment over the marriage of his father to Dawn’s mother.  Not because of any lingering devotion to his own mother, but rather because of his feelings for Dawn.  By making her his sister, the marriage prevented him from ever being able to act upon his sexual desire for her in a socially acceptable manner.  For this reason when he hears his cancer-ridden stepmother collapse in the hallway, he ignores her cries and leaves her to be found by Dawn, who goes on to blame him for her subsequent death.

With this Dawn comes to realize that her “adaptation” is not a deformity, but rather an aspect of herself with which she can extract karmic justice.  She goes on to visit Brad in his room, dressed for seduction (albeit in a manner that reflects her goodie-goodie instincts) and proceeds to deliberately do to him what she unintentionally did to the others.  His suffering continues when Dawn defiantly drops his severed member onto his floor, only to watch as his pit bull escapes from its cage and proceeds to eat it in a couple of quick bites.  Unlike Tobey, who didn’t live long enough to appreciate what had happened to him, or Ryan, whose mutilation was only temporary, Brad is shown being completely robbed of his manhood without any chance for recovery.

The film then ends with Dawn leaving her small town by hitchhiking out on the highway,  And as much as I enjoyed everything that came before it, it is the film’s last scene that truly won me over.  Trapped in the car with an obnoxious old pervert, Dawn is first annoyed by the situation, but that annoyance visibly dissipates when she realizes that she, not he, is the one who is truly in control of what is going on.  Her smile at this awareness made me doing something I never do when I watch a movie—applaud.  It was the only response I could think of to justify how good it made me feel.

Of all the films, Teeth is the most graphic in its depiction of its castrations.  Though, unlike Hostel: Part II, we never actually see Dawn sever the penises from her “victims” bodies, we are exposed to much longer takes of the various aftermaths.  Yet it remains the least discomfiting of the three films, largely because rather than acts of overt hostility, its castrations are presented either as an unconscious reaction to an assault or emotional betrayal or—in the last case—a just act of revenge committed against an utter douchebag.  This is interesting in that it suggests that the power of onscreen violence has little to do with what we are actually shown onscreen but instead by how what we are being shown makes us feel.  Though some would suggest this serves as a good argument in defense of restraint, one could easily argue with just as much validity that the degree to which graphic violence is acceptable depends on how the filmmaker intends their audience to react when they see it.  In other words, it is foolish to suggest that one approach is better than the other when it all depends on the context in which they are used.

And that folks is my way-too-long look at a recent cinematic phenomenon only a freak like me would ever think to document.  It only took me two months to throw it all together and I'm already fairly certain it wasn't worth the wait....

Day of the Woman


Of all the films I have elected to discuss here at The House of Glib, today’s is BY FAR the most controversial.  Few films in the brief history of the art form have managed the nearly impossible trick of being praised by some as a low-budget masterpiece of feminist cinema, while also being denounced by others as the worst example of misogynistic exploitation trash ever to be devised by a truly sick and twisted mind.  While serving as a perfect case of how much a film’s title and marketing can influence an audience’s reaction, today’s film is important for also forcing the viewer to ask themselves how far is too far when it comes to getting a desired point across.  At what point does a filmmaker cross the line from exposing society’s evils to exploiting them?  And should they be blamed if certain segments of the audience respond to the material in the exact opposite way that they intended?

For those reasons today’s subject is the rare example of a film whose content makes it almost impossible to recommend to others, while also being one that no serious student of the filmmaking arts can justifiably avoid—it’s a film that should be shown in every introductory film class, but never will be because of the protests its inclusion would inevitably engender.

I am, of course, talking about:

Originally released as Day of the Women in 1978, Polish sound editor Meir Zarchi’s directorial debut was inspired by a real life incident in which he and a friend discovered a badly beaten and nude woman who had been raped in a park near his home.  Not only had he been horrified by the barbarity of the woman’s attackers (they had broken her jaw and only allowed her to live after she insisted that there was no way she could identify them since they had smashed her glasses and she could not see their faces), but also by the terrible bureaucratic indifference of the police officer who took her report and seemed far more concerned with getting it finished than calling the ambulance she so obviously needed.  To Zarchi’s eyes the casual cruelty of the apathetic officer was little different than the animal savagery of the rapists and in the years that followed the incident he began to imagine a film in which a woman survives a terrible rape, but instead of going to the police for justice, decides to take the matter into her own hands and forces her attackers to understand how terrifying it is to be a victim of another person’s remorseless brutality.  He wrote the screenplay during the 40-minute subway commutes to and from his New York office and was able to raise enough money (and defer enough payments) to make the film with a cast of unknowns and a crew largely composed of enthusiastic amateurs.

The film begins in New York, but only stays there for the briefest of scenes.  Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a successful young short story writer has decided to leave her apartment in the city in order to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a lake house located in rural Connecticut, where she plans to write her first novel.  On her way there she stops for gas at the town’s antiquated station, where the attendant, Johnny (Eron Tabor) takes notice of her sophisticated beauty, while his two dimwitted friends, Andy (Gunter Kleeman) and Stanley (Anthony Nichols) play a game that involves throwing a switchblade into the grass at their feet.

Upon reaching the lake house, Jennifer is so excited by the quiet, natural beauty of her surroundings that she runs towards the water and takes off her dress and enjoys a naked swim in the water—visibly thrilled to have escaped the noise and squalor of the city.  

We next see her as she unpacks her clothes and discovers a gun left behind by a former tenant in one of the drawers, but before she can do anything more than look at it, she is interrupted by the sound of someone knocking on her door.  It turns out to be Matthew (Richard Pace), the Lenny-esque manchild who works as the delivery boy for the local grocery store.  When he learns that she’s from New York City, he tells her that she “…comes from an evil place!”  She humours his small-town innocence by giving him “…a tip from an evil New Yorker,” which he excitedly tells her is the largest he’s ever received (a whole dollar).   He’s also becomes excited when he learns she’s a real writer and is famous (even though he’s never actually heard of her) and—as he chomps on an apple she gives him—he asks her if she has a boyfriend. 
“I have many boyfriends,” she tells him. 
“Could I be your friend?” he asks her sweetly. 
“Sure,” she smiles at him.  

Thrilled by his encounter with the glamorous woman from the big city, Matthew leaves and finds his friends—the same three men Jennifer encountered at the gas station.  Trying to impress them he tells them that he “…saw her tits!” (referring to the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath her shirt).  It’s obvious that they aren’t a good influence on him, but they’re also the only people around who treat him like an equal—largely because they’re not that much smarter than he is.  Having exhausted all of the other diversionary activities their small town offers, the four of them decide to go fishing.  There they discuss whether or not beautiful women have to defecate (they decide that they do, since all woman “…are full of shit”) and how they have to get Matthew “…a broad…” to rid him of his virginity.  Stanley takes a shot at Matthew’s sexuality by claiming that, “…broads don’t turn him on!” to which Matthew responds by insisting, “Yes they do, but not all broads, only the special ones.”  Johnny humours him by asking, “What’s a special broad, Matthew?”

“Miss Hill,” answers Matthew.  “Miss Hill is special.”

Unaware of the impact she is having amongst the locals, Jennifer continues to commune with nature by going on canoe rides and sitting outside as she writes out chapters of her novel in long hand on a yellow legal pad.  Her peace does not last, however, when Andy and Stanley drive by on their motorboat.  Intent on getting her attention, they obnoxiously loop around the water until finally she has no choice but to go inside in order to escape them.

Later that night, while she is alone in bed, she is disturbed by the sound of clearly manmade animal noises coming from outside the house.  She goes outside to see where they are coming from, but sees only the darkness of the night and decides to go back inside, where she reassures herself with the knowledge that she has the gun she found in the drawer, if she needs it.  It turns out that she soon will, but at a time and place where no one would think to bring it.

During the middle of a hot summer day, Jennifer basks in the rays of the sun as she lies out in her canoe as it floats across the water.  Her calm does not last long, though, as Stanley and Andy return in their motorboat.  This time, however, they intend on doing more than simply show off.  They begin by driving around her canoe, causing it to shake in the waves, and then they grab its rope and begin pulling it behind them.  They take it to the shore, where Jennifer tries to fight them off with her paddle, but they quickly get it away from her and begin chasing her through the woods.

Jennifer soon discovers that this attack was planned when she reaches a clearing and is knocked down by Johnny, who has been waiting for his two friends to deliver her to him.  With Andy and Stanley’s help he tears off her bikini, holds her down and urges Matthew to come out from his hiding spot and take what they had gotten for him.  Matthew, torn between his loyalty to his friends and his affection for Miss Hill, refuses to rape her, but agrees to hold one of her legs as Johnny decides to do what he won’t.  Johnny strips out of his clothes and roughly penetrates Jennifer.

When he finishes, his three friends let her go and they all watch as she crawls away into the woods.  Johnny sends Matthew out to get her back, but he just helps her up and watches as she limps away.  The others taunt him for not taking advantage of the situation, with Johnny telling him, “…You’re gonna die a virgin.”

Naked and barefoot, Jennifer is forced to walk through not only the forest, but also small streams and swamp water in order to get back home.  Sadly, though, her attackers know the area far better than she does and are able to find her again.  This time Stanley rapes her—sodomizing her as Andy and Matthew hold her down on a large rock.  He climaxes as quickly as Johnny did and the four of them leave her stretched out on the rock and return to their boat.  Making their escape they abandon her canoe in the middle of the lake and Johnny throws her bikini into the water.  

Bruised, bloodied and covered in mud, a nearly catatonic Jennifer is finally able to get back to the lake house.  Upon reaching it, she collapses and has to crawl in order to get to a shirt to cover her naked body and to then get to the phone to call the police.  

But her attackers are not done with her.  Just as she finishes dialing, the phone is kicked away from her and Johnny appears at the top of her stairway.  As the others cheer him on, a now-drunk Matthew overcomes his shyness and strips naked and jumps on top of their victim, but isn’t able to finish like the others.  As he dejectedly puts his clothes back on, Andy finds some pages from Jennifer’s unfinished novel and reads them aloud for everyone’s amusement before he tears them up and throws the ripped up pieces on top of her.  

The other three having had their turns, Stanley is the last of the four to take advantage of their captive.  Jennifer—knowing that she can’t stop him and has been badly hurt by the other’s rough penetrations—begs him to allow her to fellate him instead.  “Total submission, that’s what I like in a woman,” he sneers just before he sadistically shoves a bottle into her vagina and orders her to perform oral sex with the command “Suck it, bitch!”  Unhappy with her lack of effort, he gets up and starts kicking her, which—despite their previous barbarity—is too much for even his friends to take.  They pull him outside and start to leave, but then Johnny decides that they can’t leave her alive after what they did to her.  He hands Matthew a switchblade and tells him to go back inside and kill her.  Matthew naturally refuses at first, but Johnny is finally able to convince him to do it.  With the knife in his hand he returns inside the house, where Jennifer is laying unconscious on the floor.  He puts the blade to her chest, but he can’t go through with it, so he instead wipes it across her cheek, covering it in blood, which he shows to his friends in order to prove that he did it.  Assuming that they now have nothing to worry about, the four of them escape away from the house down the water in their motorboat.

Knowing that there is nothing the law can do to get her the justice she deserves for what the four men have done to her, Jennifer does not call the police.  Instead she slowly nurses herself back to health and picks up the pieces of her now-shattered life.  One day she spots her canoe floating in the water outside of her house and is able to retrieve it.  The next she spends patiently taping up the pages from her novel that Stanley tore up in front of her and soon she starts writing new pages to go along with them.  The days pass by and her visible wounds fade, leaving only the ones left on the inside—the ones she’ll have to eventually leave the lake house to cure.

As their victim convalesces, the four rapists grow concerned that she might still be alive since they had not heard any news about her body being discovered by the police.  Johnny attempts to convince Matthew to go to the house to check, but he refuses and it’s left up to Andy and Stanley to find out for sure.  They drive past the house on their motorboat and see their victim sitting at a tree reading a book.  Knowing now that Matthew lied to them, the three others beat him up and make it clear that their friendship is over.  

As the quartet self-destructs, Jennifer is finally ready to open the drawer that holds the gun she found her first day there.  Dressed in black, she drives to the local church and asks God to forgive her for what she is about to do.  She then drives to the gas station where Johnny works, but stops herself from carrying out her plan when she sees him with his wife and children.  She then spots Matthew as he rides past her on his bicycle and decides to begin with him.

She returns home and places an order to the grocery store where he works.  Upon being told of the address of his next delivery, Matthew gets scared and steals a knife from the meat counter to protect himself.  When he arrives at the lake house, he finds Jennifer waiting for him outside, dressed in a white robe that makes her look like an angel.  He follows her into the woods, holding up the knife he brought with him—ready to use it if he has to.  

With the knife in his hand, he finds her standing beside a tree next to the water.  

“I hate you!  I hate you!” he cries at her angrily.  

“What have I done to you Matthew?” she asks with an eerie calmness that almost borders on kindness.  

“I have no friends now because of you!” he tells her.  

“Why, Matthew?” she asks as she begins to untie her robe.  “Why because of me?”

“Because I was chosen to kill you and I didn’t!”

“You will this time Matthew,” she says encouragingly.  “You will.  Just relax.”

“I’m sorry I have to do this,” he apologizes.  “I’m also sorry for what I did to you with them.  It wasn’t my idea.  I have no friends in town.”

“I thought we were friends.  Remember?  You asked me.”

“You’re only here for the summer!  What am I to do the rest of the year?”

“I could have given you a summer to remember—for the rest of your life,” she tells him as she pulls apart the robe and exposes one of her breasts.  

With the knife still raised above his head, she shows him the rest of her naked body and pulls him in for a kiss.  She then kneels down and takes off his pants and pulls him on top of her.  As he has sex with her (doing now what he earlier could not), she reaches behind to a noose hidden in the leaves of the tree and slips it around his neck.  She then starts pulling on the rope the noose is attached to and lifts Matthew up into the air, his body jerking spastically as he slowly suffocates.  She waits until she is sure that he is dead before dumping his body and bicycle into the river.  She then returns to the house and calls the grocery store to inform them that her delivery never arrived.

Having taken care of Matthew, she decides it’s time to return to Johnny.  She finds him by himself at the gas station and is able to wordlessly convince him to get into her car—using nothing more a flirtatious look and a nod of her head.  She drives him to a clearing, where she pulls out her gun on him and orders him to strip.  Johnny does as he’s told, but rather than beg for his life he explains how what happened was really all her fault—insisting that she provoked them with her sexy clothes.  Jennifer allows him to believe that she is swayed by his reasoning and hands her gun over to him and invites him back to her house.  He agrees—not realizing that she is only doing so in order to make him suffer much, much more than he would have if she had just shot him.

Back at her house, she joins Johnny in her bathtub for a bubble bath as he complains about his wife and friends.  He tells her that Matthew is missing, but that he’ll probably turn up sooner or later.  

“He’ll never come back,” Jennifer tells him as she massages and caresses his chest.  

“Why, do you think he committed suicide or something?” asks Johnny.  

“No,” she answers matter-of-factly.  “I killed him.”

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Johnny refuses to accept that she isn’t joking and doesn’t see it coming when Jennifer reaches for a knife she has hidden underneath a towel and uses it to castrate him.  Her rapist is so relaxed in the water he doesn’t even realize it has happened until he sees the water turn red.  Jennifer calmly gets out of the tub, puts on her robe and locks Johnny inside the bathroom as his cursing turns to begging for help and mercy.  She drowns out his cries by playing an aria from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

This just leaves Andy and Stanley, who—knowing that both Matthew and Johnny are missing—suspect that their own lives are in danger.  Stanley approaches the house on his boat, while Andy comes by land—armed with an ax.  Jennifer, swinging in her hammock in a green bikini, hears Stanley coming and surprises him by swimming to his boat and climbing in.

“Where’s your friend?” she asks him.

“He stayed back in town,” he lies to her.

“I’m glad,” she lies right back to him.  “It’s you I wanted.”

As clueless as Matthew and Johnny, Stanley leans in for the implied kiss, which gives Jennifer the opportunity she needs to push him out of the boat.  As he splashes in the water, she starts the motor and starts terrorizing him with the boat just like he and Andy did to her before.  Andy reveals himself from where he was hiding on the shore and screams at her to leave his friend alone as he climbs into the water.  Using the boat, she manages to steal away his ax and watches as Andy swims towards Stanley in a foolish attempt to rescue him.  The two of them attempt to make it to shore, but Jennifer is able to split them up and kills Andy with his own ax.  

She then stops the boat just a few feet away from Stanley, who swims to her and attempts to lift himself out of the water via the motor.  He begs her not to kill him, insisting that he’s sorry and that it was never his idea in the first place.  Jennifer answers his pleas by repeating his own words back to him—“Suck it, bitch,” she says just before she turns the motor back on and tears him apart with its underwater propeller.

As his body begins to sink into the water, Jennifer drives away.  For the briefest of possible seconds a smile begins to appear on her face, but she does not allow it to grow and replaces it with a cold, blank stare.
The credits begin to roll.


I’m sure it’s pretty obvious by now where I stand in the whole misunderstood masterpiece/worst movie ever debate that has helped keep Day of the Woman relevant to this very day, but I should admit right now that I have a more personal reason to side with its creator than natural contrariness.  Like Meir Zachri, I know what it’s like to make a sincere effort to create a work that both honors the strength and fortitude of women and criticizes the clueless brutality of men, only to be accused of misogyny for having created it.  It actually happened to me twice, both cases involving poems I had written for two creative writing classes I had taken during my brief tenure at the University of Alberta.

The first time involved a poem I had written from the point of view of a rapist who rants at his victim for not giving him the experienced he wanted.  Clearly a weak and pathetic figure who committed his crime in a sick attempt to control someone else, his effort fails when his victim refuses to break down into tears and simply stares back at him with hateful contempt.  Despite having been written with the rapist’s voice, it was obvious whose side I was on and that I had intended for the creep to damn himself with his words, rather than present them as an actual defense of what he did.

It proved to be the most controversial poem the class discussed that year (literally, as nearly a 1/4 of that week’s 3 hour class ended up being devoted to it) and it was simultaneously praised by some as my best work to date and trashed by others as a work of terrible misogyny that illustrated a viewpoint that had no right to exist in the printed word.  And lest you think that I’m being a bit overdramatic describing the sentiments of my detractors, I will never forget that at the end of the debate the poem inspired, our professor summed up his feelings by saying “I think this proves that some point of views should not be expressed.”  

To this day it saddens and shocks me that someone who had devoted their entire life to being a writer and a poet would actually say those words out loud.

The most vocal of my detractors was the class’ most fiercely dogmatic feminist, who ignored the poem’s obvious theme of how even when victimized, women are inevitably stronger than men, and instead insisted that by giving a voice to a rapist, I became one.  Never mind that the poem was a work of fiction and no crime actually occurred, as far as she was concerned my having written about a rape from the male perspective made me a (literary) rapist.

You would think that after being accused of such an offense, I would cease from that point on to write about the subject and protect myself from being labeled a disgusting misogynist for the rest of my academic life, but I was just 19 and not ready to be so easily cowed into dogmatic submission.

The next year nearly all of the same students were enrolled in the higher-level class with a different professor and—without even thinking about what had happened the year before—the first poem I submitted was a long and angry screed that took issue with the way woman had been treated by religion (in this case Christianity) over the years.  It told the tale of Christ returning just before The Rapture specifically to rape an underage stripper on Christmas Eve (not a subtle concept to be sure, but I was only 19 when I wrote it).  My professor, when he introduced it, described it as, “The most explicitly feminist poem I’ve ever read,” which—considering the kind of work he must have been exposed to over the years—struck me as a being a very bold statement, but the same woman who had accused me of being a symbolic rapist a year earlier strongly disagreed.  

In this case her outrage came from the fact that I had depicted the rape in the body of the poem and—even though my narrator this time was unambiguously sympathetic to the victim and hostile to her attacker—this again was an act of misogyny on my part.  As she argued her case it become quite obvious that—as far as she was concerned—rape, as a subject, was entirely off limits to any writer with a penis.  The violation of undesired penetration being a subject she believed male writers could never appreciate or even remotely understand.  Naturally this argument can be undone with a single viewing of any one episode of Oz or Deliverance, but I have discovered throughout the years that pointing this out seldom, if ever, inspires those who make it to reconsider their position.

In defense of my accuser, she did eventually praise me for a later poem I wrote about women who are afraid to express themselves out loud that was inspired by our talented, but very shy fellow classmate, whom every male in the class had a serious crush on, which she included in a ‘zine she put together with her roommate.  

And while this explains my natural impulse to defend Zarchi’s film against accusations of the big, nasty m-word, I would gladly stifle it if I for one second believed that he actually hated women and had created the film to titillate his fellow misogynists, but having repeatedly watched the film and listened to his thoughts on the DVD commentary track I can say with 100% certainty that his intentions were pure—unfortunately the marketing plan of the film’s distributor was not.

In 1978 Zarchi had successfully sold Day of the Woman across the world, but had been unable to find a distributor willing to take on the film in North America.  After a very brief and unsuccessful attempt to distribute it himself, it appeared as though his film was destined to be lost to obscurity, until two years later when exploitation film distributor Jerry Gross (Blood Beach, Miss Nude America and The Boogeyman among others) agreed to release it.  Against Zarchi’s wishes Gross changed the title to I Spit On Your Grave and marketed the film with a lurid poster featuring a bruised and bloodied woman’s shapely backside and the (admittedly wonderful) tagline:
This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition...
But no jury in America would ever convict her!

Despite the tagline’s three major inaccuracies (Jennifer only kills four men, doesn’t burn any of them and would most likely still get convicted in Texas), it did the trick and got the film in theaters around the country, including—most significantly—Chicago where a single review branded the film with its infamous reputation and sparked the debate that surrounds it to this day.

Since he saw it in 1980, Roger Ebert has never hesitated in naming I Spit On Your Grave as the worst film he has ever reviewed.  Such was his antipathy for the film, he actually appointed himself the role of public censor and urged people to boycott and protest the theaters that were showing it and on several occasions stood outside those theaters with his fellow famous TV reviewing partner Gene Siskel in order to try and convince people not to see it.  For the moment, he proved successful, as the film quickly disappeared out of theaters, but in the long run his efforts were undone when—thanks largely to its now-infamous reputation—the film became a huge hit following its release into the then-nascent home video market.

The irony being one that every potential crusader should note—in all likelihood your protests will give the subject of your ire more attention than it ever would have received if you had simply allowed it to come and go without comment.

And while Ebert certainly was well within his rights to loathe the film and do everything he could to spare others what he believed was the most horrible of cinematic experiences, his reaction to the film was troubling for several reasons, the first of which was utter hypocrisy.
In the decade preceding his review of I Spit on Your Grave, Ebert had occasionally moonlighted as a screenwriter for the infamously breast-obsessed director Russ Meyer (both pictured) and collaborated on the scripts that would eventually become Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens.  And while the three films vary greatly in quality (Beyond is brilliant, Up! is extremely uneven but has its moments and Beneath is a self-indulgent mess) each of them contains moments as discomfiting as any found in Zarchi’s film.  In particular, the deaths of Casey and Roxanne in Beyond (who essentially die for no other reason than their lesbian relationship), the extended and brutal rape of Margo in Up! and the numerous sexual assaults played for laughs in Beneath, all call into question the validity of Ebert’s moral crusade against the film.

Equally distressing is the fact that eight years earlier Ebert (to his credit) had been one of the few critics to defend Wes Craven’s disturbing breakout film, The Last House on the Left--a film one could easily argue is as “…sick, reprehensible and contemptible…” as I Spit on Your Grave, if not more so.  But it is clear when you read his review of I Spit on Your Grave, what has offended him is not so much the film’s content, but rather how the audience he watched it with reacted to it.

Reading his description of the vocal reactions of his fellow audience members cheering on the rapists as they assaulted their victim, it is easy to understand why he left the screening feeling so disturbed, but it is much harder to sympathize with his conclusion that this was the precisely the reaction the filmmakers had intended.  

I remember when Schindler’s List came out there were reports of laughter from callous teenagers on school field trips, who reacted to the senseless deaths of Jewish holocaust victims the exact same way they would later react to the senseless deaths of the underworld characters in Pulp Fiction.  Had Ebert seen Spielberg’s movie in a theater filled with these idiots, would he have concluded that the director was an amoral anti-semite playing the Shoah for laughs?  Of course not, but Spielberg’s film had the benefit of being marketed as the serious work that it was—while Zarchi’s film had had its title changed and was now being sold as a pure exploitation picture.  The question then is if Ebert’s review would have stayed the same if he had seen Day of the Woman instead of I Spit on Your Grave.  My guess is that under its original title, the film wouldn’t have attracted the rough, unenlightened crowd that responded so enthusiastically to the ads for I Spit on Your Grave and Ebert would have simply dismissed the film rather than be inspired to declare the jihad that helped make it so famous.

In retrospect the most troubling part of Ebert’s review is his insistence that, “This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship,” since watching the film today clearly proves this not to be the case, but in the critic’s defense it is certainly likely that the film he saw and heard at a local theater in 1980 bears little resemblance to the film now available on DVD in 2007.  In the past few years we have seen a rise in once-dismissed or even actively abhorred films receive the benefit of a critical re-evaluation thanks largely to remastered DVD releases that present them in a new and entirely different light.  It is entirely possible that the film Ebert saw appeared to be poorly made, but the film available right now proves that initial appearances can be deceiving.

There is a reason I took the time and effort to format this post so that its screencaps could be enlarged with a mouse click and that is because many of them possess a deceptively simple beauty that I felt was ill served by presenting them at only 350x190 resolution.  The film possesses a unique look that at once seems dreamlike and verite-esque (is so a word)—as if Zarchi has made a fly-on-the-wall 70s documentary of a horrible nightmare.  Zarchi and his cinematographer Yuri Haviv (who also shot the genuinely artless Doris Wishman curiosity Double Agent 73) take full advantage of the natural settings of Kent, Connecticut, to create an arresting juxtaposition of savage inhumanity and lush green floral beauty.

But even if this were not the case, I believe Ebert is completely mistaken when he argues that, “Because [the film] is made artlessly, it flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.”  In fact, I would argue that the exact opposite is true—it is the perceived lack of artistry that actually proves that Zarchi’s motives were to invoke horror and empathy for his victim and not to titillate the sadists whose laughter and jokes caused Ebert to so passionately lash out.

The attack on Jennifer (starting from Andy and Stanley abducting her canoe and ending with the four rapists escaping from the lake house via their motor boat) lasts just a bit over 32 minutes, which is almost less than half as long as the “…hour of rape scenes…” Ebert describes, but still long enough to make it one of the most significantly extended rape sequences in film history.  For many it is this extended length that the film’s detractors point to as the clearest sign of Day of the Woman’s perceived misogyny—arguing that the film could have simply suggested the attack if it intentions were to enlighten rather than to arouse—but in reality the opposite is once again true.
Strangely, those offended by the sequence’s “artlessness” and extended length complain that it is ugly, unbearably sadistic and nearly impossible for a decent person to sit through, which is an extremely odd criticism when you consider that they are talking about—and please forgive me as I use a profanity to express myself—A FUCKING RAPE SCENE!  By its very definition rape is an ugly, sadistic crime that no decent person would be comfortably able to watch happen in front of them.  The rape scenes in Day of the Woman are disgusting because they were meant to be disgusting.  Zarchi’s intentions are clear, he wants you to feel sick as you watch what happens to Jennifer and if you don’t than that is a damning failure of your own soul, not his as a filmmaker.

Beyond its length, there are several other factors that make the sequence unique amongst its ilk.  The first is the unusual use of male nudity.  In most films involving rape, it is almost always only the victim who is seen naked, but in Day of the Woman, all but one of Jennifer’s four attackers strip down to nothing but their socks.  There is a reason male nudity is still extremely rare in movies, especially when compared to its female counterpart, and that’s because many people—both male and female—are repulsed by it.  In the majority of cinematic rape scenes, the filmmakers only show us genitalia we are hardwired to find arousing, thus making their sequences more potentially titillating than they would want to admit.  Zarchi avoids this trap by showing just as much of Johnny, Andy and Matthew’s bodies as he does as Jennifer’s.  This contributes significantly to the sense of disgust decent audiences feel when they watch the film.

But the aspect of the sequence that most significantly makes it stand out is its use of music—there is none.  With the exception of the scene where Jennifer puts on an opera record to drown out Johnny’s cries for help, there is no music in Day of the Woman.  More than anything else, this lack of a traditional score contributes to the film’s documentary-like feel—the absence of the expected emotional cues tricks us into thinking that what we are seeing is really happening and not a work of imagination.  This more than anything else is why I believe Ebert became convinced that Zarchi’s film was an “…expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures.”  Without a musical score to tell him what Zarchi wanted him to feel at that moment, it was easy for him to conclude that the filmmaker was in league with the sick fucks he was unfortunate enough to be sitting with in the theater.

To my eyes, Zarchi did everything he could to make the sequence as hard to watch as possible, with the sole exception of casting an unattractive woman as the victim (but even his decision to cast the beautiful Keaton--pictured here from a horror convention appearance she made at the age of 55--in the role is one that makes sense on both a thematic and narrative level).  And while I believe he did this out of a genuine desire to document the true horrors of sexual assault, the sequence’s brutality also serves the vital purpose of justifying Jennifer’s own remorseless brutality in the last half of the film.

In her brilliant defense of the film in her landmark book Men, Women and Chainsaws (perhaps the most often cited text in the history of this blog), Carol J. Clover points out that Roger Ebert never mentions how the twisted souls who laughed at Jennifer’s suffering reacted when she turned against her attackers in the most violent ways possible.  Did they laugh when she cut off Johnny’s penis or hung the pathetic Matthew?  They might have, but my guess is that they didn’t.

More than anything else, the reason my gut reaction to Day of the Woman is to call it a work of overt feminist propaganda is the fact that the only sequences where I feel Zarchi does take some sadistic delight are the ones where Jennifer kills hers attackers.  Unlike the rape sequence, which he made as ugly as possible, the three sequences where she gets her revenge are far more aesthetically pleasing and—at times—oddly and disturbingly beautiful.

The major criticism of these sequences has always been that Jennifer uses her sexuality in order to commit her murders, suggesting that as a woman she has no other weapons in her arsenal.  My argument against this is that Jennifer is presented as being a smart, worldly young woman and she is canny enough to realize that seducing her victims before killing them allows her to get closer to them and make them suffer that much more than if she merely attacked them from a distance.   And in the case of Matthew, her seduction not only allows her to disarm him and put him in a position where she can slip her waiting noose around his neck, but also justify her unwillingness to spare him despite his unfortunate condition and personal predicament.  By allowing him to do to her what he originally couldn’t, she turns him into a man, which makes him no longer an object of pity, but rather one of deserved scorn. 
In other words, she has to fuck him so she can kill him.

In the sequence with Johnny, Jennifer proves her status as the most powerful of the two by first wordlessly convincing him to get into her car and then pretending to be swayed by his ridiculously chauvinistic defense of his crime against her, so she can put him in position to be robbed of the one thing he cares about most.  Without even really trying she is able to expertly exploit his delusional narcissism and get him into that bathtub where a very sharp knife is waiting for her beneath a nearby towel.

Interestingly, in these two sequences Zarchi uses female nudity in the exact opposite way he did male nudity during the rape sequence.  Unlike the scenes featuring her assault, Zarchi wants us to enjoy watching Matthew and Johnny suffer, so he uses Camille Keaton’s body to provide the titillation he previously worked so hard to avoid.  Her beauty distracts us from the ugliness of her actions, which might otherwise cause us to cease to empathize with her.  Thus his apparent exploitation actually serves as an example of his feminist intent.  By emphasizing her beauty in these moments he proves his allegiance to her and makes it obvious that he considers her actions just.

At this point I still have a lot more I could say about Day of the Woman (I haven’t even touched on the secondary theme of the conflict between urban and rural culture or the strange fact that in criticizing the film some feminist academic reviewers express sentiments nearly identical to that of the uber-chauvinist, Johnny) but this entry is now awfully close to being 7000 words long and I think it’s time for me to stop and get this sucker posted.  That I, or anyone else for that matter, could be inspired to write at such length about this film goes a long way to negating the sentiments of those who would dismiss it as just another example of low-budget exploitation filmmaking that happened to become infamous because of one vitriolic review from a nationally-recognized film critic.  In my introduction I suggested that Day of the Woman/I Spit on Your Grave was a film that is impossible to recommend, but having reached the end of this post, I feel duty bound to contradict myself—see this movie.  The most-recent DVD release of the film, which not only contains the best visual and audible example of the film to date, also contains two extremely interesting audio commentary tracks by Meir Zarchi (who gave no interviews about the film for over 20 years following its release) and by genre critic and historian John Bloom (aka Joe Bob Briggs) and is one of those rare special editions that is truly special and is a must have in the collection of any serious cineaste—genre or otherwise.