Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not just a movie: Film Review of "The Last House on the Left" (2009)

Ok, so I saw that we could do slasher films and I chose to do Dennis Iliadis’s remake of “The Last House on the Left.” I have to admit that I have not seen Wes Craven’s original which would make for an interesting comparative response. Regardless, I think there is something to be said about the horror/slasher genre in general and this movie specifically. The horror genre is a certainly a site for constructions of masculinity as Jackson Katz touched on in “Tough Guise.” I remember hearing confirmation of some patterns I have discovered in my own fieldwork. The victim is usually (but not always) a female but not just any female, she embodies the feminine ideal. This is a strategic move because of the practice of victim eroticism, or sexifying (my word :) the victim and then killing her. Katz points move out, saying that this is why young men are turned on by sexual violence; they are conditioned. It arguably contributes to the high numbers of sexual assault and rape. This is a conventional Hollywood tactic and it becomes internalized in our culture perpetuating masculine dominance over others in violent ways. So much of typical masculinity is marked as aggression and heterosexuality it is no wonder the two get mixed up together. Like Tarentino says, “sex and violence are like peanut butter and chocolate; two great tastes that taste great together.” As much as I adore Tarentino, and argue that he is sympathetic to feminism, I am disgusted by this logic that he points out. It’s sad because it’s true. And, to borrow from Gloria Steinem’s logic, it is not true because it is so, it is true because we have made it so. But, to me this isn’t a reason to stop watching horror movies, but it is a reason to engage them and deconstruct them to see what’s going on behind these images. Sut Jhally remarks in his documentary on the WWE, Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying and Battering, “Anything that’s popular reveals something larger about our society, about its deep seeded values, the morality that underpins it.”

In the remake of “The Last House on the Left” Iliadis mixes some of these signs of victim eroticism in an attempt to highlight the very real epidemic (or even pandemic) of sexual violence. The problem is that we can’t control how people will receive the images we create and there is always the potential of reinscribing sexual violence even when attempting to expose it. At one point, the antagonist, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) explicitly tells his son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) to “be a man” by forcing him to fondle a woman’s breasts against her will. To most of us it seems clear that this is so clearly not what being a man entails. However, in the process of deconstructing hegemonic masculinity as we have done in this class, I find that this is actually closer to what we are taught makes a “real man.” Control, competition, domination, aggression, heterosexuality and violence. So, I find it very possible that some men watching this movie might actually identify with the antagonist which I find terribly disturbing. I also understand the prevalence of rape myths in a rape culture that makes victim blaming difficult to escape. The girls put themselves in what most of us might qualify as a “compromising” situation and I fear that some viewers of this movie might resort to certain rape myths because of this fact. In recognizing this harmful potential I so badly wanted there to be a disclaimer in the form of Ravarino’s comment that “Nothing women do—and I mean absolutely nothing—warrants sexual violence or domestic assault” (MSO, Ravarino, 266).

The last point that I feel compelled to bring up is in the spirit of Hastings’ article “Violation” which makes a few points abundantly clear: a) there are few resources to help families and friends of sexual violence victims and survivors b) usually this means resorting to violence as the illusion of “retributive justice” c) there is no justice in cases of sexual violence. I have mentioned the first two points in class discussion and the last point in a reply to Ross’s post on gendering violence and I will unpack them here a little further. There really are so few blameless resources to help survivors of sexual violence and few to no resources that I am aware of to help families and friends of survivors (or victims that were killed in the process). This is a problem that leads to other problems, namely lacking an outlet to express these feelings of anger helplessness and pain in a healthy way that promotes healing. It is disturbingly common for men particularly to let these feelings manifest themselves in the form of violent revenge. Yet, as “The Count of Monte Cristo” will tell us, in the words of Lisa Simpson, “Don’t you see dad? The moral is that revenge can make you as bad as the person who harms you.” Revenge and violence are not synonymous with justice. Justice to me means that the act would never have occurred in the first place. So, for those who have seen the movie: I wonder how many of us would do the same, or if this is impossible to answer without being in the situation.

Honestly, I do not think everyone should see this movie. It is excruciating and at times torturous to watch. I had conflicting feelings the entire time and I still have not entirely made my mind up as to whether or not it was genuinely sympathetic to sexual violence or simply exploiting sexual violence in a particular genre to sell tickets. After all, the point of horror is to scare people, no? And the best ways to scare people are to confront them with real life possibilities like Freddy Kruger in “Nightmare on Elm Street” (also directed by Wes Craven). That movie was scary because everyone has to sleep at some point and that’s when he gets you. Maybe one of the things that made this movie so scary is the open secret of rape statistics in this country. The Wes Craven 1972 original tagline, as told on imdb, is “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It's only a movie...It's only a movie...’” Oh, If only this were true.


Zen Lien said...

I am happy someone did a review on a slasher film, as I too am a fan as well. In fact as a film student, if I wasn't planning on making documentaries, I would make horror films. My love for them has always produced some guilt as I don't enjoy watching women or anyone get murdered, yet somehow I can't get enough of these movies. In my experience, many horror filmmakers claim the reason for their films is to allow an outlet for people's fears. They are also commentary on whatever is happening in society. The problem is, like many other forms of entertainment, is that no one has a dialogue about it. So these images are no longer art imitating life but vice-versa.

I saw this remake about a month ago. I honestly had a similar reaction. That Tarantino quote was perfect. Even further more because even the strong female characters in his movies are often fueled by their revenge. Which could be construed as a masculine act. While Krug was pushing his son to "be a man" and treat the women horribly, he is also portrayed as a villain, therefore hopefully the audience understand his behaviors as wrong as well.
**I may be spoiling this for those who haven't seen it**
The issues I had with this movie was how the female protagonist's parents dealt with everything. It is one thing to protect your family in any way you can but the retaliation by torturing the person who hurt your family is a little different. When it comes to violence and rape there definitely should be better options. "There really are so few blameless resources to help survivors of sexual violence and few to no resources that I am aware of to help families and friends of survivors (or victims that were killed in the process)." Maybe the movie was trying to prove this point or at least ask the question, how could this be dealt with better? I completely sympathized with the parents until the very end when Krug met his demise in a most unpleasant fashion. I think you chose a movie that, in a much more intense way, represented the feelings in the "Violation". The choice they all felt was to sit back and live with their rage or make the violators pay. Unfortunately this vigilante form of justice undermines the power that the law should be using to protect victims and punish abusers and rapists. There is obviously something wrong if people think the best way to handle things is with an eye for an eye mentality. How can we stop a cycle of violence if we use it as retribution?

Sara N said...

Thank you for your reply! It was a challenge to do this film review without giving anything away.

Thank you for the insight: "In my experience, many horror filmmakers claim the reason for their films is to allow an outlet for people's fears." If this is true, then I understand the ending to this movie as an outlet for not only people's fears, but their desires as well. However, it is much more complicated than simply life imitating art OR art imitating life. The media and society have a reciprocal relationship and this is a complex and ongoing process. Ultimately the meaning is what we make of it, and this meaning depends partialy on how things are represented in the media.

I think this movie represented, or stood in for, dominant ideas of "justice." These ideas are, in part, created by media representations of retribution and perpetuated by society. But retribution is not justice.

Justice (with a capital J) is not a doing, but a state of being. Justice is a by product of a society comprised of just individuals. In the end, nothing these people did to their daughter's attackers can make up for/undo that she was raped. There is no justice to be "done" in this situation. The true Justice would be a world where it never happened in the first place. But that is just my practical idealism, and Gandhi will tell us this can not translate into practice.