'Revenge' Finds New Power, and Lots of Blood, in Sleazy Exploitation Subgenre

Few horror subgenres are as formalized as the rape-revenge thriller. The formula is simple: woman is raped and left for dead, she recovers, she gets revenge. 1978's I Spit on Your Grave is both representative of the template and characteristic of its most common expression: as exploitation fare, with sadistic titillation as essential to its appeal as the victim's vengeful reckoning.

Unlike slasher movies, that other highly formulaic horror subgenre, in which teenagers are punished for their lust and reefer, the rape-revenge thriller isn't inherently conservative in its moralizing. Instead, rape-revenge thrillers pose as cathartic enactments of justice, simultaneously celebrating and condemning the sexual exploitation of women. For this reason, the rape-revenge thriller can be occasionally spun or presented as a parable of female empowerment, situating the viewer in the vengeful woman's perspective. This is frequently undermined by either indulging in lengthy and graphic depictions of rape, or by denying its woman protagonist direct access to violence, instead offloading the revenge to a husband or father, as in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left.

Exceptions—like Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, which takes revenge not just on the rapist, but every facet of the patriarchy—are rare.

And now there's Revenge.

Directed by French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, Revenge introduces Jen (Matilda Lutz) as a familiar type: the sexy baby, slurping on a lollipop. She has more gawking close-ups of her body than lines. Richard (Kevin Janssens) has helicoptered her out to a richly appointed glass house in the middle of a desert for a private rendezvous before his annual hunting trip with Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). She parties late into the night with them, dancing and drinking as cutaways to pro wrestling on the television remind us the men are jockeying for her attention. It's an opening with the overt sexuality of a beer commercial.

The next morning, sober and frustrated, arguing a night of dancing is tantamount to a promise, Stan rapes Jen. Rather than leering with him, the typical rape-revenge move, Fargeat instead turns the camera on Dimitri, who is offered a chance to intervene from the doorway. He does not. After, Richard reconciles with Stan as if her rape was a misunderstanding between friends. But Jen isn't so forgiving, so they throw her off a cliff.

In the beginning, Revenge chases its genre model a little too closely, depicting well-trod plot beats so closely it risks sliding from archetype to rough sketch. The men, her enemies, are both goonish ("peachy ass, it's like a little alien coming from another planet," one says) and embodiments of masculine privilege, flashing business cards for their work at the generically powerful "European Capital." Since they're destined to be reduced to ground meat, there's no real need to develop them beyond well-drawn caricatures. But when Jen talks, maybe to share her desire to move to L.A., where "everything is possible," it's to suggest she's not yet fully formed, a bundle of potential energy bounced between men. All becomes equal when the blood starts squirting, but without knowing who Jen was before her transformation into an avatar of feminine wrath, Revenge misses the opportunity to further subvert its subgenre's conventions.

(I've also got some complaints with the early 2000s music video style and dull neon color palette, which sometimes reminded me a little too much of Tony Scott's Domino, but let's just get to the violence already.)

What happens next is expected—a roaring rampage of revenge, with each of the three hunters confronted like a video game boss—but Fargeat has some fun tricks to deploy. Most notably: lots of gore. Revenge is very much in the spirit of the French Extreme Wave movies like Martyr, High Tension and Inside. Martyrs, in particular, treated the painful mutability of the human body as a revelation in itself. There's conviction behind it. Gore becomes the theme, in a surprising reversal from the gore economy built by 80s American horror like Re-Animator, Bad Taste, Evil Dead II and the decade's countless slashers, each of which treated the body more like a playground for ever more absurd kills than a real point of suffering.

Revenge operates in a contradictory space, somewhere between serious and comically extravagant. The violence in Revenge isn't at all realistic, which takes out some of the sting, but its gratuitousness becomes transformational. When Stan is covered in blood, limping and wincing, he is mutated into the monster he already is inside, his internal damage expressed in his physical condition at last.

Of course, the most radical transformation is reserved for Jen. After a fun, farfetched (how does fire work again?) escape from the tree on which she's been impaled, Jen retreats into a desert cave to conduct some self-surgery, tearing out the wooden phallus projecting from her gut with the help of some pain-killing peyote. There are visions of rot and flying, plus a couple fake-out scares, as Jen trips the cactus fantastic and transforms herself into a killing machine.

The poster for "Revenge." Neon / Shudder

The revenge that follows isn't so much a subversion or deconstruction of the rape-revenge formula. It is, instead, the heightened embodiment of the slim silver linings feminist critiques have found in the genre. As in many rape-revenge thrillers, Jen's outfit becomes even skimpier for the revenge, but this time as an assertion of self-possession, rather than the trope's typical role in maintaining the movie's salaciousness from both ends (offering its audience both ravaged innocence and alluring dominance).

The last stand-off in particular—shotgun, naked man, saran wrap—accomplishes what other rape-revenge thrillers don't, dramatically illustrating what Fargeat has to offer the subgenre that male directors do not. Amidst new gallons of (slippery!) blood and a twisted Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd energy, Revenge ends with all the punch of a knife in the eye.

Revenge opens in theaters and on demand May 11.