Saturday, 7 December 2013

How is the family represented in American horror films of the 1970s? Part 3

I have decided to post my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s in full over a series of posts. I hope that one day it may be of some vague use to someone somewhere somehow.

Part 1 of my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s is here. Part 2 on the monstrous families of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes is here. Now for part 3 on those charming rape-revenge films of the 1970s.

Part 3: The Rape-Revenge Films

‘Out there, in the woods and on the placid lakes, there is danger from the “locals.”’ (Muir, 2002, p.543)

Wes Craven’s two major films of the 1970s, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972) are both severe critiques of the bourgeois family. As a result they share some thematic elements. The “locals” in The Last House on the Left (1972) are not the ‘monstrous’ proletariat however. Instead they are the vengeful bourgeois parents of a raped and murdered virgin. On the other hand, in Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) the “locals” are a small group of men who gang-rape and nearly kill an independent woman from the city. However the horror, Barbara Creed and Robin Wood respectively argue, stems from the figure of the ‘femme castratrice’, and the repression of female sexuality, not the local men.


Williams (1996, p.138) argues that in Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) ‘The Collingwood family live in the American Dream’s self-deceptive image; it contains disturbing contradictions they choose to ignore.’ The tranquillity and peace of the rural area in which they live is emphasised from the very first shot of the ducks on the lake. This peacefulness of nature is emphasised throughout the film but then when Mrs Collingwood asks her husband about ‘the outside world’, he says it is full of ‘murder and mayhem’. Similarly, Mari is going to see a band called ‘Bloodlust’ who dismember chickens. She does not care about the chickens and instead fantasises about ‘making it’ with ‘Bloodlust’ in cotton wool. Another contradiction is demonstrated when the Stillo family point out that ‘people in China eat with sticks’ while these supposedly civilised people have an abundance of silverware.

Williams (1996, p.139) also argues that ‘The Collingwood family repress the violence and sexuality excessively seen in the Stillos.’ This is clearly demonstrated when Mr Collingwood tells his wife he wants to attack her. This leads to a small kiss, not a full violent and sexual attack, like the one that befalls Mari and Phyliss. Mrs Collingwood is shown as hypocritical as she and the father comment on Mari’s lack of a bra. Mari counters that her mother would have worn bras that made her breasts look like ‘torpedoes’ in her day. Mr Collingwood stresses that her nipples can be seen through her top as he is trying to repress his daughter’s sexuality. However Mari says to her friend that because of her breasts filling out, ‘she feels like a woman for the first time’. Another example of how the bourgeois family repress violent tendencies is in the scene in which Mr Collingwood has to go down into the basement, a common filmic representation of the unconscious mind, in order to find the weapons that he will use to kill the Stillos.

Muir (2002, p.212) points out that ‘The two families… are paralleled throughout the film to suggest that they have more in common than first meets the eye.’ This is done mostly through the crosscutting between the two families. This technique is first used when the Stillo family are tormenting the two girls and alternatively the Collingwoods are preparing for the celebration of Mari’s sixteenth birthday. This is possibly meant to be a glimpse into the future where the Stillo’s actions cause the Collingwood parents to prepare traps for their daughter’s killers. The fathers of both families are trying to control their children, Mr Collingwood by commenting on Mari’s lack of a bra, and Krug by keeping his son addicted to drugs. Having Mari and Sadie both first appear in a bathroom also connects the families, as does the inclusion of close-ups of the family cat and the family dog belonging to the Stillos and the Collingwoods respectively. Also the families are both represented as capable of showing guilt, as the close ups of the Stillo family’s faces and the blood on their hands after they rape Mari shows. They are clearly sickened by themselves and wash the blood off themselves soon after. This is linked to the final shot of the Collingwoods as they sit together covered in blood and the policeman pulls the chainsaw from Mr Collingwood’s hands. Mari and Junior are also paralleled as Mari vomits after being raped. Junior later vomits, though whether this is because of withdrawals or from guilt is unclear. However the fact that as his head lifts after vomiting, Mrs Collingwood sees the peace symbol around his neck, and also his eventual suicide, suggests that it may be his guilt that is making him sick.


The bourgeois family is not the only institution that is criticised in the film however. The police are represented as useless idiots with no real authority and are ridiculed throughout the film. They are shown playing games when they could be searching for Mari, they take no notice of the Stillo’s abandoned car, they wish they were not police officers and they arrive just in time to witness the end of the parents revenge but not stop it. The final shot where the cop takes the chainsaw from Mr Collingwood indicates that the police can take away weapons but they cannot stop people having violent impulses.

Nevertheless the film seems to take a reactionary view of feminism. The independent young girls are trying to buy drugs in the middle of the night when they are captured and the reason that the Stillos are after the girls is blamed on Sadie who wants ‘a couple more chicks around’ because of reading ‘women’s lib. magazines’. Mrs Collingwood is also represented as a castrating mother figure as she bites off Weasel’s penis during oral sex.

In Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) the independent woman is positioned in opposition to the traditional family and the role of women that it promotes. This positioning is shown most clearly in the scene where Jennifer, the independent woman, watches from a distance the family of the man who she is planning to castrate. Another example is when she first arrives at the house she will be staying at. The house looks large and imposing and instead of choosing to go inside and look around, Jennifer takes all her clothes off and swims in the river. This signifies that she is an independent, liberated woman and not confined to the home with a traditional female family role. In addition to this, Jennifer is represented as vulnerable because she lives alone and therefore seems frightened when she hears noises in the night.


Creed (1993, p.129) argues it is the independent woman who is the monster in this film as she is the ‘femme castratrice’ who is ‘monstrous because she castrates, or kills, the male during coition’. This is represented by the scenes of Jennifer’s revenge, where in two of the four cases she gets the men aroused and then hangs the retarded one and castrates the family man.

However, the film is not wholly reactionary as the house is also used as a symbol of female subordination in relation to the family. The third rape in the film occurs in the house where Stanley is extremely violent towards Jennifer by beating her before he rapes her. This can be read as a comment on domestic violence as one of the men says ‘you wanted total submission’ and the men do not beat Jennifer outside of the house. It seems to suggest that independent women are not the only victims of violence and rape, and that it can also just as easily happen in the family home.


Robin Wood (1984, p.167) notes in ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’ that the genre often contains ‘severe repression of female sexuality/creativity’. In the opening scenes of the film, Jennifer is dressed in a red dress and wears make-up. The red signifies the danger she represents to the ‘locals’, men who are not used to seeing independent women from the city. Immediately, Johnny, the rapist and family man, watches her suspiciously as she gets out of her car to stretch her legs. He is clearly threatened by her sexuality as he talks to her and looks at her legs. She even calls herself an ‘evil New Yorker’ to the retarded rapist Matthew as he says she is from ‘an evil place’. When Johnny is begging for his life he blames Jennifer for arousing the men, commenting on the fact that Matthew could see ‘tits with no bra’ when she answered the door to him.

Female creativity is also clearly repressed in the film in two scenes. Firstly when Jennifer is in her hammock trying to write, the voiceover tells the viewer what she is thinking and writing. The voiceover is then drowned out by the noise of the approaching motorboat with the two men in it and her creativity and thought is stopped by the noisy interruption. Then when the men are attacking her in her home, they read and laugh at her writing, before tearing the pages up.


The only family in the film are Johnny’s, who has a wife and two children. The family is represented as the victim of the independent woman’s killing spree. The wife and children are only glimpsed in the film before Johnny’s castration and subsequent death. Afterwards they are seen waiting for him to return and fretting about his safety. Johnny, the family man, is the only victim of Jennifer’s revenge that gets to share his point-of-view with her and therefore the spectator. As he begs for his life he says ‘you can’t do this to me, I’ve got a family’, before later revealing that ‘you get used to a wife’ and that is why he raped Jennifer. The character of Johnny criticises the family as oppressive for men, saying, ‘whether he’s married or not, a man is just a man’ and his wife even calls him ‘a good father and a good husband’, but this is probably because she thinks ‘he’s loyal’, an obvious mistake. Johnny grins as the attack on Jennifer begins while the other men look on with concerned expressions. This suggests marriage and family life have made man even more antagonistic towards women.

On the other hand, the men without families are represented as wild animals as they run through the woods making animal noises like a primitive mating call and chasing Jennifer. They are also to blame for Johnny’s disappearance in the eyes of his wife as she thinks they are the ones who have influenced her husband and got him into trouble. Unfortunately she is mistaken in her loyalty to him, as her husband is the obvious ringleader of the group.



I Spit On Your Grave (1978) therefore maintains a disturbingly reactionary view of independent women in opposition to the woman in the family unit. However it could be argued there are some progressive elements in the film. Overall both films are reactionary in that they present violent sexual threats to independent liberated women. However Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) also has a progressive representation of the bourgeois family as a site of repression and the parents as hypocritical authority figures.

Back to part 2 on Monstrous Families. 
Part 4 on Monstrous children is here.
Part 5 on Monstrous Parents is here.
Part 6 on my conclusions is here.

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