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Vigilantes of the Bourgeoisie

Why would I go see a violent horror film like The Last House on the Left? Mostly because it’s not so much a horror film as it is a revenge narrative, and it’s always interesting to see what the vigilantes are up to in American cinema. Of course, for the first hour or so you’d never know that The Last House on the Left is a revenge film since it is entirely focused on a young virginal white girl (appropriately named Mari) who has a run in with some “very bad people” who eventually beat and rape her for us to witness. As in the original Wes Craven film (1972), the 2009 version is not just any revenge narrative, but a rape revenge narrative in which a cultured bourgeois white family’s (the Collingwoods) sense of order and peace is disrupted by the brutal rape of their virgin daughter. The Collingwoods’ codes of civility rapidly disintegrate when the mother and father find the beaten and violated body of their daughter on the vacation home porch, and the rest of the film follows Mom and Dad as they take matters into their own hands and reap revenge on the bad guys. Where exactly this movie stands on the political scale is certainly questionable, but it is always interesting to consider these kinds of brutally primitive cinematic allegories and what they are saying about the current state of things.

Judging by the State of Things in this movie, I’d say that the highly cultured bourgeoisie with their summer homes and their leisurely vacations feels presently under siege by the rough trade lower classes lurking outside their door and reminding them that that veneer of civility can all come down in a flash given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances. Doctorate degrees and fancy wine glasses aside, when the Collingwoods discover their daughter has been violated, they become as relentlessly violent as the assailants who brutalized her. In fact, they use the very symbols of their domestic stability to perform some extremely gruesome acts of revenge. As the blood is shed, the sham of their civility is reduced to a gory wreck of carnage and viscera.

When the Very Bad Guys first enter the Collingwoods’ home, Sadie (the Bad Girl component of the Bad Guys) comments about how nice and “clean” and “perfect” the kitchen is. Indeed, the kitchen is the locus of the Collingwood’s domesticity. The clean perfect kitchen is the ultimate symbol of comfort and stability. This is where food comes from, where families bond through ritual meals, where bourgeois comforts coalesce in the conglomeration of household appliances and fine foods. In fact, while their daughter Mari is being brutally beaten and raped in the woods across the lake, her parents are enjoying a fine meal prepared in their perfectly clean kitchen. They sip wine, toss salad, and make toasts, while Mary’s body is being shoved into the dirt and befouled by the Rough Trade who aren’t supposed to exist in the Collingwood’s insulated world of bourgeois comfort.  But the Collingwood’s pristine domestic space soon disintegrates as it becomes an abattoir of gore when they seek revenge on Bad.

It’s actually kind of fun watching the transformation of Emma Collingwood (Mari’s mother) as she changes from well-mannered woman in white into blood-soaked maniacal vengeance demon. Standing in her kitchen (the center of domesticity and maternity), Emma uses the very tools of her bourgeois comfort as weapons to attack her daughter’s white trash assailants.  She literally whacks the beer-guzzling Giles with her White Wine Culture when she smacks him in the back of the head with a wine bottle. She then shoves his head in the kitchen sink, attempting to drown his filthy head in her clean soapy water. When that doesn’t work she flips on the garbage disposal and tries to kill him by chopping him up and disposing of him like the “trash” that he is. Yes indeed, it is the Bourgeoisie against the White Trash battling in Mary’s pristine kitchen which at this point is covered with blood, gore, broken glass, and a lot of spilt wine. When Giles still fails to die, Ellen picks up the tools of the working class to do the final job. She plants a hammer in the back of his head, and now you can add brain matter to rest of the mess in the kitchen. Yes, Emma could not kill Giles until she stripped herself of her class comforts completely and assaulted him with a simple hand tool. The camera lingers on this scene with Emma standing in the middle of the kitchen. Her once white blouse is covered with Giles’ blood, and her pure domestic space is soaked with the gore of primal violence.  Goodbye sham of bourgeois stability.

There really is nothing more primal than a mother avenging the hurt of her young. This brings us to the virgin Mari. What about Mari? The film opens with Mari swimming in a pool, her lithe young body slipping effortlessly through water (the clean, the pure, the feminine). The camera then lingers on Mari’s body in all its many guises: Mari pulling on some shorts and slowly zipping them up, Mari putting on a bra, Mari removing her clothes and diving into the lake in her underwear, Mari bending over and revealing the long stretch of her legs connecting to her ass. From the outset of the film, Mari is presented to us as the object of desire. She is eroticized for her purity, and the camera forces us to participate in her eroticization. It fills the screen with her breasts pushing out from under her bra, the smooth flesh of her belly as her nimble fingers work the zipper on her shorts. She is self-consciously presented to us for our consumption, and we consume her hungrily.

The camera’s continued focus on Mari’s body as a kind of sacrificial erotic object makes the brutal rape of her even more disturbing and uncomfortable. We’ve gobbled up her flesh with our eyes. We’ve watched her dress and undress. We’ve witnessed the pristine glean of her virginal skin. So when we participate in its corruption, we feel as dirty as Mari becomes by the crime committed on the screen. When the Very Bad Guy Krug tries to force his son Justin to rape Mari, it mirrors the camera’s role in forcing the audience to be complicit in the act, and ultimately cinema’s role in raping women (literally or metaphorically) for the audience’s pleasure. The scene where Mari and her friend Paige are brutalized by the gang of Bad Guys completely exploits all the exploitation of women in cinema throughout history. It is egregiously overt as the camera hones in on close-ups of their suffering. Their faces are punched, their guts kicked, their bodies shot like so much wild game. This truly is horrific. Their tormented faces fill the screen and look out at us, asking us why we are watching this. When Mari is eventually raped, the camera closes in on her face staring straight out into the audience. Her eyes bore in on us and demand we question our role in this act of violence. After the rape, Mari sits up and fills the entire screen with her violated, dirt and blood-streaked body, and she quietly stares out at us in still silence. The camera extends its focus on that still image of the violated female body long enough to make the audience uncomfortable.

So we endure this extremely violent scene, and we have to ask ourselves to what end does something like this exist? How can you justify the existence of a 45 minute cinematic brutalization of the female body? The Last House on the Left follows what is called a Rape Revenge Narrative, and after experiencing the brutality of the crime, we should be relieved of our complicity by then taking part in revenge against the violators. Traditionally, Rape Revenge Narratives involve the eventual castration of the rapist. In the original The Last House on the Left, Mari is killed by her rapist, and the parents seek revenge. In the notorious castration scene, Mari’s mother offers to give the rapist a blow-job and then bites of his penis in the ultimate act of revenge. In I Spit on Your Grave (1978), the main character Jennife seduces one of her perpetrators into taking a bath with her and then cuts off his penis with a carving knife. The castration scene is critical to justifying the rape revenge narrative. We have to witness and experience the crime and then eradicate the crime by excising the possibility of it occurring again and the potential for us to participate in such egregious violence. By castrating the rapists in these films, we are also castrating the cinematic conventions that participate in the violent pornographic exploitation of the female body. The castration scene validates these films’ existence.

There is one huge problem with the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left. There is no castration scene. Sure the film follows the classic home invasion and horror revenge narrative in which bourgeois comforts are violated by outside forces which must be avenged (e.g. Cape Fear and Funny Games). But if a horror revenge narrative centers on a rape as the symbol of violation, then the rape needs to be avenged on its own terms. Sure, the Collingwoods perform all the right functions in regards to using the tools of their domestic stability to bring down their daughter’s violators, but they never actually avenge the rape itself.  In fact, by the end of the movie, the story becomes a man-on-man, father-on-father battle as the Bad Dad Krug and the Good Dad John are pitted against each other. Mari’s body is left off screen while the mother fumbles around the house for keys. So does the father-on-father battle become the replacement castration scene? When the Good Dad John uses a microwave oven to kill Bad Dad Krug, does that become the substitute castration scene? Does it take a father to use a symbol of domestic comfort (a household appliance) to “break the cycle” of violence by killing the Bad Dad who encourages his son to participate in the rape of an innocent girl? Is the film ultimately saying that men have to be responsible for their own castration? It would be nice to read it that way, but I think that’s pushing it. I think that the filmmaker Dennis Illiadis didn’t understand the importance of the castration scene.

This brings me to the class component of the film. Rape revenge narratives traditionally rely on class divisions to create tension. They become a sort of “us” against “them” narrative in which the educated cultured bourgeoisie is violated by the most primal act of violation (rape) by lower uneducated “trash.” This plays out in films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978), where a writer is raped by rural trash, and Deliverance (1972), where a young educated white guy is raped by “hillbilly” trash. At their best, these films break down the division between classes by showing that both sides can be reduced to their primal nature and be equally brutal and “animalistic” given the right set of circumstances. Playing the bourgeoisie against the trash reveals the ultimate trash at the core of the bourgeoisie. In a way, they’re pretty bleak narratives that show humanity as a kind of Darwinian Wild Animal Kingdom where, when we strip ourselves from the veneer of material comforts, we become nothing more than blood thirsty animals with a hunger for violence and revenge and who will do anything to protect what’s “theirs.” At their best, these kinds of films can interrogate class structures that create derogatory divisions like “white trash.” At their worst, they can perpetuate the vilification of poor white people. Even though they expose the cultured class for being as capable of primal violence as anyone else, ultimately the “bad guys” remain the lower classes. It takes a hell of a lot of conscious thinking to move beyond the surface class narrative of a film like The Last House on the Left, and quite honestly I don’t think the average person is thinking about class nuances when they’re watching a movie like this. It’s also important to note that in both the 1972 and 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, it is the lower class friend of Mari who leads the girls to the bad guys by trying to score some weed. Mari is lured into danger and defiled by her relationship with the lower class.

The other thing that is questionable in the rape revenge narrative is the role of homosexuality. Why is it always the homosexual sex act that is seen as the most debasing and as the main signifier of the “sick criminal mind”? In the original The Last House on the Left, the bad guys force the two girls to have sex together as the ultimate act of violation. In the remake, the bad girl Sadie is signified as “really bad” by her homosexual impulses. She is shown fondling Mari as an act of torment, and she participates in the rape by holding Mari’s legs down and goading Kruge.  In Deliverance, the homosexual rape scene is the ultimate deviant crime. It’s also interesting how these films group the “lower class” with “homosexual deviance” as if homosexuality itself is a class signifier that puts people on the bottom rung of the class ladder.

I like to watch movies like The Last House on the Left because I’m interested in what kinds of messages they are delivering on a broad social scale. Movies function as Ideology Delivery Systems.  People watch movies. They affect the audience. I watched this movie, and I asked myself what it is saying with its completely brutal portrayal of white America.  Because the film operates in a kind of cinematic anarchy, it forces us to ask questions. The film is set in the wilderness, outside of all social order. The police are killed early on, so there is no law. The bad guys come from nowhere with no environmental signifiers. So the movie is reduced to a set of generic elements that battle each other. It’s a kind of Good Family versus Bad Family narrative that shows a savage world where there is no room for illusions like “domestic stability” and “happy family.” There is no good, no bad, just a fight for survival. Is this film addressing the increased American anxiety about “losing everything” and being reduced to brute animals to survive (e.g. becoming poor white killers)? Does it interrogate the fallacy of the domestic space? Or does it just offer some temporary relief where we can whack a hammer in the head of the bad guys who are threatening to invade our homes?

I think the film does a little of all these things, but I also think that the filmmaker didn’t understand the gender and class nuances of the genre in which he was operating, so they don’t really effectively gel into a cohesive position. It’s like he knew what the pieces of the puzzle were to make a home invasion/rape revenge horror film, but he didn’t understand how to make those pieces reflect on each other in a way that provides some kind of salient critique of the systems its pandering in. The original film was self-reflexive and even parodied itself and the stereotypes that it was engaging with. The remake has no self-reflexivity. It just shows the actions, and all the self-reflexivity is left with the audience. I’m just wondering how the audience is ultimately reflecting on its participation in the brutal rape of a young girl and her family’s revenge against her violators.  My guess is that most are not doing much reflecting but just watching and experiencing, for what that’s worth.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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