What to make of this film? On the one hand it’s haphazard, irresponsible and vile while on the other it’s all of these things that cement this as a leading example of a filmmaking ideology that was key in the 1970s. I know it’s terribly wrong and yet I also know it’s absolutely fascinating. Low budget and aimed firmly at the gut, the film is an obvious remaking of The Virgin Spring, but any element of subtlety and restraint Bergman might have used is violently stripped away here (and The Virgin Spring isn’t very subtle to begin with).
The first half of the film sets up most of the major representational problems. We meet the virginal yet ‘newly blossomed’ young woman and her liberal parents. She’s going to a rock concert in the city and she’s not wearing a bra. She discusses this with her parents. A while later when she meets her friend she discusses her breasts yet again. Breasts are an important thing to her it would seem. And to us too because as the girls meet their horrible and supremely absurd fate the ‘sadistic sexual voyeurism’ dial is turned up to 11. This is obviously the key issue the film has. It’s little surprise it was banned, cut and generally shunted to the sidelines when it first showed up on the scene.
The kidnap, humiliation and subsequent murder of the two girls is paraded in front of the audience with no distinction drawn between the base titillation of naked flesh and the supposed scenario which is unfolding; that of rape and butchery. There is nothing self-reflexive at work here. The murderers’ wishes to sexually humiliate the girls are passed straight on to the audience. It’s a horrible thing to have happen in real life but it’s pretty riveting up there on the silver screen. Craven’s camera does shoot around certain elements in an attempt to escape the worst excesses of voyeurism (or perhaps to just mask the limited budget) but it still peers on quite relentlessly. It’s telling that during the editing process even Craven realised he had gone too far and started cutting stuff out himself before bringing it to the MPAA (who, unsurprisingly, demanded a myriad more cuts).
But really what’s most problematic is not so much the scenes of sexualised sadism but rather how those scenes are then intercut with keystone cops level humour and forehead-slappingly inept dialogue elsewhere. These scenes are meant to humanise the characters, alert the audience to the innocence that will soon be corrupted and also, in the case of the cops, presumably offer some slight relief to the main story. The balance seems all wrong and the results seem to bounce between total absurdity and the rather startlingly nasty. Relentlessly vicious cinema can be taken simply as a bitter pill but Craven’s inbuilt attempts to defuse the nastiness actually makes the film much harder to process. I wonder whether or not this was his intention. It’s hard to tell.
Meanwhile the film’s second half provides cathartic (I guess) relief as the parents of one of the murdered girls meet the murderers and enact their vengeance. Here the film slips even further down the absurdity scale as the father lays traps to slow down and undo the criminals while the mother opts for some bizarre designs of her own. The disconnect between the parents’ actions and the supposed reality of the events depicted is slightly maddening. If you confronted the man who killed your daughter and you owned a shotgun I’d suspect the course of action you might take to gain vengeance would be rather straightforward. But just to be sure, might you spread some shaving foam on the floor so someone might slip on it later, set up some tripwires in other rooms and also electrify the front door knob? Sure, why not? That this all seems fairly normal compared to what the mother decides to do says more than I ever could on the matter.
So at the end of all this one thing is quite clear. More so than any other grindhouse film of the era this one still really has some bite. Its troublesome representation of its material, the awkward swapping between absurdity and horror and so on really mark this out as a supreme achievement in cinematic perversity. While other films of the movement, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to I Spit on Your Grave can be laughed at or shrugged off this one really sticks in the throat because it both goes too far and also seems keenly aware of it. And so, in a sense, this film seems genuinely dangerous; as if Craven knew he shouldn’t but couldn’t help himself. As if the camera in his hand made him do it.
And so, all that is wrong is what is so right here. The genteel soundtrack, the idiot cops, the absurdity of its ‘justice’ and the genuine exploitation at the core of it all. I can’t say I like it but I also have to say I’m in awe of it. Just so long as no one tries to emulate it. I can only imagine how repulsive the remake is, even though I’m sure it is toned down in every way except the ones that actually count.