There’s nothing that brings me more joy than seeing a rapist endure pure carnal wrath from their victims: like when Estelle bites off Weasel’s dick in The Last House on the Left, or when Jennifer castrates Johnny to a Puccini opera in I Spit on Your Grave. The indulgence of righteous violence is the heart of what makes the rape revenge horror sub-genre so enjoyable. But most of these “classics” are often more exploitative than righteous, and it’s questionable whether or not they chastise or revel in sexual violence. For instance, I Spit on Your Grave is notorious for having the longest rape scene in cinematic history. After 25 minutes of on-screen sexual violence, it is easy to see that this movie, and others like it, weren’t made for survivors.
But the rape revenge paradigm didn’t originate with video nasties, and Emerald Fennell’s recent Promising Young Woman isn’t the feminist “hot take” Hollywood thinks it is, with the only on-screen instance of violence its own protagonist’s murder, which lasts for two-and-a-half-minutes. Fennell’s atrocious film doled out the ultimate punishment on its hero for seeking revenge—how is this a purgative work of art for survivors? What this movie and all #girlboss garbage don’t get is how revenge against a rapist can be a cathartic repossession of autonomy for the victim.
The rape revenge plot goes back to Greek Mythology—the Myth of Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This ancient tale is hardcore, with the rapist cutting out Philomela’s tongue so that she’ll never be able to identify him. Shakespeare used this taboo story as source material for his most controversial play, Titus Andronicus. Despite its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio, and other technical evidence, many scholars argue against Shakespeare’s authentic authorship. Titus Andronicus doesn’t appear much in current academic discussions or modern stage performances. The play is so vulgar in comparison to Shakespeare’s other works that it has been collecting dust in the shadows of other great tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth.
But in 1999, a cinematic adaption of Titus Andronicus, retitled Titus and directed by Julia Taymor, made its debut in only two theaters. Just as critics’ reception to Shakespeare’s play was mixed, so was the initial reception of Titus. Its nearly three-hour run-time and operatic structure is an admittedly hard bargain for the average moviegoer. Taymor’s adaption has been criticized as “a giant meat grinder” (Los Angeles Times) and “a glorious mess.” Titus’ widest release was 35 theaters, and ultimately it earned back just a fraction of the film’s total budget. It may have been a box-office embarrassment, but Titus is a forgotten masterpiece, a rape-revenge movie that contemporary filmmakers ought to study.
Julia Taymor takes Shakespeare’s most bastardized play and puts on the production it always deserved. Taymor’s known for her bold theatrics on stage and on screen. Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange star, and their characters, Titus and Tamora, act as polar opposite moral compasses in a Roman landscape without any division between family drama and political rule.
The tone of the film shifts after political tension between the Romans and the Goths culminates in the rape and humiliation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. The genius of Titus is that the rape is never played out in Shakespeare’s text, nor on-screen. Shakespeare knew that merely depicting a violent act wasn’t enough to convey its inherent horror to the audience. Taymor honors and builds on the original text by depicting sexual violence only through its end result: the vulgar creature Lavina has turned into after her assault. In the film, Lavina turns to her uncle, who’s the first to find her after the rape and mutilation, and lets out a silent but guttural scream while ribbons of blood flow from where her tongue once was. Her hands are stumps, just as the text describes. She’s a scarecrow of the woman she used to be.
Lavina’s a victim, but she’s not a damsel in distress. Taymor’s Lavina uses her mutilated tree-branch arms to scratch the name of her attackers into the sand in order for her father, Titus, to seek revenge on her behalf. The fifth act is an unforgettable cannibalistic revenge sequence that puts every video nasty to shame. Diabolical justice is done, and Lavina gets to watch it all unfold.