Review: Act of Vengeance (1974)

Act of Vengeance
aka Rape Squad

Directed by Bob Kelljan
Starring Jo Ann Harris, Peter Brown, Jennifer Lee, Lisa Moore

Second-wave feminism began as a delayed reaction to increased domesticity after World War II and was catapulted into the stratosphere by the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961 and the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a bestselling book in which the author objected to the popular depiction of the happy housewife, comparing it unfavorably to the career-oriented woman found in magazines of the 1930s. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought the ideas of equal pay and nondiscriminatory hiring practices into the public eye, and in 1968 the word “sexism” first appeared in print. By the time feminist leader Bella Abzug was elected to the U.S. Congress, countless feminist groups and organizations had sprung up around the world, demanding that their voices be heard.

In 1974, rape and sexual assault were becoming hot-button issues. Feminist groups were demanding that the criminal justice system started taking rape seriously. Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will objected to the idea that female rape victims were as responsible for their rapes as the men who raped them and asserted that the threat of sexual assault was a way that men kept women in a constant state of fear.

Around this time, Hollywood decided that rape was marketable.

Although Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, released in 1960, is perhaps the first example of the “rape-revenge” subgenre, it is arguably a film made with high-minded intentions, exploring morality, justice and the nature of evil – themes that Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left attempted to echo 12 years later, albeit in a much more violently graphic way. The difference between The Last House on the Left and other rape-revenge films of the period is that revenge is enacted by the deceased victim’s parents, not the victim herself.

In those movies featuring the victim of a sexual assault enacting revenge, the act of rape becomes an origin story for a headstrong, radically feminist character – a character who simply wouldn’t exist without the instance of rape. These movies present female characters who are strictly defined by the fact that they were made victims of sexual assault. That’s a problem. Rape is not character development – it’s a vicious, brutal, unforgivable crime. Defining a female character by a traumatic event imposed upon them by a man is either misogyny or ignorance, and often it’s a mixture of the two. Movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 escape these criticisms because their female protagonists aren’t defined by the sexual assault they experience (although the assault depicted in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 feels unnecessary – both as plot device and characterization), but many of the rape-revenge films of the 1970s and ’80s are squarely rooted in exploitation.

That finally brings us to Act of Vengeance, a typical rape-revenge thriller of the ’70s complete with extended scenes of sexual assault that border on pornography.

In a barefaced attempt to pander to feminists, the movie takes its time regurgitating common complaints of how the justice system conducts rape cases. “Were you wearing those clothes?” a policemen asks Linda when she reports her rape. “Yes,” she replies. “What are you getting at? Was I asking for it?” Act of Vengeance touches upon every outrage, including the lack of policewomen, the treatment of rape victims as criminals, and the difficulty of obtaining proof of rape. And while the movie pretends to be appalled by this, its female protagonists parade around in transparent clothing, bend over tables, lounge around naked in a hot tub and always remember to wear heels, even when on the trail of a homicidal criminal. The rape scenes themselves are sometimes accompanied by soft saxophone music, and always last as long as it takes the antagonist to unbutton a blouse and fondle bare breasts. You can’t help but feel like a voyeur. Identifying with the women is difficult, as they’re never given personalities beyond “helpless victim,” and we spend a ridiculous amount of time with the perpetrator, watching as he casually photographs women in parks and records himself talking about how much he enjoys sexual assault.

The only good thing about Act of Vengeance is that nothing like it will ever happen again. Its shameless exploitation of the feminist movement can only serve to remind us how far we’ve gotten. Sure, blockbuster action movies still use women as window dressing (Michael Bay presents them as eye candy akin to freshly-painted muscle cars), but at least they don’t fetishize rape and disguise it as cutting-edge social commentary. Not too often, at least.

So the next time you go to the movies, buy 10 dollars worth of popcorn and enjoy the three inches we’ve progressed. Maybe when our kids go to the movies, female characters will be more than warm bodies for male protagonists to have sex with. I know – it’s a big maybe – but we can dream, can’t we?

Links:

Chicago Sun-Times – Roger Ebert Review
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer

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