Bookshelf: Two Tiny Tomes of Terror — MONSTER CINEMA & I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE

It seems appropriate that the two latest books added to my bookshelf are pocket paperbacks. Sometimes, massive books devoted to film studies have a tendency to ramble on, taking far more pages than necessary to communicate their points. This made the arrival of the latest installments of Wallflower Press’ Cultographies and Rutgers University Press’ Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture series interesting reads: they make their points succinctly and directly.

The latest Cultographies book is David Maguire’s analysis of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 rape-revenge film, I Spit on Your Grave. Maguire looks at the issues surrounding the film — the misogyny, especially, but also the feminist reevaluation of it in the years following its release as well. Most importantly, the author doesn’t just look at I Spit on Your Grave in a vacuum.

Maguire’s analysis of Zarchi’s movie looks at the films which preceded it, such as Deliverance — which fellow writer Rikke Schubart defined as the “birth” of the rape-revenge film in his 2007 book, Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970–2006 — as well as other grindhouse fare such as The Last House on the Left.

Obviously, Carol Clover’s “final girl” theory from 1992’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film gets a lot of play in Maguire’s book, but he’s also interested in examining just how the concept of rape-revenge plays out in comparison to many other films with which I Spit on Your Grave was contemporaneous, as well as those which succeeded it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go back quite as far as I’d like. A discussion of roughies, such as The Defilers, would really have rounded out where the examination of the abused-woman-in-peril genre started, even though he does look at giallo and even the deep cut, The Witch Who Came From the Sea.

Looking at the film from so many different angles, especially when adeptly comparing and contrasting the 1978 original with its 2010 remake by Steven Monroe and that film’s attendant sequels, Maguire provides the most thorough and in-depth analysis of I Spit on Your Grave thus far published. It’s a fascinating read, and as stated in the introduction, it’s concise and clear in its purpose. As Maguire states in his final paragraph, “It is a film that defies easy classification and that is what makes it so interesting and so powerful.”

Barry Keith Grant’s Quick Takes book, Monster Cinema, is also concise, but almost too much so. Grant divides the books into three particular types of cinematic monsters: human, natural, and supernatural. Surprisingly, further subdivision might have actually helped the book. While the human section is readily obvious, dealing with the likes of serial killers and the mad, it’s the only chapter which really fully captures what the author is looking to encompass with his subheading.

In particular, looks at Haute Tension and Forbidden Planet demonstrate Grant’s ability to take two seemingly disparate films — a New French Extremity cavalcade of brutality and a classic sci-fi flick based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest — and brings them together with how they both express repressed psychological issues. It’s quite brilliant, and starts Monster Cinema off on quite a high note.

The natural chapter has a lot to cover, with Godzilla, The Birds, and the ants of Phase IV to name but a few. Given that plants, animals, atomic creatures, and so on are all there, it seems a little odd that Grant includes “mechanical” monsters, which seem like they ought to be a subset of the human monster, given that they’re created by man. Still, for whatever reason, Colossus: The Forbin Project is included there, making it a little distressing that rogue computers are put in the same category as the “viral mutation” of Contagion.

Placing The War of the Worlds in the natural section, but Dark Skies and Cloverfield in supernatural seems bunk, as well. Honestly, extraterrestrial is broad and weird enough to warrant its own subcategory, but that may be due more to a recent dip into the likes of Xtro and so on in recent weeks. I suppose the same could be said for the creature in Frankenstein or the computer in Colossus, both of which are “technological,” if you want to be specific.

Still, Grant’s Monster Cinema will introduce the reader to a slew of films worth considering, for those wishing to go beyond the standard ’50s creature features of THEM or 20 Million Miles to Earth. For its taxonomic issues, the book really does a stellar job of flowing from category to category, and the book’s such a fun read, only the most devout of nerds (hey, there) is going to nitpick. Like the author states in his opening chapters, he does “shed some light in an engaging and accessible way on these creatures that inhabit the darker spaces of our movie screens.”

Cultographies: I Spit on Your Grave is available from Columbia University Press.

Quick Takes: Monster Cinema is available from Rutgers University Press.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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