Originally published on Elements of Madness
Anyone familiar with rape-revenge films knows that the formula for this horror sub-genre can be particularly tricky. While the genre continually offers up new ways for audiences to process and discuss trauma, rape-revenge films can be quite problematic when not handled correctly. Writer/director Teddy Grennan’s latest film, Ravage, thankfully avoids one of the most common and offensive clichés of the genre: sexualizing the protagonist as a victim of violence and trauma. Unfortunately, however, Ravage also manages to create new problems of its own.
Nature-loving wildlife photographer, Harper (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), ventures into the mysterious Watchatoomy Valley, a secluded area shrouded in tall ales, to capture some rare animals on camera. While exploring in the woods, she witnesses an event that wasn’t meant for the eyes of outsiders: a ruthless group of Watchatoomy locals whipping a man for threatening their way of life. The horrified Harper manages to take a few pictures of the atrocity as evidence, knowing that no one will believe her when she reports it, and hurries off to alert the authorities. The vicious group catches up to Harper, however, and tortures her for her interference. With her wildlife survival skills, Harper manages to escape, but she comes back to take her revenge on the gang, one by one.
Ravage opens with a beaten and tattered Harper in the hospital, bandaged from head to toe, telling her story to a skeptical cop. While the painfully obvious “bad cop” cheapens the tone of the scene with his condescending and cheesy dialogue, this opening seems to promise a more complex and nuanced discussion about women and violence. Not only does the scene highlight the importance of Harper’s perspective with shots of the policeman through the strips of gauze covering her face, but it also empowers Harper as the storyteller by keeping her face temporarily hidden. With her face concealed under bandages as she begins to narrate, Harper’s voice becomes both mysterious and authoritative, taking on a “voice-of-God” quality. She can see the cop (and, by implication, everyone in the audience listening to her story), but he cannot see her in return, placing him in a position of weakness.
As much potential as that initial scene offers, Ravage begins to fall apart with the onset of its terror and violence, and the story loses credibility with multiple plot-holes. The timing of several important plot points is extremely questionable, leaving us to wonder if vital connecting scenes were accidentally cut out. While some details make absolutely no sense, such as a muffled side-plot about Harper’s boyfriend, other details are entirely too obvious, as when Harper conveniently has a knife or gun at her disposal any time that she needs a weapon. The pacing is bumpy and uneven without proper build-up between each of Harper’s acts of revenge, and the story evolves into an inexplicable nightmare with quick, unnatural turns in the plot.
To give Ravage the benefit of the doubt, however, one could say that the details and timing of the film aren’t supposed to make sense. After all, Ravage is clearly meant to be a nightmarish fable, and the details of nightmares and fairy tales don’t always make sense either. One could argue that Ravage is set up like a rape-revenge Alice in Wonderland. Much like Alice falls into the dreamy Wonderland and meanders from one obscure character to the next in Lewis Carroll’s classic story, Harper crosses the threshold into an evil wonderland when she enters the Watchatoomy Valley, jumping between various bizarre and violent interactions. This whimsical format carries a lot of potential for the rape-revenge genre, as the frustrations and distortions of a fairy tale match the intensity of emotion needed for a solid rape-revenge plot. Perhaps, then, the plot-holes and unrealistic details aren’t necessarily a negative aspect of Ravage. Even so, other mistakes in the film overpower any sort of exciting genre-potential that Ravage has to offer. Aside from a myriad of technical issues, such as ridiculous dialogue and sound editing problems, there are two key content issues that ultimately cause Ravage to collapse.
The first issue is Harper’s lack of dynamic characterization. Ravage hints that Harper is supposed to transform in some way, like many protagonists of the rape-revenge genre, but this transformation is uneven. At first, Harper demonstrates an aversion to violence, becoming ill when she witnesses the whipping and visibly flinching when she makes her first kill. However, those are the only two moments in which she demonstrates this character trait, and she jumps directly from those strong and telling scenes into acts of violence where she shows no hesitation whatsoever. It seems that Harper’s character transformation was forgotten and abandoned somewhere in the writing process, but traces of a much more developed and dynamic version of Harper remain. Ravage relies too heavily on the rape-revenge formula without taking time to characterize Harper, making her more of a stock victim than a protagonist we can root for.
Second, the fictional Watchatoomy Valley is clearly supposed to be part of the American South, but Ravage offers distorted and misguided commentary on the history and traditions of this area. Ravage heavily incorporates symbols from Southern literature and history for stylistic effect without understanding the context or implications of those symbols. The most frustrating example of this issue is the use of the song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” during the scene in which Harper initially runs away to safety. While it may seem like an innocent moment in which a song about freedom illustrates Harper’s daring escape, using an African-American spiritual song during a scene in which a white victim escapes from Southern men who whip her and leave her hanging in a barn is particularly misguided. The scene glorifies and appropriates the trauma of slavery, suggesting that the violence of American slavery has a certain dramatic “aesthetic” that Grennan wanted to borrow to illustrate the violence of Harper’s story. The specific historical context of slavery in America and the racially oppressive system that still operates in the country today make the scene extremely inappropriate.
There’s nothing wrong with setting a rape-revenge story in the South, but Ravage capitalizes on stereotypes without fully understanding the issues of American slavery or Southern history and symbolism in general. The film has a few key moments of beautiful cinematography and unique potential for the rape-revenge genre, but with these two major issues setting the overall tone for the film, Ravage is unsuccessful.
In select theatres August 14th, 2020
Available for streaming August 21st, 2020.
Final Grade: D
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."