Following on from my previous re-blog about I Spit On Your Grave, I thought I’d follow that up with a second post about another notorious ‘video nasty’ known for its shocking and transgressive use of sexualised violence. In this case it is a film I think is considerably more artful in execution, as well as explicitly political in subtext, the 1980 Italian film The House on the Edge of the Park. This was originally written in 2012 comparing the film to a Chilean horror film called Hidden in the Woods which had been presented with some fanfare as the latest thing in shock at that year’s FilmFour London FrightFest festival. Needless to say, Hidden in the Woods has been quickly forgotten (although predictably there is a US remake mooted) but The House on the Edge of the Park is still notorious.
The House on the Edge of the Park (House, let’s just call it that) is a film with a long and dark history. Directed by Ruggero Deodato, maker of possibly the most shocking and disturbing horror film ever made (it’s number one in my book) Cannibal Holocaust (1980), starring David Hess the lead of Wes Craven’s almost as notorious Last House On the Left (1972), the film was initially rejected outright by the BBFC. Eventually it was released with a massive 11 minutes of cuts that removed almost all the sexual violence and must have left the film looking like a slightly racy episode of Falcon Crest.
The film was one of the subjects of Audiences and Receptions of Sexual Violence in Contemporary Cinema an incredibly in-depth study of audience reactions to films featuring sexual violence by Prof. Martin Barker of the University of Aberystwyth and published in October 2007. Commissioned by the BBFC itself, the report is accessible online and is a fascinating piece of work. Yet even after such academic scrutiny, the film is still too troubling for the BBFC to be passed uncut it’s most recent UK DVD release (a fine Shameless edition) features 48 seconds of cuts.
House appears to have been made by a very intelligent and unemotional sociopath. Watch Deodato’s film and you will genuinely worry about the treatment of the actors (the director was famously subject to a court case over Cannibal Holocaust where he had to produce the actors to prove they hadn’t been murdered on camera). One sequence involving a straight razor and a young woman, has been noted by no less a critic as Kim Newman, as one of the most genuinely Sadean sequences in the horror film canon (it’s also where those 48 secs have been trimmed).
The adage ‘less is more’ is true even in films of cinematic excess. If you watch Cannibal Holocaust, you will be amazed how long he spends on character and mood setting before all hell breaks loose. The same is true of a much lesser, if equally notorious, 70s horror, Mier Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978). House is measured, cynical, carefully paced and played straighter than the razor in David Hess’ pocket. One of the most troubling aspects of the film is also the reason it appeals to me where simple shock often does not.
In House (after a really ghastly opening scene) we are introduced to two working class New Yorkers Alex (Hess) and Ricky (a first appearance by Italian sleaze legend Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen). Alex is a strutting Travolta type who oozes machismo. Ricky is a twitchy innocent with obvious learning difficulties. The pair work in a garage and are getting ready to head out to “boogie” when a couple of rich kids roll in with minor car problems and a lot of cash to flash. Instantly putting the moves on the female Alex contrives to have them invited out to Jersey where the couple are heading for a party. Once there, Alex (is his name a coincidence, or is Deodato deliberately evoking Burgess and Kubrick?) begins an insidious campaign of mind games that lead to… well the sort of thing that gets a film rejected by the BBFC.
The really disturbing part of the movie is where Deodato expects your sympathies to go. One would expect it to hang with the rich kids, but it isn’t. The film’s portrayal of the idle rich is extremely similar to that in Brett Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero. These are vacuous, soulless people. You could argue that they acting is poor, but I think the blankness and lack of emotion with which they react to Alex’s increasing violence are emblematic of a social strata desensitised by comfort. The actual focus of audience identification moves between Alex and Ricky, yes there is also a gigantic homosexual subtext going on in their relationship. House is punk rock in the sense that it is a deliberately provocative act of artistic violence against a status-quo the filmmaker clearly despises. The film is an icy shot of nihilism straight to the veins.
It is however a film that uses sexual violence in a way that is abhorrent, in much the same way as Deodato used appalling animal cruelty in Cannibal Holocaust to create a vicious tirade against western imperialism here he uses scenes of rape and degradation against the idle ruling classes and ultimately it is a question of does the end justify the means? I would say it does not in either case, but in the hands of a skilled filmmaker with political intelligence like Deodato it is a seductive piece of work that took my innate prejudice and dislike of social classes above my own and made me complicit to shocking scenes of violence.
The violence and gore of the ‘torture porn’ cycle of films have led some younger horror fans and film writers to decry a rising tide of nihilism, violence and misogyny in the horror genre. The House on the Edge of the Park exposes these arguments as ignorant of film history. Something like Hostel is basically an unruly puppy shitting all over itself then rolling on its back and begging for a Bonio, House is the big dog in the shadows that will unman you before you know you’re in danger.