When it comes to the depiction of female rape in American horror, the line between violence and sex is especially blurred. Whether the rape is part of a revenge narrative (American Mary, Girls Against Boys), a mode to distinguish otherness (Cannibal Holocaust, The Last House on the Left) or a means to convey a political point (The Entity, Deadgirl), the usage of sexualized violence against women in horror narratives is so pervasive so as to become an acknowledged trope of the genre. These scenes, while often explicitly violent, also tend to incorporate close-up shots of naked breasts and writhing bodies and function to make the moment expressly and uncomfortably linked to sexuality.
Conversely, the specter of male rape in American popular culture is relatively uncommon. Often linked to a specific setting such as a prison (The Glass House, Fortune and Men’s Eyes), problematically associated to homosexuality (The Mudge Boy) or immediately and uncomfortably repressed by the other characters (Deliverance), male rape is typically portrayed-when it’s portrayed (it’s telling that I needed to go outside the horror genre to locate films)-as expressly violent without the added sexual subtext. Even in those cases where rape is tied to queer identity, the act itself is shown as being specifically about dominance.
Given that frame of reference, it was with great interest that I recently watched Curtis Harrington’s excellent The Killing Kind (1973). The film opens with the brutal gang rape of a young woman, Tina (Susan Bernard), on a beach. Terry (John Savage) looks on but does nothing to participate in OR to prevent the violence happening in front of him. He is then grabbed by the rapists, stripped, and thrust upon the woman being violated. Terry’s forced penetration of Tina means that in that moment he is both rapist and victim.
It’s a radical notion made all the more astounding in that these events take place within the first five minutes of the film. The rest of the movie, which picks up after Terry’s two-year stint in prison for rape, both undermines the impact of rape and radicalizes it. On the one hand, Terry’s rape is utilized to great effect to build audience sympathy and to add to the fascinating character studies developed in the film. But that this sympathy depends on dismissing Tina’s rape is deeply disturbing.
The film’s portrayal of Tina is almost shockingly offensive. Great pains are taken to portray Tina as being sexually promiscuous, and the underlining implication of these scenes are not hard to miss. If Tina acts as a whore in her daily life, then her rape really isn’t that big of a deal. Numerous characters express this sentiment and there is absolutely no mention of the brutality Tina endured. Instead, her abuse is spoken of in strictly sexualized terms and is always presented from the vantage point of other women. We never hear form Tina directly about her experience and have no direct knowledge as to whether she actively lied about Terry’s part in the rape or if she truly believes him to be one of her assailants.
To audiences in the early 1970s, rape was still a topic not discussed in polite society. There was little understanding that promiscuity for some rape survivors is a coping mechanism. So scenes of Tina seemingly enjoying sex after the rape operate solely to erase audience sympathy for the character. Especially troubling is the way the film dispatches the character. While being pursued by Terry in a game of cat-and-mouse, the camera keeps cutting to close-ups of Tina’s face. Her reactions and the sounds she makes are almost identical to those we see her making as she is raped.
The idea of Terry as an innocent bystander turned victim is supported through the actions and dialogue of the ancillary characters who also refer to Tina’s rape in terms of the impact it has had on Terry and not Tina. As the film progresses, though, Terry begins to have flashbacks of the rape while masturbating to pornography. Suddenly, his observation of Tina’s violation takes on a different meaning because it’s obvious that Terry is enjoying observing the violence on some level. But does that change how we feel about Terry given our knowledge that while he might possibly have enjoyed the rape on a voyeuristic level, he nonetheless never intended to participate actively? The film never takes a definitive position one way or the other.
Complicating the audience’s response to Terry’s part in the rape is the unusually intimate relationship he shares with his overbearing mother, Thelma (a fantastic Ann Sothern). Whether she is demanding lingering kisses or adorning her walls with yet another photo of Terry taken in bizarrely crafted photo shoots, the relationship’s incestuous undercurrents suggest that Terry has been victimized by his mother at an early age. With that knowledge, the rape now operates as more of an explainable trigger resulting in Terry’s violence. Not only has his mother brutalized him, but he has also been “victimized” by Tina who is described as having lied about the incident.
It is soon clear that the film is asking us to believe that Terry’s participation in the rape (as voyeur) and his own rape (his forced penetration) is a trigger for his resulting violence. By fusing these two occurrences, the film not only casts rape in a troubling light, but it also nullifies Terry’s agency thus making him more victim than perpetrator.
Terry is literally surrounded by and infantilized by women, a point made startlingly obvious in a dream sequence in which a diaper-clad Terry rests in a crib while some of the women in his life hurl insults at him. Most of these women ultimately meet violent ends and are portrayed as being culpable in their own demise. For example, Rhea (Ruth Roman) is Terry’s aggressive lawyer who conveys a traditionally masculine form of power. She is brusque, unapologetic and forthright. As Terry forces Rhea to consume an inordinate amount of alcohol before setting her on fire, Terry laments that women are supposed to be soft and sweet. But Rhea is obviously neither of these things. Her death, we are told by Terry, is the natural result of her not working hard enough for her client.
Similarly, ingénue Lori (Cindy Williams) is both frightened by Terry and sexually aggressive toward him. Things between the two come to a head when Lori propositions Terry in the bathroom after being made well aware of his propensity toward violence. Her decision to not only enter into a small space with him but to also push him sexually results, unsurprisingly, in her death. But as Thelma remarks, what else did Lori expect to happen?
As I mentioned in my review of Ruby, Curtis Harrington is a master at weaving in complicated character studies with horrific imagery to create truly gripping films. The Killing Kind illustrates well this approach to storytelling while also offering one of the more complicated depictions of rape seen in horror. It’s essential viewing that no fan of subtextual horror will want to miss.