Written by: Naomi Lilac Gordon
Recently, I had the pleasure of going to see Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. It tells the story of a fashion student named Ellie starting her freshman year of college in London. After roommate troubles, she rents a room with an elderly landlady named Ms. Collins. After moving in, her dreams at night tell the story of a girl named Sandy, who lived in the very same room back in the sixties. She came to London with dreams of being a star, wanting to sing in nightclubs and be the next big thing on the London stage circuit. A man named Jack agrees to be her manager after she impresses him, and the two run off into the night.
As the story continues, Ellie becomes inspired by Sandy, modeling her fashion design project after her and changing her appearance to look like her, though as the dreams get worse, so does Ellie’s mental health. In her dreams, Sandy becomes a sex worker. Jack, now her pimp, has her selling her body to keep herself on stage. Sandy didn’t want this but eventually gave up on herself, accepting this as her reality. The men who she sleeps with are shown as faceless men, and they step out of the dreams to haunt Ellie in real life. This culminates when, after bringing a classmate home, she sees a vision of Jack killing Sandy.
After this, Ellie becomes desperate with her newfound purpose to solve the murder of Sandy. Her hope is that in solving Sandy’s murder she can bring her ghost to peace, and in doing so, herself. On the surface, this seems like a typical horror/ghost story, with an added feminist edge. However, after the movie was over, I couldn’t help but think of women’s revenge films.
Part One: Rape-Revenge
Women’s revenge films are often known as “rape-revenge” films, as this is what they often are. These films usually follow a similar structure. A woman gets sexually assaulted, tortured beyond that, and left for dead. Often this manifests in graphic, lengthy rape scenes. After surviving the rape, she rehabilitates herself and prepares herself to get her revenge. The film culminates in her getting her revenge, often with graphic violence. These films are often exploitation films and b-movies, but they’ve gained a cult following and have become their own recognizable genre, with their own conventions, tropes, and norms.
Perhaps the quintessential rape-revenge film, I Spit On Your Grave, is about a writer named Jennifer Hills from New York City, who rents a house in a small town for the summer to work on her novel. She’s repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of local men, and she exacts her revenge on those men, each in graphic yet aesthetically fitting ways. The film spawned five sequels and remakes, the most recent, I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu, being released in 2019. The film also exemplifies a lot of feminist critiques of the rape revenge genre. The graphic, long, drawn-out rape scenes. The voyeuristic male gaze of the camera. The film almost takes joy in the graphic rape scenes. It’s exploitative, but exploitation has always been the name of the game with this genre.
However, these films have garnered a cult audience of mostly women. In Kier-La Janisse’s book, House of Psychotic Women, she details her love for this genre. She writes, “It’s been said a million times that horror films are meant to be cathartic, and that we put ourselves through the terror as a means of symbolically overcoming something we’re afraid of. And for a woman, we’re taught there’s nothing more terrifying than the ever-present threat of rape. So it seems natural to me that I would love rape-revenge films, especially when the revenge is particularly sadistic or creative, or when the female protagonist is completely transformed as a consequence.”
Part Two: Non-Exploitative Exploitation
In comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2017 Syfy interview, she states, “I love, wholly and deeply adore, exploitation films of the 1970s. Particularly women’s revenge films or women in prison films. But as an adult woman and a feminist, they are, how you say ‘problematic.’ So I was trying to figure out: how can I preserve the things I love about those films, but present them from a feminist perspective? Could I do exploitation that was not exploitative?” This was in reference to her creator-owned comic book series Bitch Planet, a feminist dystopian story about a world where “non-compliant” women are shipped off to Bitch Planet, a floating prison in space. It tells a nuanced, intersectional story about gender, race, corruption, and capitalism, all well telling a compelling women in prison narrative. Kelly Sue DeConnick, in the eyes of many, told a non-exploitative exploitation story, and since Bitch Planet’s 2015 release, other stories have followed suit.
Most recently, Promising Young Woman, which won the 2021 Academy Award for best original screenplay, exemplified this perfectly. Telling the story of Cassie, played by Carrie Mulligan, is a barista with a troubled past and a habit of going to bars, pretending to be drunk, waiting for men to take advantage of her, and revealing her sobriety at the last moment. Over the course of the film, we learn that her best friend growing up, Nina, was sexually assaulted in high school, but nobody believed her. Eventually, the two of them dropped out, and Nina died, though the details surrounding her death remain unclear. Cassie enacts her vengeance on every person that hurt Nina or actively chose to look away, each in personal and deeply cutting ways that can only be described as delicious. However, the actual rape scenes are never shown. The focus is on the revenge, on the characters, not on the actual rape. This film, much like Bitch Planet, manages to tell a non-exploitative exploitation story.
And the world, now more than ever, seems to have a desire for these kinds of narratives. Women are angry about systemic sexism and the patriarchy’s hold on society, and they’re not afraid to show it. Some of the most popular musicians, like Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, are sporting hit songs with the feminist message of, “this is what you did to us, here is our revenge.” Women are angry about misogyny, the patriarchy, and men. There’s never been a better time for this genre to thrive.
Part Three: #NotAllMen
While the criticism of the genre has forced it to evolve, and for creators who tell women’s revenge stories to alter aspects of them, there are also women’s revenge films that aim to critique the very idea of women’s revenge. The 2019 film Bit tells the story of a girl named Laurel who joins up with a gang of queer feminist vampires called Bite Club, who go around cleaning LA’s streets of abusive and predatory men. When joining the gang, Laurel is told one key rule. No making boys vampires. They can’t handle the power. This culminates when Laurel accidentally bites her brother, and Duke tries to kill him, not wanting to deal with another man getting access to such power. Laurel and the other vampires band together because “not all men are evil,” and they take down Duke. While the film plays with these ideas of female revenge and radical feminist action, in the end, the leader of Bite Club, Duke, is condemned for her measures, and it ends with a #notallmen ending that tries (and fails) to be inspirational.
The very recent film Mayday follows a similar route. It tells the story of a girl named Anna, who is transported to an island where she joins a gang of girls who kill male soldiers in “a war.” Sound familiar? Halfway through the film, Anna suddenly decides she doesn’t want to kill men anymore, and she and the other girls turn against their leader, Marsha, and Anna flees the island. This film yet again plays with these ideas of female revenge yet ultimately rejects them, deciding that it’s wrong. They’re almost female revenge films, and yet they stop themselves, ashamed of the very genre they attempt to embody.
Part Four: Last Night in Soho
As the story of Last Night in Soho ramps up to the climax, Ellie, increasingly distressed by the ghosts haunting her, decides the only thing she can do is skip town and go home. Home home. She arrives at her apartment, John driving her there, and tells him that if she’s not out in 15 minutes, to come looking for her. She sits down with Ms. Collins, the landlady, and explains her predicament. It’s in this scene where we learn something that turns the entire film on its head. That Ms. Collins is Sandy. A twist that should’ve been obvious that completely took me by surprise. We learn that Ellie wasn’t being haunted by the ghost of Sandy but the ghosts of the faceless men. For Sandy had killed each man that attempted to buy her body. She would bring them back to her room and slaughter them on her bed.
At this point, I could feel my eyes about to roll into the back of my skull. I thought it was yet another one of these almost women’s revenge films. Like Mayday and Bit, ashamed of the prospect of seeking vengeance, ready to narratively punish the female lead who sought it. But then something interesting happened. Ellie doesn’t judge Ms. Collins but affirms her. She’d seen Ms. Collins experiences through her dreams. She knows what she’s been through, and she tells her that she understands, that she’d never tell anyone. Of course, Ms. Collins can’t risk it, and Ellie realizes she’s been poisoned. As she’s at death’s door, John knocks, and he’s stabbed by Ms. Collins. The house sets on fire, and a terrifying yet beautiful scene of Ms. Collins chasing her through the burning house, knife in hand, ensues.
As the scene closes, the house almost gone, the two of them end up in Ellie’s bedroom again. The same bedroom where Ms. Collins has killed all those men. In those final moments, Ellie extends Ms. Collins a hand, telling her she can help her get out of there, that it’s not too late. Ms. Collins delivers a line that’s still burned in my mind. “I’m not going to prison. I’ve been in a prison all my life.” She chooses to die there, in that building, after all the suffering she’s been through, accepting death on her own terms.
Last Night in Soho, marketed as a horror, also acts as a model women’s revenge film, staying true to the origins of the genre while also steering clear of the exploitative nature of the early films. Its ending subverts the way newer films attempt to critique the very idea of women’s revenge, making it a brilliant subversion of a subversion. In my eyes, it’s quickly made itself one of my favorite modern women’s revenge films, and it will be interesting to see how the genre continues to evolve with the changing times.