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American Mary (Canada 2012)

There’s likely an explanation for why American Mary, a Canadian film about a woman named Mary set in Canada who, at one point, does talk about taking a trip to the United States but ultimately (spoiler alert) does not, is named that, but such does not unfold in the narrative of the Soska Sisters charmingly gory film. One imagines the explanation ran something along the lines of “to disambiguate it from whatever,” and it seems misplaced to blame the Soska Sisters for it, but it does stick out a bit, the name, and distresses mildly.

I bring this up because American Mary is otherwise a great little movie. It’s quirky, and everyone has a character they are portraying but not overacting to do it (at least not within the boundaries of the horror genre), and more than that, the thing defies predictability. At several points throughout the film I said, aloud, to myself: I have no idea what is going to happen. And that’s rare. In a genre in which pretty much the next thing that will happen is that someone is going to die.

Two things happen in the film’s narrative that set it off course of standard horror fare. One is that sexual assault is not casualized. It is not dragged out to contribute to viewer trauma, as in, say, V/H/S, and therefore merely considered an aspect of a larger evil. It is trauma, fully and completely, onscreen, in all its glory. I don’t mean to imply it’s overdramatized. It’s not. It’s actually so uncharacteristically underdramatized you may be confused. No need to accept rape as a given to get to the events of story: it is fully horrific, on its own. Event, not consequence.

The other is slightly more complicated. Titular character Mary leaves school to focus on her own studies, a quirk made plot by virtue of the fact that she’s studying surgery. She does not discontinue her quest to be the best surgeon she can be. When it is clear that price of entry to the aboveground world of surgery—both in tuition fees and in emotional distress—is too high, she leaves it, sense of self intact. She has no intention of giving up her goal, of being a world-class surgeon. In fact, accomplishes it, almost overnight. And when, throughout the film, she questions her abilities, talent, or value to the world, she receives no small amount of positive affirmation for being who she wants to be in the world.

Now, she is killing people, or mutilating them, or in the rare case merely threatening them. Don’t get me wrong. But she’s doing it for the right reasons. She’s a complicated, strange, thoughtful woman, this Mary, whose innate sense of justice—however much it may not fit into the rest of the world, which is that it does not at all, BTW—never wavers. She’s defines strong female character, uncompromised by the complications of either genre or gender. Indeed, following the sexual assault, the storyline turns a second time on a late-coming attempt to thwart further feminine bodily autonomy. But feminine bodily autonomy wins out, and it’s still gory.

There are little flaws in the film, glitches of plot and ill-explained motivations, but the set-pieces are dead-on (ha ha), acting solid and unpandering, costuming exquisite. (The leather surgical masks are a particularly nice touch.) We can’t call American Mary a rape-revenge fantasy, because the drama is too calculated to be vengeful. It’s a serial killer story—just about a smart, strong lady.

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The Host (USA, 2001)

Somewhere between Nick Tomnay’s short The Host and his big-name Hollywood expansion of it, The Perfect Host, exists the perfect psycho-killer protagonist: A control-freak so delusional that he fails to cause real harm.

David Hyde Pierce plays him well in the 2011 version of the story, and the role gives him a broad range of comic scenes through which to express his plethoric range of tics and obsessions, but the film is awkwardly elongated by the addition of two subplots to the original, that are matched in uninterestingness only by  incomprehensibility. Graeme Rhodes, Pierce’s black-and-white predecessor from 2001, offers just as much without the constant, branded reminder that YOU ARE NOW WATCHING A MOVIE. He’s a giddy, neurotic delight, the perfect foil to the initial connivance and subsequent confusion of his crime-doin’ victim “John” (played by Craig Elliott).

That real horror can be found in delusion is nearly unmined territory. The 25-minute version here ends abruptly, and viewers are left wanting more. You’ll find far too much of it in the full color re-do, but you’ll probably watch it anyway.

The Ring (Japan, 1998)

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about just how important The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) – and that’s it’s name, “Ringu” was devised by DreamWorks to differentiate it from the 2002 remake – is to contemporary horror. You can see its influence in all sorts of recent releases; Mama (Andreas Maschietti, 2013) is particularly steeped in J-horror tropes, The Ring especially. Everything spooky and uncanny about 2000s horror seems to come from Nakata and his fellow J-horror filmmakers. But it was also a huge shift in how people thought about horror. Non-American films have always played a pivotal role in the horror genre as a whole, but, a number of English and Italian horror classics were co-produced by American studios or distributors, and were, of course, in English. The gialli of Bava and Argento were marginal, even within the genre; drive-in and grindhouse fare in the 1970s when horror was moving into the mainstream of public consciousness, and into the multiplexes. Although Bava’s 1971 film Twitch of the Death Nerve (known under several other titles, including Bay of Blood) or Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) seem to directly prefigure the slasher films, for example, John Carpenter, Sean Cunningham, and co. have never, to my knowledge, acknowledged an influence. (And, indeed, I spoke with one critic who had interviewed them extensively, and his report is that the Americans claim to have never seen any of the Italian films.)

The Ring  marked the first time that the center of gravity of the horror genre really moved outside of the United States, although the US took a couple years to catch on: The Ring‘s appearance coincides with the release of two of the most profitable horror movies of the last few decades, The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), along with an influx of studio money into horror and horror-ish projects like House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, The Mummy, Stir of Echoes, Stigmata, etc. Motivated, I can only guess, by the great success of the Scream franchise, the end of the decade saw the studios throwing a bunch of expensive, unconvincing CGI effects at big movie stars, and providing big-budget marketing campaigns to back them up. The Sixth Sense featured a big movie star, Bruce Willis, and was backed by indiewood studio Miramax. It would make an obscene amount of money. The Blair Witch seemed to open up another possible path, a horror cinema that returned to the no-budget independence that produced the now-canonized masterpieces of the genre in the 1970s. Of course, Hollywood learned from Blair Witch not that it should seek out innovative independent projects, but that it should focus more on internet marketing. Shyamalan, meanwhile, continued to make “event” movies that hang on a gimmicky premise and, although he still has his champions among critics, he is no longer the bankable name he once was. More important than that, however, is that Hollywood never figured out how to replicate The Sixth Sense‘s success. Even with such excellent Shyamalan-esque films as The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001) and The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001), Hollywood seemed to move on quickly, growing preoccupied with importing monsters and other tropes of horror into action movies and teen-oriented movies (including supernatural romances, obviously).

The Ring provided a path away from the morass that plagued horror at the turn of the millennium, and not just because of its aesthetic value – though it is, of course, incredibly effective and quite beautiful at times. Its worldwide success was not the singular, unrepeatable event that Blair Witch was, nor was its appeal focused on the celebrity auteurship of director Hideo Nakata, as The Sixth Sense was. The Ring introduced a style, a way of conveying creepy atmospherics, that could be built on by other films from Japan. But it also made room, somehow, for films that have almost nothing to do with its style. Without Ring, Kenji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale or Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Happiness of the Katakuris probably wouldn’t have received the international attention they did. Similarly, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s surrealist horror films might have been consigned to the art house if The Ring didn’t help to create an audience for J-horror around the world.

ith the arrival of VCDs and DVDs, The Ring and other J-horror films were able to reach a broad global audience. The success of these films would help to create an audience – and a brand – for international horror in America, Britain, and elsewhere in the west (i.e. not the only places with money, but places that have a lot of money), and that would pave the way not just for other Japanese films, but also for films from Thailand, South Korea, even France. A demand and for non-English language horror films emerged and became, at least among modestly budgeted productions, commercially viable. If J-horror established a creative center for the genre outside of the US (and proved that there was an audience for non-English language horror in the English-speaking world), the idea/brand of the “Asia Extreme” film[1] helped to establish horror as a fully international genre in the 2000s. That is to say that the horror fan – and the horror filmmaker – would be just as enthusiastic and informed (if not more so) about current productions from across the globe as in his or her own country, and that the exchange between films that defines the genre freely crosses boundaries. The viewing habits of horror fans in the digital age ensures that the genre maintains a fully international character without neglecting the specificities of national cinemas. [2] There is really no way of the “torture porn” genre as being the product of any one nation: its DNA is equal parts Miike, Park Chan-wook, Lucio Fulci, and Wes Craven, and its initial offerings come from South Korea, France, and America (where two Australians expanded a short film into Saw in 2004). Similarly, the “found footage” films, seemingly a delayed attempt to follow up The Blair Witch Project, is both studio (Cloverfield) and independent (Diary of the Dead), and if the style’s signature franchise (Paranormal Activity – the first film was directed and produced by an Israeli, btw), the brilliant [REC] films are produced in Spain, and in Spanish. I don’t want to go overboard here, but so much of this could happen because The Ring helped to establish an audience for kinda weird “foreign” movies, sometimes even very arty ones. Distribution outlets for smaller, non-American horror films encouraged and funded further genre productions, etc etc.The Ring is also a singular phenomenon, however. It’s been remade in several different countries, has had four (now five?) sequels/prequels in Japan, and one in the US, and the image of its ghost, Sadako, face covered in wet, stringy hair, has become as iconic as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Something about both the concept, gimmicky though it is (it slams together several urban legend-type stories, though it never quite feels incoherent), and the image of that ghost, is powerful enough to have really dug itself into the genre’s foundation.

Why did Ring burrow so deeply into the genre’s collective imaginary? I’ve been thinking through the technological aspect recently. For one thing, it was perfectly poised on the precipice of digital technology, dealing primarily with analogue – VHS, celluloid photography, telephones before the transition to cell phones had become ubiquitous – but using it to express concerns more specifically about the digital. The images on the videotape are produced not through indexical photography but are generated spontaneously by the ghost Sado. The rapid proliferation of the video’s curse, spreading like a virus (to quote the title of the South Korean remake of the film[3]), reflects not just anxiety over the digital spread of information but a geographically dispersed digital presence. The film is largely built around a traditional mystery narrative, in which the reporter Reiko attempts to decode the video’s cryptic images in order to find the originating source. Once she has discovered Sado’s identity and linked her with the videotape, the film narrows its mystery to one of location: Reiko frantically attempts to find Sado’s body so that the ghost can be put to rest and, assumedly, the vengeful spirit soothed before she falls victim to the curse. Of course, the discovery of the body does nothing to halt the curse’s deadly progression: there is no physical location to which the curse or the images on the videotape correspond. Furthermore, Reiko and her son are only spared because they participate in the continued spread of the images and the curse they bring with them; they survive because they make a copy and show it to another. Not dissimilar to another late-90s film that was initially successful but became a hit on dvd (although, course, The Matrix franchise saw considerably greater success), The Ring articulated a new set of anxieties associated with the digital age. The ghost and its threats follow a digital logic, plaguing a set of victims stuck in analogue thinking, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that The Ring would become one of the releases that established Tartan’s successful and influential “Asia Extreme” dvd label at the time that the dvd viewing and collecting was becoming widespread.


[1] Joan Hawkins and Chi-Yui Shin have written about the ideological and aesthetic limitations of Tartan’s Asia Extreme DVD label. In general, the company’s film choices do not necessarily reflect the best or even most popular films of their home countries – some of these releases were outright flops at home. In general, as Joan Hawkins has argued, international distribution favors gimmicky premises and exploitation plots, while removing the films from the specific national context in which they originated. This process overlooks certain kinds of filmmakers and give simplified, distorted pictures of diverse national cinemas. See Hawkins (2009) and Shin (2008). Certain kinds of films, and certain filmmakers,

[2] Indeed, the trend has been to identify and celebrate national movements, grouping contemporaneous genre filmmakers together under rubrics like, for example, J-horror or “New French Extremity.”

[3] The Ring Virus (Kim Dong-Bin, 1999)

The Hole (USA, 2009)

Boys love gettin’ into holes!

Sometime during May 2011, while the rest of the Austrian national swim team was off tanning themselves, or splashing water at each other flirtatiously, or whatever else swimmers might get up to at a Florida beach on a bright warm day, 19-year-old Jakub Maly, like any boy a quarter of his age might, began digging a hole. He worked at it really hard and made it super deep and it was totally cool. Lifeguards are quoted as never having seen anything “of this magnitude. Not even close.” Folks were impressed.

In fact, decreed Pompano Beach resident Sandra King, “It was the perfect hole.”

Maly wasn’t satisfied, however, because, like males of most ages, he believed the perfect hole can serve only one purpose: to grant his body physical entry into some sort of unknown bliss, a previously unimaginable pleasure that would make whatever pending risks worthwhile—although, subtext: they could not possibly befall him. He was 19! A professional athlete! The world at his feet! He had dug the perfect hole! A 7-foot deep and 6-foot wide chasm of mysterious delight! Of his own making!

So he got in it.

“Then,” as King told ABC News reporters—she also works with Pompano Beach Fire Rescue—“the walls caved in on him.”

The sand pit covered Maly’s head, and there was a period when he couldn’t breathe. After about an hour of struggling to get out of the actual pit into which he had actually dug himself, he realized he might perish. In the perfect hole.

But the Austrian national swim team called in King and about 59 other rescuers, and together they dug him out of the sand after another hour of panicked efforts. He was sent to hospital, released, and flew back to Austria with the rest of his team.

“It took two hours to dig him out, but it’s still not clear why he dug the hole in the first place, or why he jumped in,” a BBC reporter covering the story intoned, overly seriously.

There’s a lesson there. For moviegoers as well as movie characters: The perfect hole will always be ruined by getting in it.

Joe Dante, who seems like a really nice guy, hasn’t learned this lesson. Clearly, he’s got a wide-ranging approach to comedy and horror (glimpsed in Piranha and Gremlins, but all over the brilliant Matinee), which is utterly joyful. It’s equally clear he’s not so much engaged in gender or racial politics, which is why a lot of scenes involve white young ladies in bikinis, which is fine, as I’ve got nothing against bikinis, but maybe sometimes women in swimwear can also talk. Or perhaps the fully clothed slightly older lead males could refrain from same for like five seconds. There are options. Whatever. (Now, Dante also did some uncredited work on Rock’n’Roll High School and created the kind of awesome Movie Orgy, so credit where credit is due, but fully one quarter of Piranha is boob so I couldn’t exactly let it go without saying something.)

Dante’s approach and its drawbacks combine in the kind of uninteresting 2009 release The Hole (tagline: “It knows your deepest fears”) which is, OK, a thinly veiled acknowledgement that Joe Dante doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, woman-wise, but still. The plot is this: Two brothers, DIVORCE VICTIMS, are forced to move to a new house by their mother. While exploring, they find a hole in the deepest recesses of their basement and so they get in it? And it knows everything about them? And conjures all their fears which are actually really boring 1980s movie tropes like laughing clown dolls and evil fathers coming back to life and giant floating tile floors? That it’ in 3D sort of just proves my point.

Sample dialogue:
Younger brother: “Hey, do you want to come look at our hole?”
Female love interest with no other personality traits besides adolescent jugs and hair: “What is it?”
Boy of slightly younger than 19 but still you get the point: “We got this hole, it’s no big deal.”

I am pretty sure our female foil then—literally offering nothing onscreen besides a reflection of what these dudes are up to—then jokes, “Oh, is this what guys do in whatever town you two are from? Sit around all day playing with your holes which are clear stand-ins for sex parts in this movie? My sex parts?” Well, she said something like that, for sure.

Point being: Holes are amazing, there’s no denying it. But when even the half-assed lead teen girl character that’s clearly a stand-in for confused adolescent desire in your underwritten hole-exploring narrative can see through it as a sexual metaphor, the best plan is to declare the hole perfect, and then walk away.

The Scared is Scared (USA, 2013)

This small handmade film from recent MFABA Bianca Giaever is a subtle exploration of fear and its eradication, as well as a deeply charming and effective story well worth your immediate attention. (Hattips: Elizabeth Crane and Jessica Speer).

Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

I’m currently finishing up a longer essay for publication on 21st century horror films and keep running up against the problem that a number of the films that seem to be integral to the conversation are not exactly horror films. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002) or Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2000), for example, have more in common with the gangster genre. The “extreme” label – whether referring to Tartan’s somewhat randomly inclusive “Asia Extreme” dvd releases, the “New French Extremity,” or to any number of independent releases for which the denomination seems simultaneously like euphemism and grandstanding – masks a blurring of the boundaries around horror that is shared by some of the most visible, successful American horror films of the era: Saw and Hostel were (and are) received as horror films, but they share little with the neo-slasher films of the 1990s or the Japanese ghost films produced around 2000. Sympathy and Ichi, or Battle Royale (Kenji Fukasaku, 2000), like Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2006), are marketed and appeal to horror audiences. What draws all these films together, and what nudges them towards the category of “horror” despite some resistance by horror fans, is a focus on the body. More specifically, all these films focus on bodily abjection, on the pain and suffering of victims, often presented quite graphically. “Torture porn” and “extreme” films (whether from Japan, South Korea, or France) import the sort of graphic, individualized violence associated in the 1980s with horror films (slashers in particular) into films that are less affectively invested in the sudden shock or dread that once characterized horror. However, the affective charge of this type of graphic violence puts these stories – whether they’re about sadistic gangsters or schoolchildren forced to kill one another – into similar enough territory with the horror film that they are frequently categorized as such. These are gore or splatter films that put bodies on display and rely on these abject spectacles to jolt the audiences, and it is the emphasis on that affect – and its realization through spectacle – that nudges such films into the realm of horror.

Among the harshest critics of these tendencies was the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, whose distaste for the films of Park Chan-wook led her to declare that, “given the body count and sadistic violence in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, it’s no surprise that Mr. Park’s largest fan base may be those cult-film aficionados for whom distinctions between high art and low are unknown, unrecognized and certainly unwelcome.”[1] Dargis goes on to bemoan that “once, a film like this, predicated on extreme violence and staying within the prison house of genre rather than transcending it, would have been shot on cardboard sets with two-bit talent. It would have had its premiere in Times Square. The fact that Oldboy is embraced by some cinephiles is symptomatic of a bankrupt, reductive postmodernism: one that promotes a spurious aesthetic relativism (it’s all good) and finds its crudest expression in the hermetically sealed world of fan boys…. In this world, aesthetic and moral judgments – much less philosophical and political inquiries – are rejected in favor of a vague taxonomy of cool that principally involves ever more florid spectacles of violence. As in, “Wow, he’s hammering those dudes with a knife stuck in his back – cool!” Or, “He’s about to drop that guy and his dog from the roof – way cool!” Kiss-kiss, bang-bang, yawn-yawn. We are a long way from Pasolini and Peckinpah.[2]” Dargis, a perceptive and particularly astute critic, articulates better than other detractors precisely her misgivings: these films aestheticize violence in such a way as to – dangerously, in her opinion – remove them from the moral context that she associates with “high art” filmmakers who similarly used extreme violence and other unpleasant displays to shock viewers.  It is this – what she sees as a refusal to engage the moral dimensions of violence – that seems to demarcate the otherwise unhelpful distinction between “high” and “low” cinemas. Joan Hawkins, in her discussion of Park and Dargis’ response to his films, convincingly builds on her arguments from her book Cutting Edge that the separation between art films and exploitation has never been as great as critics seem to think. As Hawkins notes, Dargis’ obvious nostalgia obstructs her understanding of the relationship between horror and the avant-garde. Part of Hawkins’ larger project has been to argue that avant-garde explorations of shock, violence, and gore should not be understood as being fundamentally different from their less culturally respectable genre cousins. It is clear that Dargis’ ire is raised not just by the films’ shocking content, but by their high-cultural status. For her, the allegiance to genre and to generic stylishness negates (or indicates a lack of interest in) a serious consideration of the moral implications of violence.

Park’s aesthetic, which Dargis characterizes as cool and distant, does indeed subsume violent display to narrative purposes more than others. Further, his bloody spectacles are more clearly composed, part of a meticulous mise-en-scene that announces itself – through the relatively static, tableau-like arrangement of characters, often directly facing the camera – as a composition. Park’s reliance on violence seems to consciously push against the “coolness” of such stylized presentation. In her review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Dargis describes “an autopsy knife cutting into the child’s naked torso” as “[resembling] a brush moving against a canvas.” The scene to which Dargis is referring depicts the autopsy of a young girl who has just died from an accidental drowning, overseen by her grieving father, who quickly breaks into tears. The emotional brutality of the scene is, I would argue, not negated by the aestheticization. Rather, the “coolness” of Park’s style is in direct conflict with the emotional intensity of the scene; the camera’s apparent lack of empathy draws attention to itself in such scenes. In Oldboy, as protagonist Oh Dae-su fights his way out of a hallway filled with thugs, the camera slowly tracks alongside Dae-su in a medium long shot, following his gradual, uneven progress through the crowded space. The shot last nearly three minutes as Dae-su and his enemies attack each other with a ferocious, graceless brutality, the camera following impassively, concerned only with the protagonist’s placement in the frame and not otherwise responding to his vicious successes or painful failures. This bravura, much-heralded sequence, once again elaborates Park’s signature style of juxtaposing brutal images with detached presentation. The films themselves, however, do not align themselves perfectly with the camera and, by the extremity of the contrast calls attention to the disparity between the emotional and physical brutality of the events and his carefully composed, coolly aestheticized style.

Act of Vengeance (USA, 1974)

There’s sheer terror to be found in the rapesploitation Act Of Vengeance, but it’s not where you think it’s going to be. Also billed as Rape Squad, the 1974 film from Robert Kelljan is about a group of women who, realizing they’ve all been attacked by the same hockey-masked man demanding they sing “Jingle Bells” as he sexually assaults them, gang together and seek revenge. The all-star cast includes Caligula‘s Anneka di Lorenzo, Richard Pryor’s ex-wife Jennifer Lee, and Hullabaloo dancer Lada Edmund, Jr.. The thing is, everyone comes off as sort of—playful.

rapesquad_posterWith a modern eye, it’s hard to figure out where the scary is even supposed to be: the rapist is jocular and likeable, the “victims” largely self-assured and, for the bulk of the film, empowered. The skimpy trendy costumes—which often come off as the victim is facing the screen—and the cheesey score—which often comes on as the former comes off—mark the film exploitive, for sure. And sexual assault of any kind is certainly horrible. But this rapist spouts off one liners to undercut the horror, calling his attentions “making love,” explaining to his victims that they’re “with the best”—even in a peak moment of suspense demanding one repeat: “Thank you, mr. Rapist, for choosing me.” She does and, honestly, no one even tries for traumatized. The rape scenes are all lavish and overly sincere, our attacker more akin to a would-be wife-swapper at a dinner party. The assault scenes—even the sole vengeful one in which the rape squad ties up a perpetrator and pours a bottle of liquid on his crotch marked “acid”—are played as if the word rape stood for an abstract concept with no physical manifestation. Like kids today playing Cowboys and Indians when Wild West movies haven’t been screened in decades: the right symbols are all there, but what could they possibly mean?

Let me tell you what those symbols might stand for. A couple friends went out drinking at a bar earlier this year and got roofied. One got sick—violently ill, in fact. So spent the night on the couch of the other. She had become manic and unpredictable throughout the night, but the friends that had driven them home felt sure that, once placed in bed, she would sleep it off. They left, the two pals safely tucked in separate beds for the night.

4ea6af6034f8633bdc00ee0dIn Act Of Vengeance, the horror emerges between sexual assaults, in moments of relative peace and safety. As an on-screen officer ticks off a list of nasty but salaciously termed predicaments in which previous rape victims have found themselves under his breath, for example, the latest rape victim becomes increasingly aware that the entire squadroom is enjoying the show. “Isn’t there a policewoman that can question me?” she finally demands. Then after a grueling physical examination, another excuse for violation, the rape survivor overhears an officer say behind her back: “I wish that’d happen to me sometime. I’d just lay back and enjoy it.” A final humiliation comes when the police ask her to view a lineup with the other victims, a pointless exercise they admit is only to prove to the uppity ladies that the perpetrator will never be caught. Or, no, wait: the final final humiliation comes when our lead’s boyfriend accuses her of stepping out on him and fabricating the whole rape story. It could have come off as quaint, if women hadn’t complained to me of each of these scenarios, in 2012.

The horror here is that the backdrop to an exploitative story about a serial rapist—the moments between the horror—haven’t changed in 38 years.

My friends were drugged in advance of a sexual assault that never happened. I was supposed to visit them the day before their trial was to start. All night long the night before, I had the worst nightmares I’ve ever had in my life. I was besieged with chest palpitations, sweating profusely, with a deep-seated paranoia I couldn’t control. Twice I woke up gasping for air; twice I went back to bed with my heart clenched tightly, my mind grasping at any thin narrative that might not lead to nightmares.

Because here is the thing: a certain percentage of people, after taking Rohypnol, experience a psychotic break. One of my friends woke up in the middle of the night and violently attacked the other. The victim here—if we can use the term to refer to only one of them—refused to press charges. The attacker—if by that we mean either of the two now involved—had no memory of what had happened.

Still, the state saw an opportunity for a conviction in a violent crime case, and pressed charges, planning to disallow mention of drug use, which would complicate, if not frustrate, their story. The trial was to begin the day after I planned to visit, and my intention was to cover it as a reporter.

The case has now been dropped, after 10 months during which the intended target of a sexual assault prepared to defend her actions in court. This was in 2012. It is still true, today, true that rape itself pales when faced with the culture that surrounds it, and that the evil of rape is not borne exclusively by the rapist.

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