The rape revenge movie is at once a relic of more sensationalist horror era, and a genre that feels forever relevant. From its bloody, borderline-pornographic roots in 1970s movies like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left, the plotline of women characters or their loved ones enacting revenge on rapists persists in cunning vigilantism of a character like Lisbeth Salander and the blurred sexual boundaries of Elle. As long as we live in a world in which sexual violence is so frequently unpunished, the rape revenge horror movie will remain a glorious, gruesome fantasy.
Gerald’s Game, the Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s book of the same name, is not a rape revenge movie on its surface. Its central character, Jessie, does not emerge from the near-dead, as so many B-movie heroines have, to torture and mutilate the man who hurt her. It’s not a movie in which sexual assault is a flash of violence that can be vindicated with an applause-raising bloodbath, and the bad men here aren’t grizzly townies or masked attackers who jump out from the shadows but the people closest to you. But Gerald’s Game is a movie about overcoming the terror of rape—one which confronts the often lifelong harm sexual assault can inflict on women—while correcting enduring rape tropes in the horror genre.
When Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) drive up to their lake house for a weekend, the goal is to spice up their sex life. For Gerald, that means shackling Jessie to the bed in handcuffs and pretending he’s going to rape her. When she resists the offensive game, Gerald decides he’s going to go forward with it anyway, but this time “sweetly,” as if that somehow makes it bearable. But before he can, he suffers a heart attack and drops dead on the floor. With nobody around for miles, and her cellphone just a few inches out of reach, Jessie is left stranded.
Despite its small cast and location, Gerald’s Game never feels tedious. This is in part because of director and editor Mike Flanagan, who proved his talent for minimalist horror with 2016's Hush, but also because Jessie never seems alone. As the hours pass, without food and water, she begins to hallucinate. She’s visited by Gerald, who says that she should have seen this coming. He’s been sexually violent with her in the past and remember that one time at a party, when he told that joke? “What is a woman?” he asks. “A life support system for a cunt,” Jessie replies wearily. Not once did she ever object to that, Gerald says. And while he’s there, he might as well point out how little Jessie is doing to get out of this mess, yelling at his corpse to wake up when she could be yelling for more help.
As a foil to Gerald, who represents Jessie’s internal impulses to victim-blame herself, a stronger, free vision of Jessie emerges besides him. This spiritual guide and doppelganger tells her that there’s something in Jessie’s past that she needs to face before she can find the strength to get out of the handcuffs. She needs to remember the man who “put her in chains long before Gerald did,” the father who made her promise to never tell their little secret when she was just a teenager. And what is already a tense, physical thriller becomes a simultaneous unraveling of the sexual trauma Jessie has kept buried for years.
Rape and sexual assault continue as narrative devices in horror movies to varying (bad) degrees of sensitivity; last year’s Don’t Breathe used it for gross torture porn effect, while the rape and murder narrative of Nocturnal Animals rendered its female characters disposable. It’s unfortunately somewhat novel, then, to see the female horror heroine of Gerald’s Game overcome in ways that don’t a) further objectify her or b) envision her as strong only insofar as she is murderous.
The heroine of the traditional rape revenge movie, after surviving violent circumstances and being left for dead, transforms into an instrument of violence herself. The fantasy is that, by killing the rapist, the crime has been vindicated; these men can’t hurt her anymore. Gerald’s Game recognizes that it’s not that simple, that the aftermath of sexual assault can linger long after the bad guys have perished. And for Jessie, the only person she must kill at the end of the movie is the version of herself who is unable to validate and work through the trauma of her past.