Extremities Review

Extremities is a nasty, exploitative, high-minded and worthless film. Like so many similar wastes of celluloid - see Enough for a recent example - it trashes the serious issues it pretends to be exploring and panders to the worst instincts of the audience. It's considerably more offensive than simple-minded rubbish like Death Wish 2 or even a controversial cult item like I Spit On Your Grave because of its overwhelming sense of smugness as it presents its pathetic scraps of would-be irony and asks us to be impressed. The sole virtue, one good performance, is pretty depressing in such tawdry circumstances.

This simplistic story of attempted rape and protracted revenge concerns Marjorie (Fawcett), a woman who survives an attempted rape and reports it to the police only to be fobbed off with platitudes and half-sincere assurances of vigilance. Deeply upset by the experience and worried that, having stolen her handbag, he will seek her out for another try, she closets herself in the house she shares with two other women, Terry (Scarwid) and Patricia (Woodard). But one day, left alone and car-less in the house, Marjorie is visited by her attacker, Joe (Russo), who initially appears to be a pleasant stranger but rapidly reveals his true colours. He humiliates and physically assaults her with the clear intention of violently rape but Marjorie manages, after a lengthy attack, to disarm him with some insect spray and begins to turn the tables.

Standard stuff, in other words; a lengthy assault sequence being used to justify an equally lengthy revenge scene. This is established practice in a genre which has, one would have hoped, been played out more than enough by now. There is a division - almost entirely artificial - between 'respectable' and 'unacceptable' examples of the genre. On the one hand, you have this film, Lipstick, The Accused and Death Wish, which claim protection from criticism through the defence of 'social responsibility' or 'serious motives'. The rapes can be shown in as much detail as can pass the censor so long as its clearly understood that this is purely and simply to establish that rape is a very bad thing indeed, so bad that we have to see it to understand how bad it is. The revenge is usually instant justice courtesy of whatever weapon comes to hand, although in The Accused - as tawdry and exploitative a major film as you could hope never to see - it's justice from the Courts and an Oscar for Jodie. By the last third of that acclaimed movie, it's been pretty well explained to us that rape is a bad thing and gang rape is a very bad thing - both things that we surely knew before we went into the cinema. But just in case we've missed this, the rape is then shown in gloatingly voyeuristic fashion from a supposedly objective camera angle. In most other films of this type, violent assault is used as a prima-facie case for violent execution and all of us liberals in the audience are made to feel like idiots for bothering to believe in things like the presumption of innocence and the judicial process. It's essential of course for these things to be trashed first and there are inevitable scenes in which either police or courts (or both) are shown to be impotent. There is some evidence that the police have often been less than sympathetic in the past when dealing with rape victims and there is equal evidence that courts can produce verdicts which leave you weeping for the injustice experienced by the victim. But these films simplify everything they touch and spit on the days, sometimes years, of hard work put in by police officers and representatives of the courts to put away countless numbers of rapists for every one that is set free. Society is represented as totally useless, the ability of the individual to defend themselves is the only thing that 'we' can rely upon.

What's interesting is that in the independent, often 'unacceptable' films tend to be far more morally complex than the big-budget mainstream films. Abel Ferrara's brilliant MS 45: Angel of Vengeance offers a picture of patriarchal society in obvious crisis that totally outguns any of the previously mentioned films in moral complexity and intelligence. Even Meir Zarchi's much despised I Spit On Your Grave offers something very rare - a hellishly long rape which is deliberately presented from the point of view of the victim with camera angles that are, to the best of my knowledge, almost unique in the way they emphasise the dehumanisation of the rapists as the victim sees them. The only other example I can think of in recent years is the presentation of the rapes in Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever. In the second half of Zarchi's film, Camille Keaton - giving a remarkable performance - presents a complex picture of a woman whose trauma at the hands of the rapists has led to a sense of both anger and self-justification, willing to do or say anything to get even. After each murder, a process which she is clearly beginning to relish, she becomes more self-assured, more independent and is photographed to look more glowingly beautiful, the focus becoming softer until at the end she's photographed like a glamour model in a shampoo commercial. Her beauty is genuinely unnerving. The film is often incompetently directed, ideologically flawed and trashily exploitative but it's got more genuine ideas than any of its more respectable counterparts. The common complaint that the revenge scenes are perfunctory when set beside the rape scenes is, it seems to me, totally wrong.

I've discussed this at some length because I think it's the key to why Extremities is such a vile movie. In its trashy little way, a minor movie like I Spit On Your Grave has some interesting things to say. Extremities doesn't even get this far. What it seems to want to say is that, fundamentally, we're all animals and we will go as far as we possibly can to defend ourselves. Well that's nothing new; Peckinpah's Straw Dogs says something similar but his film genuinely explores the issue and ends up with an ambivalence which is very disturbing. Extremities presents this conclusion as something profound in itself but manages to be rather insulting in the process. Not only is it content to shit on any possibility of hope in the legal system, it goes on to present the victim as a pathetic doormat who becomes a brutal sadist in the space of ten minutes and portrays the women around her as useless fence-sitters who believe the rapist's story over their friends. It's a staple of the genre that the rapist will be presented as sub-human scum who says sleazy things like "Ya got no cum in your snatch" and "They lock me up, I get out and I get you" while posturing in a manner which suggests he learnt the Method from someone who once sat next to Lee Strasberg on a bus. But what's particularly horrible about Extremities is that the small-minded nihilism of the concept suggests that everyone is either scum or pathetic at base. It's one thing suggesting that a rape victim might feel traumatised enough to resort to violence to defend herself but it's quite another to suggest that, at heart, she's just as animalistic as her attacker. It's insulting to suggest that her friends feel so little for her that they would be so hopeless as to leave her on her own without transport in a secluded house, especially simply in order to go shopping. It's also offensive to suggest that sadism is the automatic result of defending oneself. There's no attempt here to understand the psychology of a rape victim or even the processes by which she might come to terms with the attack. Every single suggestion the film makes that it's saying something significant is totally false.

It even fails on a basic dramatic level. Marjorie is a cardboard figure with no inner life at all as far as we can see and she comes across as such a pathetic wimp that it's hard not to shout at her as she's meekly obeying all of Joe's increasingly ludicrous commands. She's not weak for any dramatic purpose other than to facilitate the worm-that-turns plotline and, consequently, the change, when it comes, is completely unconvincing, not least because it happens in a single afternoon. It might have conceivably worked on stage where the heat of a live performance could transform the material but it's a dead duck on screen. Her friends are pathetically insubstantial figures with one facet each - Patricia is the organised, sensible one, Terry goes to pieces - and Joe is a hilariously over the top thug. The performances are pretty dismal, despite the usually reliable presence of Diana Scarwid and Alfre Woodard, neither of whom are given much to work with. James Russo is way over the top throughout, especially when he's meant to be appearing like a normal guy.

The only possible reason to give this film even one mark out of ten is Farrah Fawcett. Having spent most of the second half of the seventies trying to persuade us that she was a proper actress and not just one of Charlie's Angels, she produced some good work in TV films like Murder In Texas and The Burning Bed. She's obviously trying very hard here and you could weep for her that she's not given a better backdrop for her efforts. Even so, she manages some powerful moments in the first half and her determined hamming in the second half is the only reasonable response to the script and the two-fisted direction. Robert M Young can't do anything to hide his basically voyeuristic intentions, gloating over the scenes of humiliation - all shot to emphasise Fawcett's distress - and using show-off rotating camera moves for no discernible reason other than to distract us from what he's really doing. He adopts the same nasty, voyeuristic intrusiveness towards the scenes where Joe is being tortured. Now you might well say that Meir Zarchi does the same thing in I Spit On Your Grave and you'd be right but here's the difference; at no point does Zarchi pretend his film is anything but exploitation. The interest of that film is incidental to its main purpose. Young's film wants to be serious art and falls short by several miles. Give me trash over bad art every time.

The Disc

This is an MGM back catalogue release and is consequently a run-of-the-mill DVD containing only a trailer in the way of extras.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced. The picture quality is generally good with strong colours, given the limited palate used, and plenty of detail. The cinematography is no more than competent, generally resembling a made for TV movie, so the film looks about as good here as it is ever going to do. Blacks are solid, there isn't a problem with grain and artifacting occurs only sporadically.

The soundtrack is a straightforward transfer of the original mono soundtrack. The main focus of the film - the dialogue - is clearly rendered and the music track sounds fine (fine, that is, given the truly horrible nature of the songs chosen).

The only extra is the self-important theatrical trailer which treats the film as a significant cultural event. We get the usual 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.

An appalling film has been given a perfunctory DVD release. If you're interested in the film then this disc is quite acceptable. Otherwise, avoid.

Film
1 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

2

out of 10

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