In 2006 Alexandre Aja remade Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, and I hated it. It consistently shows up on "Best Horror Remakes" lists, and so it is pretty safe to say that the film has its fans, but I cannot understand why. It is torture porn, through and through. There are no genuine scares - instead there are cheap shocks. There's no tension - instead there are long scenes of intense onscreen violence and mutilation. That's nothing new. The same things could be said for the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I simply disliked. It was the rape scene that made me hate The Hills Have Eyes.
Rape is a difficult topic for discussion, because there are people for whom it is never acceptable in a film. On horror message boards you often come across arguments about whether a rape scene was gratuitous or unnecessary. And one of the defences for inclusion is that, "murder is worse than rape, and murder is shown all the time." Which is a bit of a cop-out answer. While there may not be many people who have lived through an attack by nuclear waste mutated hill mutants, there are millions of survivors of rape.
There is an equally graphic rape scene in the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When I saw it in theatres, two women got up and walked out, stopping at the exit to yell, "Enjoy your rape porn," at the audience. At the time my response was anger and indignation. This was my second time seeing the film, and I thought the scene was anything but gratuitous. It was graphic and painful to watch, but the focus was on the victim, and the effects the attack had on the character. It is a horrible depiction of a horrible act, but it was trying to say something and show something rather than just horrify and titillate. But while it is possible that the two women who yelled the accusation at the audience were being judgemental and harsh, it is just as possible that the rape scene took them by surprise and shocked and hurt them.
So when I say that the scene in Hills Have Eyes is gratuitous and over the line, I am not saying that there is no place in movies for uncomfortable depictions of rape. But in Hills Have Eyes, the rape is just as shallow as the murders. The murders are brutal and protracted because being brutal is easier than being imaginative - because showing torture is an easier way to put a knot in people's stomachs than building tension or suspense. The difference is that the murders are lazy and stupid and cruel to the characters while the rape is lazy and stupid and cruel to the characters and the huge chunk of the audience that has had sexual violence in their lives.
I think there is a place for all kinds of violence in good horror. It doesn't even have to be trying to make a broad societal point. And I don't think horror has an obligation to be more than a scary movie. But if rape is going to be involved, it should be for the real reasons that rape is horrifying - because the woman is a human being and she is not being treated like one.