With Rod Lurie’s new Straw Dogs coming to theaters on September 16th, we wanted to take this chance to look at some of the best revenge movies ever made with our list of the Top Ten Bloody Rampages in movies. From the Mariachi to Jason Voorhees to The Bride, movies have long had a love affair with wronged heroes seeking vengeance. These are ten of the best films to spring from that torrid night of passion and wreak havoc upon the world. These are the Top Ten Bloody Rampages (well… besides Straw Dogs anyway).
10. SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (dir. Tim Burton, 2007)
Tim Burton loves to pay homage to horror, but with the slight exception of Sleepy Hollow (also pretty much a revenge movie) he’d never really made a gory film until 2007’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, an adaptation of Steven Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 Broadway musical. Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a mild-mannered barber wrongly imprisoned by a judge (Harry Potter’s Alan Rickman) because he fancied Benjamin’s wife. Barker returns to London fifteen years later under the name of Sweeney Todd and sets up a barbershop above Helena Bonham Carter’s meat pie shop. Todd takes out his rage on his clientele, slicing their throats and dropping them down a trap door where his accomplice cooks them into her – suddenly very popular – pies. As Rickman comes ever closer to needing a trim, the downfall of Sweeney Todd becomes increasingly inevitable, ending in a tragic bloodbath. Not Burton’s best film, but a sumptuous feast for the vengeful senses regardless.
9. DESPERADO (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1995)
Robert Rodriguez followed up his ultra-low budget 1992 mistaken identity action movie El Mariachi with 1995’s Desperado, a sequel which found his once-hapless protagonist (now played by Antonio Banderas) on a bloody rampage throughout Mexico. They killed the woman he loved, so now he kills just about everyone in sight. In addition to the wall-to-wall shoot outs, Rodriguez explores some interesting ideas about both revenge and the myth of the vengeful in Desperado, introducing us to a lackey played by Steve Buscemi whom our hero uses to spread his (increasingly legendary) tale to incite fear in his potential victims, and the moral struggle of a hero who once was a good man but now kills for catharsis. The climax is extremely abrupt (the big final shootout was reportedly cut from the finished version for pacing reasons), but until then Desperado is a bloody good revenge story.
8. PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP (dir. Brian Helgeland, 1999/2007)
When the Mel Gibson-starring revenge thriller Payback premiered in 1999 it had a blue tint and an ending that found Gibson tortured in a martyr-ish fashion. Those were Mel’s ideas. Original writer/director Brian Helgeland (working from a novel by the legendary Donald E. Westlake) had been booted off the project, for reasons that don’t make any damned sense once you see his infinitely superior director’s cut Payback: Straight Up. Richer cinematography, a more complicated tone (Mel Gibson is much of a bad guy in the 2007 version) and an old-fashioned noir ending make this the ultimate version of Payback, the story of a criminal betrayed by his girlfriend and partner who comes back for his share of the loot. He’s a bastard, but he’s a bastard with principles, and that makes him invincible. Smart, occasionally very funny, and filled with memorable acts of revenge. John Boorman’s classic Point Blank was based on the same story, and has a more manic energy to it, but is so mired in the 1960s that younger audiences might be turned off by it. Sucks to be them.
7. THE FRIDAY THE 13TH FRANCHISE (Multiple Directors, 1980-2009)
Not particularly good movies – with the exception of the second one at least – the Friday the 13th movies tell the story of a woman whose son drowned because his summer camp counselors were selfish bastards, and proceeds to go on a killing spree. After she’s decapitated at the end of the first film, her son – still alive, but not right in the head – takes brutal revenge against teenagers everywhere for Mommy’s death. Calling the Friday the 13th movies intellectually stimulating would be a brutal lie, but for unbridled bloody mayhem it may be the ultimate revenge saga: one in which the villain’s reasonable grievances lead him to acts of grizzly murder that no one in the audience fully blames him for. This is at least partly because most of the “heroes” are spectacularly badly written and/or acted, so killing them is a relief, but we also give extra credit to any revenge saga that manages to last longer than ten movies and still capture the audience’s imagination.
6. MEMENTO (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Christopher Nolan’s breakout feature (his second, after Following) told a most unusual revenge story. The set-up starts out simple, with a man (Guy Pearce) seeking bloody revenge against the man who murdered his wife, but gets complicated when we learn that our hero has no short term memory, and forgets everything that happened to him more than a few minutes ago. Nolan – now famous for his Batman movies – smartly realizes this unusual mental state by showing the film backwards, so the audience knows just as much as the hero does in any given scene, but also slowly acquires more information than the protagonist about the shocking nature of his bloody rampage. Some people say Memento is a “gimmick” movie, and they’re right, but the gimmick is so thoroughly ingrained into the story that it wouldn’t work any other way.
5. THE CROW (dir. Alex Proyas, 1994)
Alex Proyas’s 1994 classic The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee, who tragically died during production. Draven’s fiancé was brutalized and murdered, and Draven himself killed by the same street thugs, so he returns one year later to exact vengeance on the bastards responsible. The original comic book by James O’Barr was written in response to his girlfriend’s tragic death at the hands of a drunk driver, and that gloom and empty catharsis permeates every frame of this movie as well. Proyas’s world is a dark and tragic one and the Dravens’ death is but a symptom, and Brandon Lee’s iconic performance captures the madness, sadness and also the sliver of hope to be found in O’Barr’s melancholy world. “It can’t rain all the time,” but it sure as hell seems to.
4. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1973)
Clint Eastwood’s second directorial effort after the stalker thriller Play Misty for Me drew upon all of his western experiences. High Plains Drifter is an otherworldly revenge tale that takes the influence of Sergio Leone and strips away all the extemporaneous fun, replacing it instead of with pessimism and vengeance. Eastwood plays a mysterious stranger who wanders into a hopelessly corrupt town and, after laying waste to anyone foolish enough to screw with him, agrees to help defend them from a gang of criminals with a grudge in exchange for being made lord and master of the town. Eastwood’s demands go beyond teaching the townsfolk humility – he simply humiliates them – and he ultimately turns his hand to his own nightmarish act of revenge… but revenge against whom? High Plains Drifter remains as unexpectedly brutal and powerful today as it was when it was first released.
3. KILL BILL VOLUMES 1 & 2 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003 & 2004)
Quentin Tarantino brings extemporaneous fun back to our list with Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, two films with so many different filmic influences that cataloguing them all might be impossible to anyone but Tarantino himself. But the adventures of Uma Thurman’s heroine, who makes it through most of the series without a name, take her on an instantly iconic roaring rampage of revenge across the globe and through such wild cinematic styles as Shaw Brothers martial arts epics, Giallos, Yakuza crime sagas, Westerns and everything in between. The centerpiece, which finds Thurman massacring a gang of thugs called “The Crazy 88,” may be the obvious highlight, but the intimate brutality of the second installment is what really sticks in your craw. As splashy as it is excellent, and that’s a lot of both.
2. OLDBOY (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2003)
The cult favorite Oldboy rocketed into cinemas in 2003, and although it initially made headlines for the infamous scene in which the protagonist ate a live squid on camera, the film’s unforgettable revenge story is what made it popular enough to warrant an upcoming remake from American director Spike Lee. Choi Min-sik stars as Oh Dae-su, a normal guy who is mysteriously imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. When he is suddenly released without explanation, he embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge to find the people responsible and bring them to justice. What he discovers, in an unforgettable finale, is that he himself was also victim of… you guessed it… a roaring rampage of revenge. To reveal the exact nature of the twist would be an exercise in cruelty: see it for yourself, but do it in a carpeted room. When your jaw drops to the floor you’ll want it to hit something soft.
1. CAPE FEAR (dirs. J. Lee Thompson & Martin Scorsese, 1962 & 1991)
Our picks for the best damned revenge movie ever is a tie between Cape Fear and, well… Cape Fear. J. Lee Thompson’s original potboiler found an idyllic family man played by Gregory Peck the victim of threats and ultimately actual violence from a recently released criminal against whom he testified. Robert Mitchum brings his inimitably calm, screwed up persona to the film, which is light on violence but has such a strong slow burn that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in it. But Martin Scorsese’s exceptional 1991 remake ups the ante in every single way, from a stellar cast (Nick Nolte takes the Gregory Peck Role, Robert DeNiro inherits Mitchum’s, and Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Illeana Douglas and even Peck and Mitchum make appearances as well) to a powerful dynamic cinematic style that makes every scene ooze with both life and the threat of death. Arachnophobia writer Wesley Strick’s screenplay improves on the original with a bullet proof plotline, more complex characters and a fresh sexual energy to the proceedings, and the climactic struggle is as intense as they come. Both films are excellent but Scorsese’s may actually be one of his very best films, and boy howdy does that say something.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BLOODY RAMPAGE IN MOVIES…?