We as humans love the concept of revenge. While plenty of philosophers and philanthropists have preached the dangers of seeking it (“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” blah, blah, blah), few things are more appealing to our basest instincts than seeing equal or greater pain and punishment rained down upon wrongdoers. Countless films have played on this guiltiest of pleasures, though some of the best ones show that the exacting of revenge is not without its own consequences.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – This is the first film in director Chan-Wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” that is unfortunately overshadowed by its darker follow-up, Oldboy. It follows Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a deaf mute who sells his own kidney on the black market in hopes of gaining one to give to his dying sister who is in need of a transplant. When he gets ripped off, he kidnaps the daughter of his former boss, Park (Kang-ho Song), and holds her for ransom. Unforeseen tragedies complicate the simple plan, and both men set out on separate streaks of revenge before they inevitably intersect.
Oldboy (2003) – Don’t give any time or money to Spike Lee’s insipid remake (thankfully, most people didn’t – HA!) before taking this one in. A man (Min-sik Choi) is inexplicably kidnapped and held in captivity for 15 years before being released and told he has five days to find the person responsible. His search for answers is a cold and bloody one. If you’re lucky enough to see it for the first time without having anything spoiled beforehand, you are in for an expertly made gut punch of a thriller.
Kill Bill (2003) – Quentin Tarantino’s larger-than-life (do we expect anything less at this point?) revenge film is about The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) globe-trotting reprisal against the team of assassins, led by Bill (David Carradine), that shot her and left her for dead on her wedding day. The blood sprays and the archaic spaghetti Western score blares in Tarantino’s trademark tongue-in-cheek style.
Straw Dogs (1971) – A former “video nasty” once vilified for being sadistic and misogynistic, this one seems relatively tame in today’s post-torture porn horror landscape. David (Dustin Hoffman) is a nerdy mathematician who moves to England with his wife to escape the violence of American life. He’s an immediate social outcast among the blue-collar men in the town. His wife is assaulted and raped at the film’s halfway point, leading to tensions that culminate in sort of a grown-up Home Alone-style showdown as the former pacifist fights to keep the assailants out of his house. James Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman, either, so don’t pass this one up in favor of the 2011 remake. Oh, and as a bonus, if you see this you’ll pick up on some hilarious sight gags in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
I Spit On Your Grave (2010) – In this remake of another controversial ‘70s exploitation film, a young writer (Sarah Butler) retreats to a cabin in the woods in hopes of getting some work done. Naturally she runs afoul of some less-than-gentlemanly local boys who rape her, torment her, and leave her for dead. After she recovers, she finds them and serves them each a much-deserved (and completely over the top for any non-Saw film) comeuppance. If the phrase “shotgun enema” turns you off, this one might be a little beyond your temperament.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005) – Rob Zombie’s sequel to House of 1000 Corpses continues the story of the Firefly family, with Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Captain Spaulding (Sig Haig) going on the run after a police siege at their farmhouse. In hot pursuit is Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe), who has planned some above-the-law payback for the murder of his cop brother George in the previous film. Content aside, Rob Zombie made a huge stride forward as a filmmaker with this one (even if he undid the good will with his Halloween remake).
Red, White & Blue – This is easily the most nihilistic and depressing film on this list (and given the next entry, that’s saying something), yet it’s not without its artistic merits. Morally devoid Erica (Amanda Fuller) drifts through Texas sleeping with as many random men as she can, not telling them that she is HIV-positive. She forms a bond with the similarly disaffected Nate (Noah Taylor), but gets in trouble when one of her one night stands contracts the virus and comes looking for blood. The film definitely feels like a meandering indie drama for the first two acts before the intensity and violence ratchet way up in the last half hour.
The Last House On The Left (1972) – In this punishing first feature from horror maestro Wes Craven, two teenage girls are captured by a gang of vicious prison escapees led by Krug (David Hess) while on their way to a rock concert. The criminals drive to the secluded country woods where they rape and torture the girls for the whole second act of the film before killing them. In an ironic twist, the murderers unknowingly seek shelter with the parents of one of the dead girls. Once the parents figure out who they are, it’s payback time. The film looks cheap and dated, although the age and grit of the film stock and verite shooting style add to its harsh realism. You may need a shower after this one.
I Saw the Devil (2010) – The Koreans seem to have a bit of a corner on the revenge market with this being their third and arguably most horrifying film listed here. Initially restricted in its own country on account of its violence, it’s about secret service agent Kim’s (Byung-hun Lee) quest for vengeance against serial killer Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Min-Sik Choi) who butchered his pregnant girlfriend. You realize the film strays from the formula, though, when the two men meet and fight a quarter of the way through the film, and Kim lets the killer go. He doesn’t just want Kyung-chul to die; he wants him to suffer first. This leads to a great and incredibly brutal cat-and-mouse game that actually has a fair amount of humor…provided you like your laughs black, blue, and bloody.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Bet you didn’t see this one coming. While genre fans would classify it as a horror/fantasy/slasher film (which it is), most people forget the motives behind Freddy’s (Robert Englund) initial teenage dreamland massacre. As explained in the first film, Fred Krueger was a child murderer responsible for the kidnappings and deaths of several children in the town of Springwood, Ohio. After being released on a technicality after a police screw-up, the children’s parents went vigilante and firebombed the building where Krueger was hiding, burning him alive. Years later, though, Freddy returned in his scarred, spectral form to seek his own vengeance by continuing to kill the Elm Street children in their sleep. It’s a considerably more “fun” film than Craven’s Last House, and kick-started one of the most beloved and enduring franchises in horror history.