The phrase ‘Take back the night’ might not be familiar to everyone, but for those that know it will conjure some intense images. Women and femme-presenting people taking to the streets to protest for their freedoms and safety in a world that far too often targets, abuses, and ignores them. Get any large enough group of women together and there’s a very high chance that at least one of them will have been the victim of abuse or assault of some kind at some point in their lives. We live in a world where women are not on top, and more often than not, are pushed down.
Take Back The Night puts this at the very centre of what it’s about, and using monsters and the supernatural speaks to the way society treats women when they come forward as victims. The film tries to present this in as broad and vague a way as possible. Our central character is called Jane Doe (Emma Fitzpatrick), which is a name used for unidentified female victims in the US, and every other character goes unnamed, existing only by their titles, such as The Sister (Angela Gulner), and The Detective (Jennifer Lafleur). It’s a film that many will be able to identify with, and see their own experiences in.
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The film starts with Jane Doe, a popular internet influencer and artist, celebrating their first art exhibition. She parties into the night with friends, drinking, taking drugs, and even has sex with a man in the bathroom. When her friend gets too drunk and is thrown out, Jane gets her into a cab and sends her home, but ends up locked out of the building. Trying to find a way out of the dodgy back alley she’s in, something horrific lunges out of the shadows and assaults her.
After the attack, Jane manages to get herself to the hospital, where staff rush to help her. She’s bruised, beaten, and cut, her clothes are shredded, and she’s lost her shoes. It’s clear that she’s a victim. And the staff treat her as such. They take samples, treat her wounds with care, and a Detective comes to take her statement. After sharing the news of her attack on her social media to try and make people more aware so that they can avoid it, she begins to receive negative comments about it. Then the police call her back in, questioning why she was where she was, why she had drugs in her system, and why her story doesn’t quite make sense. As Jane tries desperately to make people believe that she’s not made up the entire incident, the thing that attacked her starts to close in on her, coming to finish the job.
It’s not hard to see how this film is making a commentary on the way our society treats victims, particularly female victims of assault and rape. Jane is judged for being where she was, she’s judged for what she was wearing, they question why she’d have been drinking, if maybe drink and drugs had her confused, if maybe she’s open to sex because she slept with someone else that night, if she did it all for attention. Those that at first believe her begin to doubt, to turn their back on her. Nothing she says is good enough for them.
And this is in part why the creators chose to make this a monster movie. In the behind-the-scenes content they talk about how if the attacker was human the focus would be on them, as it invariably is in the real world. By making it a monster the focus has to stay on the victim. By making it a monster it also makes Jane harder to believe, as who believes that monsters are real? Except, there are others who know about the monster, who have been victims of it themselves. And this works as a great metaphor for victims who are disbelieved because the person they accuse is seen as too good a person to have done something awful, too nice to be violent, too kind to be a rapist. It’s only their other victims who believe it, because they’re also victims. And just like in Take Back The Night, it doesn’t matter how many victims come together, if their story is seen as too factious it will never be believed.
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The film also shines a light on how those who are supposed to believe you – your family, law enforcement – can quickly turn against you. They will find any holes in your story and use it to tear it apart. And when Jane is forced to recant her story because of threat of criminal charges against her for ‘wasting police time’ it hits particularly hard for anyone who has ever been bullied by police, who’s ever been disbelieved by them. And all of this happens to a white, cisgender, conventionally attractive, able bodied, popular woman. All of the things that are supposed to bring her privilege fall by the wayside when she tries to make the story of her abuse known.
The filmmakers have also made a subtly clever move of having no men in the film, other than as background extras. The only time men appear are as the faceless voice of the man Jane sleeps with at the start, the off-screen voice of the police officer who takes her through a lie detector, and a man who refuses to help her, locking her into a situation that ends in her assault, because when asked to do one simple thing he responded with “What’s in it for me?”. It stands out that of the three men who have an impact in the story, one is who Jane chooses to sleep with, but leads to her assault being disbelieved; one refuses to help her, leading to her being assaulted; and the other is a police officer who refuses to believe her. Even with such a tiny presence in the film men have a hugely damaging impact upon events.
That’s not to say that the women do much better. Any kind of sisterhood that you’d expect is short lived. No one comes to help or comfort Jane for long. Her Sister quickly criticises the way she handles things, and questions the way she lives her life, implying that those choices led to her assault. The female Detective who at first was a comforting help to her refuses to believe her, twists her statements, and forces her to say she made the whole thing up. The Reporter (Sibongile Mlambo) who offers to help tell her story turns it into a public attack, a chance to shame and degrade a victim in order to further herself. The film reflects the sad reality that even those who you believe should be the most sympathetic to your plight can victimise you further.
Ironically, even the person who performs as the monster is female, although whether this is further commentary on how women can abuse and harm other women, or simply to stick with all the principal leads being women is unclear. The monster itself might be the weakest part of the film in the sense that the effects around it, the darkness that surrounds it, the brief glimpses of flesh we see poking through, are all CGI, and fairly poor looking CGI at that. The creature feels like something from a much worse film than this, a throwaway monster from a B-movie that’s only out to make a few bucks, rather than a film that clearly has a lot to say. But if you can ignore the quality of the monster, and instead see it as the thing it represents, you’ll have a much better experience.
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The Blu-ray release comes with a variety of extras, including several short video essays from film critics and feminist writers, a theatrical trailer, and image galleries. There’s also a full length commentary with Gia Elliot, the co-writer and director of the film, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study, which takes a look at the making of the movie, and the messages it contains.
I’ve seen some reviews for Take Back The Night that have called it a cheap, shallow monster movie, and I guess if you’re coming at it without examining what it’s actually about then you can take it as some cheap entertainment (and you won’t be surprised by the genders of the folks giving it incredibly low scores). However, as a film with more substance, and with something to say, it’s a hell of a film. A clear feminist horror, that takes an unflinching look at violence and sexual assault against women, I think that it will surprise a great many.
Take Back The Night is out on Blu-ray on 10th October from Arrow Video.