Uterus Horror: ‘Raw’ Is a Coming-of-Age Story With Bite
In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focus on the uniquely female experience of puberty and coming into their sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror.
This month, Uterus Horror is going international with 2017’s hit film Raw. Written and directed by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, Raw quickly garnered attention as rumors spread about festival goers passing out or vomiting due to the graphic nature of content. Yet it has become a favorite amongst horror fans because of the compelling story and stunning visuals.
Raw follows a young student, Justine (Garance Marillier), as she enters veterinary school. Raised a vegetarian, Justine gets her first taste of meat during a hazing ritual. She has an allergic reaction, causing her skin to break out in a horrible rash. Even more strange, is that the meat awakens a hunger inside her. At first, she thinks it’s for more meat, but she soon realizes the craving is for human flesh. As her cannibalistic urges grow, so does her sexual desire. Justine is forced to come to terms with her bizarre tastes while also embracing her sexuality and, ultimately, losing her virginity.
When I first saw Raw back in 2017 and reviewed it for The Blogging Banshee, I instantly connected with the film. That bond is partly because I adore Uterus Horror films, but it’s also because Raw, in many ways, is very similar to Ginger Snaps. I previously wrote an early Uterus Horror entry for Fangoria diving into why Ginger Snaps is one of my favorite films of all time and how it brought about a “Uterus Horror” resurgence. Both titles use horror to emphasize and exacerbate puberty, tying the character’s affliction directly to their sexuality–even showcasing the often volatile relationships between sisters. Raw may use cannibalism to emphasize the horrors of being a young woman rather than lycanthropy, but the effect remains the same.
Justine is immediately presented as more youthful than everyone else in the film. While her age is never explicitly expressed and she is in college, there are still several hints that she is likely at least a year or two younger. Justine presents more childlike and innocent than everyone around her, even revealing early on that she is a virgin, and different characters refer to how smart she is, implying she likely skipped a grade (or whatever the French equivalent of that would be). Her experiences are ones that an average aged college student could experience, but her being younger makes the events fall in line more with what we typically see in Uterus Horror films.
Her youth and the fact that she was previously sheltered by her parents makes Justine’s time at the veterinary school a world of firsts. While the other students likely have been to parties and participated in at least some level of sexual activity, everything is new for Justine. She has escaped the protective bubble her parents created and is forced to navigate the world on her own. During the earlier scenes of parties and other new experiences with her classmates, Justine is an observer. She only participates when coerced by upperclassman, and it’s during one of these hazing rituals that Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. This moment becomes the catalyst that ignites her cannibal cravings.
The way this first bite of meat affects Justine in Raw leans towards a biological explanation rather than a supernatural or psychological one. That rabbit organ causes Justine to break out in a terrible rash across her entire body, but it also sparks a hunger from within. Finding she’s not satisfied by her usual vegetarian diet, Justine tries—and fails—eating other kinds of meat. Seeking advice leads to a very unfortunate waxing incident with Justine’s sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), that results in Alexia losing half of her finger. Justine gets her first taste of human blood and flesh and quickly realizes it was what she had been seeking since her first mouthful of animal parts.
As if her reaction to animal meat vs human flesh wasn’t enough to convey the biological component of Justine’s “affliction,” there is a familial connection that makes it even more apparent. After Justine eats her sister’s finger, Alexia reveals she too eats human flesh, although her methods are much more extreme and murderous.
The sexual component in Raw emerges at the same time as the cannibalism. After Justine eats Alexia’s finger, she begins to feel a sexual desire that was not present before. It begins with Justine kissing a classmate in a hazing ritual, but she ends up biting a chunk out of his lip and escalates to a very disturbing sex scene with her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). As Justine loses her virginity to Adrien, she goes into a very primal and violent state where she clearly is trying to bite him but instead bites her own arm until she draws blood. It becomes clear that sexual and cannibalistic desires go hand-in-hand. A closing scene with Justine’s father also reinforces this idea, as he explains the scar on his upper lip was from the first time he kissed Justine’s mother. Based on what we saw with Justine’s first sexual encounter and the bite scars all over the father’s body, one could surmise that Justine’s mother takes a bite out of the father each time they’re intimate.
Raw executes an emerging trope common in Uterus Horror by showcasing a complex relationship between sisters Alexia and Justine. At first, the sisters seem distant, highlighting the fact that they are at different points in their lives and development. It’s not until Alexia sees Justine eating the finger that the two discover their commonalities and become closer. Yet relationships between sisters can be volatile and turn on a dime. Obviously, Ducournau takes this to an extreme place because of the film’s themes. The last 20 or so minutes of Raw really focus on this aspect as the sisters get into a violent physical altercation one moment, but then try to help each other when outsiders get involved. The quick change from wanting to kill each other to protect each other is an unsettlingly accurate depiction of relationships between sisters, emphasized by the more disturbing side of Uterus Horror.
Ducournau’s film was well-received at film festivals across the world. Raw won awards at many of these festivals, including Austin Fantastic Film Fest, Cannes Film Festival, Stiges, London Film Festival, Monster Fest, and more. Despite these accolades, Raw didn’t necessarily earn much at the box office, but it has quickly developed a cult following. This is unfortunately quite common with Uterus Horror titles. The film is estimated to have had a budget of approximately $4 million, yet according to IMDB, it grossed just over $3 million internationally. Only about $500,000 of that was from its US release, which is surprising considering it is currently sitting at a 92% Tomatometer score and a 76% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s possible the underwhelming U.S. box office for Raw had something to do with many American viewers’ disinterest in foreign/subtitled cinema. In the past 10 years, there has been a surge of Uterus Horror films like Raw, with the majority coming out just in the past five years. I truly believe if the film had been made in English, it would have been a bigger financial success in the states. That being said, it has grown in popularity since its initial release, especially just in the past year once it hit big streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu.
Raw contains all the classic hallmarks of a great Uterus Horror film. It depicts Justine, already an outcast for being younger and more sheltered than her peers, as she discovers her sexuality. Justine’s sexual exploration is highlighted and exacerbated by the simultaneous discovery of her penchant for human flesh. Despite not amassing blockbuster box office returns during its theatrical run, Raw has great critical acclaim and has only been growing in popularity among horror fans over the years. It has a plot reminiscent of Ginger Snaps and the acclaim and wider appeal of what I’ve dubbed the original Uterus Horror film, Carrie. Ducournau created quite a masterpiece with Raw that exemplifies my subgenre, one that stands out from the crowd with a compelling story of sisterhood and sexuality, complete with shockingly ravenous “mealtime” visuals.