The news that Anchor Bay has taken the rights to a second sequel to the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave first made me despair that anyone would wish to franchise rape revenge. Then it made me reach back a few years and dig out a piece I wrote on the first blu-ray release of the original 1978 film. I’ve given this a light rewrite from the version first put online in 2010.
I should forewarn you that this isn’t really a review, more an essay/comment piece and as such will thoroughly spoil the film’s plot (such as it is possible to ‘spoil’ I Spit on Your Grave). Also while the majority of the original video nasties are now rather quaint, this one and a few others (Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left, and House on the Edge of the Park spring to mind) retain their power to shock and appall. As such the plot details may offend. If in doubt, do not read on.
Why do you watch horror films?
It’s a vexing question, so much so that books have been written, college courses taught, newspaper columns filled, exploring, debating and decrying the genre. Filmmakers have examined the effect and attraction of viewing violent imagery in films that include Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
Incredulous outsiders to the genre often ask the horror fan some version of this question. And you know there’s always that tone to it right? An assumption that there is something distasteful/twisted/sick about enjoying this kind of material. Man, why do you watch those gnarly movies?
Then you come across a film like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave and it seems like a very pertinent question indeed.
The plot of I Spit On Your Grave is perfunctory. Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton) leaves New York for a rented rural house where she plans to write a novel. Close to her destination, she stops for gas and catches the attention of garage attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor) and his friends Andy and Stanley.
Once she arrives at her riverside cottage Jennifer meets Matthew (Richard Pace) who delivers her groceries. Matthew is something of the local idiot (in the remake Matthew is explicitly mentally ill, however here he is more like comic (!) relief with silly glasses and a Benny Hill hat) and later his friend Johnny jokes about Matthew’s virginity and promises to remedy the situation.
Jennifer is relaxing by the river and becomes the subject of increasingly unwanted attention from Andy and Stanley who buzz her on their motorboat. This harassment culminates later when Jennifer takes to the river in her own boat. The men seize the canoe’s towline and drag the boat further upstream to a spot where Johnny and Matthew are waiting.
Thus begins an extended nightmare of sexual terrorization, as the four men commit multiple assaults against her. Even with two and half minutes of BBFC cuts these scenes are extremely tough to watch. Not one, not two, not three, but four rapes are shown in graphic detail. Every time Jennifer seems to have escaped, she is again trapped and the abuse continues. Matthew’s rape is especially harrowing, egged on by the three other men he clumsily assaults Jennifer before stopping to complain that he cannot continue if watched. Later he will claim to be less culpable because he “didn’t even come”. In this film men are disgusting.
Gasper Noe’s incredibly tough Irreversible is notorious for its eight-minute rape scene but the abuse dealt out to Jennifer in I Spit On Your Grave lasts for nearly 30 minutes of screen time. The rapes are violent, asexual and sadistic. Unlike Susan George’s victim in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, there is no question that Jennifer in any way invites or enjoys the attacks.
Keaton’s performance is startling. She is stripped, beaten, bloodied and covered in filth, spending nearly a full 30 minutes of screen time naked. The attacks take place initially outdoors and in bright daylight so the viewer is spared no ugliness. The men are cruel, stupid and vicious. It is about as erotic as a butcher’s block. Anyone who calls this film pornographic either has not seen it, or needs to take a cold hard look into their own dark places.
Following the assaults, ringleader Johnny asks Matthew to kill Jennifer with a flick knife. Matthew however bottles it and convinces the other rapists that Jennifer is dead by smearing blood on the blade of the knife. The men don’t think to check. Recovering alone Jennifer’s reaction to her ordeal is not to go to the authorities but to plot revenge against her assailants. It is notable that this section, the revenge portion of the film, is shorter than the rape portion.
The manner of Jennifer’s revenge is extreme, she first targets Matthew and for the first time the film is openly erotic and sexual. Jennifer dressed in a revealing floor-length nightdress tempts Matthew into the woods and seduces him. She allows him to make love to her and as he comes slips a noose around his neck and hangs him, coldly watching his death throes. That this is the first revenge murder, and that it is graphically sexual, is shocking as Matthew was coerced into assaulting Jennifer and she knows this.
Jennifer next targets Johnny at first threatening to shoot him. Johnny appears to disarm her with his “charm” telling her that he’s only a man who did what any man would do. Jennifer takes him back to her house for a sensual bath. It’s a graphic example of Johnny’s stupidity that he never questions that this woman whom he so severely brutalized would want to play sex games with him. Johnny is distracted by sexual ecstasy and Jennifer uses a concealed knife (showing that she was always in control as this has been planned) to castrate him. She locks the screaming rapist in the bathroom and chillingly walks downstairs, puts on some Puccini, and relaxes as he screams “I can’t stop the bleeding”.
Jennifer takes her sexuality and turns it into a weapon. The rapes may be shot asexually, following the classic feminist contention that rape is an act of violence that is about power and humiliation and not about sex. But Jennifer’s revenge on the men sure as hell contains a sexual element. This is perhaps the most transgressive aspect of the film’s sexual politics, and it is another element that is notably absent from the remake in which Jennifer’s vengeance is purely violent with no sensual edge.
The remaining two rapists fearing for their lives try to take the offensive, but Jennifer is waiting for them and subjects them to a sustained terrorization before dispatching them with bloody relish. Her last line is said to the final and most violent of the rapists. “Suck on it”.
I Spit On Your Grave is not a great film, it’s not Deliverance, it’s not Straw Dogs (although as noted Peckinpah’s film flirts with dubious sexual politics). In genre terms, it is not at the top of the class of the rape revenge genre (that honour belongs to Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 in case you were wondering). It’s not in any conventional way a “good” film – it’s roughly made, the script is often banal, the acting in places atrocious (Richard Pace’s performance as Matthew is beyond terrible) – but in its sleazy, scuzzy way it has something that the slick remake does not, and that is a deep sense that rape is an awful thing, not just something to give the audience a reason to cheer on some bloody revenge.
When the tables turn in most revenge films, there is a subtext that the victim has been in some way empowered through suffering. I Spit On Your Grave is far more ambiguous, There is a key scene in which Jennifer visits a chapel and asks God for forgiveness for what she is about to do (this is a scene notable for its absence in the remake, a film which loads the rape to revenge ratio towards the latter, and which sees no moral ambiguity whatsoever in the victim’s revenge).
The action movies of the eighties would often semi-strip their macho heroes and subject them to torture scenes (the weird sexual politics of these movies is worthy of its own essay). Notable examples being the electrocution scenes in Lethal Weapon and First Blood Part 2. One of the functions of such scenes is to remove any guilt the audience might feel in taking sadistic pleasure in the heroes subsequent revenge.
The anti-horror brigade imagines that horror audiences are loading up on sadism and violence. They think we gleefully sit in the dark rubbing our hands together at the prospect of gory mayhem. Sometimes that is true, but I would argue less so than the audience for thrillers, war movies and action films. The soulless and pointless 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave pares back the rape (although not so much that it isn’t still graphically repulsive, the film was also trimmed by the BBFC) and in doing so becomes more a violent fantasy than a horror film.
The remake’s final half, where the audience is invited to whoop and cheer the elaborate and gory deaths of the rapists, is the whole point of the film. In the original, it is the extended half hour of rape upon rape upon rape upon rape, that is its beating heart. The original is a film that takes an active and all too commonplace horror and pushes it into the face of the audience again and again and again. This film demands you ask yourself why? Why are you watching this?
I miss the days when exploitation movies were the province of lone mad bastards like Zarchi rather than the highly tooled products of entertainment conglomerates. While I would never suggest that this is a film you need in your life, it has a point (however distasteful the execution) beyond being a glorified theme park ride. Is it ‘entertaining’? God, no.
Why do I watch horror movies? Many reasons, often for entertainment, often for thrills, but mainly? Mainly because I’m a celluloid masochist, I want to take my fears, my insecurities, my darkest feelings, and bleed them out, lay them bare, expose them and thus understand them and render them inert. At the end of the day I want to see movies that do not leave me unmoved, that leave scars in their wakes.
Carol Clover in her classic academic study of (primarily American) exploitation horror films of the seventies and eighties Men, Women and Chainsaws, took issue with the common conception that a male audience of this kind of material was watching it to glory in the terrorisation of female victims. Clover argued that the focus of the slasher film on the extended terrorisation of fight back of the ‘final girl’ and the relative disinterest of these films in male victims, was not a sign that the audience was revelling in sadism, but rather that they were identifying with female protagonists. The male characters in this film are repulsive to the point that it is hard to imagine an audience identifying with them, any more than with Leatherface and his revolting family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
In the most successful of horror cinema, from The Exorcist, to The Texas Chain Saw Massacres, to Martyrs, it is the audience that is the real victim. Even a fairly tawdry film like I Spit On Your Grave has the power to do this. The image travels too fast from the optic nerve to the brain for the conscious intellect to intercept. The audience for these films is unloading, testing its limits, and emerging into daylight purged and in the knowledge that they are alive.
I Spit On Your Grave is not a good film in my opinion, it is not a pleasant film, it is in fact rather scurrilous, but it is not one you can watch and be unmoved by.