Grindhouse Classics : “I Spit On Your Grave”

Posted: August 4, 2009 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

In the storied annals of exploitation cinema, few films have ever stirred as much controversy as Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge masterpiece “I Spit On Your Grave.” Originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman,” which is actually much more appropriate to the movie’s content but far less—shall was say—noticeable, the story of Jenny Hill(played by Camille Keaton, veteran of Italian exploitation fare such as “Tragic Ceremony”), sophisticated but mild-mannered Manhattan author who rents a cabin on the Husatonik river in Connecticut for the summer in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so she can write her first book only to be descended upon savagely by a gang of four local, and absolutely merciless, it must be said, redneck rapists(played by Erin Tabor, who turns in a fairly solid performance as the group’s ringleader, Richard Pace , who features as the dim-witted virgin buddy who the others are trying to  “get laid” that summer by any means necessary, Gunter Kleeman and Anthony Nichols) before pursuing her own brand of justice, came and went from the drive-in and grindhouse circuit pretty quickly while only kicking up a slight bit of outraged dust from the morality police. When Jerry Gross picked it up for wider distribution a couple years later with a new and more provocative title with an ad campaign to match that played up the film’s subject matter in the most prurient way possible, though, audiences took note. And so did the critics.

It wasn’t just the Jerry Folwells of the world who objected to “I Spit On Your Grave”‘s shockingly brutal sexual violence, or the purported film sophisticates like Pauline Kael who jumped on the supposed exploitation of its audiences most base “urges”—even perfectly mainstream critics like Siskel and Ebert were appalled and outraged by what they deemed on “Sneak Previews” (remember that?) as “the most sexist movie ever made.” The passing of time has cast things in a new, and in this case proper, light, though, and I have to say that your friendly neighborhood TFG agrees with B-movie aficionado par excellence Joe Bob Briggs, who, in his superb commentary on Elite Entertainment’s  “Millennium Edition” DVD of the film released in 2002 declared it, rather, to be quite possibly the most FEMINIST movie ever made. Let’s take a quick look at why I think this is the case and explore why it is that this flick retains its power to shock and disturb even now, over 30 years after its original release.

Things start out pleasnatly enough for Jenny---

Things start out pleasantly enough for Jenny---

The standard feminist line, as I understand it, is that rape is not a crime about sex, but about violence—about power, control, and the objectification and dehumanization of its victim. Seems like a fair enough analysis to me. It’s not anything to do with using violence to to obtain sex, it’s about using sex as a tool of violence. Well, there’s no question that “I Spit On Your Grave” absolutely shows that to be the case—a little too absolutely for most audiences, truth be told. There’s no “rape scene” in “I Spit On Your Grave”—there’s a long, harrowing, maliciously brutal SERIES of rape scenes strung together that take up nearly 45 minutes of the film’s 100-minute run time. It’s well and truly excruciating stuff to sit through and there’s nothing even remotely “kinky” about any of the proceedings. Each is more savage and relentless than the last. And you know what? For the purposes of the story being told here, that’s the way it’s got to be. This isn’t a story about the better angels of human nature. It’s not about love and forgiveness. It’s about a brutally violent crime followed by brutally violent revenge. Given what Jenny does later—freeing her attackers from the bonds of this mortal coil with extreme prejudice—the crime perpetrated upon her needs to be shown in all its repulsive barbarity or else the methods by which she chooses to dispatch these guys is going to seem like some serious overkill. “I Spit On Your Grave” is about the deadly consequences of psyche-and spirit-shattering attack. Skimp out on the details and the story itself loses most of its meaning and all of its power.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

Unlike the film, though, your humble critic is going to spare you the details of both the attack on Ms. Hill and her vengeance in case you, dear reader, haven’t seen this movie yet and would like to.  Suffice to say neither are pretty, but if you’re a properly-morally-hardwired human being, one will leave you disgusted beyond words while the other will have you high-fiving whoever you’re watching the movie with (assuming they, too, have standard human moral codes—if not, get some new friends. Fast.). Which is where the shock and disgust of the Siskels and Eberts of the world once again come into play. Apparently they stated that when they went to see the movie in the theater, some audience members were literally cheering during the midst of Jenny’s ordeal. I have to admit, that’s sick—really sick. I just don’t see how any honest analysis of the film can lead a person to conclude that was the reaction Zarchi was aiming for in any way, shape, or form, and a director really I can’t help who buys a ticket to see his or her work.  I’m also willing to bet those some assholes were probably sitting there in stunned silence, clutching at their balls to make sure they were still there, when the animals they were whooping and hollering for get their comeuppance. Let’s just say guys out for payment in blood for the wrongs done to them or their families like Charles Bronson (no disrespect to Chuck, TFG loves the guy) could learn a lesson or two from our girl Jenny(apart from her one mistake—she kills the group’s head honcho— a guy, by the way, shown as having a wife and kids, therefore destroying another myth of rape, that it’s perpetrated by masked intruders and not “decent family men,” therefore making another very feminist, and sadly accurate, argument about sexual violence, namely that it can be perpetrated by people in all walks of life for any reason or no reason at all— second, rather than saving him for last—but hey, it’s understandable, you gotta kill these guys in the order you come across them, you may not get a second chance).

Revenge is a dish best served cold---

Revenge is a dish best served cold, even if it's not at the table---

Your host isn’t terribly fond of the idea that cinema, literature, or music can somehow “influence” somebody to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and frankly I find the idea that critics of “I Spit On Your Grave” advanced at the time that this film would somehow “inspire” anyone to go out and rape somebody is absurd. Those buffoons that Siskel and Ebert heard cheering obviously had problems to begin with. But in truth this film does nothing to “encourage” them, rather it shows the unbearable ugliness of rape in the coldest and most clinical light possible and shows the rapists themselves as being mindless thugs who get exactly what they deserve. This is movie isn’t told from their point of view, it’s told from hers — it’s quite apparent that in no uncertain terms, as far as Zarchi is concerned, these guys are inhuman monsters.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

The critical reevaluation this film has seen over the years is finally waking some folks up to the fact that they had it wrong the first time around and what we’ve got here is not a prurient piece of irredeemable garbage but, in truth, probably the best entry into the “rape-revenge” subgenre of all time. Sure, classics like “The Last House on the Left” still stand out in this tiny cinematic ouevre, but the crime itself and its aftermath are much more personal, and therefore immediate, in “I Spit On Your Grave.” No family members getting even for what was done to their daughter or wife here. This is a woman settling the score for what was done to HER, personally. It’s not flashy or stylized or in any way “glamorous”(another great point Briggs makes in his DVD commentary is that, sure, there’s some gratuitous nudity early on—it’s an exploitation film, for Christ’s sake—but Zarchi doesn’t dwell on extreme close-ups of Keaton’s naked breasts as one would expect, rather it’s all shown from quite a considerable distance). It’s raw, authentic, and unvarnished. And yeah, that makes it ugly, but it’s an ugly crime — is it even right to portray it in any other way?

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

There have been a few different DVD editions of “I Spit On Your Grave” over the years (and incidentally, this was one of the films on Britain’s infamous “video nasties” list, movies which were literally BANNED by the UK government during the early-80s VHS boom), but the “Millennium Edition” from Elite Entertainment is the way to go here. In addition to the fantastic commentary from Briggs referenced a time or two above, there’s also an insightful commentary track from writer-director Meir Zarchi (who would go on to to make one other film, “Don’t Mess With My Sister,” which also centers on a revenge them—guess he wasn’t too terribly interested in other types of stories. Oh, and he married his leading lady from “I Spit On Your Grave,” Camille Keaton, so I guess she wasn’t too convinced herself that he’d made some “pro-rape” movie here),  a selection of outraged (and outrageous) text reviews from newspapers and magazines from around the time of the film’s release,  and the theatrical trailer and a sampling of TV spots are thrown in for good measure, as well. The digitally-remastered picture and THX sound are great. An essential addition to the home video library of exploitation film fans everywhere.

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