Rape-revenge is the basest of movie formulas. What amounts to a social contract exists with the audience: during the first half of the film, you will experience the sadistic, brutal, misogynistic sexual abuse of an innocent, probably naïve young woman at the hands of cavalier thugs. And during the second half of the film, you will see this broken woman–this survivor–pull herself together long enough to exact a terrible revenge on those who wronged her.
Sometimes there’s a little more to it than that. In the original Last House on the Left, loosely based on an Ingmar Bergman film (The Virgin Spring), the victim dies, leaving her horrified parents to avenge her death. Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, an arguable high-water mark for this stuff, paints the woman’s patricidal vengeance streak as a sort of radical feminist awakening. Thelma and Louise famously subverted the whole formula, playing the escape of two women from abuse as a female-empowerment tragedy. In this world, sister, only in death will you be truly free.
If there’s such a thing as a plain-vanilla rape-revenge movie, I Spit on Your Grave is it. Ostensibly envisioned by writer-director-editor Meir Zarchi as a spirited take-back-the-night tract (to this day, Zarchi prefers his original, unmarketable title, Day of the Woman), it was shot quickly and cheaply on location in Kent, Connecticut, a small town on the shores of a healthy river that suggests Everybackwoods, America. It stars Camille Keaton (Buster Keaton’s grand-niece) as Jennifer Hills, a writer who leaves her midtown Manhattan abode for greener climes and solitude.
Arriving in town, Jennifer makes the mistake of telling the wrong gas-station attendant, “Oh, hello, I’m staying all by myself at the house up by the river.” Before long, she’s being menaced by tough guys in a motorboat who decide to procure her for the sexual satisfaction of their mentally handicapped buddy (Richard Pace). When he fails to consummate the impromptu relationship, the other men take turns with her in a gruelling sequence that ends up consuming, depending on how you count, about 25 minutes of screentime.
If that sounds just awful, well, it is. Certainly, I find it impossible not to feel for Jennifer and her suffering–and Keaton delivers an intensely physical performance that isn’t technically accomplished but carries the movie all the same. She’s also naked on screen, a lot, and the relative crudity of Zarchi’s formal approach–he cuts among medium shots, rarely moving the camera or heading in for close-ups and the like–gives the rape sequences an effectively harrowing but still pornographic feel that makes a hot shower sound really attractive. I don’t doubt Zarchi’s stand on rape in the real world (he’s against it), but some of his decisions here, especially the inclusion of a developmentally challenged character among the grinning, giggling rapists, are aggressively insensitive. Let’s say the picture lacks a certain gravitas that is generally expected when compassionate filmmakers use rape as a subject.
Still, I Spit on Your Grave has its moments, and Keaton’s casting is something of a coup. She bears a resemblance to Uncle Buster, especially down the bridge of the nose, while her body is lanky and delicate in a way that underscores the obscenity of her assault. Also, she has a remarkable scream, which she deploys to profoundly unnerving effect. Improbably, the scene where she wanders through the forest away from the first attack, only to meet up with her tormentors again, has the qualities of a pastoral nightmare. It puts the audience in Jennifer’s head, suggesting post-traumatic stress affliction. It’s psychologically devastating.
Though I Spit on Your Grave doesn’t exactly appeal to the better angels of your nature, it does get its hooks in you. If you persevere through the many grievances visited upon Jennifer, you anticipate the redress. In the disquieting world of rape-revenge, balance is restored by brutishness returned in kind, and Jennifer’s payback killings are sordid and sexually charged as she reclaims control of her body through the desecration of others. A post-coital asphyxiation is notable for Keaton’s on-screen ferocity, but the film’s infamous bathtub interlude, in which that gas-station attendant (Eron Tabor) is relieved of a few dangling inches of offending muscle, is an awesomely glib and chilly rejoinder to his clueless assertions of male privilege. Two down, two to go; when the remaining pair of rednecks motor their way up river to figure out what happened to their buddies, Jennifer is waiting for them, clad only in another bikini. In this context, you know what that bikini says? It says fuck you.
Wait, what? Am I defending I Spit on Your Grave? It may seem odd to say it, yet one factor working in the movie’s favour is nostalgia. I hated it when I watched it on a lousy old VHS tape around 1990–it felt like an appeal to some very unwholesome impulses. In the fullness of time, its more naïve qualities make it feel, if not artful, then reassuringly handmade. Dare I mention that its largely wordless, minimal scenes of a nude or nearly nude figure in the woods acquire almost avant-garde qualities? It’s like the Bizarro World version of James Broughton’s “The Bed.”
Last year’s remake has no such advantage. Conceived and executed in the cool, desaturated style of a Saw movie, it’s decidedly calculated. Its Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) is again a big-city writer roughing it in the country, but she’s a contemporary woman: instead of spending the day lounging in a hammock or on a rowboat, she’ll be out jogging in the morning and enjoying a glass of red wine in the evening. Like her predecessor, this Jennifer unwisely reveals too much about her whereabouts to the wrong kind of people (Louisiana hicks this time rather than Connecticut hicks)–but where the first film positioned Jennifer as innocent verging on naive, this one presents the character as a pretty tough chick from the get-go.
Jennifer sensibly appeals to the local authorities following her first attack, only to discover that the sadistic sheriff is in on the game. She’s helpless to fight back against all of these men, and the swinging-dick campaign of sexual and physical intimidation that begins their initial assault–well-played, with a disturbing naturalism not in evidence in the earlier, more mannered film–is effective and infuriating. But she turns out to be a highly competent killing machine, devising elaborately sadistic torture scenarios as she exacts her revenge. (One of them involves suspension above a bath of lye, another a rifle barrel being jammed up someone’s ass.)
That’s all fine, but I Spit on Your Grave 2010 doesn’t devote nearly as much attention to Jennifer as its precursor. Say what you want about Zarchi’s motives, his film was Jennifer’s story and she’s in almost every scene. The remake not only offers very little insight into her character before the rapes, but also benches her in the second act. Once she escapes her would-be murderers by jumping off a bridge, we spend an inexplicable proportion of time with the thugs as their fruitless search for her body continues–and it’s not like these redneck meatheads are interesting. I might have gotten a disreputable charge out of following Jennifer through the aftermath of her assault, watching her regain her composure and steel herself for battle like Martin Sheen getting ready to take a machete to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but for much of this dull picture she may as well exist as a ghost or an urban legend. Now there’s a movie idea: a folksy supernatural avenger who comes out against molesters, abusers, and date-rapists, Freddy Krueger-style, if somebody says her name three times.
Anchor Bay’s new Blu-ray Disc of the original I Spit on Your Grave is almost unreasonably gorgeous. Although I’ve never seen the movie theatrically, I find it hard to believe that any release print ever looked as good as this transfer–saturated as it is with the verdant greens of Jennifer’s woodsy surroundings, but maintaining the pinkish skin tones and ruddy browns that characterize late-’70s film stock. The image, transferred at the 1.78:1 HDTV aspect ratio, has a layer of soft, era-appropriate film grain throughout and is remarkably clean, though it occasionally exhibits a mild degree of gate weave. It’s like Zarchi left the camera negative untouched in his mom’s attic all these years.
I can’t say I’m as enthusiastic about the soundtrack, presented exclusively in a six-channel remix in Dolby TrueHD. If you’re put off by the unavoidably thin quality of 5.1 upconversions from mono, you’re out of luck. The high-fidelity audio here just makes it more obvious than ever when, e.g., the dialogue in exterior scenes has clearly been recorded inside a studio. As a trade-off, I hope audio buffs get oodles of pleasure out of the occasional chirping bird who has been steered to a surround speaker. Ultimately, the most frustrating thing about it is that there’s plenty of room left on the BD-50 for one measly mono track.
In the extras, Zarchi is on the defense, opening his feature-length commentary by summarizing much of the criticism the film has received over the years. Zarchi says he was inspired to write the movie after helping a rape victim in Central Park; I have no idea whether this encounter was documented in any way, but it sounds like a trump card he pulls out to defend his intentions. (“Some of my best friends are rape victims!”) That Zarchi seems, decades on, genuinely baffled and disturbed by the reception his generally artless, astonishingly exploitative film received suggests either practiced disingenuousness or surpassing cluelessness. His dogged campaign for the film’s original, uncommercial, title, Day of the Woman, may be slightly better evidence that, whether or not I Spit on Your Grave is misogynist, it wasn’t made with misogynist intentions. Zarchi’s real MVP is critic Joe Bob Briggs, who contributes a separate yakker wherein he offers an extended and engaging appreciation of the film and mocks the idea that its viewers are identifying with the rapists rather than their victim.
Zarchi spins some more yarns about the picture’s production and distribution (and his eventual, ill-fated marriage to Keaton) in the talking-head featurette “The Values of Vengeance: Meir Zarchi Remembers I Spit on Your Grave” (29 mins., SD). This disc also boasts a poster and still-image gallery, a handful of TV spots, radio spots, and trailers (some of them almost indistinguishable from each other). Proceedings kick off with trailers for the 2010 remake, the terror-on-a-ski-lift thriller Frozen, and the terror-in-a-small-plane thriller Altitude.
The first thing that hits you about the Blu-ray version of the remake is the complete lack of film grain. Shot using the Red One digital camera, I Spit on Your Grave 2010 has a glossy but slightly soft look that I find exceptionally clean but uncompelling. It doesn’t help that most of the colour was leached out in post-production, resulting in a drab, monochromatic appearance that stands in contrast to the downright vibrant imagery of the original. I assume the 2.35:1 transfer, encoded using MPEG-4 (AVC), accurately reflects the filmmakers’ intentions. The audio, rendered in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, is fairly robust, if a tad monotonous, working every channel and the sub with ambient and environmental sound effects plus a generally rumbly score.
“The Revenge of Jennifer Hills: Remaking a Cult Icon” is a short, letterboxed making-of (16 mins., SD) that features cast members from the remake uniformly explaining what a privilege it is to expand the boundaries of their craft by venturing into such “dark” territory. One of them calls the first I Spit on Your Grave a “fetish film,” which may be a pretty accurate descriptor, though you have to wonder what Zarchi would say about that. It’s interesting to hear these outwardly earnest actors defend their roles in the material, but this is otherwise standard-issue stuff. Almost 12 minutes of deleted scenes aren’t very interesting by themselves, although a couple of them, trimmed from the beginning of the film, would have given us more opportunities to get acquainted with Jennifer–which may not have helped but definitely couldn’t have hurt. The disc also includes a teaser, two trailers, and a radio spot for the remake, as well as trailers for I Spit on Your Grave 1978, The Killing Machine, the awesomely-titled Stonehenge Apocalypse, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed.
Finally, in a personable yak-track, director Steven R. Monroe and producer Lisa M. Hansen talk about many of the decisions that were made in the production process, such as the places where the project was trimmed in the cutting room. I was interested and a bit dismayed to hear them blame the film’s failure to develop Jennifer as a character on a perceived short attention span among audience members, who would be impatient to get to the, erm, action. Well, of course you’re not going to be able to make a good horror movie if you can’t trust that your audience is willing to spend time with your protagonist before she’s raped. What does it say that, these days, even the exploitation films have to be dumbed down?