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I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
There is a morbid curiosity that lingers over I Spit on Your Grave, a film that in the thirty-years since its original theatrical run1 has gained cult status for its depravity. I admit to being someone with such a curiosity, which began when I read that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had called it the worst film they had ever seen and launched a successful campaign to have the film pulled from the United Artist Theater in Chicago2. Something in me had to know if the film reviled so much could be that bad, if the controversy surrounding its depictions of violence and rape against women was appropriate or misconstrued, and whether or not the film needed to be discussed further.
I was offended by the film to be sure, but not to the extent that Siskel and Ebert were. In fact, I think the film should have completed its theatrical run in Chicago in the summer of 1981, quietly left multiplexes and been banished to home video, where it would have lived out the rest of its days buried in a pile of discarded VHS tapes in someone's garage. Instead, it was banned in some countries, renounced by two esteemed critics in ours, and ultimately released on DVD so that audiences could share the experience of watching a "controversial" film.
Controversy aside, I Spit on Your Grave is one stupid film. Its dumb characters are portrayed by terrible actors who recite meaningless bits of dialogue. There is no skillful direction, no soundtrack, and the violence on screen is for the sheer sake of violence. Critics that have defended the film suggest that it is a "misunderstood feminist film."3 This film isn't empowering to women, nor is it empowering to men. It is empowering to people that lack common sense.
As for the plot, it goes something like this: Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) is an aspiring writer that takes a summer vacation to a lakeside cottage in the country to finish writing her latest novel. She catches the attention of four local men: Johnny (Eron Tabor), Stanley (Anthony Nichols), Andy (Gunter Kleemann), and their mentally-challenged friend Matthew (Richard Pace), who has developed a crush on Jennifer. This seemingly innocent plot description leads to four scenes of gang-rape where the men kidnap Jennifer, beat her in the woods, rape her, find her later in the woods, beat and rape her some more, and then follow her home and, of course, beat and rape her again, as if the point hasn't been driven home that these are evil and vile men. Even the socially misguided Matthew takes part, though his inability to "finish" when having sex with Jennifer is the film's attempt to relieve its audience. Naturally, though, one of the other men proceeds to then beat and rape Jennifer with a beer bottle, as if saying to audience, "alright, break's over." Afterward the men leave the cabin and then one hands Matthew a knife and tells him to go back and kill her. He doesn't and weeks later, she emerges from the cabin to kill all four men brutally.
Jennifer's preemptory stalking and eventual encounter with the men takes up almost forty-five minutes of the film's 100-minute runtime while her revenge occupies the film's latter thirty-minutes; the rest of the film consists of boring long shots that reveal Meir Zarchi's directorial shortcomings. I Spit on Your Grave is Zarchi's first film and his lack of experience shows in almost every shot of the film. Most shots are drawn out and shot at such a distance that the characters are barely visible to the audience. In one such scene, Jennifer watches as one of the men stands outside a gas station with his wife and kids. I assume the blur with the long hair is the man's wife and that the pint-sized blurs are his children, but I can't tell for sure, even on the DVD release. This scene is actually the most intriguing in the movie since it showed some sort of other side to one of the sadistic villains and it is ruined with a terrible shot. It is not until later that we even find out which man that was when he reveals to Jennifer, "I have a wife and kids." I'm glad he could clarify that for us.
Unfortunately Zarchi is a worse writer than he is a director. His dialogue is simple everyday speak that acts as fluff for the movie. There are the obligatory greetings from the few characters that Jennifer interacts with (aside from the four men), and of course the panic-stricken screams that Jennifer emits in the woods and at her home while being attacked. But these bits of dialogue are scarce and lost between the dull long shots. I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the lengthy conversation that the males have while on their fishing trip about how beautiful women don't use the bathroom. None of the dialogue helps the plot along or allows the characters to seem particularly deep or insightful; instead, the dialogue is just an excuse to have a script as I can't image the film would have gone too far in its production stages based on its pitch alone.
But by far Zarchi's most prominent weakness as a writer is inability to create smart, compelling characters. I tried so hard to feel sympathy for Jennifer, especially during her more brutal attack sequences, but wound up spending that emotion on Camille Keaton instead for having to endure the takes that make up these ridiculous scenes. Early on in the film, Jennifer meets Matthew at her cottage home and he asks her incredibly astute questions, including her name, how long she is staying in town, and whether or not she's alone. At some point during this conversation, a flashing red light with warning bells and whistles should have gone off, but none did, and Jennifer nicely answered all of Matthew's questions, because he is depicted as mentally-challenged and therefore could do no harm to her. I thought perhaps that Zarchi was purposely depicting his only female character as dim-witted, and certainly her plan of revenge to have sex with her former perpetrators just so she can kill them is further evidence of that, but alas, the stupidity is carried over to the opposite sex as well. Somehow Matthew and Johnny are seduced into sex by Jennifer despite everything they've done to her and think that she has just "come around" to her true feelings for them; Johnny is especially dense since after Jennifer pulls a gun on him and makes him strip, she convinces him that she has had a change of heart, the two get into a bathtub to have sex, and then she castrates him. It is the only castration scene in a film so far that has come not as a shock but as a relief because it meant one less stupid character permeating the script.
Yet for all of the film's tremendous misfires in direction and writing, I could not overlook the fact that one word that appears the most when researching I Spit on Your Grave is the word "misunderstood." With that in mind, I tried to find one aspect of the film that I enjoyed. I knew I wasn't going to find it in the direction or the script, so I looked toward the actors. If I have one backhanded compliment to give the film it's that its female lead, Camille Keaton, looked, felt, and reacted as if she were really being tortured and raped. Keaton makes for a convincing protagonist. I think the terrible decisions that she makes in the film (like not calling the police for instance) keeps her from being completely sympathetic, but she is at least convincing as she crawls, spits, drags, and shouts her way through the movie's brutality. Keaton received the Medalla Sitges en Plata de Ley Award for Best Actress at the Catalonian International Film Festival for her role in the film4, the only recognition she has received.
I Spit on Your Grave is a deeply disturbing film, but is not worth the time nor the effort of tracking down on DVD. It will not leave viewers satisfied with seeing a highly controversial film but will instead leave them perturbed at how moronic it is. This is a direct attack on common sense. As I was watching it, I thought about the slue of horror-movie remakes slated for release and breathed a sigh of relief that I Spit on Your Grave could never atop those lists; after all, no woman in modern times would be so stupid as to answer personal questions from a stranger, not think to call the police, and extract a revenge plot that includes having sex with men that just violated her. Not only does I Spit on Your Grave have a sequel, titled Savage Vengeance, but sure enough, a remake is planned for release in 2009. I imagine it will be a straight-to-DVD release, and then gradually it will befall the discounted bins at electronics stores until it is never heard from again.
1 Originally titled Day of the Woman, the film released in 1978 and was re-released in 1981 under the title I Spit On Your Grave.