MACABRE MOVIES: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) + VIDEO

 

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)

Starring Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor and Richard Pace

Written and directed by Meir Zarchi

Anchor Bay Entertainment

Is I Spit on Your Grave misogynist trash or feminist horror? That question has been asked ever since director Meir Zarchi put out Day of the Woman back in 1978. You likely know it by its more outrageous title, which distributors used when they re-released Day in 1980, minus the MPAA-induced cuts which bowdlerized much of the brutality from Zarchi’s rape-revenge story.

You likely know the story even if you haven’t seen the film. Star Camille Keaton (What Have You Done to Solange?) plays Jennifer Hills, a budding writer from New York who rents a cottage in the country for the summer to write her first book. She quickly gains the attention of four bored local ne’er-do-wells whose campaign of harassment escalates into gang rape. Jennifer barely survives the assault and wreaks bloody revenge on her attackers. End of film… but not end of story.

 

Spit was famously derided by Siskel & Ebert for its exploration of man’s darkest impulses and became the target of feminist critics for what was perceived as Zarchi’s misogyny, mostly because of the extended rape sequence which sees Jennifer assaulted by all four men, one after the other. Maybe that’s why I avoided the film for so long. Having endured the awful rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, I had no desire to see another one.

But last summer saw the release of the Spit remake, and I had the opportunity to see the film and interview the cast during the Rue Morgue Magazine-sponsored Festival of Fear. The remake was, if not exactly entertaining, at least a trial by fire which I survived and horror fans, rightly or wrongly, sometimes judge a fright film’s worth by its ability to induce panic, anxiety or disgust. And when both films arrived at my home on DVD last week, the time seemed right to subject myself to a horror classic, albeit one I had deliberately avoided.

First, I Spit on Your Grave is hardly misogynist. Simplistic in its politics, amateurishly acted at times, yes. But hateful towards women? No.

Yes, Keaton gets naked early on, during a skinny dipping sequence, but as astute film writer Joe Bob Briggs notes in his entertaining commentary, Zarchi doesn’t focus in on every bead of water on Keaton’s naked form – he instead shoots it from across the lake. When we do see a nude Keaton up close, it’s when she’s being brutally assaulted, covered in dirt and blood. Sexy? No. In fact male viewers can use their penile response to this sequence as a direct barometer of their moral health.

 

Jennifer’s subsequent seduction of her assailants prior to their murders has been much criticized – and the remake rather cowardly, in my opinion, removes this aspect from her revenge – but Zarchi is making the point that these men are delusional. Could a woman they raped and left for dead possibly want them sexually? Of course not, but they think so, thus revealing the extent of their naiveté about both women and sex. (The campfire scene, where they discuss women and sex, is particularly illuminating as to their literally retarded understanding of both topics.)

Anchor Bay’s re-issue includes an interesting interview with Zarchi who gives a history of the film’s release and defends himself well. He also contributes a separate commentary alongside Briggs, the latter rightly praising Zarchi’s style on a budget and provocative choices.

I’m not sure if I’ll want to see it again – I Spit on Your Grave is still a relentlessly ugly movie – but it’s a film made, for better or worse, without compromise.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

 

And for more insight about the Spit remake, here are my interviews with that film’s cast and producer:

7 Responses to “MACABRE MOVIES: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) + VIDEO”

  1. I just found both films to not be as powerful or disturbing as everyone would say. I wouldn’t call either of them misogynist at all though. Both films are fine but I still think they get more attention than they rightly deserve.

  2. I was thinking about this movie a lot recently, and more specifically about a Rue Morgue reader who wrote in to the mag in defense of the film, and about how his experience being horrified by the rape scene was no different from his horror and disgust at the gory torture and murder scenes. His remark remains a bit unsettling to me and I’m still trying to work out why.

    It could be because I believe the rape in the films is not intended to just horrify or titillate us; it is to have us sympathize with the victim and share her humiliation and rage. In doing so, we can more readily enjoy her gruesome revenge murders. Perhaps this is my standpoint as a feminist horror fan, but I just have to hope that even the most depraved horror fan wouldn’t “enjoy” these scenes in the same way they would enjoy a graphic bloody murder… but I want to give this point more thought.

    There is also an important political dimension to the film when you consider one of the differences between the original I Spit and the remake. In the remake, our protagonist goes immediately to the police to press charges on the rapists. While this doesn’t work out the way she hopes, it is noteworthy that in the original film, our rape victim did not. Rape was still a crime in the late 70s of course, but back then it was still entagled with humiliating exams and interrogations and an overall air of “her-word-against-mine”. This rape victim takes matters into her own hands which makes her a badass vigilante but not necessarily a feminist hero.

  3. Andrea. Let’s face it – both films feature graphic rape scenes to titillate the senses in the most prurient ways imaginable. Any lip service otherwise is insincere bullshit. The protagonists’ kill crazy rampages in the second half of the film function as hidden ‘apologies’ for the events of the first half. I have to revisit the original because it’s been about 18 years since I’ve seen it (even though it feels like a few weekends ago…..) but I remember being very annoyed with it.

  4. If I were ask with come up with a scenario that would drive me to brutally kill a bunch of guys, gang rape by a bunch of hillbillies would probably be it. There are countless movies out there where the protagonist seeks revenge for other crimes or wrongdoings (cue Harrison Ford’s growling voice into a payphone: “Where is my family?!”) Rape is a very particular act of violence, one that that brings in questions of gender (obviously), power, politics, etc that another random act of violence would not. This is what makes this movie important in my eyes, if not a totally enjoyuable experience.

    If graphic rape floats your boat, that’s all fine and dandy (I guess) but that’s not all it accomplishes for this film.

  5. Well, I think of how rape is used in that film in a similar fashion to how the old Swedish soft core films posed as ‘educational, moral warnings.’ They couldn’t own up to their prurient impulse so they pretended there was a greater moral purpose. That mentality proliferates throughout the horror genre to this day, and not just in the rape/revenge film but in other subgenres. It’s my impression that both versions of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE suffer from this tendency. The ‘REVENGE’ portion helps to justify the excessive depictions of the ‘RAPE’ portion. Then again, a movie like IRREVERSIBLE comes along. I don’t think there’s ever been a more violent, disturbing depiction of rape on film but it’s clear as the film proceeds, that the act was not designed purely to shock and titillate. There’s a sensitivity to the violence in IRREVERSIBLE, the scene is sufficiently violent (I remember the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE being rather lacklustre – it almost offended me in its laziness) but more importantly the true CONSEQUENCE of the rape in Noe’s film increases exponentially as the reverse narrative unfolds. As the film gets happier, it becomes more tragic – and the infamous 9 minute rape scene haunts the images that follow.

    It’s a tricky thing to debate the degrees to which one particular rape scene is more exploitative or more justifiable than another but there is a spectrum at work. Certainly, without question, the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is not overly concerned with the subtleties.

  6. Re: the remake; I agree with you there. I’ll have to check out Irreversible. The only other example of a rape revenge flick I could think of was Ms 45 which was good but I thought I Spit did it better.

  7. The Last House on the Left is a similar one….in my opinion.

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