I Spit On Your Grave

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For almost a quarter century, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE has been the movie you don't take home to mother. When I was a kid, my older brother and his friends would rent the old Wizard Video edition and hide it from their parents, because they knew they were going to see about the sickest thing around. It was gobbled up by the grindhouse crowd and curious suburban kids. It was demonized by political and religious groups, not to mention film critics across the world. It achieved what every exploitation film aimed for in the 1970's. But was it simple exploitation or something deeper and darker?

The answer and the entire point of this review is yes - I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is actually much less exploitive than many studio films from the same period. Director Meir Zarchi obviously has talent and tried to create a unique and unflinching film with a message behind it. However, this is not to say that the film is a complete success.

The entire film is told without music of any kind, which increases it's gritty, awful-day-in-the-life quality. Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton, who had a small but haunting role in WHAT HAPPENED TO SOLANGE?) rents out a cabin where she hopes to write her first novel. Prophetically, it begins with a passage about a woman who takes "a temporary leave of absence from everything that formed the fabric of her life." As the film begins, it's an allegory towards leaving the big city. As it progresses, it reflects her need to exact revenge in order to reclaim her sanity.

A mentally impaired delivery boy, Matthew (Richard Pace) visits her and immediately takes a liking to her. Unfortunately, his friends are a trio of beer drinking locals with a poor world view and too much time on their hands. It's a town where there is nothing to do, where they have seen the only movie playing at the local theatre several times. Where they joke around and make off-color jokes and look for something else to occupy their time. They give Matthew a hard time for being a virgin. "You wanna be a man, don't you?" they ask. What they classify as a man is a horrible perversion of nobility.

If all this seems harmless enough, I believe that is the point. The villains ( who are also made up of Eron Tabor, Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann ) actually don't seem so threatening when things start out, and that makes it all the more troubling. It's the same circle of friends you would expect to see at almost any local bar, pool hall, or just hanging out in town. There is nothing to suggest how much violence they have within them and at least one of the group is a family man.

But alarmingly enough, they do have violence within them, a lot of it in fact. They begin by taunting her. As she tries to relax and put her thoughts to paper by a beautiful and scenic lake, they come by on their motor boat, speeding by and interrupting her concentration until she has to leave. It's the typical male show-off behavior that even as a male, I've always had problems understanding. Roughly the same thing as beeping your car horn or construction workers shouting women down. It's a passive-aggressive way to assert power and I would be lying if I said I hadn't seen some women respond to this overbearing machismo in a sexual manner - but that's a subject for another movie and another review.

What follows is a painful series of events which make up about 30 minutes of the finished film. The boys chase Jennifer through the woods, at first enjoying the terror they inflict with their mind games. Then, their backwoods version of foreplay over, they repeatedly beat and rape her. This goes on for a very long time and even encompasses multiple settings as they absolutely will not let her escape.

Perhaps we're supposed to feel a bit sorry for Matthew because he can't bring himself to rape Jennifer at first, but then he doesn't do much to discourage the others either. Then, he can't bring himself to drive a knife through her heart, but he did finally get around to raping her. His mental handicap is a false ploy for sympathy. He may be slower than most people, but he seems very capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. The degrees to which blame is placed in the film are black and white and suggest that perhaps some things in modern society are not as complex as we would like to believe. Being an accomplice to violence or a perpetrator after the fact, does not make you any less guilty.

The extended rape and abuse segment of the film is where most of the controversy comes from. This is hard stuff to watch in any day and age and director Zarchi pulls no punches in showing the absolute tragic brutality of these acts. Although the sequence has had a different effect on a number of people over the years, I did not find one frame of this sequence to be aimed at getting the viewer off (that comes later). This is a terrifying part of the film, made up of the most vile things we secretly put up with in society. It's violent and tragic and yes it is very explicit. But explicit and exploitive are two different things.

Explicitness is showing everything in raw and ugly detail. Exploitation is showing everything with lurid attention paid to making not just the sex into a sexy selling point, but the violence as well. There is nothing wrong with exploitation in theory. Let's face it, many of the films we love are hold Exploitation next to godliness. But in a film like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, it would have been a tasteless decision to go in that direction.

The advertising of the film is where the exploitation really comes in. In the U.S., the film was called I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and not the less catchy but more appropriate title, DAY OF THE WOMAN. The poster features the famous image of a bruised woman (from the neck down, natch) walking through the forest, her torn and tight white outfit hugging her shapely ass while she wields a deadly weapon. And there's the classic tag line, "This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her!" All this makes for great exploitation, and like most exploitation of the seventies, it gives a false impression of the film contained in the box.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is notorious for this, but there are worse offenders from the period. Even in some films I think rather fondly of, rape is something that is too often treated for cheap thrills. Take Amando de Ossorio's TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, for example. One of the greatest cult chillers from the era, but in it, there is a pointless rape scene which the woman treats with all the consequence of a nasty bee sting. This is actually typical of many films of the time. Personally, I've always found DEATH WISH II to be one of the most offensive movies of this type. This also dealt with a revenge plot, but as the camera lingered over every last inch of nude, beaten flesh, I got the distinct impression that Michael Winner's motives were not as pure as Meir Zarchi's.

In Zarchi's vision, the tragedy of the consequences and not the act is stressed. After her assault, Jennifer wanders naked and dazed through the sunny forest, almost resembling an Eve who was abandoned by her God and left for the wolves to devour. She tries desperately to get back to her life, to pretend it never happened. But fear and anger are too much. Her book has lost it's meaning. They tore the pages up as she lay on the ground crying, mocking her words in a chiding, sing-song voice. She tries to piece the pages together again but she cannot escape the feelings of violation. It's not her world anymore. They took her world and made it theirs, in all it's grinning and cruel painfulness. Finally, she goes to church (the first sign of any religious belief in the film, and a nice touch) and begs forgiveness from God for what she must do.

The best parts are when she gets to see the men in their environment. As mentioned before, one of the men is a family man and seems on the surface to be a perfect father and husband. Yet, this was one of the most brutal guys in the bunch and he did elude at one point from intending to do this again and again to passing women. He also points out to Jennifer later that she was asking for it in the way she dressed and her flirtatious mannerisms, when in fact we haven't seen her do anything to instigate any communication from anyone whatsoever. It's a slap in the face to those who try to blame the victim, showing that the cruelest and cowardly people in our society will fabricate a blameless attitude, in order for them to go home and kiss their wife good-night without guilt.

A fascinating start to the last third of the movie, but aside from that the film loses me for the most part. Given the brutality of the rape sequence, the revenge sequence should feel at least as brutal, filling me with perverse joy and righteous indignation as her attackers are dispatched in a cold, calculating manner. Alas, something seems to be missing.

Things start out with the right sense of menace. She appears alarmingly in white before stringing one of the men up. And for one of the other men, he receives a castration that is every bit as horrifying and cringe-worthy as you've probably heard. But something feels missing. Jennifer remains a shell of who she was, a predator but for her stony demeanor. She may as well be a vengeful ghost and in some ways, perhaps she is. But that still doesn't explain why many of the later killings feel so drab. It's as if the initial violence that was inflicted on Jennifer was so much that anything else just seems to pale in comparison.

So, while most of the film retains it's talent and vision, and the message comes across loud and clear, I felt somewhat numb as the end credits began to roll. We had this terrifying opener and the last half hour is like knocking down pins.

In the world today, rape now occurs once every few seconds. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is a film that tries to show how shameful that is, how that is not just a hollow statistic. For every one of those women, there is a life that has been violated forever. Thus, the worst sin this film commits is having a closing chapter that feels all too mechanical.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis