I Spit On Your Grave directed by Meir Zarchi
One of the most notorious and controversial pictures ever released, and sporting a reputation of the very worst kind, I Spit On Your Grave is a film that I had long put off watching. Originally released in 1978 under the tamer title Day of the Woman and rereleased in 1980 with its more infamous, expectorated appellation, the film has since angered critics, incensed feminists, appalled viewers and been banned in at least a half dozen countries. But I suppose that morbid curiosity, an interest in cinema history, and an admiration for the picture’s lead actress, Camille Keaton (grandniece of Buster, and whose previous performances in a pair of earlier Italian horror films, What Have You Done to Solange? and Tragic Ceremony, had greatly impressed me), all got the best of me, with the result that I found myself plopping the current Anchor Bay DVD in the other night. And you know what? To my great surprise, I find the film a lot less objectionable than I’d anticipated, and more artfully put together, too!
As most exploitation fans already know, I Spit On Your Grave gives us the story of Jennifer Hills, an attractive writer based in NYC, who rents a summer home in the country (the film was shot in Kent, CT, on the Housatonic River) in order to write her first novel. The rest of the film is easily synopsized: Jennifer is brutally raped four times by a quartet of goons over the course of three discrete back-to-back-to-back interludes. (Joe Bob Briggs, in his Anchor Bay DVD commentary, tells us that this extended rape sequence goes on for a staggering 25 minutes, 14 seconds!) After slowly convalescing from her trauma, Jennifer drives to the local church, asks for forgiveness, and proceeds to slaughter all four men by hanging, castration, axing and disembowelment. The end.
Anyway, unpleasant as the proceedings in this film are, I do not find I Spit On Your Grave to be morally reprehensible in the least bit. Jennifer’s rape is as UNerotic as can be, and is assuredly not intended by Israeli screenwriter/director Meir Zarchi to titillate or arouse the male viewer; indeed, Zarchi supposedly came up with the idea for this film after helping a real-life rape victim who was crawling out of a NYC park. If his intention here was to show how emotionally and physically devastating such an experience can be, he has fully succeeded. And Keaton does a simply terrific job at portraying Jennifer’s trauma. Just look at her stagger and crawl through the woods after her second rape; naked, dirty and covered with blood, a look of abject shock on her face. I would like to see Meryl Streep do a better job in a scene like this, or even to demonstrate the courage to attempt it!
And another thing: Jennifer is no helpless shrinking violet in this film, even before the rapes, and afterward, when she turns full-blown avenger, she is as fearless and righteous in her wrath as any feminist could hope for. As Joe Bob shows us over and over, the film is most emphatically shot from her point of view; we are meant to sympathize with her and root for her. The quadruple vengeance that she dishes out is a horrible one, and we the audience had to be set up for it by the sight of a quadruple atrocity on the part of the men in order to forgive her. As the film’s famous poster once proclaimed, “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition … but no jury in America would ever convict her!” And other than the fact that Jennifer only kills four men and burns none of them, that statement is essentially true.
I Spit On Your Grave also surprised this newcomer by being a lot more professionally produced than I had expected. The picture looks just fine, Zarchi (who would go on to marry Keaton) evinces a sure hand in generating suspense, and the four young men playing the goons (Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann) all do fine jobs at making us detest them. Interestingly, the film features no music whatsoever — nada — and those viewers who have seen the similarly tuneless Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds may recall how effective the use of sustained silence can be.
So just how does I Spit On Your Grave stack up against other cinematic visions of rape and revenge? Well, it’s not nearly as artful as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), of course; somehow, not even close to the repugnance level of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972); not nearly as disturbing as Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (1975); and not quite as sophisticated as Abel Ferrara’s remarkable Ms. 45 (1981). Still, I insist that the film is not the abomination that you might be expecting; it is certainly not a pleasant thing to watch, but I sure am glad that I finally screwed up the courage to catch this unjustly maligned film.
And one more thing: I really do think that Joe Bob Briggs is a national treasure. His commentaries are always insightful, droll and amusing, and his defense of the film in question is a compelling one. I think I enjoyed watching I Spit On Your Grave even more the second time around, with Joe Bob’s witty comments helping to take the edge off. He calls I Spit On Your Grave “one of the most underrated movies of all time,” and darn it, the man might just be right…