HCF REWIND NO.108. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 103 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
New York short story writer Jennifer Hills rents an isolated cottage by a lake in the countryside to write her first novel. The arrival in town of the attractive and independent young woman attracts the attention first of Johnny, the gas station manager, then of Stanley and Andy, two unemployed youths who hang around the gas station. Jennifer receives a grocery delivery from Matthew, who is mentally challenged, and befriends him. Matthew is friends with the other three men and reports back to them about the beautiful woman he met, claiming he saw her breasts. Stanley and Andy start cruising by the cottage in their speedboat and prowl around the house at night, intimidating Jennifer. The next day, while Jennifer is relaxing in her canoe, they surprise her in their speedboat and tow her to shore so that Matthew can lose his virginity…..
It has taken me until now to watch I Spit On Your Grave. Shameful you might think, a writer for a website called Horror Cult Films taking so long to get around to seeing one of the most famous and controversial Video Nasties of them all. A film that has aroused some truly extreme critical comments, with Roger Ebert’s [the same Roger Ebert who co-wrote two Russ Meyer films which are more far misogynist than I Spit On Your Grave] comments of… a vile bag of garbage…sick, reprehensible and contemptible….without a shred of artistic distinction….being typical of the general critical response, though I must say right here that it is does have its defenders, mainly women it seems who most certainly do see the wool for the trees. Well, call me weird for just not wanting to see a film where the first half supposedly consists of a woman being repeatedly raped. Rape is an upsetting thing to watch in a film, aside from the fact that I have issues with the way it is sometimes depicted. I consider Irreversible one of the greatest film of the 2000s, but I have only sat through its central rape scene twice, a fact which takes nothing away from the film’s brilliance.
Well, I finally got around to seeing it and…..well…I certainly didn’t see the film that Ebert described. I’m not going to say that watching it was an enjoyable experience. In fact, about a third of the way through I stopped the DVD and almost threw up. A pretty awful thing some might say, especially as we’re not talking about, for instance, gloopy special effects which are basically unrealistic. However, I think that what I was made to feel was exactly what the writer/director Meir Zarchi intended. And more than that, that he was right to make me feel that way. I am most definitely not going to make a claim for I Spit On Your Grave as an artistic masterpiece. It’s sloppy and awkward in places [though still a far better made film than I had expected], and one can certainly question how far should a filmmaker go in showing something repugnant. It is though, a work of merit and importance. Did I enjoy it? Not really. In fact, there were times I hated the thing.
Zarchi [who has only directed one other film, the less notable but rather good Don’t Mess With My Sister from 1985] was inspired to produce the film after an incident where he, a friend, and his daughter were driving by a park when they witnessed a young woman crawling out of the bushes bloodied and naked, having been raped and with her jaw broken, and took her to the police, then the hospital. Made on a very low budget, it took Zarchi a year to edit the film, which was then under the title Day Of The Woman. Released in 1978 heavily cut to get an ‘R’ rating, it drew hardly any intention until it was re-released two years later by Jerry Gross under its new title and uncut [though still in some places, amusingly, with the ‘R’ rating on the poster]. It drew instant notoriety and ended up second on the DPP’s list on Video Nasties in the UK. Even as censorship loosened it still caused problems for the censors in the UK, the 2001 DVD release losing seven minutes and the 2003 one losing just under a minute but having some of the raping re-framed so it was less explicit. I watched the uncut US DVD, because no matter how nasty a film might be, I believe it should be seen as originally intended and judged thus.
The first thing that strikes one about I Spit On Your Grave is its rather leisurely mood and the simple but effective way it is shot with an emphasis on long-distance shots which usually place Jennifer right in the middle of the screen. Perhaps it’s a bit lazy, but after viewing too many movies of late like Les Miserables which were partially ruined by far too much use of close-ups, I found it rather refreshing. The beauty of the countryside around the house Jennifer is staying at is emphasised greatly, and this could really have been a wonderful haven for the successful city girl from the hustle and bustle of her normal life. She seems totally at home sunbathing and swimming in this paradise, which she does scantily clad or nude. I have read reviews which claim that the film is saying she is asking to be raped because of this and the way she is very relaxed and friendly with the men. It isn’t, something emphasised later on in a crucial scene, and anyone who thinks it is quite frankly needs their head seeing to.
The men are certainly not likeable. An early chat between them reveals them to be something below Neanderthal Man in their attitudes to women, and yet they mostly convince as especially bad specimens of the animal kingdom, despite some seriously ropey acting. They spend some time teasing Jennifer such as driving round and round where she is sat in a boat, and the film builds up some serious tension despite having no music score, which actually really adds to the disconcerting realism of what we are seeing. There was definitely is a fair bit of uncomfortable tension here. Then, we have the rape….and another….and another. The sequences are long and graphic and truly hard to watch. During the second attack, Jennifer is assaulted anally and lets out a cry which is probably the most disturbing thing I have ever heard in a film. And this was where I had to turn the film off and almost vomited over the sink, and yet….isn’t this how one is SUPPOSED to feel when watching such a woman being raped?
I’ve read that the film eroticises rape, something which many Hollywood films are indeed guilty of. Well, if I was sitting next to someone watching the film and that person said they were making the scenes erotic, I would be seriously worried about them. The agonising assaults here are absolutely horrible and that is how they should be. Perhaps the third and final assault didnt’t need to be shown, and it is especially unpleasant to watch Matthew, the mentally challenged member of the gang, being forced to join in by the others, but this kind of thing does happen, and the role of this person is actually very important [an element which was all-but-botched in the remake]. He shows himself to actually be more intelligent than the others rather than less so because he clearly has a sense of what’s good and what’s bad, and thinks before he acts. The film seems to be exploring, albeit in a undoubtedly simplistic way, things like responsibility and culpability. And it most definitely isn’t against people with learning difficulties, something I reckon anyone who watches the film properly would realise.
At last the sexual violence is over, and whereas the lake was full of colour and beauty, it’s now forbidding, grey and full of fog. Now it’s been said that the revenge scenes are too exploitative in the way Jennifer uses her sexuality, and too brief in comparison with the rapes, but I think it’s important and empowering that she uses her greatest weapon [and yes, Camille Keaton is gorgeous], while such acts as a castration in a bath and a strangulation by rope would have been silly if they’d been any longer. Anyway I don’t think Zarchi, while still being on her side somewhat, is totally supporting what she’s doing, though this fan of vigilante movies certainly couldn’t wait to see the bastards get what was coming them and has no shame in saying that. But isn’t it interesting that Jennifer decides to kill poor Matthew first, a scene where we are certainly not meant to cheer? And that she doesn’t seem to show any joy after each killing? There is a really powerful scene where, after the castration scene, a scene which is queasy but actually not as graphic as all that probably because they couldn’t afford major special effects, she rocks back and forth in her rocking chair while playing opera on the record player. Her face shows no happiness or even sense of achievement. It’s just cold and emotionless. Killing these guys won’t make her feel better.
Keaton is not the best actress, but does pretty well with such a gruelling role. As I’ve said before the acting of the others isn’t too good and lets the side down somewhat, while Zarchi’s direction is a touch uneven, with well staged and even elegant sequences alternating with clumsy ones, but for a first-time director he’s quite good. He has a tendency to let scenes where nothing is happening play out for too long, and you could probably cut 15 min or so out of the film to tighten it up, but for me it added to its atmosphere. Yes, I Spit On Your Grave is a good film. It’s very rough around the edges and is not at all likeable, but these things don’t stop it being of moral and artistic worth. That it has, in my opinion, been so misunderstood by critics who are rightfully repulsed and refuse to think any further, is a pity, but none too surprising when deeply offensive, misogynist rubbish like Naked gets praised because it’s from critic’s darlings like Mike Leigh. And to my eyes, though this is not a popular view, it’s certainly better than the simplistic, even dumbed-down, remake which may have been more slick and even enjoyable but fudged most of the issues.