Meir Zarchi, 1978
Starring: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Page
Writer Jennifer Hills travels from New York to the Connecticut countryside to rent a cottage and get some peace and quiet to work on her novel. Her arrival attracts the attention of some local men: Johnny, Stanley, Andy, and their friend Matthew, who is mentally challenged. They begin gradually stalking her and harass her one afternoon when she is out canoeing. This leads to a chase through the woods where the men rape her one at a time, allowing her to escape, but then recapturing her. They decide to kill her, but can’t go through with it and leave her badly injured and traumatized.
It takes her awhile to recover, but Jennifer makes up her mind to get revenge. She prays for forgiveness at church and then sets out with her plans. Starting with Matthew, Jennifer proceeds to hunt down the men, seduce them if necessary, and then viciously kill them - one is castrated, another is axed to death, etc.
Written, directed, and produced by Meir Zarchi, the film was allegedly Zarchi’s response to finding and helping a young woman who was raped and then treated poorly by the police. Originally known as Day of the Woman, the title was changed to I Spit on Your Grave when Zarchi finally found distribution. It was banned in numerous countries and received mixed critical reception, including a particularly scathing review from Roger Ebert who wrote that it was the most depressing experience of his life. Everyone should be so lucky. Bafflingly, he enjoyed Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left.
One of the most controversial films of all time, I Spit on Your Grave is undeniably flawed, but it’s still an important film worthy of viewing and discussion. I think the film essentially serves two purposes. First and foremost, it is an exploitation film. It borrows certain elements from Last House on the Left or Deliverance, but while those films and others like Straw Dogs are about a man getting revenge for violence against his wife or family, the female protagonist, Jennifer, gets revenge for herself. Her revenge is absolute, but not remotely redemptive, leaving us with a nihilistic, crushing, and almost empty conclusion.
Its second function is that it shows the absolute horror of rape. While there have been plenty of other rape-revenge films since, there is something unique about I Spit On Your Grave (though it is undeniably overshadowed by Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45). Though there is a graphic, lengthy, and horrifying scene in the later Irreversible, not even that comes close to the multiple gang rape scenes that last nearly 45 minutes total. In Irreversible, Monica Bellucci, one of Europe’s most beautiful actresses, is far more eroticized than I Spit on Your Graves’s Camille Keaton. Bellucci is dressed in a skimpy outfit to go dancing at a night club, while Keaton’s character is simply alone in the woods.
Keaton (What Have You Done to Solange?) gives a powerful performance as Jennifer and manages to rise above the empty script, which is little more than a basic outline. Jennifer is not a developed character, though neither are her attackers. They all become more animalistic as the film draws on. To a certain extent, this is part of the film’s power. It doesn’t seem to side with anyone, it just presents us with a series of horrifying events. Rape is undeniably horrifying. It is one of the world’s most underreported crimes, but 2013 alone has seen rape epidemics in Africa with under age girls being victimized because it is believed that to rape a child will cure a man of HIV or AIDS, a gang rape epidemic in India, and equally horrible situations in the U.S., such as the Steubenville rape, where a teenager was raped by classmates who tweeted pictures of their crime and were later protected by teachers and other adults. The victim was repeatedly blamed and ostracized in the media. Women and children are also currently being raped on a frequent basis in the Sudan as part of civil war tactics. A similar thing is happening in the Congo, which is believed to be the world’s most dangerous country for women. There are also several countries where men can escape rape charges by forcing their victims to marry them; this is particularly bad in Ethiopia where “marriage by abduction” is a serious problem. Last month in Saudi Arabia, a three year old girl was gang raped. I could go on.
Some camps believe that I Spit on Your Grave is an unsung feminist triumph, while others think it is cruelly exploitative trash. I’m not naive enough to completely agree with either side, but there is evidence for both. Zarchi, for instance, is obviously not an experienced filmmaker. The script, cinematography, and stylistic elements are sometimes weak, sometimes downright embarrassing. But this occasionally works in his favor and gives the film a documentary feel, which is enhanced by the almost complete lack of musical soundtrack.
Can I recommend I Spit on Your Grave? That all depends. Do you make rape jokes? Do you think violence against women and children is funny? Then you should probably watch the film. It won’t stop you from being a horrible person, but hopefully it will make you uncomfortable enough to induce a reality check. The same is true for people who think that rape is a distant horror that will never happen to them or anyone they know. Chances are someone in your life is a victim of rape, sexual assault, molestation, or aggressive harassment. I Spit on Your Grave is not a film that offers analysis, philosophical views, or answers about how to deal with the problem, but it is a film that captures the visceral brutality of the act and the powerlessness of the victim. While Jennifer does get revenge, she is left victimized, isolated, and permanently damaged. There is no redemption.
The film is available on Blu-ray. It was unofficially remade as Naked Vengeance (1985) and officially remade in 2010. Though there is no actual sequel, Keaton again appears as Jennifer in Savage Vengeance (1993), an unofficial sequel.