This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
Stuart Barr said:
Why do you watch horror films?
It’s a vexing question, so much so that books have been written, college courses taught, newspaper columns filled, exploring, debating and decrying the genre. Filmmakers have examined the effect and attraction of viewing violent imagery in films that include Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Incredulous outsiders to the genre often ask the horror fan some version of this question. And you know there’s always that tone to it right? An assumption that there is something distasteful/twisted/sick about enjoying this kind of material. Man, why do you watch those gnarly movies?
Then you come across a film like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave and it seems like a very pertinent question indeed.
As I Spit On Your Grave is a vintage and notorious film and due to its extreme nature consider the following as a critique rather than a review. There will be many spoilers ahead.
The plot of ISOYG is perfunctory. Jennifer Hill (Keaton) leaves New York driving to a rented country house to write a novel. Close to her destination, Jennifer stops for gas. Here she catches the attention of garage attendant Johnny (Tabor) and his friends Andy and Stanley - although the scene is not overtly threatening. Once she arrives at her riverside cottage Jennifer meets Matthew (Pace) who delivers her groceries. Matthew is something of the local idiot (in the upcoming remake Matthew is characterized as mentally ill, however here he is more like comic (!) relief with silly glasses and a Benny Hill hat) and later his friend Johnny jokes about Matthew’s virginity and promises to remedy the situation.
Jennifer is relaxing by the river and becomes the subject of the unwanted attentions of Andy and Stanley who repeatedly buzz her on their motorboat. This harassment culminates later when Jennifer is boating. The men seize the canoe’s towline and drag the boat further upstream to a spot where Johnny and Matthew are waiting.
Thus begins an extended nightmare of sexual terrorization, as the four men commit multiple assaults against Jennifer. Even with two and half minutes of BBFC cuts, these scenes are extremely tough to watch. Not one, not two, not three, but four rapes are shown in graphic detail. Every time Jennifer seems to have escaped, she is again trapped and the abuse continues. Matthew’s rape is especially harrowing, egged on by the three other men he clumsily assaults Jennifer before stopping to complain that he cannot continue if watched. Later Matthew will claim to be less culpable because he “didn’t even come”. In this film men are disgusting.
Gasper Noe’s incredibly tough Irreversible is notorious for its eight-minute rape scene, the abuse dealt out to Jennifer in ISOYG lasts for nearly 30 minutes of screen time. The rapes are violent, asexual and sadistic. Unlike Susan George’s victim in Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, there is no question that Jennifer in any way invites or enjoys the attacks. Keatons’ performance is startling. She is stripped, beaten, bloodied and covered in filth, spending nearly a full 30 minutes of screen time naked. The attacks take place initially outdoors and in bright daylight so the viewer is spared no ugliness. The men are cruel, stupid and vicious. It is about as erotic as a butcher’s block. Anyone who calls this film pornographic either has not seen it, or needs to take a cold hard look into their own dark places.
Following the assaults, ringleader Johnny asks Matthew to kill Jennifer with a flick knife. Matthew however bottles it and convinces the other rapists that Jennifer is dead by smearing blood on the blade of the knife. The men don’t think to check. Recovering alone Jennifer’s reaction to her ordeal is not to go to the authorities but to plot revenge against her assailants. It is notable that this section, the revenge portion of the film, is shorter than the rape portion, something that is unprecedented for any rape revenge film I can recall. When the tables turn in most revenge films, there is a subtext that the victim has been in some way empowered through suffering. ISOYG is far more ambiguous, There is a key scene in which Jennifer visits a chapel and asks God for forgiveness for what she is about to do (this is a scene notable for its absence in the upcoming remake, a film which weighs the rape to revenge ratio far in favor of the latter, and which sees no moral ambiguity whatsoever in the victim’s revenge).
The manner in which Jennifer takes her revenge is extreme, she first targets Matthew and for the first time the film is openly erotic and sexual. Jennifer dressed in a revealing floorlength nightdress tempts Matthew into the woods and seduces him. She allows him to make love to her and as he comes slips a noose around his neck and hangs him, coldly watching his death throes. That this is the first revenge murder, and that it is graphically sexual, is shocking as Matthew was coerced into assaulting Jennifer and she knows this.
Jennifer next targets Johnny at first threatening to shoot him. Johnny appears to disarm her with his “charm” telling her that he’s only a man who did what any man would do. Jennifer takes him back to her house for a sensual bath. It’s a graphic example of Johnny’s stupidity that he never questions that this woman whom he so severely brutalized would want to play sex games with him. Johnny is distracted by sexual ecstasy and Jennifer uses a concealed knife (showing that she was always in control as this has been planned) to castrate him. She locks the screaming rapist in the bathroom and chillingly walks downstairs, puts on some Puccini, and relaxes as he screams “I can’t stop the bleeding”.
Jennifer takes her sexuality and turns it into a weapon. The rapes may be shot asexually, following the classic feminist contention that rape is an act of violence that is about power and humiliation and not about sex. But Jennifer’s revenge on the men sure as hell contains a sexual element. This is perhaps the most transgressive aspect of the film’s sexual politics, and it is another element that is notably absent from the remake in which Jennifer’s vengeance is purely violent with no sensual edge.
The remaining two rapists fearing for their lives try to take the offensive, but Jennifer is waiting for them and subjects them to a sustained terrorization before dispatching them with bloody relish. Her last line is to the final and most violent of the rapists, “suck on it”.
I Spit On Your Grave is not a great film, it’s not Deliverence, it’s not Straw Dogs (although Pekinpah’s film has far more dubious sexual politics). In genre terms it is not at the top of the class of the rape revenge genre (that honour belongs to Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 in case you were wondering). It’s not in any conventional way a “good” film – it’s roughly made, the script is often banal, the acting in places atrocious (Richard Pace’s performance as Matthew is beyond terrible) – but in its sleazy, skuzzy way it has something that the upcoming super-slick remake does not, and that is a deep sense that rape is an awful thing, not just something to give the audience a reason to cheer on some bloody revenge. The remakes final half, where the audience is invited to whoop and cheer the elaborate and gory deaths of the rapists, is the whole point of the film. In the original it is the extended half hour of rape upon rape upon rape upon rape, that is its beating heart. The original is a film that takes an active and all too commonplace horror and pushes it into the face of the audience again and again and again. This film demands you ask yourself why? Why are you watching this?
I miss the days when exploitation movies were the province of lone mad bastards like Zarchi rather than the highly tooled products of entertainment conglomerates. While I would never suggest that this is a film you need in your life, it has a point (however distasteful the execution) beyond being a glorified theme park ride. Is it ‘entertaining’? God, no.
Why do I watch horror movies? Many reasons, often for entertainment, often for thrills, but mainly? Mainly because I’m a celluloid masochist, I want to take my fears, my insecurities, my darkest feelings, and bleed them out, lay them bare, expose them and thus understand them and render them inert. At the end of the day I want to see movies that do not leave me unmoved, that leave scars in their wakes. The anti-horror brigade imagines that horror audiences are loading up on sadism and violence. They think we gleefully sit in the dark rubbing our hands together at the prospect of gory mayhem. Sometimes that is true, but no more so than the audience for thrillers, war movies and action films. But the most successful of horror cinema, the Exorcists, the Texas Chain Saw Massacres, the Martyrs, these films play out quite differently, these films reach out of the screen an assault the audience. Even a fairly tawdry film like ISOYG has the power to do this. The image travels too fast from optic nerve to brain for the conscious intellect to intercept. The audience for these films is unloading, testing its limits, and emerging into daylight purged and in the knowledge that they are alive.
I Spit On Your Grave is not a film you can watch and be unmoved by.