Creature Feature Crypt by Count Gore De Vol

I Spit on Your Grave—Is it as Bad as Claimed?

    One film, more than any other to come out of the Drive-In era, has been vilified and excoriated by critics, activists, and authorities as a visual assault on women; as a homage to violence; even, as Roger Ebert famously described it in his review, “… sick, reprehensible, and contemptible … a film without a shred of artistic distinction.” That movie is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman, better known as I Spit on Your Grave.

    What would inspire (perhaps ‘possess’ is a better term) a filmmaker to delve so deeply, and so explicitly, into such a brutal and ugly topic as gang-rape? As Zarchi relates in his commentary for the film’s DVD release, years before he had happened upon a young woman, nude, bleeding, and beaten, crawling from the bushes in a New York City park. She had just been raped by a gang of thugs, and witnessing the aftermath of this brutal attack, as well as the callous treatment the young woman received from responding police officers haunted the young filmmaker. He resolved to tell the story of that event, and to do so in as brutally honest a way as possible.

    The film opens with a slow, leisurely montage showing the heroine and central character, a young woman named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, who was the great-niece of Silent film star Buster Keaton, and would soon marry director Meir Zarchi), leaving her New York City apartment and traveling into the Connecticut countryside. She has rented a house along the placid banks of the Housatonic River, and plans to spend the summer there, in isolation, writing her first novel. As she stops to gas up her car, she draws the attention of Johnny (Eron Taber), the station’s attendant, and his group of friends hanging about the station.

    As she starts to settle into the summer house (after first indulging in a nude swim in the river and a jog through the woods), Jennifer discovers that the plumbing in the house isn’t working. She calls the local plumber, who eventually agrees to send someone out. The worker who arrives is Matthew (Richard Pace), a mentally-challenged young man whom she had met when he delivered her groceries, and who is one of Johnny’s friends. He soon has the pipes repaired and the water flowing, and in gratitude Jennifer gives him a friendly kiss. The unexpected affection overwhelms Matthew, and he runs from the scene.

    Later, as the others are discussing the new arrival in town, Matthew describes his encounters with the woman, exaggerating her state of undress when he had delivered the groceries and her reaction to his plumbing repairs. They tease Matthew due to his inexperience, and comments are made about the need to help him lose his virginity.

    As Jennifer falls into a routine of relaxing by the water during the daytime, and writing in the evening, she becomes aware of prowlers around her house. She hears strange noises outside as she’s reading in bed; rushing outside however, she finds nothing unusual. The final two members of Johnny’s pack, Andy and Stanley (Gunter Kleemann and Anthony Nichols), start buzzing by in a motorboat when she’s dozing in a hammock or sunning herself in a canoe on the river.

    The young woman’s tensions are rising, and one feels that a crisis is fast approaching. That crisis, when it does occur, starts with Jennifer once more drifting along in the canoe, soaking up the sun. Once again, Andy and Stanley race by in the motorboat. This time, one of them snatches the canoe’s towline from the water, racing off, dragging both canoe and woman behind.

    They beach the canoe, and Jennifer, fighting and struggling, runs into the woods, the men in pursuit. She goes a short distance before she runs in to Johnny lying in wait for her, and the true nature of this assault becomes apparent. The men beat her into submission and strip her naked. Johnny tries to coax Matthew, cowering in the brush, to rape the woman. When the man refuses, Johnny tells him that he’ll show him how it’s done. This begins an ordeal that lasts for nearly thirty minutes of screen-time, leaves Jennifer unconscious, bruised, and bloody, and the audience harrowed and shaken.

    At the end of the series of attacks, which had followed Jennifer through the woods back to her home, the men realize the possible consequences of their actions. They can’t leave the victim behind to testify against them. Johnny gives Matthew a knife, and sends him back into the house to finish the woman off. Matthew, however, cannot bring himself to murder Jennifer. He smears her blood on the knife blade, showing it to Johnny as proof that he accomplished his task.

    Jennifer however is far from dead, and has no intention of testifying against her attackers. As she heals, she formulates a plan—she will have her revenge, and her brand of justice will not require the intervention of the law.

    Initially released in 1978 as Day of the Woman, with limited success, the movie was retitled for its 1980 re-release. Distributed by Jerry Gross, the veteran Exploiteer devised a brilliant campaign for the film, centered on the new title, and the tagline “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken, and burned five men beyond recognition … but no jury in America would ever convict her!” Never mind the fact that she only kills four men, and no one is burned. As Joe Bob Briggs would say in reviewing the film, “… they don’t call ‘em exploitation movies for nothing, do they?” The campaign, as all such campaigns are, was designed to draw attention to the movie; to, in simple terms, put asses in seats. It inarguably did that, but it also generated intense controversy.

    Two Chicago critics who reviewed the film for their respective newspapers, Roger Ebert for the Sun-Times, and Gene Siskel for the Tribune, both decried the film for its violence, as well as for what they considered the glorification of rape. Ebert would write, “This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures … There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” What made the opinions of these two local critics so noteworthy was the fact that each enjoyed national syndication in hundreds of newspapers, and that together they hosted Sneak Previews, a syndicated television program highlighting their movie reviews. The pair essentially declared war on the film, lambasting it in their columns and condemning it on television. They argued that the story was told from the point of view of the rapists. That people in the screenings they attended were cheering during the savage, brutal attack on the helpless woman. It is a war that Ebert continued into his review of the 2010 remake, terming it a, “… despicable remake of the despicable 1978 film.”

    That the movie is brutal is without question. It is a difficult, uncomfortable film to sit through, even for those inured to Horror Film violence. But is it so irredeemable as to be deserving of being referred to as a “… vile bag of garbage?” Or is there a purpose to the stark realism of the assault on Jennifer? Is it, as Briggs asserts, “… a feminist tract?” And is I Spit on Your Grave that much worse than films such as Last House on the Left or The Candy-Snatchers, both of which also depict graphic representations of rape?

    These are questions that defy easy answers, mainly because the film provokes different reactions from everyone who watches it—even the author. Is it filmed from the point of view of the rapists? Certainly not. Jennifer is the central figure, and as we described her at the beginning of the synopsis, she is very definitely the heroine of the piece. She’s certainly not a victim, at least not in the classical sense, any more than a soldier wounded in combat is a victim. She fights her attackers at every turn, fiercely resisting them until beaten into submission. Afterward, she doesn’t give up and die, or even call the police and leave it in the hands of others to deal with. She heals herself over time, and plots her revenge. She uses those weapons she has mastery of to gain the upper hand over the rapists, namely her intelligence and sexuality. She is more combatant than innocent, and she dispatches her prey (for that is what they have become) efficiently and without undue emotion, at least until the final killing.

    Nor can the fact that audiences may have cheered or laughed at inappropriate times during the film be taken as a sign that said audiences were composed of a pack of bloodthirsty degenerates who were ready to leave the theater and commit similar crimes. To assume that of any film places far too much faith in the filmmaker’s ability to move an audience, and far too little faith in said audience. Those who viewed I Spit on your Grave were no more likely to go on killing sprees than people who cheer the appearance of Jason Voorhees on the screen during a Friday the 13th sequel are going to go out and start hacking up camp counselors. Such arguments are akin to the claims that Bugs Bunny cartoons teach children violence, or that comic books rot the brain.

    Is I Spit on Your Grave a ‘good’ movie? No, not even its defenders can make that claim. It isn’t well-written, well-directed, or, with the possible exception of Keaton, well-acted. It is comparable to trying to slice bread with a chainsaw. There’s no subtlety, no finesse in Zarchi’s work. Wes Craven had covered similar ground years before with Last House on the Left, and did so with far more talent and style. One suspects that, had Zarchi a modicum of Craven’s ability as a director, this film might not have been so controversial.

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