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Entertainment > Movies / TV

An Exercise in Poor Taste - I Spit On Your Grave
Posted by Edward Robins on Jul 25, 2003, 17:27

Wow, I’ve really been off my game these past few months, haven’t I? Well, now that this review is finally in the hole, I’d like to apologize to Dames and everyone who wanted it when I promised it a few months ago. Thankfully this isn’t a real job…sure, I don’t get any review copies of stuff (and thus, can’t afford to bring you guys new release reviews as I’d like), but I also can’t be fired for taking so long to write up a column, haha. I’m going to try and get back in gear, and bring more reviews in the upcoming weeks. I mean, even in my “prime” I could only get in one a month or so, that shouldn’t cut it. Anyway, after this long wait, let’s cut with the idle promises and get to:


I Spit On Your Grave (Day of the Woman): Millennium Edition
2002 Elite Entertainment

Film (complete with minor plot spoilers):
Rape is a life-altering experience no one should ever have to face. It’s physical and mental torture, and as such it’s difficult (not to mention undesirable) to represent “accurately” on film. Most films, even those where rape plays a major role in a character’s background or the story, choose not to represent the act, having it happen either off-screen, before the plot, or in a sanitized form. The most notorious exception to this rule is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman, infamous for its content and marketing campaign during a re-release by Jerry Gross in the ‘80s under the more exploitive title I Spit On Your Grave.

“This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition…but no jury in America would ever convict her!” screamed Gross’ tagline for the film (despite, in true exploitation style, there only being four men murdered in the film and no burning). That’s pretty much the plot description right there. Jennifer Hills is a feminist writer from New York City, vacationing alone in a cabin in rural Connecticut to write her first novel. The only other people around are three men working at the gas station and Matthew, a retarded delivery grocer. After Matthew spies on Jennifer swimming and sunbathing in the nude, he tells his friends (the men at the gas station) about her and the “country boys” harass, hunt, and brutally rape her several times – the final time in Jennifer’s own cabin, violating her with a beer bottle, ripping apart and mocking her manuscript, and leaving Matthew to kill her. Matthew is unable to finish the job, leaving Jennifer to survive, her life and spirit broken, to seek revenge on her attackers in sexually violent methods fitting those they delivered to her.

I didn't include any images of the rape sequences in a rare show of taste on my part.

Because of the “old school” grindhouse-style exploitive ad campaign, audiences were left no surprises coming in to the film; they knew they were going to see Ms. Hills get raped, and they knew they were going to see her vengeance (the trailers even showed how she would kill her attackers…talk about spoilers!). Rather than craft a strict psychological drama or a melodramatic sap flick about the aftermath of rape – Zarchi chose to go the hard route, with the most intense rape scenes on film in the first half of the film, and equally intense violent killing scenes in the second half of the film. The film’s portrayal of rape is the most accurate I’ve ever seen – it’s brutal, it’s disgusting, it’s intense, and it’s terrifying. The rapist’s movements become jerky, their faces twisted as they grunt and groan like animals. Camille Keaton’s screams send shivers down the spine (what’s even more amazing is that Zarchi reveals in his commentary track that she was physically able to do multiple takes of these scenes). The whole ordeal leaves a feeling of disgust and anger; it’s impossible not to sympathize with Jennifer and desire the same violent revenge she does.

Matthew, one of Jennifer's attackers, tries to defend himself...

Unfortunately, the second half of the film and Jennifer’s revenge is where the film goes a little flat. Only one of the deaths seems to even compare to the horror and pain of Jennifer’s multiple rapings. Jennifer wants revenge, as did I watching this, but it’s just not satisfying enough just to see these men die after seeing Jennifer’s pain and agony in the first half of the film. This is the only reason I can see for why the film has received accusations of chauvinism and glorification of rape for years; not because of its depiction of graphic rape (for camera angles in the rape sequences take either a third-person view, or show close-ups of the rapist’s twisted faces, making it clear the audience, like Jennifer, is being raped, rather than the one raping), but because the punishment doesn’t seem to even out in the end. True, her attackers are dead, but, with Gross’ tagline mentioning a jury and the film ending not with her escape but her leaving after the final murders, there’s not even a guarantee she “got away with it”, as they did to her (not a soul is present in the first half of the film, but once the murders start people just seem to appear in town out of the blue, for no real narrative purpose).


I Spit On Your Grave is notorious for its absolute panning by Siskel and Ebert. Because of their public comments against the film and its subject matter, many have unfairly dismissed this as “the worst film ever made”. Aside from its subject the matter, the film is for the most part executed quite well. Had Camille Keaton’s performance taken place in anything other than an exploitation film (despite Zarchi not intending on it being marketed as such), she would’ve received accolades, for as mentioned above, it’s her chilling performance that sells the film; the men’s performances, during the rape scenes and otherwise, are nowhere near as convincing as Keaton’s, which is to be expected given that their characters are nothing but flat, despicable chauvinists (arguably, giving the men any deeper a character could have inspired sympathy and identification with them, and thus given the “this film promotes rape” statement some credibility). Zarchi uses the long-take effectively to create suspense; the heart races as Jennifer desperately crawls to get away, only to almost make it to safety. Unfortunately, Zarchi uses the technique indiscriminately, leading to many sequences that are needlessly lengthy and drag (reminiscent of those old CRZ columns: “He is WALKING”). The budget, of course, was low, which leads to the cheap stock giving the same sort of disturbed realism and “documentary feel” as in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, as usual, that budget was also the reason the killings and other technical aspects were forced to be minimalist and unsatisfying (because, as harsh as this may sound, all that’s required for a gang-rape scene is an accomplished actress and several actors, a convincing death scene requires slightly more).

I Spit On Your Grave is an interesting film in that it was saved from obscurity by the exploitation market, yet because of its ties to the exploitation market, was immediately vilified beyond compare. Though there are many who will suggest the film be viewed because of this vilification, few will say the film is worth viewing on its own merits because of its subject matter. However, as Zarchi relates in his commentary track, he didn’t intend for the film to be about rape (despite being inspired by and containing graphic rape) but revenge and a woman’s assertion of power, and for this reason the film is praised in many feminist circles. Yet, it’s not the many different opinions surrounding the film from its many different groups that makes the film worth viewing. It’s the execution, with its effective moments of gut-wrenching terror (for unlike most ludicrous exploitation and horror stories, rape can happen to anyone, though it’s rarely avenged as portrayed off-screen) and chillingly accurate performances that make this film a must-see.

...and falls for one of Jennifer's traps.

Body Count (because every good film has at least one death in it!):
Four men

Wrestling Moves/References:
Aside from the resemblance of some of the needlessly lengthy scenes resembling a “He is WALKING” mockery, none.

ONE Redeeming Scene (SPOILER WARNING!):
Having already been gang-raped twice and left sprawled on a rock, Jennifer has somehow found the strength to recover and drag her way back into her cabin. The nightmare is over, she’s almost safe, though her strength is gone. She slowly crawls across her living room, spying the phone, she continues crawling, crawling, crawling, she somehow finds the strength to reach out for the phone…a foot comes from off-screen and kicks the phone away. It isn’t over. This is the prime example of Zarchi’s long-take and slow-pace; not only is it effective the first time as a shock (my heart sank into my stomach and I felt physically ill based solely on an on-screen scare for the first and only time ever), but on repeated viewings the pace leaves a sense of dread. One is tempted to scream at her attackers to just do it and get it over with, but she always tries, always struggles, slowly and clearly in great pain and agony, always comes so close to the phone and safety. Zarchi could’ve gone the more “typical” route of such a sequence in these films and have her make the phone only for it to be disconnected or cut, but instead chose to have the phone, her final hope of survival, violently wrenched away from her as was her dignity and life.

Presentation:
Elite’s “Millennium Edition” of the title is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Elite makes a big deal about how their titles are THX-optimized, but that title means little, since “THX” has been thrown about a bit, and as such was never allowed to be a “high standard” for home video (IIRC, it still is in regards to theatrical presentation, however, my laptop and small TV hardly constitute as theatres). The other reason I’m “wary” of a THX-endorsement is that even if the film wasn’t “enhanced” for this DVD it’s still the best it’s ever looked; aside from a few stray scratches, the print is flawless. The sound is offered in two 5.1 flavors, Dolby Digital and DTS (and being far from a home theatre aficionado, you’ll forgive me for not knowing the difference between the two), as well as the original mono soundtrack.

A classic image from the film's underwhelming climax.

Special Features:
The Millennium Edition offers two commentaries: one from Meir Zarchi (his “breaking the silence” in regards to this film), the other from Joe Bob Briggs. Zarchi’s commentary entails all aspects of the trials and tribulations of production (including crew leaving because of the film’s nature, lies spread throughout the town by said ex-crew that Zarchi was shooting a pornographic film and Camille Keaton’s ability to do several takes of the rape scenes for different-angle shots) as well as distribution (upon the film’s first release as Day of the Woman, Zarchi was barely able to book and promote any screenings due to lack of money). It’s interesting to hear him go into his dealings with the Jerry Gross Organization, because Zarchi dislikes their retitling and marketing of the film (he shares the opinion of many of the film’s fans that the film is stereotyped as trashy and degrading purely because of its title), despite wishing that he had been able to conduct that kind of ad campaign and earn that kind of exposure himself. Somewhat ironically, Zarchi spends little time addressing the film’s critics, which is a bit puzzling because of his long period of silence regarding the film and the “Director Meir Zarchi finally speaks!” emblazoned on the release’s front cover. As informing a listen as Zarchi’s track is, however, it’s difficult to get used to his accent. I can’t place what country it’s from, but just his manner of speaking makes everything sound romanticized, almost as if he’s trivializing the sexually violent content of his own film. It’s obvious that this isn’t his intent, however, making it a minor quibble.

Joe Bob Briggs’ commentary is much more unique. Rather than a technical or comedic commentary, Briggs provides a running analysis of the film. He addresses criticism of the film by pointing out how sequences are different than that of typical sexploitation fare (even getting in some things I didn’t initially notice, such as how Jennifer is only shown in the nude in sequences where she’s comfortable or in a position of power), yet is also quick to point out the film’s short-coming. Being young enough to just barely miss out on Briggs’ tenure on TNT, and not having read any of his published reviews, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised that his comments were so balanced. He clearly loves the film, and his care-free, positive attitude towards it (even while admitting its faults) definitely makes for an overall pleasurable experience. Elite must have been impressed too, since a few months after this disc was released they signed a contract with Briggs for his own “series” of cult film commentary tracks, the first being the recently released Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

Besides the two commentary tracks, there are four trailers for the film – two under its original release Day of the Woman (one in English and one with Spanish subtitles; interestingly, although all the scenes are the same, the Spanish one is “complete” whereas the English one lacks title cards) and two under the I Spit On Your Grave re-release. Viewing the latter two, it’s obvious where Gross’ exploitive marketing comes into play. All of the killing scenes are shown outright Gross’ trailer, leaving little to the imagination (although in true exploitive style, a lack of fact-checking leads to the trailer and tagline claiming five deaths, with “burning” being thrown in there despite there being nothing close to it in the film). Along with the theatrical trailers, there are three TV spots, one from the Day of the Woman release, and two from I Spit On Your Grave; again, both of Gross’ spots are much more revealing, although the first has some additional first-person narration from Jennifer, affirming that even Gross intended for the audience to relate to her rather than her scumbag attackers. As is to be expected, the image quality on these isn’t comparable the main feature; the source prints have a lot of scratches, and the color is a little faded (but by no means unwatchable, or comparable to many of the prints used on, say, Something Weird bonus features). To cap off the preserved promotional materials, there are three radio spots from Day of the Woman.

Finally, Elite’s provided a “hidden” gallery (hit up and select “GRAVE” on the title menu) with a few photos from the set, an extensive poster gallery, with covers from just about, if not every video release worldwide (sadly excluding the controversial early American Wizard Video releases but including a few countries that, to sound ignorant on my part, I wasn’t even aware of as having wide video markets) as well as a text gallery of reviews about the film, including Roger Ebert’s famous diatribe against the film that actually caused it to be pulled from theatres in his local Chicago (two articles about that are also included in this “gallery”). Though none of the reviews are published in full, Ebert’s excerpts state that his disgust lies not solely with the film, but with the film’s popularity (he mentions several times the large crowd, including a couple families, and his disbelief that so many people could enjoy such a film). There are also excerpts from two articles surrounding the MPAA’s outrage when Wizard Video released the film uncut on video-cassette with an R-rating (a situation Zarchi also addresses in his commentary). Finally, there is a requisite filmography, which seems a bit silly in this case since, with the exception of Camille Keaton, nobody involved with this picture went on to any long-standing career (in fact, for most, this picture was their career).

I Spit On Your Grave is, through circumstances not necessarily of its own doing, a landmark of exploitation film-making. Besides that somewhat dubious title, it’s also a classic film in its own right that everyone should see, whether because of its controversy or its atypically accomplished filmmaking. And for those looking to own it, Elite’s Millennium Edition DVD lives up to its title as the ultimate version of the film.

I'll be quicker with the next column, I swear!

‘Til next time, please don’t cut, chop, break, or burn your faithful TSM cult reviewer beyond recognition for taking so long with this column or (probably) the next one!
Edward Robins

Missed a column? Now you can catch up!
My Collection (DVDAF, since Guzzlefish still doesn’t have everything yet)
My Collection (Guzzlefish, missing some titles due to their incomplete database)
Wishlist (Amazon… ‘tis better to give than to receive, but I’ll take the fall here)



 

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