I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

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*. This may be the most notorious and controversial film ever made, and is still one of the most despised.
*. For a long time I think it was despised by a lot of people who hadn’t seen it. It wasn’t easy to see. It never played on TV and was banned as one of the infamous “video nasties” in the U.K. But with its release on DVD, in a special edition no less, and then a remake followed by sequels to the remake, it’s now a cult phenomenon that has gone mainstream.
*. Nevertheless, some people did see it (at least on its re-release) and really didn’t like it. Roger Ebert’s review was one of the more memorable, calling it “so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters . . . Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life.” And even years later Kim Newman, in his essential Nightmare Movies, was claiming it had “the distinction of being among the most loathsome films of all time.”

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*. Criticism, when it hasn’t been simple outrage, has taken two forms: political (it’s a hateful, exploitive movie) and aesthetic (it’s a crudely made piece of junk).
*. The political critique doesn’t hold up very well. The essential question, as Joe Bob Briggs identifies it in his DVD commentary, can be stated as “Is this the most disgusting movie ever made? Or is it the most feminist movie ever made?” Or, to put it in slightly different terms, is it just a sleazy exploitation flick, or does it take the rape-revenge theme and turn it into a statement of female empowerment in a particularly forceful and gritty way? And if we do think it’s a feminist film, does that mean that it hates men? Why is it, Briggs wonders, that all the men in these rape-revenge films are violent, slavering beasts?
*. I think that while it certainly has some of the odour of an exploitation film — which is to say, it’s sensational in a deliberate attempt to turn a fast buck — it’s not a film that promotes sexual violence in any way. Though I will admit having some concern over the similarity the opening credits have to Deep Throat (1972).
*. The multiple rapes of Jennifer are still disturbing to watch and are among the most un-erotic scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Nor is this accidental. When she is first grabbed by Johnny she is streaked with mud and later she will be covered in swampy river slime and blood, with her tangled hair covering her face. Nobody could find this a turn-on. As Briggs says, Johnny “rips off her bikini like he’s skinning an animal.” Compare these scenes to the sexual content in Baise-moi, which is far more strongly identified as a “feminist” rape-revenge film but which is also far more pornographic in its look.
*. I said “multiple rapes,” by the way, because I don’t see this as a single rape scene that goes on for twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds, as is often claimed. There are three separate rape events.

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*. Then there is the aesthetic critique. Here we can borrow from Ebert again: “This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship.” Is this true?
*. There’s no denying it was very cheaply made, and there wasn’t a lot of high-level talent involved. Parts of it are downright embarrassing, like the dialogue as the boys are out night fishing (and asking questions like “Do women shit?”). The character of Matthew (played by Richard Pace) is a total misfire: a mistake to begin with who is then inappropriately turned into a comic figure. He looks less like someone who is mentally challenged than a reject from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise. Though in 1978 maybe people thought nerds were retarded. In any event, there’s no place for comic relief in a film like this.
*. That said, Camille Keaton is credible and even sympathetic as Jennifer and Eron Tabor (looking suspiciously like David Hess’s Krug in The Last House on the Left) gives a professional performance.
*. As for Merhi’s direction, I don’t think he’s capable of suspense. He didn’t use storyboards, for one thing, which probably didn’t help. He does, however, strike a few grace notes with his photography. When you least expect it — and, to be honest, you’re never really expecting it — you get that shot where the guys in the motorboat circle above Jennifer’s head as she lies in her hammock, or a nice set-up where she leaves the house at night, or her lying spread out on top of the rock she’s been raped on like some kind of primitive human sacrifice, or her crawl across that angry red carpet toward the phone, or the way she appears as a wood nymph to seduce Matthew to his death, and of course her final appearance motoring toward Andy with axe aloft. These are memorable, almost iconic images and they’re clear indications that Merhi was at least trying.

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*. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I Spit on Your Grave is a good movie. I just don’t think that a lot of the most extreme criticism that has been leveled against it is deserved. It doesn’t seek to glorify, eroticize, or otherwise promote sexual violence against women. And while undeniably crude, it still has some elegant and effective moments.
*. One of the boldest things about the film was, to give it the industry term, “full frontal nudity.” What this means is bush. You do not see cock. Is that a double standard? Well, yes. And it’s ridiculous. Not just ridiculous for being a double standard but ridiculous because it makes several scenes laughable as the male talent have to go through all kinds of weird contortions to keep their genitals hidden from the camera.

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*. But it’s not just a double standard. According to Merhi the actors playing the rapists were all comfortable with going fully nude for the camera. The problem is, if a man is going to play in a sex scene he has to clearly indicate that he is ready for action. He has to have an erection. This is not easy for many actors. For one thing, said erection has to be maintained for as long as it takes to finish filming an entire sequence, which can be a very long time. Anyway, it’s clear from the glimpses we do see here that none of the men was up to the task, which means that their flaccid genitals have to be concealed.
*. If you want to see a funny example of what can go wrong in this regard, check out the scene in Pink Flamingos where Divine is trying to give a blowjob to Crackers (her son in the film). The actor who plays Crackers (Danny Mills) can’t even come close to getting hard (how could he?) but he tries to sell the scene nonetheless with the famous line “Do my balls, mama!”
*. There are plenty of moments that are unconvincing. There is no way in hell, for example, that Jennifer would have been able to lift Matthew up and hang him like that. A tree trunk isn’t a pulley. According to Zarchi it took “two muscled crew men” to hoist Richard Pace into the air. Apparently Zarchi was warned about the improbability of this scene from the start, with people telling him that he was asking audiences “to work too hard on the credibility scale.” He responded by saying that her fury had given her super strength.
*. It also makes no sense that Stan, who obviously can swim, doesn’t just head to shore on his own instead of treading water helplessly. Then, when he is duly eviscerated by the outboard motor, it’s clearly nowhere near him. Not that I can blame the actor for keeping his distance.
*. A couple of miscues really stand out. The first of these, flagged by Briggs in his commentary, is the absurdity of Johnny giving Matthew the job of finishing Jennifer off. This is one of those stupidities that is only introduced in order to get the plot to work.
*. The other miscue is the simulated sex. This is so bad it almost turns the rape scenes into comedy. Particularly awful is Andy’s performance when he has Jennifer bent over the rock. His head twitches from side to side like a short-circuiting robot but he doesn’t even move his hips. That’s not what sex, or orgasm, looks like.
*. How hard is it to simulate sex? Could anything be more natural? If the actors really had no idea what it looked like they could have just watched a couple of dogs in the park going at it.

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*. You don’t often see suspenders worn with blue jeans, do you? They give Andy an unfortunate sort of Mork-from-Ork look.
*. No, this is not the title it was originally released under. I Spit on Your Grave was only used a couple of years later when it was re-released by another distributor. As had happened with It’s Alive (1974), it was the new release and ad campaign that did the trick. It’s a better title, that’s for sure, even though it did not appeal to Zarchi at all (“I instantly hated it, and still do to this day”). Zarchi insisted that on DVDs it be known as I Spit on Your Grave a.k.a Day of the Woman.
*. It’s interesting how they frustrate Chekhov here. When we’re shown that Jennifer has a gun, however improbable its appearance, so early in the movie then we think she has to use it later. But she doesn’t, except to threaten Johnny.
*. Ebert found the church scene “unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate.” Hm. An odd thing to get upset about, it seems to me. Did he not think Jennifer might want to justify herself to some higher power? She’s not a bad person.

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*. Is there something about female killers and bathtubs? Repulsion had its imitators in Ms. 45 and Darling, but I don’t think Polanski’s film is being directly referenced here. Is the idea that women naturally know all the places in a house that are the easiest to clean up?
*. These avenging angels always have to look so damn fashionable. Madeleine in Thriller: A Cruel Picture with her eyepatch, Thana from Ms. 45 in her beret, and Jennifer here in all black with dark glasses and a head scarf as she begins her hunt.

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*. The reveal that Johnny is married with children was quite unexpected. It also injects one of the few notes of a realistic world outside the nightmare of the main plot.
*. Briggs points out how the movie adopts the motif of the city slicker who is way out of her comfort (or safety) zone in the country. Even if the country here is the genteel cottage country of Connecticut.
*. I wonder what the source of this particular anxiety is. That we’ve become so de-natured by urban existence that any return to the farm, however Edenic, is seen as having taken a wrong turn straight to hell?
*. So is this the most loathsome film ever made? No. Nor is it a powerful political statement. It’s a crude but occasionally effective exploitation film whose very crudeness and general disagreeableness works to its advantage, much as those same qualities do for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
*. It is a Meir Zarchi film. He wrote, directed, and edited it (the editing being an eight-month process). For a while he even tried to distribute it himself. So whatever you think of it, it’s very much an indie project, part of the cinema of personal expression, made without compromise. Zarchi claims “I did it for myself” and that it was inspired by an encounter with a rape survivor. He also says that directing the rape scenes made him feel as though he was possessed by a force.
*. Should we accept all of this at face value? Can we? Critics of I Spit on Your Grave don’t buy it. Zarchi’s defence of his motives sounds scripted on the commentary — as does all of the commentary, actually — though he’s probably been saying the same things for a very long time. Perhaps he’s sincere. He only went on to make one other film (Don’t Mess with My Sister), which may be taken as evidence for either his lack of talent in the first place or his having expressed himself completely. As with all such either-or choices I think it’s probably a case of a bit of both.
*. I don’t like it much, but for various reasons it is a landmark, albeit not ground-breaking, movie. It was a chore watching it again this time (though the commentary by Briggs is entertaining). I have a feeling I won’t be watching it again. God knows it didn’t need to be remade thirty years later, but it was.

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