I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is one of the most notorious of the revenge pictures. Why? I bet it’s mostly because the title is so good. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is a great title too, because it sounds cool but it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s enigmatic. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is the opposite approach, it’s blunt and harsh and to the point. Whoever this is that’s speaking the title, he or she DOES NOT like you. That much is clear.
Until my recent run-in with CHAOS and David “The Demon” DeFalco I never thought too much about watching this one. Why should I watch a movie that tells me it spits on my grave? But with all the ensuing discussion of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT a couple people recommended this one to me and I thought, ah, what the hell.
Coincidentally, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’s bad rep comes from the same place as CHAOS’s: Chicago, and Roger Ebert. Ebert, representing a ruthless group known as the Chicago-Sun Times, and his crosstown rival Gene Siskel, overseeing Chicago’s “movie beat” from his throne atop the Tribune Tower, both treated the movie with the sort of respect and sensitivity that the characters treat each other with in the movie. Ebert called it “a vile bag of garbage” and “an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures.” Siskel called it “easily the most offensive film” he had seen in his career. Both talk in their reviews about being disturbed by weirdos at the screenings cheering on the rapes or bringing their kids to see it. I can understand why that would sort of ruin the experience, but luckily I didn’t have either of those problems watching the movie on DVD at my apartment. I keep a tight lid on those types of things.
Ebert did like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and more recently DEVIL’S REJECTS so he’s not a total prude. But I don’t really agree with him on this one. Yes, it’s raw and exploitative and hard to watch, but I think it has more to it than he was willing to notice back then. I don’t think it’s misogynistic. I think it’s genuine in its anti-rape stance and it’s actually very anti-male. But I can take it, men deserve it sometimes. For example those weirdos at his screening who were seriously misinterpreting the movie. They fucked it up for poor Roger.
The very simple plot is about a New York writer named Jennifer Hill (played by Buster Keaton’s grand-niece Camille) going out to her summer cabin to work on a novel. We get the idea that she’s a feminist because she mentions that all her short stories were published in women’s magazines. While she’s hanging around trying to get inspired and work on her writing, these yahoos that she met at the gas station earlier keep driving their obnoxious motor boat past her place, whooping and hollering. They’re not your usual sinister villains at first, they’re just a bunch of fuckin assholes. In a modern movie they would drive hummers and talk on their cell phones loudly in public and possibly have an old Bush/Cheney bumper sticker still in place.
Then one day while Jennifer is out rowing in the lake, the assholes circle around her with their motorboat, a bunch of bullies thinking they’re being funny. Things escalate as they rope her boat, drag her to the shore and then gang rape her. The saddest part is they have this retarded guy named Matthew who delivered Jennifer’s groceries earlier and seems harmless, but they use his virginity as the excuse for what they’re doing and pressure him into raping her too. In my opinion, whatever town this is has the worst Big Brother program anywhere. They oughta be shut down.
This director Meir Zarchi may not be the world’s purest feminist, but I think he’s serious and that should be acknowledged. He didn’t call it I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, he called it DAY OF THE WOMAN. Despite what Roger and Gene thought, there’s no way in hell any reasonable person would side with the rapists, except to feel sorry for the retarded guy. They’re not presented as charming even in an anti-hero way. But they’re not super villains either. They introduce them as some regular yahoos who hang out together fishing and talking about “broads” and getting laid. They represent other sexist attitudes too: one says he doesn’t like women to tell him what to do, then he blames Jennifer for the rape because she showed skin at one point and didn’t wear a bra. None of them admit their guilt, all of them blame their friends, or say that they couldn’t control themselves or imply that she’s a slut. But clearly the audience understands that they’re wrong on all counts, and that “that woman deserves her revenge” as Michael Madsen says in KILL BILL. And even if it’s a savage Old Testament eye-for-an-eye version of feminism, I do think Jennifer’s revenge is feminism. In most revenge movies the woman is just the victim, and it’s up to her husband to get the revenge (DEATH WISH, WALKING TALL, VIGILANTE, HARD TO KILL, THE CROW, THE PUNISHER 1989, THE PUNISHER 2004, PAPARAZZI, etc.) or occasionally her dad(VIRGIN SPRING, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, CHAOS, THE LIMEY). This time she survives, takes a couple weeks to recover, goes to church for some “sorry God, but I’m about to kill some motherfuckers, just thought I should give you a heads up” type praying, then exacts her vengeance without asking for help from anyone.
One problem is that this is an exploitation movie and even though they’re supposed to be shocking and disturbing, you also want these movies to be fun. But there’s that 25 minutes in the first half that deliberatlely makes you sick. You can’t have much fun watching a movie where the hero gets raped four times. It’s a tough question because I’m not sure there’s a “right” way to tell a story like this. Either you cut away from the rape and you are sanitizing it, or you show it in all its horror and then you’re an asshole for making us sit through that. But in a revenge movie the filmatists are required to “twist the knife,” really outrage and piss off the audience, because that way we will root for the hero if she crosses the line when turning the tables. And believe me, this woman will cross the line.
It turns into an amoral slasher picture where you are openly expected to root for the killer, but admittedly it could use some more inventive kills, even more brutal violence. (sorry, Roger.) It doesn’t help that the blood looks too orange and soapy. On the positive side, Jennifer does get a couple great killer moments. I love the shot of her speeding toward the camera in the boat she stole from them, wielding the ax she stole from them. The hanging of Matthew really bothered me because I couldn’t understand why she let him have sex with her, but Joe Bob Briggs on the commentary track points out what I didn’t pick up on, that because of things that happened earlier she wants him to die just as he climaxes. Pretty fuckin cold thing to do to a retarded guy, and this takes place in Connecticut, not Texas. But I was more bothered that she would lower herself to being sexual with these guys, even if its in a predatory way that takes advantage of their male weaknesses. So this was almost a dealbreaker for me.
But of course you have to give it to the scene after she cuts off a guy’s dick in the bath tub. She locks the door (from the outside? Oh well, maybe she rigged it that way), goes downstairs, puts on an opera record and sits in her rocking chair as the dude screams off screen about how it won’t stop bleeding. She looks crazier than she did when she was sunbathing on her hammock, but not less relaxed.
I guess I can’t ask for much more than that. But the first thing I ever knew about this movie was the classic tagline: “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!” Siskel correctly points out that she only kills four men (what other man is there for her to kill, the butcher at the grocery store where Matthew works?) and she only burns a guy’s clothes. I don’t think Siskel was disappointed by the inaccuracy, but I was. I wanted to see one of these dudes burn. Oh well.
Ebert says the movie is “artless,” but I disagree. The guy playing retarded is not very convincing, but otherwise the acting is solid. The sunny days and the location reminded me of those Steve Miner FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels I like, but the feel is way more arty. It has a minimalistic realism that you could compare to some of Gus Van Sant’s movies and Steve Soderbergh’s BUBBLE – no score, long, quiet takes, minimal dialogue. Ebert mentioned that last one as if it makes it bad, but on that one he is definitely, scientifically incorrect. With many horror movies, especially of this era, you have to forgive a ton of wooden dialogue put in there just to explain what’s going on. Zarchi expresses alot of this stuff non-verbally. Camille Keaton actually gives a really good performance, letting us know what she’s thinking without many words. Ebert got worked up by those yahoos in his screening, so he got stupid and said things he probaly didn’t mean. Usually he would know that less dialogue can be much more cinematic. It adds alot to the movie with tense scenes like the one where the retarded guy slowly pushes his bike toward the house and is surprised from behind – it’s all in the sound effects, not people talking and explaining everything.
But I do have a big problem with the fact that Jennifer seduces these assholes before she kills them. The rape scenes are clearly supposed to make you sick, but I’m not as sure about these scenes where she deliberately acts sexy to lure them in. I mean I guess taking a bath with that other guy is a good way to cut his dick off, but still. The feminist message is sort of lost when she has to turn into Shannon Tweed or Sharon Stone or somebody to get her revenge.
Siskel also said in his review “I was stunned, first, that any parents would take their children to a film with a title like ‘I Spit On Your Grave.'” True, although he doesn’t mention if this includes the 1959 French film about Southern racism that the distributor took the title from. I would be more worried about the kids being bored during that one. Anyway I should warn you in case you plan to travel back through time and bring your children to the movie that the title is misleading, she doesn’t actually spit on anybody’s grave. The credits start just moments after she kills her last rapist, so there aren’t even any graves for her to spit on yet. It’s too bad this movie wasn’t made in the age of the internet so that they could’ve realized the response the title was getting and go back for reshoots where she individually spits on each of their graves. You know the character Johnny has a wife and kids so there definitely would’ve been a funeral for that guy, she could show up during the funeral and spit on the grave, that would be pretty cool. Oh well.
The Millennium Edition DVD has two commentaries. One is by the director/writer, but it’s kind of weird because you can tell it’s all pre-written and he’s reading it. I didn’t finish that one but I really liked the commentary by Joe Bob Briggs, who gives a really good defense of the film while also making fun of it a little.