I knew this would happen sooner or later.
I Spit on Your Grave, originally released as Day of the Woman, is a rape-revenge slasher movie with palpable notoriety. Its impact was so strong that everyone has a different opinion about what it is and means. The late, great Roger Ebert’s experience was less than pleasant, as one of his most famous and scathing reviews attests.
Speaking of Ebert, Anchor Bay Entertainment uses a choice blurb on the back cover:
This is no accident. Anchor Bay knows who they’re appealing to here, from discerning gore hounds to collectors like me buying for the novelty of it. My decision to purchase I Spit on Your Grave fell within the “hey look what I just got” school of impulse buying. I don’t just own this on home video, see. I’ve got it on Blu-ray.
I use a randomized method to pick out the media within my hoard pile, so I Spit on Your Grave being this week’s topic was pure happenstance. It’s strange, however, considering I’ve been putting off giving this a rewatch for a while. Is I Spit On your Grave a “vile bag of garbage without a shred of artistic distinction or simple craftsmanship,” or does it stand among the most misunderstood movies in cinematic history?
Well, Ebert wasn’t wrong in the case of the story and characterization. The plot follows a simple structure without much context in between. More time pre and post assault is spent with both Jennifer (Camille Keaton) and the men than I remembered, but the characters remain flatter than a crushed pancake. The extra screen time does little to develop them as people. The rapists are irremediable bastards with no personalities beyond libido-ruled redneck predators. The girl exists to be horribly victimized before littering the landscape with their corpses.
Jennifer has rented a lakeside cabin for the summer, where she plans to write a novel between skinny dipping and sunbathing in her canoe. She catches the attention of Matthew (Richard Pace) the local retarded grocery delivery boy. Matthew reports his discovery (“I saw her tits!”) to his three hillbilly buddies Johnny (Eron Tabor) Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann) who spend their days loitering outside Johnny’s gas station.
Since Jennifer’s given Matthew his first hard-on, the men decide to get their mentally challenged friend laid. Instead of hiring a hooker for Matthew or taking him to Vegas, they decide to gang rape Jennifer instead.
What follows is a grueling rape sequence. It lasts around 20 minutes start to finish, not an hour as Ebert cited in his review, but hard enough to watch that it feels much longer. Jennifer is sexually assaulted no less than three times in three different places. The final rape at the cabin is especially stomach churning.
Two weeks later, Jennifer has recovered and plotted. Her transition from friendly neighbor to emotionless, cold-blooded murderer is swift, her methods crafty. She uses her sexuality to lure two of the men to their deaths. Jennifer allows Matthew to screw her consensually and throws a noose thrown around his neck after his first and last ever orgasm. She leads Johnny to her bathtub with the promise of an Old Fashioned, which ends with his dihngus lobbed off in the hot water. Andy and Stanley succumb to a hatchet and outboard motor, respectively, and the credits roll immediately after the final death. I assume Jennifer has a happy ending since the box cover tells me “No Jury in America Would Ever Convict Her!” We never see the ensuing court case.
Further developing Jennifer’s character would have helped clarify her demeanor during the murder spree. I’m not talking about the motive but the way she goes about it. Jennifer dispatches the four men with the casual air of someone eating popcorn, killing without hesitation, second-guesses, or remorse. It made me want to know more about her backstory. Does she have a previous history of violent behavior? Is this the final straw after a long series of previous assaults?
What drives the men to commit sexual assault with no conscience on their part? Are they previous offenders, and if so, how have they gotten away with it? Seeing as how this town consists of one gas station, a single grocery store, and the lake house “a half mile down the road” it wouldn’t take long for the locals, few as there may be, to catch on.
What we’re left to ponder is a million dollar question that has been debated for almost 40 years: is I Spit on Your Grave exploitative or empowering? Can it be both? That’s similar to asking whether porn can also be art; one is for inspiration or deep reflection, the other for masturbation, and jerking off tends to conflict with any sense of reverence. In the case of I Spit On Your Grave, it’s a conundrum with several angles to consider.
First is the rape itself. It’s a gross, brutal assault that is, to say the least, uncomfortable to sit through. The absence of any background music during the movie’s entire 141 minute run time makes the experience that much more difficult, as all we’re left with are sound effects, screams and threats.
I Spit on Your Grave came out as grindhouse theaters were going into decline, and many grindhouse films during that era used sadism, especially rape, as entertainment fodder. However, this gang rape was clearly not filmed, edited or blocked to be entertaining, nor should it have been. It’s a rape. The onscreen horror throws any notions that Jennifer’s plight is meant to be fun down the crapper. The message conveyed is that this is not an act to glorify or emulate. The intent is disgust, not amusement.
Second, I have ask whether Jennifer is a powerful feminine icon. This goes back to those aforementioned conflicting ideas. Can a strong avenging heroine also double as eye candy? I ask because she spends 95% of this movie nude or wearing very little. Her clothes consist of either a skimpy bikini or a knotted shirt with short shorts.
Maybe it comes down to psychological word association with me. Whenever I hear the term ‘exploitation’ the first phrase springing to mind is rampant nudity, and I Spit On Your Grave has that in bulk. The men expose their hairy, dangly bits with equal measure, but was that done with the same intent as Camille Keaton’s naked body on constant display?
Finally, there’s the argument that I Spit on Your Grave is a male rape fantasy told from the perpetrators’ point of view. If anything, I Spit on Your Grave as a whole hates men, portraying us as disgusting, one-track minded pigs capable of leaving their raped victim for dead without regret. Whereas Jennifer is just a woman minding her own business until this caricature of testosterone comes blasting through.
This brought me around to the possibility that Jennifer and Johnny’s gang aren’t ‘people’ at all but metaphorical representations of opposing forces. Jennifer could embody a rallying cry against bleak misogyny and the men potential for cruel sexual violence hiding within every male’s testicles.
According to writer/director Meir Zarchi, his inspiration derived from assisting a woman who’d just been brutally raped and beaten. Taking that explanation into consideration, the worst I’d accuse I Spit on Your Grave of being is “misguided.” Zarchi weaved a simple gory revenge tale that turned into a woman pitted against a maligned stereotype. He left too much underdeveloped to communicate his message, namely a good story and believable characters. The direction is effective, the writing not so much.
Overall, I Spit on Your Grave is not the worst piece of cinema I’ve ever seen but I have sat through better. These people are as lively as a textile convention and the plot surrounding them is by-the-numbers at best. I also don’t make a habit of putting the movie in for obvious reasons. But a funny thing happened when I rewatched I Spit on Your Grave. It got me thinking, and that counts for something.
FINAL GRADE: D