Monday, 15 August 2011

Video Nasty #26 - I Spit On Your Grave

This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship. There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, July 16, 1980

If there's one single film that represents the whole Video Nasty phenomena, it's surely Meir Zarchi's 1978 film, Day of the Woman. In 1980 exploitation impresario Jerry Gross re-released the film under the title I Spit on Your Grave, and backed with an aggressive marketing campaign, the film became a huge hit and a byword for extreme and confrontational Cinema. Even today, I Spit On Your Grave remains a thorny issue - in 2010, the Irish Censor's office, in something of an empty gesture, banned the film's DVD re-release for "acts of gross violence and cruelty towards humans". The rape and revenge plot is so well known that the film can be easily dismissed even by those who haven't seen it, which is a shame considering it's a very fine and worthwhile work. Just don't take the word of Roger Ebert.


Shortly after arriving at a country house in Connecticut to work on her first novel, New York writer Jennifer Hills, is terrorized, beaten and gangraped by 4 local men (one of whom is intellectually challenged). Left for dead, Jennifer ignores going to the police and instead exacts a terrible revenge on her attackers... The genesis for I Spit On Your Grave came from real life - Meir Zarchi happened upon a woman who had been raped and brutalised. When he brought her to a police station Zarchi was appalled by the unsympathetic treatment of the victim by the cold machinery of bureaucracy. Later on Zarchi was visiting a friend in Connecticut and the story of the rape and revenge of Jennifer Hills fell into place.


For all the scorn heaped upon the film over the years, the film is far less graphic than its reputation would suggest. Each of Jennifer's violations are deeply unpleasant but hardly gratuitous. Rather, the director's reductive style of film-making gives these sequences a powerful intensity. Zarchi strips away much of the traditional cinematic coating, the camera remains locked down observing the attacks in real time with minimal cutaways and forgoing any musical accompaniment that would add a welcome layer of artifice to these sequences. Director Gaspar Noé would do something similar some 24 years later in Irreversible, herding audiences out of their comfort zone to starling effect. In the rush to condemn I Spit on Your Grave, critics have larely ignored the fine pastoral photography, and the film's quieter moments, like one poignant scene where a traumatized Jennifer watches her empty rowing boat drift back to the bank as if returning to it's owner in shame.


Many of the film's detractors have accused Zarchi of never attempting to account for the behaviour of his male antagonists, but this criticism is not strictly true - in one scene the group's de facto leader Johnny (who organizes and directs the rapes) says "I don't like women giving me orders" and shortly afterwards Johnny's formidable wife is seen, enraged by his disappearance, inferring that Johnny's violation of Jennifer is born out of feeling like a browbeaten emasculated husband. The other men we know little about, other than their immaturity ("One day I'm gonna go into New York and fuck all the broads there") - their violent behaviour accentuated by the pack mentality and sense of deindividuation. At the heart of the film is Camille Keaton who turns in an extraordinarily visceral and courageous performance as Jennifer Hills. For much of the film she is seen naked but Zarchi removes any erotic elements by showing Jennifer's naked body scratched and muddied, bruised and bloodied - the idea that the film eroticizes the rapes is patently absurd, the violence inflicted on Jennifer is depicted as primal, savage and humiliating.


Anchor Bay's 2011 Blu-ray (US, A-locked) features a stellar 1.78 transfer which greatly improves upon Elite's very fine "Millennium" DVD edition from 2002. On the Blu-Ray the image shows excellent detail and is often quite a beauty in the outdoor scenes. The transfer does show some limitations in the night-time fishing sequence and some underlit shots inside Jennifer's house (which didn't fare well on the DVD either). Audio is fine, the film is hardly a showcase for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack when there's no score as such. All the extras which appeared on the DVD have been ported over for the Blu - Mier Zarchi's serious but informative commentary, a second, informal and more enjoyable commentary by critic Joe Bob Briggs, plus some trailers and TV spots. New to the Blu-Ray is an alternative credit sequence under the original Day of the Woman title, plus a newly filmed 30-min interview with Mier Zarchi, essentially a distillation of the topics and themes discussed on his commentary track. For exploitation fans I Spit on Your Grave is absolutely required viewing. If you haven't seen the film I would recommend you proceed with caution...but do proceed.

5 comments:

  1. What did you think of the remake? I liked it.

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  2. I haven't seen it Aylmer, but it's worth checking out ? I would imagine it's far stronger than the original ? I missed the Last House on the Left remake too...

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  3. It is indeed worth a watch. Far better than the LHOTL remake, which was altogether too glossy and slick. It's been some years since I've seen the original, but I don't think the remake is that much stronger. It may be graphic and hard to watch in parts (just like the orig), but it never strays into "vile" territory, like a certain Serbian movie for example.

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  4. During the Horror Movie Weekends each year I program in one of the strong 70's movies. Last House on the Left in 2013 came with too high a reputation and my young viewers didn't find it worthwhile. (Heathens, the lot of them). This year I showed my one guest (at the time) this movie - and this one worked. He was uncomfortable throughout - and never bored. It is a powerful film. I don't "like" it per se - but I appreciate it and revisit it periodically to marvel at its ability to maintain its power even all these years later.

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  5. I like the flatness of the film - so unlike the slickness of say The Accused or the backwards structure of Irreversible - this one strips away all the cinematic icing. I wouldn't go so far as to say this one has the documentary power of Night of the Living Dead, but I like the film's sparseness and austerity...

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