I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
I was in fifth grade when I first heard about I Spit on Your Grave. Not when I saw it. I saw plenty of violent movies when I was a kid, but this was one of those whispered about at school. There were kids with older siblings, or parents who just didn't care, who saw grainy VHS copies of this. The rape part was never mentioned, but the most memorable kill was often talked about. Exaggerated, it turns out, but definitely a thing of legend.
This wasn't the easiest film to find a rental copy of in the early 1990s, and it certainly resulted in side-eye from some clerks. However, having heard about it since I was 10, I had to see what all the fuss was about. What I got at the time was a long production, a good part of it spent with the lead character getting gang raped, followed by her revenge. That scene, which had been talked up so much, happened, but rather anticlimactic after how it had been described. It was one of my first introductions to truly low-budget sleazy filmmaking and I wasn't too impressed. That impression, seeing it through more adult eyes, has changed.
Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) is a writer who rents a remote summer cabin in order to get her novel finished. Her New York fashion sense and attitude get the wrong attention from a group of local guys who begin harassing her. After a few days the harassment turns violent, as they capture her and strip her. The group, led by gas station attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor), intend her to be a "first" for their mentally challenged friend Matthew (Richard Pace). When he proves reluctant, Johnny rapes her, and the men seemingly leave. However, the torture isn't over, as she is raped twice more before Matthew is told to kill her.
At the last moment, though he participated in the rape, he decides not to go through with murder, but fake it and make Johnny and his friends think he went through with it. They are not too pleased when, two weeks later, they find out she is still alive. Knowing that they now know, and that they will eventually come after her again, Jennifer takes matters into her own hands, using her sexuality and their machismo to get her revenge.
Originally called Day of the Woman, director Meir Zarchi was inspired to make this film after he and a friend rescued a woman in real life who had been raped. After the police were ineffective they got her to a hospital where her family eventually was able to help her. This was also inspired by other similar films such as Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Unlike many exploitation directors Zarchi was straightforward with his cast and crew about what type of movie this was going to be. Despite that he still had some people quit the production due to how disturbing the subject matter was.
Camille Keaton had to endure the simulation of being raped three times - one anally, in what is perhaps the most excruciating scene - as well as being beaten within an inch of her life. A good third of the movie is Jennifer being humiliated by the four guys, with Eron Tabor recalling David Hess as Krug Stillo in The Last House on the Left. The brutality the quartet of men inflict on her is matched by the sense of hopelessness. While I agree with Keaton that in many ways this is a strong feminist film, and that Zarchi was trying for a non-titillating realistic angle similar to the more recent Irreversible, I also have to agree with many critics that lengths he goes through in showing it muddy the message despite the realism.
The revenge portion is satisfying and where it turns feminist. Jennifer doesn't blossom into a female Rambo, but instead weaponizes her sexuality in a way that allows her to lure the men to their death or make them underestimate her. That one scene that always got talked about in elementary school involved castration, and it is graphic. What surprised me is Zarchi went to lengths to make it quite realistic as well. Often when a character is killed in a movie the blood, even when someone like Tom Savini is allowed to go all-out, is still minimal. In real life if parts of a human are removed and the flow is not quickly staunched the heart continues to pump whatever is in the body out of it, creating quite a mess. I was more surprised to see this well represented as a result of Jennifer's actions in which after removing the offending member she locks him in the bathroom until he bleeds out.
The other deaths - hanging, axe and boat motor - aren't as creative, but it still does the job of getting rid of the other rapists and giving the audience something to cheer for after having to endure what came before.
The question, after all these years and with the movie being at the top of the most hated list for many critics, is if it is even worth watching at this point in time. I would say it is, but in most part for a conversation about the issues it brings up or even about exploitation films and censorship. It is rough not just in its subject matter but in its presentation, having no soundtrack except for some incidental organ and harmonica music. In one way this helps get the point across as the intrusive and inappropriate soundtrack was one of the detriments of The Last House on the Left. In other ways, modern audiences have a huge problem with watching a movie without music, as evidenced by reactions to such classics as Dracula or the original Scarface that were made in the brief early period of talkies where soundtracks were not feasible.
It is certainly not a film one watches for entertainment or enjoyment and that was Meir Zarchi's intention. Part of the problem is that he is not a wholly incompetent director, but neither does he have anything that stands out in his style. He has only made two other movies - Don't Mess with My Sister! and the direct sequel to this one, I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu. Neither are anywhere near as memorable as I Spit on Your Grave, nor do they show any evolution in style or skill. This film had some anger and frustration behind it both in Zarchi's script and Keaton's performance, so it is no surprise that neither of them have duplicated it. It never deserved the hate it got, but its reputation as a more extreme example of exploitation filmmaking is well earned.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann
Director: Meir Zarchi