31 Days of Halloween #6: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Who made it?: Meir Zarchi (Writer / Director / Producer), Joseph Zbeda (Co-Producer), Cinemagic Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleeman, Alexis Magnotti.

Tag-line: “This woman has just chopped, crippled and mutilated four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!”

IMDb rating: 5.3/10.

The tag-line for I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps the most succinct and to-the-point in motion picture history, distilling the allure of exploitation cinema into a mere poster quote. Meir Zarchi’s 1978 “classic” has a lot of detractors, myself included, but it is still unforgettable viewing. The litmus test to which all other rape-revenge films are measured, Zarchi’s first of only two directorial efforts is a searing, uncomfortable brew that hits hard. Yet it remains a misunderstood shocker that has more layers than you think.

Relentlessly sleazy, the film’s plot is one that has divided critics and more discerning viewers. Is it a flimsy excuse for bloodshed, or does it have something more meaningful to say? It tells the tale of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a New Yorker who leaves the Big Apple and ventures into the countryside to write her first novel. Naturally, things don’t go to plan and the gorgeous author is harassed by a group of standard-issue rednecks – tough guy Johnny (Eron Tabor), the mentally challenged Matthew (Richard Pace) and their sadistic pals Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleeman). The proceedings soon turn sour. Jennifer is attacked and raped several times. Presumed dead by the group, the battered and bloody Jen ceases writing her book, and turns her attention to cooking a dish best served cold.

Meir Zarchi today.

I Spit on Your Grave has faced an uphill battle over the years, competing with Cannibal Holocaust for the title of Most Banned Worldwide. And it isn’t hard to see why. Even a butchered copy of the film has an intensity, yet that intensity is heightened in its uncut form. This one goes all the way. Zarchi and the films defenders have always maintained that the movie is an exploration of feminist themes. While there are moments to back this up, Zarchi’s approach is a back-handed one. The cold scenes of torture certainly swallow the films social agenda. Yet the evidence is there to suggest that this isn’t just another cheap gut churner. Could it really be about female empowerment?

The original title was Day of the Woman, perhaps a better moniker than the eventual choice. It certainly makes more sense. The men in the film are despicable, although Zarchi does include a sympathetic character in Matthew. But even the retard has moments of total self-debasement. Guys in this film exist to die… and die horribly. Making this all the more unpleasant, Zarchi’s screenplay was based on a real-life incident. As he related in a DVD commentary, he came across the aftermath of a rape and the event understandably scarred him. Perhaps I Spit On Your Grave was a catharsis for the director. If so, it explains the level of brutal honesty. The rapists deserve everything that is coming to them, making Day of the Woman the only logical title for the movie. As the tag-line intoned, “no jury in America would ever convict her.” By the end, you’re inclined to agree.

The calm before the storm...

That said, I’m not sure how much mileage this girl power tract has. The film undercuts this philosophy throughout, constantly reminding you that it was made for male audiences in a decrepit Times Square cinema. Consider the early scene in which Jennifer arrives at her rented house in the woods. Amazed by the rural beauty, she shows us her beauties. It would be wise to savour this moment, because it is the only titillation in the movie… the fact that it’s so random makes it funny in context. Call it the representation of a free-spirited woman if you want, but I see some crowd-pleasing T&A.

To counter the films dubious “empowerment,” Zarchi gives the material a strong streak of vigilantism, which had become the norm following films like Death Wish (1974). Changing the male protagonist was certainly inspired, and having viewed the film again, it’s not difficult to see the blueprint for Uma Thurman’s “roaring rampage of revenge” in Kill Bill (2003). You could almost say it was on the cusp of bad-ass lady cinema; Ripley made her entrance in Alien the following year. Again, such historical relevance is rendered moot by sheer bad taste. Since the film debuted during America’s golden era of neo-horror, I Spit On Your Grave also follows the basic archetypes of the genre, going for the jugular throughout. If you don’t switch-off 40 minutes in, you’re made of strong stuff.

While the social commentary is handled haphazardly, the violence is not. This determined I Spit‘s future as a “Video Nasty.” The initial rape and those that follow last for an unbearably long time, holding the record for such content at 25 minutes. Just when you think the worst of it is over, a tidal wave of repugnant images flood your way. Zarchi’s filming style is direct and unfussy, and the stillness works. It also took me the odd viewing over the years to realise that the film is devoid of music. All we get is some sounds from a church organ, a store record and a dreaded harmonica.

Zarchi has a primal understanding of what unsettles the human psyche. The location itself is classic: the great outdoors, where anything can and will happen. I’ve lost count of the “evil country folk” films since Deliverance (1972), and the antagonists that plague Jennifer are now familiar (and well-worn) clichés. That said, they are drawn memorably here. The supporting cast members are perfectly slimy. Tabor in particular is easy to hate, hitting the same beats as David Hess in The Last House on the Left (1972), a film that evidently influenced much of the material. Like Last House, I Spit was shot in the placid environs of Connecticut, making you wonder what real estate goes for there.

While this is no performance showcase, Keaton deserves immeasurable respect for delivering such a naked, harrowing turn as Jennifer. Her conviction in the more horrific moments is almost too much, producing screams that will live in infamy. Though initially stilted, her transition from victim to aggressor is greatly portrayed. It’s just a shame that her talents weren’t used in a better production. The script is mostly to blame, stretching credibility to untold levels. Jennifer claims her victims in a ridiculously easy fashion, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the dominoes to fall. But the bloody retribution is memorable viewing, especially the sequence in which she robs a villain of his manhood. You can’t get any more feminist than that.

I Spit isn’t a terrible flick in the traditional sense. The pacing is languid, the acting is all over the map, and the controversial moments make you question yourself for watching it. But the film is also a competent effort when placed against titles like Last House, possessing a modicum of cinematic technique. It looks like a movie… just not the kind you’re going to see on TCM any time soon.

As the years tick by, I still don’t know where to stand on this one. It’s a bitter pill you’re better off not taking. Like the best exploitation flicks it is powered by reputation, but sometimes the reputation turns out to be true. One can’t deny the effectiveness of I Spit on Your Grave, which commits 110% to its hardcore roots, making it difficult to denounce and tricky to praise. The jury is still out, and I fear it always will be…

The Aftermath

It took a while for I Spit to claim an audience. After submitting the film to the MPAA several times, Zarchi was forced to make cuts to ensure theatrical exhibition. The ratings board wanted the violence toned-down considerably, although they never specified which sequences to trim. After removing all trace of a vicious anal rape, Zarchi finally had a classification. Adding insult to injury, he was unable to find a distributor willing to release it. He eventually handled it himself, touring Day of the Woman around the rural drive-ins of America. It didn’t even recoup its meagre advertising budget.

Luckily (or unluckily) for Zarchi, the film was snapped up in 1980 by the Jerry Gross Organization. They gave it a wide release with the option to change the title. Thus, I Spit on Your Grave was born. The new tabloid-baiting name gave the film instant notoriety, and it blossomed into a commercial hit. This ultimately did more harm than good, with many attacking the picture outright (including eminent critic Roger Ebert, who developed an obsessive hatred for the film). Many theatres stopped showing it after the outcry started, and like many an exploitation filmmaker before him, Zarchi became an untrustworthy sicko in the eyes of producers. His sophomore effort, action/drama/horror hybrid Don’t Mess With My Sister! (1985), would be his last.

I Spit on Your Grave faced bans and cuts all over the world. It’s still deplored today and the uncut print is a rare thing to find in Europe. While former terrors like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre no longer bother the BBFC, the current British release of I Spit is slashed by an extensive 3 minutes. The fact that this cut footage is composed of individual shots, rather than whole scenes, merely reinforces how depraved this film is. After three decades the content is still too much for some.

In a cruel twist of fate, the 2010 remake – released by the fledgling Anchor Bay Films – is almost as horrific as the original, but survived with a mere 43 seconds of cuts. Jennifer’s retribution in this version goes even further, making her more of a psycho than an embittered woman. Although I suppose that reaction is more realistic. It’s a solid update, directed with some power by Steven R. Monroe, and performed believably by Sarah Butler, making it worth a look in these days of slim horror pickings. In a kind gesture, Zarchi was given an Executive Producer credit.

Useless Trivia

  • Camille Keaton is Buster Keaton’s great-niece.
  • Alternative titles included “I Hate Your Guts” and “The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill.”
  • British feminist Julie Bindel attacked the film when it was first released in the UK. She later recanted, stating that it was “a feminist film” and very important.
  • Keaton won a Best Actress award at the 1978 Catalonian International Film Festival in Spain.
  • The actors who played the rapists never made another movie. Talk about a career killer.
  • Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) was shot at the same location.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, the Drive-In theatre is playing I Spit on Your Grave, as well as I Thumb Through Your Magazines.
  • The film was followed by an unofficial sequel, Savage Vengeance (1993), in which Keaton reprised the role of Jennifer Hills. It has a staggeringly low rating of 1.8/10 on IMDb.
  • There is some speculation that the model used in the iconic poster shot seen from the rear, clutching a knife, was Demi Moore.
  • To date the film has never been shown on television.

NEXT:

Halloween (1978)

PREVIOUSLY:

The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

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About Dave James

Editor-in-Chief @ SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator.
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 31 Days of Halloween #6: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Halloween #7: Halloween (1978) | SquabbleBox.co.uk – Entertainment Under Attack

  2. Pingback: 31 Days of Halloween #5: The Devil’s Rejects (2005) | SquabbleBox.co.uk – Entertainment Under Attack

  3. ryunosuketsukue says:

    Such a fucked up movie! Leaves an impression, that’s for sure!

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