I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Director: Meir Zarchi
Starring: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann
Run Time: 101mins
Originally: Part of the Prosecuted 39
Current staus: Released with 7 minutes 2 seconds cut in 2001. Re-released in a longer re-edited format in 2003 which reframed the rape scenes but was cut by 43 seconds to the second rape scene by the BBFC. The original print was released again with 3 minutes cut in 2010
Along with the previously covered “Last House on the Left” and “Cannibal Holocaust”, “I Spit on Your Grave” is one of the most notorious and controversial Video Nasties there is and even without it’s place on the list it would no doubt would have gained just as much notoriety.
It simultaneously infuriated both liberal progressives and social conservatives. The former due to its alleged misogyny and glamorisation of rape and the latter, like most of the movies on the list, for its extreme violence and the apparent effect it could have on “susceptible” minds. The late, great American film critic Roger Ebert even denounced it as “the worst film ever made” and “a vile bag of garbage”.
You may think that a tad on the hyperbolic side but at least, unlike a lot of the films fiercest critics, he had actually watched the damn thing. Which is by and large a problem a lot of the films on the Nasties list had that many people railing against the films had only seen a snippet of one or more of the worst scenes or worse knew nothing about them beside a lurid headline and a description of the most extreme parts (and let’s face people’s imaginations of these sequences tend to be worse than the actual finished product itself).
To be fair some of the criticisms of “I Spit on Your Grave” are pretty legitimate and it is a problematic film but also some of it seems overblown. This in itself will not surprise anyone who has seen it as it is the kind of thing that produces a gut reaction which is what has led it to be such a hotly debated movie in the near 40 years since its release.
The plot is pretty straightforward as young short story writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) goes on a writing retreat in some backwater rural area. Upon arriving in town she meets a lairy gas station manager Johnny (Eron Tabor) and his two unemployed friend’sStanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann). All of them are evil hillbillies straight out of central casting but to be fair this was not quite the cliché then it is now. When Jennifer gets to her cabin she also meets a mentally handicapped delivery boy Matthew (Richard Pace)who delivers her some groceries and, as it turns out, is friends with the three we meet previously. Not long after this the group rape her repeatedly. Then in the second half of the movie we see her take her revenge.
This simplicity is part of the problem in that none of the characters feel fleshed out. In contrast a not dissimilar film “Last House on the Left” managed in a similar short time to establish it characters and give you a sense of who they are. Here we really feel we know little about the characters. Another issue is how long the rape scenes go on for. Jennifer is raped, recaptured and raped again 3 times in what takes up nearly 30 minutes of screen time. It is gruelling but unlike what it’s most vociferous critics would claim it does not appear to be done just to shock nor to simply revel in sadism. It is clear we are supposed to feel Jennifer’s pain and emphasise with the horror of her experience.
Despite what this reviewer sees as relatively good intentions there is still some issues with the scenes. First there is the choice to film the rapes, mostly, from Jennifer’s POV. Clearly some thought was put in to this decision with the filmmaker believing this would cause the audience to emphasise more with Jennifer’s experience but in some way the opposite effect happens as because we are not seeing what is happening to her merely seeing through her eyes this in a way lets the audience off the hook. The sheer length of the rape scenes is troublesome as well. Where as in other controversial like the aforementioned “Last House on the Left” and the, relatively, more recent “Irreversible” there is some visceral about the scenes of sexual violence which make them simultaneously hard to watch but also hard to look away. Here though a weariness set’s in and in some respects lessens the shock.
While some of it seems clumsily done there is powerful moments in these arduous scenes and afterwards the scene where she is alone and suffering the after-effects of the rape are well done and Camille Keaton powerfully portrays the trauma of what has happened to her. Also I would disagree with critics that have bashed it for “sexualising” or “justifying” rape. As described previously while the rape scenes are not without issue they certainly are grim and not in the slightest erotic. Also while the rapists themselves make “she was asking for it” arguments the film itself distances itself from this insidious line of thinking and shows these characters to be delusional.
As the film goes into the second half there is a dramatic tonal shift. The first half has a grim, grimy seriousness but the revenge part of the movie gets increasingly wacky and by the final death via Speedboat scene we enter pure Looney Tunes territory. While jarring there is some fun to be had watching Jennifer merrily bumping off her various attackers which includes one of the most memorable (and ludicrous) castration scenes you are ever likely to see.
Overall: Not a great film but certainly not a “vile bag of garbage” either. There is strong elements here and in some respects it is a film that has been unfairly maligned. It was clearly made with more than just shock in mind and is generally well-acted and competently made (this may sound backhanded but compared to a lot of Nasties this is high praise) if an ultimately misjudged film. It also a films that provokes strong reactions which is why I would recommend people watch it at least once.
Words By Scott Murphy