Anchor Bay // 1978 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // February 7th, 2011
"I could have given you a summer to remember for the rest of your life."
"A man is just a man."
The enticingly named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, What Have You Done to Solange?) is a free-spirited, "modern" (circa mid-'70s) woman. Deciding to take a break from her hectic life in New York City, she heads out to a secluded house-by-a-lake in a rural part of Connecticut. This is not only a vacation; Jennifer plans on writing a novel during her stay (she's already had some short stories published in "women's magazines").
Unfortunately, the fetching Jennifer catches the eye of a quartet of local slackjaws, who believe womens is good for only one thing -- and it ain't novel writin'. They brutally and repeatedly assault Jennifer, then task one of their number with finishing the job -- with a pen knife!
Unfortunately for the slackjaws, they choose the least mentally competent member of their cretinous band as their messenger of death. Jennifer is not only spared a lethal pen-knifing, she can now exact the sort of revenge most assault victims can only dream about.
The most special thing about I Spit on Your Grave is the way that people other than the filmmaker have made it special. This is a crappily-made, post-Hays Code "roughie;" in spirit, it's the sort of thing Doris Wishman, the Findlays, or producer David F. Friedman might have made a decade or so earlier.
But unlike the '60s-era roughies, I Spit on Your Grave contains tons of nudity, explicit sex, and graphic violence -- and unlike its grindhouse ancestors, it caught the attention of mainstream critics, none more mainstream than Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, whose syndicated review program became the forum that launched the clarion call of condemnation. Ironically, most of the critical assailing came during the film's rerelease with the grubby Spit title, and not during its unspectacular original run, when it was known -- frankly, more provocatively -- as Day of the Woman.
Rape revenge films were nothing new -- Bergman had done it in The Virgin Spring, and Wes Craven had re-done that film in The Last House on the Left. What set I Spit on Your Grave apart was that the victim was exacting vengeance herself. Director Meir Zarchi had intended this to be something of a feminist statement, and despite the luridly realistic assault and nauseatingly contrived revenge, I Spit on Your Grave actually ended up being regarded by some as a female empowerment film. Thus began a debate that, three-plus decades later is still being played out. Is the film "a vile bag of garbage," as Ebert decried it, or a powerful statement about moral equivocation and a condemnation of a violent, patriarchal society?
I dunno. What amazes me is how this shoddy though undeniably effective piece of yuck became controversial at all.
Whether Zarchi sports the soul of a social crusader or a soft-core proto-pornographer, I can't say. For his part, Zarchi seems to fancy himself the former. In his interviews, he takes the film very seriously, but as a filmmaker -- even a low, low-budget filmmaker -- he's not exactly a threat. The film's set-up is so thin as to barely exist; the dialogue (what there is of it) is wretched, and the characters are poorly developed.
Some critics have suggested that the audience (the male audience, at any rate) identifies with the villains, but Zarchi doesn't really do anything to make them appealing or even give them much in the way of personalities. There's the "mentally challenged" yokel whose plaid shirt says rural, but whose "oahd" accent screams Bronx; the brawny, balding, yet otherwise hirsute bad boy yokel who's also a closet sadist; the ex-military working man yokel (and nominal leader) who seems to live in his gas jockey coveralls; and the metrosexual yokel who wears nothing but tight jeans and t-shirt, striped suspenders, and Adidas without socks. If they weren't spending all their time pumping gas, playing mumbly peg, and committing sodomy, they could almost pass for that most-hated male stereotype, lip-synching disco stars -- the Village of the Inbred-People, over-aged boy banders on the wrong side of a bender. Instead, they merely show up, look stupid, and brutalize a woman, apparently without any real fear of retribution, legal or otherwise. They give slackjawed yokels everywhere a bad name.
The audience is, in fact, supposed to sympathize (if not identify) with Jennifer, and Keaton certainly goes all out -- the extended rape sequence (20-plus minutes) must have been grueling to shoot. But Zarchi makes her such a stick figure of a character that it's clear her only purpose is to be a victim (and later, victimizer). In one of her only dialogue scenes, she tells another character (pre-rape) a little about herself, including the TMI-alert that she has "many boyfriends." We know she's a "liberated" gal because she's in the woods by herself writing a novel, and because when she arrives at the cabin, her first order of business is to strip naked and hop in the lake. Nothing gratuitous about that, right? A couple decades later, this might have been a film about flesh-eating virus, but Zarchi had different fish to fry.
Technically, the film isn't as bad as some critics have perceived it to be, but it's not especially good, either. The camerawork is acceptable, through the audio is miserable -- outdoor dialogue scenes sound like they were re-recorded in a warehouse and then overdubbed. Scenes in which someone isn't being raped or tortured tend to drag on, and an important plot point involving the killing of Jennifer is done in such a way as to make no sense. Jennifer's vengeance is too elaborately gross and sexualized to be in any way redeeming or exhilarating, and Zarchi's "statement shot" -- an "empowered" Jennifer waving an axe over her head while piloting a motor boat aimed at one of the cretins -- makes her look like Braveheart in a bikini, a parody visual that says more about the cruddy nature of this enterprise than any of the myriad pro or con critical essays.
Transferring low-budget films to high-def isn't always a good idea; often, the problems with the source material are just highlighted. Anchor Bay actually does a pretty good job with this film, though. While it's not exactly a visual feast, the 1080p image looks pretty good. Detail is solid, colors are reasonable, if not vivid, and overall, the picture is pretty clean. The occasional flickering and softness are to be expected, and aren't too distracting. Audio was never the film's strong point -- interestingly, Zarchi doesn't use a music score, which adds greatly to the grimy ambience. The Dolby TrueHD track is OK, but honestly, I'm not sure anything short of a complete re-dub could make this sound any better.
The good news is that Anchor Bay includes a full slate of extras on this disc; the not-so-good news is that all but one are ported from the 2003 "Millennium Edition" DVD release. The good news is that these ported over supplements are pretty good, as is the single new piece, an interview with director Meir Zarchi. The not-so-good news is that the earlier release gave us reprints of some of the reviews, including Roger Ebert's wholesale condemnation of the film, and that supplement's been left off this release.
Hands down, the best supplement here is Joe Bob Briggs' commentary track, ported from the earlier release. This is a brilliant, insightful, and laugh-out-loud funny track -- everything a commentary should be. Besides the expectedly jokey observations ("She flashes the breast, and Matthew is a goner"), Briggs approaches the film like it's a lost work of art, offers a surprisingly sharp analysis, and responds (handily) to its critics. A second commentary, also ported, gives us director Meir Zarchi's take on the film. This is a more conventional track, with lots of talk about locations, tech, and so on, but also includes Zarchi's thoughts on the film's controversial elements and some interesting trivia and background.
The remaining supplements, all ported, include the usual array of trailers, TV and radio spots, an alternate opening credit (with the title Day of the Woman), and a gallery of production stills and posters.
It's an exploitation film. It's supposed to be disgusting. That's the point of exploitation films -- to exploit stuff, like sexuality and suffering. You don't watch a film like this, or like The Defilers or Mondo Keyhole or The Man From Deep River or the dozens of other films in which people (particularly women) are abused and debased for our titillation and expect to be uplifted. What makes I Spit on Your Grave different is the near-pornographic level of nudity, sex, and violence. It doesn't make it OK, and it doesn't make it a good film, but it is what it is. If you find this kind of thing appalling, then I don't know why you'd be watching it in the first place.
If you're looking for a serious film on the subject rape, empowerment, self-help justice, or hillbillies who live near Yale, look elsewhere. I have no idea how such a stupid and cheesy film became such a springboard for debate.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a graphic, disgusting, sleazy, latter-day roughie, then have at it.
Your taste level -- or lack thereof -- will completely dictate this film's guilt. I can tell you this: it ain't no "guilty pleasure." Unpleasant and horrifying, I Spit on Your Grave is worth checking out if only to be awestruck by what constitutes historically important trash.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* TV Spots