Anchor Bay // 1978 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // February 4th, 2011
"Total submission. That's what I like in a woman -- total submission."
New York City gal Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton, Tragic Ceremony) rents a cottage in the countryside in hopes to find some peace and solitude to finish her first novel. Instead, she is tormented, tortured, beaten, and ultimately gang raped by four local men (Enron Taylor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleeman). When the attempted murder goes awry, Jennifer recovers and plans her revenge -- the systematic murder of each man in the most gruesome ways possible.
Beyond its grindhouse reputation and controversial reviews, I Spit On Your Grave remains an important film; the kind that you have to see and take on your own terms. The rape-revenge genre was around before Meir Zarchi's no-budget take on it, but one can make a strong case for I Spit On Your Grave as the pinnacle of its 1970s resurgence. It is just as shocking and disturbing today as it was in 1978, unflinchingly depicting one woman's rape in grotesquely effective detail. The revenge, on the other hand...well, let's just say its earned, if not quite as arresting.
Part of the problem with the film is with its characters. Camille Keaton carries the film as Jennifer, shrugging off clunky dialogue and pulling off a purely visceral performance. She approaches the character with unflinching bravery, guiding Jennifer's survival through a series of four brutal rapes which collectively span over twenty minutes of the film's running time. Her performance is almost too good for the rest of the film, as the audience is behind Jennifer's revenge from the moment she is attacked. When the film tries to create a moral grey area, it fails miserably simply because it cannot create the same level of complexity in its villains as it does in Jennifer.
Writer/director Meir Zarichi (Don't Mess With My Sister) tries to throw sympathetic curveballs at his viewers by making one character, Matthew (Pace), mentally retarded. The lead rapist character, Johnny (Taylor), also doubles as a doting husband/father. Johnny crafts a unique family unit between the men, acting as a father figure to Matthew and the rest of the gang. While Taylor convincingly plays Johnny as a blue collar alpha male, the rest of the cast falls wildly short, pitting caricatures and stereotypes against the more realistic Jennifer, who likewise seeks revenge against a bunch of cartoon characters.
Zachiri tries to create depth in the rapists by suggesting a sub current of homosexuality between them that fuels their rape of Jennifer, with prolonged, gangbangs as a means of indirectly engaging in group sex with each other. The implication is an interesting take on the group's actions, but the character development just isn't there to support it. Like a domino effect, this causes the elaborate sequences of revenge to be far too detached from the crime that sparked them.
While many critics take to task the film's maliciousness in carrying out its rape and revenge sequence, I find Pace's interpretation of the mentally handicapped Matthew particularly heinous, coming off as a bad impression of Woody Allen or Don Knotts that would probably feel more at home in a Meatballs sequel than a rape/revenge film. He exists to be quasi-sympathetic comedy relief, but his character is in such horrible taste that he detracts from the impact of Jennifer's story.
Otherwise, I sympathize with the film's take on its unsavory subject, despite its shortcomings. I Spit On Your Grave is undeniably flawed, but visually effective as you could hope this sort of exploitation film would be. Zachiri's camera work is particularly chilling, relying on a series of long master shots that effectively prolongs tension throughout the film, never lingering on Jennifer as an object of eroticism per se, but as a woman who is systematically de-sexualized by her attackers. Following the rape, the audience sees Jennifer rebuild her sexuality purely as a weapon (alongside a gun, axe, knife, noose and motorboat propeller) against her attackers. In her seduction and destruction of Matthew and Johnny, we see her transformation from free-love inspired hippie to an ice cold femme fatale. The new Jennifer is as sad as she is badass, and could only exist in the context of an exploitation film.
Despite its varying quality, I Spit On Your Grave accomplishes more or less what it sets out to do, presenting a brutal crime in realistic detail and following it up with some swift, well deserved retribution. I recommend it in the same way I recommend Cannibal Holocaust or Audition -- as a darker and more disturbingly real alternative to the frothy delights of slasher or monster movies, that scares us not with the supernatural, but with human atrocity.
The anamorphic transfer looks fairly sharp with bright colors and minimal grain (considering the age and budget of the film). The audio mix is adequate, lacking detailed effects but boasting strong dialogue and creepy, often dissonant sounds -- Zachiri's motif of roaring motor boat engines is very effective here, and adds some extra menace to the film.
Anchor Bay reissues I Spit On Your Grave to coincide with the 2010 remake's arrival on DVD and Blu-ray. If you have Elite's 2003 Millenium edition, this DVD release is almost identical, adding only a new interview with Meir Zachiri that, while overproduced (seriously, do we need three minutes of opening credits for an interview?), is pretty interesting, condensing much of the information from his 2003 commentary into a less dry package.
Said Zachiri commentary is included, but is upstaged by a second commentary by author/film historian Joe Bob Briggs. Briggs has been a hero of mine, influencing me from childhood with his basic cable Monstervision, which delivered sardonic commentary and legitimate criticism to the best and worst B-movies. Here he delivers a similar experience, offering a funny, opinionated and charismatic commentary the dissects the controversy surrounding the film and deconstructs much of its more pretentious foibles. It's easily one of my top five favorite commentaries of all time, exemplifying all the ways in which a film critic can enrich an audience's perspective on a movie while entertaining them at the same time.
Also included are poster and still galleries, trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and an alternate opening.
No jury in America would ever convict her! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Opening
* TV/Radio Spots
* Image Galleries