Monroe, Steven R. (I Spit on Your Grave)
Sordid, explicit and violent subject matter has long generated big bucks at the box office (while tame in the eyes of modern audiences, Tod Browning’s Dracula is a prime example, having saved Universal Studios from impending bankruptcy upon its release in 1931). As the years have passed, studios have continued to siphon from the horror well, filling their coffers with revenue generated by an ever-evolving cadre of increasingly brutal horror titles from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Paramount Pictures’ Friday the 13th series and beyond. 1970’s independent filmmakers, too, realized the financial possibilities and stretched the boundaries of horror cinema with such shocking productions as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Last House on the Left and The Babysitter Murders (aka Halloween).
In recent years all of these horror titles have been remade and released theatrically with varying degrees of success. Platinum Dunes lucratively re-explored Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw concept as well as the Victor Miller-penned shenanigans at Camp Crystal Lake, Lionsgate dusted off the cult flick My Bloody Valentine, Dimension Films revisited not-so-successfully John Carpenter’s slasher-template Halloween and Rogue Pictures courageously updated Wes Craven’s sadistic foray into horror, The Last House on the Left.
One title however remained seemingly too depraved to revisit: filmmaker Meir Zarchi’s 1978 rape-revenge grindhouse shocker I Spit on Your Grave. Maligned by many as an exercise in misogynist exploitation and over time heralded by some as a post-feminist film, the movie has remained a ‘hot-button’ topic, from its visually powerful poster art (possibly featuring a partially exposed and abused Demi Moore clutching a bloodied knife) to its all-too-real threat of gang-rape at the hands of the boys next door, and the subject matter has long been believed simply too gratuitous to be palatable to today’s audiences. But on October 8th of this year that will be put to the test as Zarchi’s produced remake of his own film (as directed by horror auteur Steven R. Monroe) will release theatrically to American audiences, and in a ballsy move by distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment, it will do so without an MPAA rating.
Written by Stuart Morse and based on Zarchi’s original screenplay, the impending I Spit on Your Grave update stars actress Sarah Butler as Jennifer Hills, a big-city writer who rents a lakeside house in rural Louisiana in order to pen a novel, only to find herself receiving the unwanted attention of four socially, sexually and economically frustrated country boys, who set out to teach her a lesson. As in the original, the tables eventually do turn, although Monroe’s remake features a few new twists and, in this writer’s estimation, while entirely brutal, communicates sub-textual undercurrents the original did not.
Director Monroe (who previously shepherded the horror flicks It Waits and House of 9, among others) sat down with Dread Central recently to discuss the film at length and to give not only his thoughts on the challenging production but also his feelings on test audiences’ response, his initial interest in tacking the subject matter and more.
“I grew up in the film business,” said the 45-year-old Monroe on his decision to tackle the redux, “so I was seeing intense films when I was very young. When I saw the original I Spit on Your Grave, it stayed with me, and I felt kind of ‘off’ for a couple of days, and to me when that happens there’s something to be said about the filmmaking and the film itself. When a film completely sucks and you feel like it shouldn’t have been made, you are done with it, but that didn’t happen when I saw the original. As I got older and as a filmmaker, and as I watched it over and over throughout the years, I saw a lot of things that I felt could really be updated and redone with the film, and realized that –- and Meir and I had these conversations –- the style of the filmmaking to me was very different than what I like. The fact that he had the guts to make such a story into a film was what was impressive. So it felt to me that in this day and age of things getting remade left and right, which is going to happen no matter what, because as long as people are going to put their butts in the seats, the studios are going to do remakes, we as filmmakers can either embrace it and try to make sure that they get done well, or we can leave it to people that’ll just make shit.”
“So I started to think about films that I thought could get remade, and I Spit was kind of on my list,” Monroe offered. “Of course I had other films on my list that shouldn’t be touched, like Straw Dogs [writer’s note: director Rod Lurie’s remake of that Sam Peckinpah film is now positioned for a 2011 release] and The Wild Bunch – films that you can watch now and they aren’t dated at all.”
Rogue Pictures' 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left is of course brought up, given the film’s similar subject matter to I Spit on Your Grave, and Monroe was queried on his reaction to the film, a flick which was embraced for the most part by audiences unfamiliar with the original as well as fans of it.
"People have asked me about my thoughts on the remake of that film, and that microwave scene bothered the shit out of me,” said Monroe, referring to the final scene of Last House. “It felt like the studio decided to add that to the end. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but it didn’t feel like it was part of the same movie. My only other problem was that I felt like some of the bad guys were a little cartoonish, and what I wanted to make sure with I Spit on Your Grave was that the bad guys are believable. I felt like I was watching a movie with The Last House remake, whereas with I Spit I feel like the bad guys (as they are portrayed) are guys I’ve met, I’ve seen, and that I’ve talked to.”
The conversation shifted to the rape-revenge films of the 1970’s and their cultural inference as it pertains to the shift in American gender relations post WWII, namely the impact of women entering the work force and the rise of feminism. For many of the male segment of the American population, the result were feelings of emasculation, frustration and in some cases anger at the shift in their social standing (genre writer Richard Matheson began to sub-textually explore this topic as far back as 1954, albeit more subtly, with his novel I Am Legend). Monroe concurred, and while he intended this subtext, his intention was also to inject commentary on the socio-economic resentment stemming from the cultural gap which often manifests between urban and rural dwellers.
“For me it really comes down to simply this type of thing happens, and will happen, and there will always people that will do this,” said Monroe regarding the act of violence at the center of I Spit on Your Grave. “A lot of what we did with Johnny (actor Jeff Branson) and his gang (as portrayed by Rodney Eastman, Chad Lindberg and Daniel Franzese) was to make them more believable. In the original film it is like, ‘Here’s these guys and they live in the woods and you watch a scene where they are at a fishing hole talking about having bowel movements and stuff like that, and then they go and rape somebody.’ In this film we kind of went out of our way to try and show what men’s perceptions can be in different parts of the country. I mean, not to say that in Los Angeles and in New York there aren’t people like this, but certainly not as many as in the middle parts of the country, and I think it’s because people cut themselves off so much from the rest of the parts of the world that they only care about what happens right in front of them. I think it has a lot to do with their perceptions of women and of minorities. There’s dialogue that audiences will see that pertains to what riles these guys up, which was not so much that she was a beautiful woman and that, ‘How dare she come here and not treat us the way the local women do?’ but that she was from the city. That was big point, their perception of, ‘Who does she think she is?’ I think that’s kind of an overall problem. I lived in Tennessee for about five years in my thirties and I met a lot of people like this.”
As in the original, protagonist Jennifer’s response during the film’s onset to the locals' unwanted advances serves to reflect the standard operating procedure of those hailing from a metropolitan area and stems from the inherent anonymousness and fast-paced culture of living in such. Unfortunately for her this sets the bloody ball in motion.
“When you live in place where you come in contact with a thousand people a day just doing what you do, or if you are in a place where you meet the same twenty or thirty people your entire life, there is definitely a big difference,” reflected Monroe. “A lot of things can be misinterpreted. It was definitely conveyed in the gas station scene in the original, where she was very naïve of the cultural gaffe, and we kept that in the remake, where she was nice to the boys and her reactions were misinterpreted. Those things can be misinterpreted in a lot of places. They are not misinterpreted generally in metropolitan cities. I mean you don’t sit in a bar and say something to a woman and be perplexed if she reacts in a certain way. You’ll know what’s coming at you. I’m not saying that everyone from Middle America is like that, and I have a lot of friends from the South to this day, but what was really important to me, and I said this right away to all of the actors from day one was, ‘Whatever you have interpreted, whether these guys are rapists, rednecks or whatever, it’s very important to me that whatever you do is that there is something that makes the audience sympathize with your character and understand why you are like this.’ I didn’t want cartoons.”
As for Monroe’s thoughts on how he feels I Spit on Your Grave will play to Middle America, “I think the movie will have its audience,” said the director. “I think anyone who is a fan of any type of disturbing motion picture will not have a problem with it. I think anyone who has any type of sexual or religious hang-up won’t see it. The thing that was interesting was that we had the first test screening last night, and the responses by some of the people that were invited blindly to see the movie, not knowing what it was, were interesting. There was one woman who said, ‘During the rape scene I wanted to get up and leave, but my husband didn’t want to leave, and ten minutes later I was glad I didn’t. It was a really disturbing film, and I wouldn’t say it’s a good film in terms of being a ‘feel-good’ film, but it’s a good film.’ I think because we did it in such a way that it’s believable, it will reach more people than just the horror audience because at its core it is a disturbing revenge film. I think it will reach certain people, but I think there will be a large chunk of America that won’t even go near it because it has a rape scene in it.”
With projections circling around audience’s ability to endure the tough subject matter at the heart of I Spit on Your Grave, we asked the director of his own personal experience in shooting the film, in particular the undoubtedly brutal scenes which serve to fan the flames of Jennifer’s eventual wrath.
“I didn’t approach the shooting of the rape scenes any differently than I did where someone is dealing with the death of someone in their family,” interestingly reflected Monroe. “My job is kind of always the same; just the level of what I have to do is a little bit different. For me I had to be there for Sarah and the guys, and even though the guys were the ‘bad guys’, it was still very hard for them as actors. It’s mostly setting the atmosphere and letting them all know that I’m there for whatever type of actor they are and to consistently remind them that their performances must feel real. If it doesn’t feel real, then we aren’t doing the right thing.”
"For me it was more emotionally draining because I had not only that to contend with,” he continued, “but also an entire crew that was being affected by the subject matter, and then on top of that having to deal with every element of each shot. It was emotionally and physically draining although I’ve done films that didn’t have scenes like in I Spit that were just as emotionally draining. I kind of go into a production with the same attitude all of the time while just juggling different things. For me the one thing that was intense, though, was not cutting the camera and running in to make sure that Sarah was okay because she was so good that I didn’t know whether she was screaming ‘No!’ and for help and to stop the camera, or if she was acting. My gut kept telling me to run in there and make she was ‘ok’, and the director in me was telling me that she was just doing an incredible job so that was difficult. What I’ve said about this film, when people approach it with a feminist attitude, anyway you watch it, is that Sarah’s character is everyone’s wife, daughter, mother, girlfriend, aunt or sister, so I wanted anyone eventually watching the film to want to jump into the screen and to help her. If it’s not real for me, a horror film or a thriller or whatever it may be, then the film won’t come across right. So those were the hardest things for me in that I insisted on making everything so realistic that it actually was more painful than I expected it to be.”
Often the approach a director will take in not only heightening an actor's performance but also in lessening the personal emotional turmoil they will endure in such a scenario is to request that his cast -- namely the protagonist and antagonists –- defer from bonding during principal photography. Monroe attempted this as well, although according to him the results were middling.
“In nearly every interview we’ve done as a group,” said Monroe, “a journalist will comment, ‘Sarah, it must have been really hard for you,’ but the first group interview we did, Sarah jumped in and said, ‘It was actually really hard for everyone.’ She knew how hard it was for the guys, too, and it really was. Especially being because they all did what I asked them not to do in the first week of shooting, which was to all become friends and start hanging out. It was really funny because after the second day of shooting I got back to the hotel and I was thinking, ‘I’m getting the feeling these actors aren’t going to listen to my request,’ and I heard all of this noise coming from down below. It turned out my hotel room was right above the hotel’s Jacuzzi, and I peeked out the window and they were all sitting in the Jacuzzi drinking and smoking cigarettes, and I thought, ‘Yep, they certainly didn’t listen to me.’ Of course during photography Sarah came to me and said, ‘You were right, we should have listened to you. It would have been a lot easier if these guys weren’t my buddies.’”
Given the edginess inherent to I Spit on Your Grave, comparisons will undoubtedly be made to the recent spate of hard core, no-punches-pulled French cinema, in particular such films as High Tension, Inside, Martyrs and Irreversible, all of which depict responsibly the consequences of human violence and the growing portrayal of ‘tough as nails’ female empowerment, and director Steven Monroe was queried on his thoughts as to where I Spit on Your Grave will reside in that canon.
“In stepping into this film and before I was hired, one of my pitches was that it was going to feel real, and with doing that I wanted to bring a social responsibility (to the narrative),” responded the filmmaker. “There was an actual collective agreement with myself and the producers which was different from the original, in that the main character wasn’t going to come back and use sensuality to lure these guys back in (in order to exact her revenge) because that is one of the things that we all felt was wrong with the original movie. It immediately made me desensitized to Jennifer’s plight and made me lose empathy for her, and so she doesn’t do that now. In our film, in the scene where she goes after the first guy, there is a ‘beat’ where she struggles with her decision before she moves forward. When she does it, it is over with and she keeps going, and then there’s a line at the very end of the movie, where someone is talking about another character, and he says, ‘She’s just an innocent girl,’ and Jennifer replies, ‘So was I’. So I wanted to take the exploitation out of I Spit on Your Grave and bring realism. I don’t care what anyone says, but I honestly believe that if someone’s wife came home and said, ‘This just happened to me,’ that the husband would either go do to these guys what Jennifer does, or at least sit there and ponder on it. There is no one that would just forgive and forget.”
“I had a girlfriend many years back who was raped by a family member,” openly conveyed the director regarding his personal experience with the subject matter, “and I it took everything out of me during the few more months that our relationship continued. There were times when I saw him (the victimizer) and I wanted to take a baseball bat and bash his head in, and it was only her very forgiving nature that convinced me not to do it. I’m a guy that outside of not having a very normal career has had a very normal life, and yet, I wasn’t thinking about any of the repercussions such a vengeful action would have on my life. In a way everything that the character of Jennifer does to these guys in the second half of this film… if people get up and cheer because she’s doing it, I get it. If people are horrified, I get it. I think it should be all of these things.”
Long considered the "42nd Street Grand Guignol" of grindhouse cinema, the violence inherent to the original I Spit on Your Grave is still affecting, although producer Zarchi released a press statement at the time of the remake’s announcement communicating that the update’s violent elements would be even further heightened. Horror fans wondered how this would be possible.
“What she does to these guys is off the charts compared to what happens in the original,” stated Monroe, “because there’s not much in the original aside from the bathtub scene, which is great, but the other ones are kind of ‘whatever.’ She really fucks these guys up in the remake. The biggest thing for me that I think people had with the original -- and I’ve had these discussions with Meir, and he disagreed, but we all collectively agreed to disagree -- was that she seduced these guys to get back at them instead of going at them with a baseball bat or a shotgun, and for me that was completely unbelievable. It made it feel like an exploitation movie, and I don’t feel like the subject matter need be presented that way, although it’s in everyone’s gut to call it an ‘exploitative rape-revenge film,’ and I didn’t want to do that. Even all of the torture things that she does with these guys in the remake are all done with practical things that she had around her. There are no Saw devices in this movie at all.”
Talk turned to I Spit on Your Grave’s PR campaign, and in particular to (at the time of the interview) the "Date Night" one-sheet which had then been released (a poster which to the long-time horror community recalled the art for the 1981 horror flick The Burning).
“I didn’t have too much say in that,” said Monroe. “While we were shooting, we actually did a photo session with Sarah Butler in the same vein as the original, in the woods with torn clothes and the knife in her hand. It didn’t end up being the choice for the first one-sheet. The original one-sheet received mixed reactions from horror fans. Some people loved it and others hated it because they thought it was the stupidest thing in the world because it said "Date Night" on it, but once people see the film, there was a reason for that.” [Writer’s note: Since the time of this interview CineTel has trotted out artwork reminiscent of the original film’s poster, much to the happiness of the genre aficionados.]
“I’ve learned the hard way that if you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve done everything you can do to make the fans happy, than that’s the best you can do,” continued the director. “I’m not the type of filmmaker that says, ‘I don’t care about you, I’m doing this for me.’ I’m making films for the people that will want to see them but doing my best to put my own touch on them. I just knew that everything that I put into this film, emotionally, physically and technically, from day one was focused on delivering a great film, even knowing that there will be fans of the original that will be pissed off and new fans that will be pissed off. I needed to find a way to make both facets happy, and I worked my ass off to do that, and whether people think that I did or not, there’s nothing that can do about that. There have been times when I have spent a year on a project, and I’ll work my ass off to make sure that’s it’s the best that I have control over. I fight literally for every frame of my films. I have to battle for them.”
With what will undoubtedly be a firestorm of controversy generated by the mainstream press upon the film’s release, numbers from the test-marketing company which oversaw screenings of I Spit on Your Grave are apparently through the roof and may indeed highlight the difference in reaction from the current moviegoing public and reviewers of the films they see.
“When they did the focus group after the screening,” said Monroe, “which was approximately thirty people, the first question was, ‘How many of you think this is a good film?’ and every single person raised their hand, and we all just kind of turned to one another and went, ‘Holy shit; we got something right!’"
“I consider myself a director that likes to direct,” Monroe kindly concluded and, in a humbling proclamation, stated, “I love every genre except romantic comedies, and when I did my first couple of horror-based films, you were one of the sites that I’d read so when Rodney (Eastman) [who plays Andy in the film] told me that you’d moved over to Dread Central, that’s why I wanted to give my first real at-length interview to you. There are so many other writers that spew shit for no reason, and you actually do your research and know what you are talking about.”
Monroe working a scene out with Jeff Branson (Daniel Franzese in the background)
Our thanks to Steven Monroe for taking the time to speak with us. For more visit the official I Spit on Your Grave website, and look for the film in theatres on October 8th.
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