Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Gunter Kleeman
Directed by Meir Zarchi
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
As a concept, rape/revenge can be traced back to the work of William Shakespeare (specifically, Titus Andronicus – although it isn’t the victim who takes revenge there) and beyond. Writer/director Meir Zarchi was hardly breaking any new ground when he concocted this simple story of New York author Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) and her solitary sojourn to rural America which quickly deteriorates into every woman’s worst nightmare.
Released in 1978 (sans brutality) under the banner Day of the Woman, the film disappeared from theaters without a trace until the P.T. Barnum of exploitation filmmaking, Jerry Gross, rescued it from obscurity by slapping it with a far more memorable title, I Spit on your Grave, in 1980. It was released unrated and, thanks to a handful of kneejerk reactions from successful critics like Siskel and Ebert, incurred a mountain of publicity – all of it negative. Labeled a sexist, misogynistic work for misanthropes of the lowest common denominator, the protests only helped fuel the film’s notoriety which, in turn, yielded sizeable profits. Not bad for a would-be flop.
Watching I Spit on Your Grave in a modern mindset makes it easier to dismiss the film as pointless exploitation. The horror genre has always been home to some of the strongest screen women, and in the last fifteen years the rest of the movie industry seems to have caught up. Powerful, assertive and capable women are commonplace in every genre now. And that’s why our victim turned avenging angel becomes a point of contention for modern sensibilities. Zarchi asks a lot of his audience, expecting them to endure some appalling brutality throughout the twenty minute rape scene. Parts of it teeter on the edge of edge of ridiculousness thanks to some genuine overacting from the rapists (that second attack on the rock comes to mind), but Camille Keaton’s blood-curdling screams are so real they alleviate any temptation to snicker.
It’s Jennifer’s vengeance throughout the third act that really polarizes the art or exploitation debate. The very idea that a rape victim could bring herself to seduce her attackers – even if it’s only to lull them into a false sense of submission – seems so ludicrous that, at first glance, you can’t help but dismiss I Spit on Your Grave as barrel-scraping exploitation. Consider the implications of this, though. When Jennifer convinces the Cro-Magnon leader of the pack to take a bath with her there’s never a doubt in his mind that this “stupid broad” has “finally come around”. It says more about the film’s view of men (all of us, with our one-track minds) than it does about the woman hunting them down for execution. Jennifer may use sex as a means to an end, but only to a group of guys who never saw her as anything but a pair of legs and a set of tits.
Of course this is sleazy stuff. When part of Jennifer’s revenge is to help the previously impotent (and retarded) rapist reach climax just before hanging him, you know you’re trawling something perfectly suited for a grimy 42nd Street theater. But it’s not the anti-woman exercise it’s often labeled as. Not when its worldview of men is so bleak one could chalk it up as satire if the preceding rapes weren’t so vicious. Argue that Jennifer’s actions eschew believability in favor of hammering this point home, but I Spit on Your Grave doesn’t harbor any ill-will toward its hatchet-wielding protagonist or to the fairer sex in general.
Is it a well-made film? It’s certainly slow by today’s standards (to be fair, it was probably just as slow to a 70’s audience), complete with scenes often running longer than necessary. But there’s also a minimalist approach to the material that solidifies a sterile and spooky atmosphere throughout. A complete lack of music (save for some creepy redneck harmonica tunes and, later, a church organ) lends the proceedings a documentary-like feel further complimented by Zarchi’s overuse of master shots. Together, they allow the carnage unfold in creepy apathy that renders us unwilling witnesses to the ensuing degradation and violence. It’s not a crowd-pleaser by any stretch of the imagination but it accomplishes what it sets out to do and leaves a lasting mark (thirty years and counting).
Anchor Bay brings I Spit on Your Grave to Blu-ray in a solid 1080p transfer that should please fans of this classic. For a low-budget, thirty-year-old film the elements are in good shape. Colors are good (even if they’re teetering on the bland side, per the film’s visual palette) and flesh tones (of which there are plenty) are perfectly natural. The level of detail available on the actor’s faces and bodies is plentiful and impressive. Exteriors look pretty good, even if Zarchi’s master shots aren’t quite as crisp as I had initially hoped. Film grain is present and well-preserved with some of the evening scenes looking very coarse but always film-like. Certainly no DNR here. Black levels are impressively deep (again, look at those aforementioned evening scenes), offering a substantial upgrade over Elite’s Millennium DVD release from several years back. This isn’t reference material by any stretch but Anchor Bay did a great job bringing this to Blu-ray.
Moving onto the audio, the TrueHD 5.1 track doesn’t much benefit from the multi-channel upgrade. It’s occasionally rough and inconsistent, making it a real strain to hear some of the garbled dialogue. This seems more like a deficiency in the source material, however, and less to do with Anchor Bay’s technical presentation (past DVDs suffered similar fates, and Ebert complained about the same thing back in 1980 regarding the theatrical presentation). Rear-channels aren’t used all that much and what little ambient sound filters through your surround speakers fails to pack a wallop. To be fair, this isn’t an action-packed film and the lack of a lively audio track doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. Most of the sounds comes through the front speakers and there’s a satisfying balance between dialogue and sound FX. Like the video presentation, this isn’t going to blow the roof off the format but it seems like a true representation of the source material.
We get a nice little collection of extra features here, though owners of Elite’s Millennium disc will find the majority of it familiar. First up is an audio commentary with writer/director Meir Zarchi. He offers a dry but informative discussion on his film, from its controversy to his unsettling personal experience that inspired the story. Zarchi is a slow speaker and slogging through this track takes some patience, but it’s a worthwhile listen to gleam some insight into what the director was attempting with this rape/revenge flick. The information is somewhat repeated in disc’s only new supplement, Meir Zarchi Remembers I Spit on Your Grave, a 29-minute interview with the director that covers some of the same ground. He also weighs in on the remake and teases the possibility of a sequel (!?). The alternate main title feature is just the title screen with the Day of the Woman text replacing I Spit on Your Grave – nifty to see for those of us too young to have seen the truncated version in theaters. Trailers (foreign and domestic), TV spots, Radio spots and a poster gallery round out this package.
Special mention must be made of the second commentary track in this set. It’s a hilarious and intelligent discussion by legendary horror historian Joe Bob Briggs that alone warrants a purchase of this disc. Briggs is consistently hilarious while offering a thoughtful defense of the film – no easy feat! With all the commentary tracks out there, this one easily places in the top five. A must listen!
It goes without saying that I Spit on Your Grave isn’t everyone’s bag. It doesn’t have to be. It’s brutal, uncomfortable and more than a little implausible. Depending on your sensibilities, that makes this something to either avoid like the plague or revel in its depravity. This notorious genre mainstay has been given its due on Blu-ray with solid audio/video and a handful of solid supplementary features. In my house, I Spit on Your Grave is essential viewing. Your mileage may vary.
4 out of 5
4 out of 5
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