Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Sarah Butler, Daniel Franzese, Chad Lindberg, Jeff Branson, Andrew Howard, Tracey Walter
Directed by Steven R. Monroe
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no secret formula for producing a good remake. One argument is that the most successful ones are those that take the base idea of the source material and go in a different direction. But for every reinvented Dawn of the Dead there’s a new Day of the Dead limping along in its wake. Other remakes (The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left) stay faithful to the original versions and remain among the strongest examples of modern rehashes.
2010’s I Spit on Your Grave falls somewhere in between the two schools. Beginning as a modernized retelling of Meir Zarchi’s original film, it soon deviates from the familiar course in favor of forging a new story. In this version, the ill-fated Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) heads for the seclusion of the Deep South to work on her next novel. She’s raped and humiliated by a group of local sleazebags and eventually sets about on a path of vengeance to murder those that wronged her.
The subject matter is brutal and unpleasant, making I Spit on Your Grave an unlikely candidate for a remake in the first place. Perhaps not so much once this version reveals its modernized take on Jennifer’s bloodlust, but considering the original is built around one long a very long and disturbing rape set-piece, it didn’t seem likely that anyone would be dusting the story off for another go ‘round. Surprisingly, director Steven Monroe doesn’t flinch when it comes to the brutalization of our heroine, understanding that the harder she falls, the sweeter the revenge. This version sees a far more suspenseful build-up to the inevitable rape as our villains subject Jennifer to a psychological torment that’s every bit as brutal as the physical harm that follows. One of the complaints leveled against Monroe’s film is that the actual rape has been toned down considerably from Meir Zarchi’s original, but the mental anguish these good ol’ boys put Jennifer through is every bit as harrowing and, in some ways, perhaps even more disturbing. The actual rape itself may be a bit shorter but these filmmakers don’t exactly shy away from it.
None of this would’ve succeeded without a capable actress on deck. Sarah Butler does phenomenal work here; her Jennifer goes from vulnerable to psychopathic with ease, and it’s disappointing that the movie ultimately fails to match her performance. The biggest mistake being that the girl is missing from the most of the film’s second act. After she’s raped and left for dead we don’t see her again until she’s claiming her first victim. We’re completely denied her transition from victim to killer, making it harder to remain invested in her character. Some of the best stuff in the original was watching Camille Keaton, post rape, pull herself together and become the avenging angel. Because Butler demonstrates she has the chops, it’s a shame the movie doesn’t let her use them in this case.
Instead, the narrative unwisely shifts direction to focus on the rapists. They’re not terribly interesting characters and it’s here the story begins to lose its way. It feels less like a rape/revenge story and more like some ridiculous post-heist thriller where the criminals crumble under the pressure of whether or not they’ll get away with their crime. While we don’t actually see Jennifer throughout this long stretch, her presence is intended to be felt in a way that’s akin to the psychological torment she incurred at the start. Mysterious video tapes show up in their mail, dead birds on their doorsteps, etc. Instead of getting right to the chopping, Jennifer chips away at their already unstable psyches. It’s an interesting premise and credit should be given to the filmmakers for injecting a slightly different spin on the story – it’s just an unsuitable replacement for witnessing the girl’s evolution from victim to killer.
It’s a misstep that the film never quite recovers from. The third act is a bit better but, in some ways, it feels even more ludicrous than the vengeance in the 1978 version. This Jennifer is all about an eye for an eye. Whatever was done to her, she pays back in spades. Part of the problem is the aforementioned refusal to watch our supposed main character make the appropriate conversion. She re-appears looking like something out of a J-horror movie and it’s somewhat of a baffling choice. The idea is to make her look like an unhinged, feral creature and the methods by which she takes revenge seem a bit overcomplicated for a girl with murder on the mind. This Jennifer would be right at home alongside the inhabitants of Eli Roth’s Hostel, and these protracted bits of torture don’t reach the levels of satisfaction seen in the original. There’s some great stuff sprinkled throughout (especially that bit with the garden shears – you GO girl!) but this I Spit on Your Grave takes too deep a dip in the torture porn pool, making it look and feel a lot like everything else that’s out there right now.
The creative team behind this remake should be lauded for their un-PC approach to the material. All guilty parties are punished (and, yes, the resident retard makes an appearance in this version) and Jennifer remains delightfully unsympathetic to her attackers. In that regard Monroe and this team remain faithful to the source material. There’s nothing particularly wrong with 2010’s I Spit: it’s well shot, well acted and equipped with several many moments of genuine discomfort. It also blends in alongside its contemporaries so well it manages to avoid the distinction that has made the original a 30-year-old household name.
Anchor Bay’s high definition transfer looks excellent on Blu-ray. The intentionally drab look manages to include lots of rich textures and loads of impressive detail. The surrounding forest is lush and foreboding while the interiors bring the environment to life with eye-popping clarity. There’s marginal banding found within the transfer which, to be honest, I didn’t notice until I went back through the disc to inspect the picture quality. Overall, I Spit on Your Grave looks quite good in its Blu-ray debut and the occasional flaws won’t detract from your viewing experience.
The TrueHD 5.1 surround track also satisfies. Sound effects pack the intended wallops while dialogue is front-loaded and always well-separated. No complaints with this one. It’s not the busiest audio track but it appears to be a faithful representation of the technical design.
There’s a small handful of supplements here: an audio commentary with director Monroe and producer Lisa Hansen. Ranging from the inherent challenges in making this type of film, to providing some interesting cast/crew anecdotes, it’s a worthwhile listen for fans of the movie. They’re also very respectful of the original I Spit and discuss the desire to pay tribute to it while creating a new, stand-alone version. The sixteen minute featurette titled The Revenge of Jennifer Hills: Remaking a Cult Icon is largely worthless EPK-style nightmare in which everyone drones on and on about how great this movie is. A collection of deleted scenes play out more like extended clips of what we see in the final product. Nothing special here save for a brief snip of Jennifer holding a bible and asking God for forgiveness for what she’s about to do. Three trailers, a radio spot and a worthless digital copy round out the set.
I Spit on Your Grave is a decent little movie that should’ve been a lot better. The filmmakers had the framework to make something really special and unforgettable and instead opted to make another entry in the endless array of torture porn entries that have marred the last half-decade. The only difference being that the audience is on the torturer’s side this time. It takes the generic way out after an incredibly strong build-up and the end result feels more like a cash-in and less of a bold reinvention.
3 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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