Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Directed by Steven R. Monroe
Starring Sarah Butler, Rodney Eastman, Jeff Branson, Chad Lindberg, Andrew Howard
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
The rape/revenge side of the horror genre has always been a difficult one for many filmgoers to handle, with no film being as arguably effective in upsetting just about everyone as Meir Zarchi’s seminal 1978 nasty I Spit on Your Grave. Given that the film’s notoriety, especially on UK shores, still lives to this day, it was obviously surprising to learn that a new take on the material was to arrive, albeit one with a much larger budget. So now it sits on shelves waiting to be devoured by the movie-loving masses – and how does it fare?
Before we reveal whether or not director Steven R. Monroe’s approach proves a success, here’s a plot round-up: A young and beautiful novelist, Jennifer Hills (Butler), heads out to a rented cabin in the country to work in some peaceful surroundings. On the way, she stops at a gas station and gains the attention of hillbilly attendants Johnny, Stanley and Andy (Branson, Franzese and Eastman, respectively). After ogling the woman, the trio spend some time bickering over whether Johnny would have any chance in bedding her, and when they learn that Jennifer has given the mentally handicapped Matthew (Lindberg) an innocent peck to thank him for some plumbing work, their macho squabbling transforms into a horrifying attack on the lone woman. Trapping her in the cabin, the four of them subject Hills to a vicious, and escalating, ordeal of violent threat, humiliation and degradation. When the prospect of rescue is cruelly snatched away, this ordeal soon escalates to a brutal level of assault and rape, after which Hills attempts to kill herself by leaping from a bridge into the waters below.
Unlucky for the perpetrators of this despicably heinous crime, Jennifer doesn’t die… and after more than a month out of the picture, she’s back with nothing but bloody vengeance on her mind.
Monroe paints a grim picture with his take on I Spit on Your Grave, colouring everything with a dull, muted and washed-out palette, and a distinct lack of any flashy Hollywood camerawork. Filthy, gritty and in your face, yet still naturalistic, the atmosphere of the film works very well indeed. Ditto the cast, whose performances manage to sell the on-screen events with a level of authenticity guaranteed to have audiences cringing and feeling deeply uncomfortable. The scenes of abuse are seriously authentic and difficult, perhaps even more so than the rape itself. Sarah Butler is a knockout in her portrayal of Jennifer; a woman abused both physically and mentally to the point of complete and utter devastation that claws her way back as a stone cold spirit of vengeance. From her initial gleeful arrival on the scene, through her terrified cries and flinches as the abuse heightens and her empty, soulless stagger when the ordeal has ended, through to her cathartic rage and pin-point thousand-yard stare, Butler has us clinging to her the entire time.
While the rest of the cast also come out relatively shining, it’s the characters of the supporting players that let them down. All of the villains, save perhaps for Lindberg’s (almost) sympathetic Matthew and Andrew Howard’s Sheriff Storch, are two-dimensional facsimiles of abusive backwoods hick bastards that populate endless other “city folk meet nasty country fate” flicks out there. The script puts forth each with a particular type of quirk which determines the type of abuse they mete out on Jennifer and, in turn, the method of execution by which they are dispatched, but it’s just not enough to make them any more rounded. They’re threatening, for sure – especially Branson’s Johnny – but this is more down to the intensity of the performances and the situations playing out than anything else. When the film switches in the second act to focus more on the attackers, the ball is momentarily dropped as they simply aren’t interesting enough to be scrutinized for any length of time. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but I do have to give props (yet again) to Andrew Howard. Is there anyone out there capable of playing villains as utterly fucking loathsome, despicable and vile as this man can? He’s just born for it.
Things pick up again when Jennifer’s revenge starts to play out, and while the kill scenes are certainly thematically satisfying and inventive, they tend to stretch credibility a little too much for comfort. If you take it with a pinch of salt and simply revel in the hideous hicks getting their just desserts, it’s certainly a pleasing flick, but some may not have the will to forgive the vulnerable Jennifer suddenly becoming an ultra-resourceful Jigsaw-style killer as she deals poetic justice.
And that’s the main problem with I Spit on Your Grave: It shifts from a visceral and affecting emotional battering to asking the audience to take pleasure in the elaborate deaths of two-dimensional caricature villains, and in doing so adopts a decidedly flippant tone to the latter proceedings that only serve to do what came before a disservice. Other recent revenge flicks such as The Horseman and the excellent remake of The Last House on the Left (which, in my opinion, also featured a much more effective rape scene) have managed to do it right, maintaining that balance of delivering the audience the bloody satisfaction that they crave and keeping everything on an elevated level of genuine shock and revulsion. Think back to the disappointment with The Last House on the Left’s microwave finale, which felt ridiculous and out of place amongst the grounded horror that played out before. That needless elaboration almost typifies the final act of I Spit on Your Grave. Whilst there’s definitely nothing wrong with a bit of ultra-violent catharsis, this particular story deserves more.
Now this isn’t to say that I hated the flick, or even didn’t like it for that matter. It’s a solid piece of work with some great performances and challenging material, but the switch to popcorn murder in the last act lets it down. The final kill is genius, though, and contains enough disturbing activity, visuals and dialogue to ensure that it’s definitely not a film that I’ll forget about any time soon. I recommend that anyone who appreciated the original film or the aforementioned The Last House on the Left give it a try.
Anchor Bay Entertainment’s DVD release of I Spit on Your Grave delivers a solid, if not particularly impressive, presentation. While the washed-out and muted colours, coupled with the intentionally grainy picture, holds form very well, some images exhibit a noticeably blurry quality (for example shots of brown forest), and occasional noticeable banding creeps in — especially visible during shots of the night sky — but any problems are few and far between. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is crisp, clear and well balanced, but mostly restricted to the front soundstage. Such is the nature of the film, however, with the tweeting of birds and other rear activity being quite pleasing when it appears.
Handed to us on the serving tray of special features, we first have a making-of featurette running around 13 minutes. This is pretty much your standard EPK offering, with various pieces of on-set footage in between the cast members verbally patting everyone’s back. Still, it’s worth a watch in order to get a glimpse of the working relationships that the actors strived to form in order keep each other comfortable with filming some pretty heavy stuff.
On top of that we just have a short radio spot and the US teaser and theatrical trailer. The deleted scenes and audio commentary present on the US release are weirdly absent for some reason. Coupled with the fact that the UK version of the film itself is cut by around 40 seconds, the temptation to import the Region 1 release instead becomes hard to resist. The choice, as they say, is yours.
3 out of 5
1 1/2 out of 5