Rape/Revenge Review – I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

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When it comes to the Rape/Revenge genre of film, no film is more iconic, nor more controversial, as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (AKA Day Of The Woman); the story of young, female writer – Jennifer – as she is attacked and brutally raped by four men – Johnny, Stanley, Matthew and Andy – before rising up and taking revenge on her attackers one by one. Since its original release in 1978, I Spit On your Grave has never been passed through British censors uncut. The most recent release has 2 minutes of footage cut from the final presentation, and the previous versions had up to 9 minutes cut in order to satisfy the censors. The main aspect of I Spit On Your Grave that censors find problematic is the film’s brutal and almost realistic portrayal of gang rape. These harrowing scenes of human horror are what brought I Spit On Your Grave to the attention of the DPP during the ‘Video Nasty’ fiasco of 1984, and it caused many a critic to cite the film as one of the worst movies ever made. Critics at the time have said that I Spit On Your Grave is “A vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction” and “deeply, deeply problematic at the very best of times”. The ensuing criticism and backlash towards I Spit On Your Grave at the time definitely hurt the career of lead actress Camille Keaton, and it nearly ruined Meir Zarchi who only directed one more film after I Spit On Your Grave; at least before agreeing to return in 2019 to create I Spit On Your Grave: Déjà vu. However, nowadays, a lot of the criticism towards I Spit On your Grave has been reversed due to people analyzing and pulling apart the film, discovering its representations and the meanings behind a lot of the film’s story. Those who deemed the movie misogynist in the past, such as feminist Julie Bindel, have changed their stance and now praise I Spit On your Grave as a truly feminist feature. Nonetheless, I Spit On Your Grave still manages to carve audiences down the middle and fire up debates about the portrayal of rape and misogyny in a cinematic context.

For me, however, I tend to lean more towards the side that states that I Spit On Your Grave is much, much more than a misogynistic piece of filth. In my opinion, I find that I Spit On Your Grave is a socially conscious, symbolic film that has a lot to say about destructive misogyny and the effect it has on woman, albeit in the most brutally realized way possible. I thoroughly believe that I Spit On your Grave is a film with a strong intention behind it, and everything that is shown onscreen has been done so in a deliberate manner. Every shot, every angle, every part of the entire mise en scene of I Spit On Your Grave has been created in a specific manner to portray themes and notions way beyond the film’s almost ‘cinema verité’ realism. I see I Spit On Your Grave as simultaneously a depressing drama about the horrors of rape, and an artistic portrayal of femininity rising up against different forms of destructive misogyny. What makes me say this is due to the films content: the rapists, in many ways, represent different forms of masculine misogyny. Johnny represents the Leader of the pack, the misguided Alpha Male who cares not for woman, but only has concern for his ‘boys’ and their misplaced transition into ‘manhood’. Stanley and Andy represent the misplaced youth: they act like teenagers with no knowledge of a woman and only see them as inhuman objects to be ‘conquered’ like game. Matthew, however, is the specific oddball of the group, much in the way that he is represented as mentally challenged in the movie. Matthew, in contrast, actually does care about women, but not in a healthy way. He represents those who are shackled by the misogyny that they surround themselves with, whilst outwardly trying to show respect for woman at the same time, and ergo enforcing poor ideas about women. Whereas the others see Jennifer as more meat than person, Matthew sees her as more than perfect, a Madonna, an idolized woman. However, due to the affect of the men around him and the destruction of Jennifer, his Madonna complex starts to fall, and he hates her all the more for it.

One aspect of I Spit On Your Grave that baffled many a critic was the actions of some of the characters. See, the way that some of the characters act in I Spit On Your Grave don’t follow a logical sense. However, if one is to look behind the action taking place onscreen and focus on the symbolism behind the action, then I believe that the character’s actions make perfect sense. For example, many don’t find the scene where Jennifer takes a bath with lead rapist Johnny in any way sensible, or even convincing for either of these characters. However, in terms of symbolism, this scene represents Jennifer’s femininity controlling Johnny in a similar way that his masculinity also believes that he is in control of the situation. This scene shows a gender power struggle between the two characters before Jennifer takes the advantage and destroys the greatest representation of Johnny’s masculinity, his penis. Scenes such as this are a common theme throughout the movie where Jennifer will say or do something not because it makes common sense, but because it demonstrates the power struggle between the sexes: when Jennifer seduces Matthew by dressing in a white gown she is fulfilling the Madonna complex within him, playing with his masculinity before tearing it away with a noose and dumping his body in nature’s feminine water; when she clambers onto the boat to kill Stanley and Andy, she swims through the water like a mermaid hunting the hunter, a scene that mirrors a previous scene where Stanley captures a fish in the first act; when she enters the church dressed in all black, it symbolically eludes to her ultimate decision as she passes by a cemetery dressed for a funeral, and she begs forgiveness from the God of Man before releasing her fury upon the men who wronged her. Throughout my viewing of I Spit On Your Grave, I noticed that symbolism played a heavy part of the story as a lot of scenes can be interpreted one way, however, if the interpretation was to be switched into what each scene and object represents, then there’s a lot of congruent messages that can be determined: the meaning behind the ‘masculine’ wilderness and the ‘feminine’ waters, the yonic imagery of Jennifer’s red canoe, and the purpose of Jennifer’s written story of free womanhood, as well as the purpose of the story being read out loud during her final humiliation.

However, whenever one is to talk about I Spit On Your Grave, whether critic or cinephile, one has to address the horrifying rape sequence that I Spit On Your Grave is best known for. I Spit On Your Grave is famous, or rather infamous, for featuring the longest rape sequence in film history at 25 minutes long. 25 minutes of brutal, horrific gang-rape that leaves Jennifer broken, beaten and scarred both mentally and physically. What makes the rape sequence in I Spit On Your Grave so noteworthy and controversial is how realistically brutal the scene is. Unlike previous movies which added more disturbing elements to the rape sequence in order to get a desired reaction, such as how The Last House On The Left added gore and Late Night Trains eroticized the rape sequence, I Spit On Your Grave lets the rape sequence play out in a very realistic fashion with Jennifer being violated over and over again in a prolonged sequence to which the only sounds heard are the sounds of shouting men and Jennifer’s pained screams. The carefully picked shots, displaying both long shots of the rape and close ups of Jennifer’s horrified face, demonstrate Jennifer’s pain and struggle against the men who see her as nothing more than game as they hunt her through the forest, yipping all the while as Jennifer tries to escape. By the end, the men attack her in her own cabin with Jennifer bleeding and bruised on her cabin floor as they finally have one more go with her, drinking her beer in celebration like they’ve just completed the hunt of the day, completely dehumanizing Jennifer. By the end, Jennifer is completely destroyed both inside and out. The men leave Matthew to murder Jennifer, but because of his Madonna complex, he leaves her be and brags to the other men that she is dead. I Spit On Your Grave has probably one of the most harrowingly brutal rape scenes ever put to cinema. To watch it is a distressing affair as the violent display of misogyny has its way with Jennifer’s femininity, however, that is the point of the whole sequence. Meir Zarchi’s intention with the rape scene is that fact that it’s not meant to be enjoyed, it isn’t meant to be congratulatory, it isn’t meant to be ‘fun’ to witness, and to treat it as such – as many critics have done so – is to do this film a great disservice in its intended message: rape is a horrific affair, one that scars a person for a long, long time, and I Spit On Your Grave is the film that shows that through its cinematic depiction of the rape: through the un-erotic portrayal of the naked body, the horrific feats of masculine fury, and the horrifying sound design that left Jennifer’s screams repeating in my head long after the film was over.

The revenge itself plays out with more symbolism than brutality. As I have stated before, each of the men are murdered in an ironic manner befitting the misogyny that defines their character. However, the revenge is very underplayed to the point that each death feels somewhat unfulfilling. There’s barely any cathartic enjoyability to be had with the manners in which Jennifer murders her assailants, and part of me feels like this was completely intentional. The ending to the movie definitely feels hollower than fulfilling, and it definitely leaves an impact that, when taken on its own, can be seen as objectively poor. However, when taken into consideration with the previous events of the movie, I perceive that the film’s unsatisfying ending has quite a bit to say about the ordeal that Jennifer has gone through. In my opinion, the lack of catharsis enforces the cinematic power of what happened to Jennifer, to say that the wounds she inflicts upon her assailants pale in comparison to the wounds that she received herself.

The film’s acting prowess is spectacular. Camille Keaton is horribly sympathetic in her performance of Jennifer Hills. The fear and horror that the character is subjected to is fully realized in Camille Keaton’s performance, and even Meir Zarchi – who would later become married to Camille Keaton for three years – said that Camille Keaton was ‘brave’ for taking on the role. It’s easy to see that the role was very demanding of Camille Keaton, but she gives a truly powerful, memorable performance as Jennifer Hills. The male actors also give fantastic performances alongside Camille Keaton. They’re threatening, intimidating and they fully embody their symbolic roles without flaw. It’s clear that everyone who worked on this movie pushed themselves as hard they can in terms of acting, and it definitely pays off on screen creating some of the most memorable characters in extreme cinema history.

As for the film’s production prowess, that is where I Spit On Your Grave begins to fall apart. Despite all the intention behind what I Spit On Your Grave is meant to represent, I Spit On Your Grave is not a well-made film. It is marred with many audio and video problems: from dialogue being absolutely inaudible during many scenes because it was recorded on location and not fixed in post, to cinematography that definitely leaves something to be desired as it shakes and pulls through the majority of the film. I Spit On Your Grave definitely goes for a realistic, almost ‘cinema-verite’ style to which, combined with the film’s content and poor production quality, gives the film an incredibly rough ‘grindhouse’ feel. Personally, I think that this rough quality to the film does a great disservice to the film’s symbolic content and intended message, because it gives I Spit On Your Grave a very exploitative feel that simultaneously gave the film its cult status and its reputation as one of the worst, most disgusting movies ever made. Overall, I think that I Spit On Your Grave could have definitely been better made. Whilst the production quality enhances the punch of the more horrifying scenes, it definitely mars the effect of the films deeper meaning, and there definitely was a deeper meaning to this film…

Meir Zarchi made this film after a personal experience that he went through. He, a friend and his daughter were driving by a park when a young woman, a rape victim, who was bloodied, bruised and naked crawls out of the bushes. Mei Zarchi picked the girl up, took his daughter home, and tried to help her as best as he could. He brought her to the police, to which an officer, whom Meir Zarchi describes as ’not fit to wear the uniform’, insisted that the poor woman answer a barrage of questions about her assailants before taking her to the hospital, even though the woman’s jaw was clearly broken. HMeir Zarchi later found out that she was attacked randomly whilst taking a common shortcut to meet with her boyfriend. Her father sent Meir Zarchi a letter thanking him and offering a reward. Meir Zarchi refused the reward. I Spit On Your Grave – a title that Meir Zarchi absolutely despises to this day because he wanted the film to called Day Of The Woman, and now insists that every copy of I Spit On Your Grave includes that subtitle – is Meir Zarchi’s story of that particular day. This movie is his sympathy for the young woman. Jennifer’s revenge is her rising up against the men and the police officer who treated her unjustly, and Jennifer’s ordeal is his attempt at showing the brutal horrors of rape to an audience. I Spit On Your Grave means much more than the exploitative title suggests, and I fully agree with Meir Zarchi that the name should have stayed as Day Of The Woman. Despite a lot of claims that I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most misogynistic films ever made, there’s much more to it than that. The film dictates the power struggle of misogyny and feminism taken to its extreme limits.

Overall, I find I Spit On Your Grave to be a memorably violent, yet also memorably symbolic movie. A lot of meaning becomes lost because of the film’s dedication to realism. However, in my opinion, I Spit On Your Grave is a much better movie than what the consensus says, or at least the consensus at the time. It’s not one that I recommend watching for enjoyment, but it’s a definitely a film that needs to be seen because of what it represents. However, the film’s flaws definitely need to be taken into account because I Spit On Your Grave is far from a perfect movie. It’s meaningful, but it’s message needs to be told with more clarity and less ‘roughness’. In conclusion, I Spit On Your Grave definitely deserves it’s reputation as the ultimate Rape/Revenge film because of what it represents, but the film’s production flaws diminish what could have been a truly standout movie.

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