I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Directed by Meir Zarchi
Cast: Camille Keaton, Eron Tambor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann.
1978 100 minutes
Rated: [NR] (equivalent of an NC-17 rating for explicit sex, nudity, violence, gore, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, 1998.
Meir Zarchi's infamous "I Spit on Your Grave" is inarguably one of the most controversial films ever made. At the time of its release, the film was critically lambasted, audiences were largely outraged, and it was banned entirely from the UK and Germany. What mostly got under people's skin about the picture, I think, was in its extremely graphic and brutal depiction of a woman being raped. Although I would also feel uncomfortable watching the movie in a theatre with others, that is simply human nature, since what occurs here is very difficult to watch due to its subject matter.
With that out of the way, I first rented "I Spit on Your Grave" about three years ago to see what all the commotion was about, expecting the worst. Surprisingly enough, however, I actually did like the film. Sure, it's not for everybody and certainly deserved its original X rating. It's not a "fun" or "entertaining" film in any regard. But what "I Spit on Your Grave" is is a fairly thoughtful and realistic examination of a person being tortured by another, and then what happens to the victim afterwards, if they survive. To single one certain critic out, Roger Ebert rated the film "Zero Stars" at the time of its release, and like everyone, was in a frenzy over what takes place during the 100-minute running time. What I don't understand is how, with such harsh feelings, he could give 1972's "The Last House on the Left," which has more or less the same plot, a * * * 1/2 rating! Well, I have seen that film as well, and "I Spit on Your Grave" is infinitely better. In contrast, "LHOTL" which, aside from being loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," is far more exploitative and includes a fairly ridiculous plot gimmick: that the rape offenders unknowingly spend the night at the victim's parents' house. I simply do not "get" Ebert's thinking when dealing with these two pictures, and how he could love the more cheap and manipulative one, and then criticize the other even though they are so startlingly similar in story.
"I Spit on Your Grave" has a fairly straightforward story. A young, attractive writer named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, Buster Keaton's niece!) leaves her home in Manhattan and travels upstate to stay in the country at an idyllic, remote cabin she has rented for the summer. Her goal is to write her first novel, but everything changes when she is accosted by four men while boating on the lake, forced into the woods, and raped repeatedly. Left for dead in her cabin, Jennifer instead miraculously survives and slowly begins to recuperate from the ordeal. She certainly doesn't want the men to get away with what they did, and finally decides to take matters into her own hands.
"I Spit on Your Grave" could have easily fallen into the manipulation of "The Last House on the Left," but is more serious in its treatment. The main female character is an intelligent woman who could easily go to the police about what happened, but what good would that do? The reasoning she comes up with is that even if they went to prison, they would eventually be released, free to do such a thing again to someone else. One of the major misconceptions that people have about "I Spit on Your Grave" is that it is a horror film, but it isn't; at least, not in the sense of a slasher film. Instead, it is a horror story about the human condition, and how far some people can actually go if they do not have any respect for other human life. There are no murders in the film either, until the climax, but it isn't in the same sense that Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger is a killer. On the contrary, the killer in "I Spit on Your Grave" ultimately turns out to also be the heroine, and she has a real reason for doing what she does. In a particularly affecting sequence right before she goes through with her revenge, she pays a visit to the local church where she prays for forgiveness of what she is about to do. Now when exactly was the last time you saw that in a so-called low-rent, irresponsible film of this nature. Director Meir Zarchiand Jenniferunderstand the gravity of the situation and the moralistic line about to be crossed.
An early independent film bordering on the artsy, "I Spit on Your Grave" is meticulously shot by cinematographer Yuri Haviv. One scene, for example, lasting a couple minutes, is filmed entirely in a long shot as the camera tries to distance itself from the hurtful things happening on the screen. Another smart move on Zarchi's part is that he does not paint the four men as outright monsters and spends a lot of time with them. One of them, the mentally challenged, Matthew (Richard Pace), is actually touching in the way that he is pulled into participating in a crime he does not fully understand and, through a chain of events, becomes the outcast of the group. It also comes as an unexpected twist to find out later on that the leader of the group, Johnny (Eron Tabor), is married and has two children, whom he loves. What these men do is vile, cruel and unforgivable, but thanks to Zarchi, they are not in any way treated in two dimensions.
"I Spit on Your Grave" is a striking and courageous motion picture, gravely misunderstood, but it does have a few noticeable problems. For one, we do not really get to know the female protagonist very much. After being raped and bruised and cut up, she gets well very fasttoo fast, perhapsand although she murders the men for vengeance, she never quite is able to fully emulate the breadth of emotion that might come with such a personal ordeal. Maybe what Zarchi was attempting to do by choosing to go this route in the finale was to show that she had become numb inside from what had happened to her. Indeed, it is not out of the realm of possibility that she very well could be on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Another problem finds Johnny making some very stupid decisions as Jennifer lures him toward his just desserts, though it wouldn't be the first time he acts with a certain body part other than his brain. This scene, exceptionally gory and to never be forgotten, is the most suspenseful of the picture. As "I Spit on Your Grave" draws to its rapt conclusion, there is no false hope provided for Jennifer. She may have lived through a nightmare and, from her point-of-view, made right a terrible wrong, but there is no pretending that she will now be okay. The road ahead of her is forever changed and her former assumptions about safety and security have been shattered beyond repair.
© 1998 by Dustin Putman