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 1978 film, "I Spit on Your Grave," is inarguably one of the most controversial films ever filmed. At the time of its release, the film was critically bombasted, 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 (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, in order to write her first novel. Everything is going perfectly for her until one day, while out on the lake in her boat, four men, all of which she had previously met while getting gas on her way there and incuding one who is retarded, force her into the woods and each of them, aside from the mentally handicapped one, rape her and beat her repeatedly, leaving her for dead in her cabin.What they don't expect is that she does not die, but in fact, 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 women 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 discrepancy 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 shocking 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 low-rent exploitation piece? I don't know about anyone else, but my answer is "never."
One of the aspects of the film that struck me the first time I viewed "I Spit on Your Grave" was how much it reminded me of an independent film. Sure, it is low-budget, but in its style, I found it to border on the artsy. One scene, for example, which lasts a couple minutes, is filmed entirely in a long shot, as the camera is trying to distance itself away from the hurtful thing that is happening on the screen.
Another smart move on writer and director Meir Zarchi's part is that he does not paint the four men as outright monsters, and spends a lot of time with them. The mentally retarded character is actually touching in the way that, through a chain of events, he becomes the outcast of the group, and it also came as an unexpected twist to find later on that the leader of the group (Eron Tambor) is married and has two children, whom he loves. What these men do is vile, cruel, and unforgivable, but thanks to Zarchi, they were not in any way one-dimensional.
Since my first viewing, I have seen "I Spit on Your Grave" three more times and although I still find it to be a striking and courageous motion picture, it does have a few noticable problems. For one, we do not really get to know the heroine very much. After being raped and bruised and cut up, she gets well very fast...too fast, perhaps...and although she murders the men for revenge, she never was really able to come across as someone who has gone through the terrible ordeal, and has no real emotional attachment to what she does, aside from physically doing it. 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, and that she could very well be on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Still, I would have probably chosen to do that a little differently. Another problem is that the revenge conclusion requires the Tambor character to make some very stupid actions, only so he will, in return, fall victim to his victim This particular scene I am discussing, however, is one of the best in the film, although I do not want to give away what happens except to say that it is incredibly gory and won't easily be forgotten.
The DVD edition of "I Spit on Your Grave" is probably more suitable for fans of the picture only, since it doesn't offer any special features other than the cheesy theatrical trailer (is it just me or are all the trailers from '70s films unintentionally hilarious?). For those people who do like the picture, the DVD is very good on many accounts, and disappointing on others.
Starting with the good, the "new digital letterboxed transfer personally supervised by director Meir Zarchi" (as written on the back of the case) is beautiful and nearly flawless, increasing the impact of the images on the screen. The picture includes very little grain and highly emphasizes the impressive cinematography and camera work, particularly of the quiet country landscape.
With such wonderful picture quality, it ulimately came as a letdown to discover that the sound on the DVD is fairly bad. In order to clearly hear the people talking, the volume had to be raised up to nearly its highest level because of the low sound transfer. This caused a considerable problem, then, during the rape and murder scenes when characters were screaming, since that sound erectified as if the overall sound quality had been normal, and so I had to quickly push down the volume. There is no excuse for the sound to come across so inadequately since on the video version I have watched, which has terrible picture quality, the sound is perfectly fine.
On the whole, I was fairly disappointed by the DVD of "I Spit on Your Grave." Although the picture quality was fabulous, and I'm glad I could see it in the way it was originally meant to be shown, the sound is underwhelming, to say the least. Since the film is so controversial, an audio commentary would have been an extra treat, as I would have loved to have heard Zarchi's opinion on everything that has occurred with his much-talked-about directing debut. In conclusion, the DVD of "I Spit on Your Grave" could have been improved, but the film itself, I think, is one of the most underrated motion pictures ever made. It most definately did not deserve the severe criticisms it got.
© 1998 by Dustin Putman