Wednesday, 8 February 2012

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and the Old Argument - Feminist Cinema or Exploitative Entertainment?

Okay so you have just read the above title and if you are a hardened fan of extreme cinematic offerings, you are fully aware of the movie in question here. More so you are probably wondering why I am choosing to talk about a donkey’s years old debate that has been going on since the 1981 re-release of ‘Day of the Woman’ (1978) retitled as ‘I Spit on Your Grave’. I want to ask the question of whether the film is feminist cinema or exploitative entertainment to help define the elements in this original version that blur the line between feminism and gratuitous violence.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Director Meir Zarchi was inspired by two reasons to make ‘Day of the Woman’. Two reasons that came from one real life experience. In autumn of October 1974 in New York City Zarchi was driving past a park with his eight-year-old daughter and a friend when he saw a young woman naked and bloodied crawling out of some bushes. He stopped the car to get out and help her and learned that she had just been raped. After dropping off his daughter first, Meir Zarchi and his friend decided to take the traumatized rape victim to the police rather than the hospital. Their way of thinking was that they did not want the attackers to escape and rape again. It was quickly apparent to them that they had made the wrong decision when they were shocked by the treatment of the woman by an officer Zarchi described as “not fit to wear the uniform”. She was delayed for considerable time to be taken to the hospital while the incompetent flat foot showed little understanding by making her follow procedure like getting her to state her full name even though she could hardly speak, as her jaw was broken. After much insistence from them, that she be taken there immediately the officer eventually agreed and had the badly injured terrified young woman sent to the hospital.

The combination of the brutality of this crime and the lack of compassion from the police officer is what influenced Meir Zarchi’s idea for his rape and revenge movie. He would show in graphic depiction the atrocity of one woman’s rape but she would not turn to the police for help and instead would seek retribution against her attackers. Thus, the ‘Day of the Woman’ had arrived. These two elements contribute to the hardness in differentiating between feminist cinema and exploitative entertainment. The gang rape of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton the grandniece of Buster and ex-wife of Zarchi in a boldly brave performance) is a prolonged experience in witnessing the violation of the female body as she is forcibly penetrated three times (the second anally), made to give oral sex, beaten, humiliated and left for dead. Not at one point at all is it raunchy and titillating. Rape is sexual violence and not the pleasures of the flesh between consenting adults. Meir Zarchi succeeds in his execution in making these sequences completely repellent in witnessing these inhumane acts. The perpetrators are not once portrayed as likable and sympathetic. They are what they are disgusting unattractive pigs. There is no way any sound minded humane male viewers could identify with these pieces of shit.

The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, after the first rape: "That was a good one!" After the second: "That'll show her!" After the third: "I've seen some good ones, but this is the best”.” This is an extract from Roger Ebert’s damning review of the film when it was re-released in ‘81 as ‘I Spit on Your Grave’, which he described as “A vile bag of garbage.” He goes on to say about the same said man, “I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings.” While I agree with Ebert, that this ignorant twat’s remarks were indeed disgusting it is just that at the end of the day people can just be absolute fucking idiots. It is obvious from Zarchi’s own personal experience in encountering a rape victim that the director did not seek this kind of reaction from his audience. If some arsehole wants to interpret what he sees on the screen in this movie in that way then he is the one with the fucking problem.

I mean I certainly do not have these feelings about these scenes. Meir Zarchi achieves with me in what he sets out to do and that is to make me feel immensely revolted. The extensive rape set-pieces are there as feminist cinema to show us the vulgarity of these evil acts committed on women. As I said before they are not there to turn us on and the rapists are just loathsome. Furthermore, Jennifer is shown intentionally to be an intelligent, strong and a good-hearted woman and the men are depicted as the lower common denominator with basic intellect and a total lack of humanity. The character of Matthew is even retarded. Because of these portrayals of the characters and the grim violence of the rape sequences, we are constantly looking at it from the female gaze. There is a montage of short scenes right after Jennifer’s rape that shows her alone slowly recovering which is harrowingly touching cinema.

Going back to Roger Ebert’s write up he goes on to say “When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: "Cut him up, sister!"”. He then says, “I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour (?) of rape scenes.” I assume that she was appalled Roger hence, her glees in seeing Jennifer exacts her revenge on the sad pathetic excuses for men. That is what the rape scenes set up. When it comes to Jennifer’s payback this is what I would call a fusion of the two - feminist exploitative entertainment.

The female gaze is in full power here as Jennifer is actually empowered by the immense cruelty she had suffered before using her previous ordeal as a weapon to lure in her intended victims. She convincingly pretends she actually enjoyed the experience and wants more of it. Cold and calculating she traps the Neanderthal like males getting them exactly where she wants them by using their Achilles heel their weakness for the pleasures of the female body. She is the black widow and once they are in her web they cannot get out. After she sets them up, the payoff comes, and despite the gruesomeness of their demises, we cannot help but just feel an immense sense of satisfaction as the scumbags get what they thoroughly deserve. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. One man Johnny (the first one in) is castrated. The power of his manhood taken away by the woman he wronged with it. This is something neglected in the 2010 remake in which Jennifer portrayed as a brooding glaring angel of death though still highly intelligent instead mocks and taunts her cowardly, grovelling, snivelling attackers.

It is important to note that Roger Ebert praised for its artistry Wes Craven’s very own contribution to the rape and revenge sub-genre ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972). While Ebert would probably argue that Craven’s earlier film was made with much more craft and although I would agree there, Zarchi’s movie is still made competently and has the same kind of harrowing stark realism in depicting the foul repulsive act of rape. It is just that there is a hell of a lot more of it on display here to make us cringe and squirm. In addition, the parents’ bloody revenge on their daughter’s rapist murderers in ‘The Last House on the Left’ is as equally mean spirited and merciless. Therefore, what is the difference in Jennifer exacting vengeance on the men who violated her? Ebert’s conclusion “This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures, because it is made artlessly, it flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering. As a critic, I have never condemned the use of violence in films if I felt the filmmakers had an artistic reason for employing it. ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ does not. It is a geek show.” 

Roger Ebert’s distinction between the two films is Wes Craven’s employment of artistry as opposed to Meir Zarchi’s supposedly shoddy filmmaking skills. While Craven tells his story with more depth in terms of characterization, plotting, pacing, sub-text, stylish if grainy cinematography and even very dark humour, Zarchi’s movie is severely lacking in all of these areas. Except for the already explained characterization of Jennifer and that of Johnny as he is shown to be a normal family man before he meets his end and even talks about his family life leading up to his death. This is telling us that the most seemingly normal men with family to care for are capable of such evil.

The film does have a documentary like look and feel in telling its story a very un-commercial approach that is just observational of the subject matter with flat down to earth cinematography. This is also opposed to the more sellable execution of the 2010 remake that works effectively well as a solid revenge thriller. It incorporates a good script with more characterization, able plotting, tight direction with spot on pacing and well-executed murder set-pieces, a strong suspenseful musical score and slick cinematography. The rape sequence in this contemporized version is less prolonged but is more intense in its more lean containment and is as equally as disturbing. The movie’s flaws though are contributed by a similar but more contrived set-up thanks in no small part to the stereotypical redneck villains. Ebert did not like this version either writing “despicable remake of the despicable 1978 film”.

Back to the original ‘78 version. A lone woman Jennifer Hills a New York feminist writer goes to stay in a rented isolated cottage in the countryside to get some peace and quiet to write her first novel. This attractive young woman is brought to the attention of a group of four local men bored with their everyday existence in a small town. The three of the group decide to help get their retarded friend Matthew laid. They abduct Jennifer and when Matthew is hesitant for a while, two of the others take it upon themselves to show Matthew how it is done with the latter of the two Stanley raping her anally. When a battered and bruised Jennifer slowly makes her way back to her place of residence met by the group again Matthew drinks some alcohol and becomes the third man in. The fourth shitbag of the group beats her and forces her to put his penis in her mouth. They go outside and they get Matthew to go back in to stab her to death. He does go back in but does not have the bottle to see it through going back out to lie to the others that he got it done. After two weeks to recover, Jennifer decides to take the law into her own hands with devastating consequences for the low lives who so extremely abused her and left her for dead.

A long 100 minutes runtime consists of 20 minutes of set-up in Jennifer’s stalking then around about 30 minutes of her rape followed by about 10 minutes of Jennifer’s recovery while the local ghouls sit around wondering why they have not heard anything about her body’s discovery with the final 40 minutes consisting of her revenge. Filmed on a miniscule budget of just an estimated $80,000 of Meir Zarchi’s own money he wrote, produced, directed and edited. Shot in Kent, Connecticut using the primary location of a house owned by director of photography Nouri Haviv with the majority of interior shots done inside here the locations dictated the shape of the story as if it was a two-page script. It plays out like a slice of life drama forcing us to face the horrible reality of rape as an everyday occurrence in the real world.

There has been harsh criticism of Zarchi’s dialogue. For example, critics point out that the male layabouts sit around talking about nothing in particular but these detractors are only pointing out what is one of the film’s strengths. It shows us the average males’ nonsensical chitchat capturing perfectly the boredom of mundane life in a small town where nothing happens. It is the arsehole of nowhere. The amateurish actors supplement this with convincing performances to make for a neo-realism like approach to the movie’s authenticity. 

Another contributing factor to this realism is the absence of a non-diegetic soundtrack. Heard only is the presence of music existing in the real world of the film. There is a church organ in the scene in which Jennifer preys to God and asks for forgiveness for the fury of vengeance she is about to unleash, a little of Giacomo Pucci on vinyl record, shop background music and Stanley playing a harmonica before he sodomizes Jennifer. Director Meir Zarchi did actually intend to use library music but felt nothing was suitable and it just adds to the atmosphere of the rough edged grittiness of the hard to stomach subject matter.

Feminist Cinema or Exploitative Entertainment?

When originally released in 1978 ‘Day of the Woman’ flopped and was quickly forgotten about. This was due to the MPAA ordering Zarchi to cut out 10 minutes to get an R rating. Taking away the movie’s brutal uncompromising power rendering it completely bland as it relies on its shock imagery to get its message across it did not draw much attention at all in its limited drive-in run. The director pulled the film from distribution and vowed never to release it again until audiences could see his definitive vision. So then comes along legendary grindhouse producer/distributor Jerry Gross. He first slapped on the title ‘The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill’ before settling on the now infamous exploitation title of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’. Meir Zarchi hates it. This uncut version had a far more wide release this time around. Therefore, thanks to the combination of being uncut, given a new title and being more widely seen sent the movie’s notoriety right through the roof garnering the attention of Roger Ebert and the like with their scathing narrow-minded views. They gave the film even more attention than it would have got otherwise and its newfound controversy only heightened the attendance figures.

An exploitation title yes but not an exploitation movie. As I said before the last 40 minutes could be described as feminist exploitative entertainment but the emphasis here is to strive for a neo-realism approach to the material with the female gaze always in full flow. ‘Day of the Woman’ oh sorry ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is an uncomfortable viewing experience in an unapologetic lesson in the cruelty that humankind is capable of and an unsettling look at how a traumatic experience can change somebody in bringing out their vengeful dark side. According to Ebert it is “The worst movie ever made” when it just so is not the case. While it is not the greatest piece of cinematic high art that has ever been produced it certainly is a provocative piece of non-commercial shocking realism that has not deserved to be so unfairly maligned over the past 34 years. This hardcore unrelenting depiction of such a savage crime is worthy of at least one viewing from any enthusiastic lover of shocking cinema.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. The 70's is, to me anyway, the last "important" stage of cinema. Past the works of the 70's it feels to me that no more new ground was broken. I Spit on your Grave is a harsh experience and it brings with it the exploitation drive-in veneer that "brands" the works of this period.
    I think The Last house on the Left benefits from Cravens morbid black humour and his above competant directing skills, but dismissing ISOYG by comparison is sort of missing the mark.
    I often find myself disagreeing with Ebert, I think he just doesn't relish that rare cinematic experience of feeling disgust as inspired by a ruthless piece of cinema. But then I do believe that the die-hard horror fan mixed with a rabid cinephile sensibility is a rare breed among film fans, and people like us can appreciate feeling disgust.

    1. ISOYG demands an angry reaction from its audience in showing us the atrocities of the vile act of rape in the most rawest way possible. Any critics that dammed it for being an anti-woman film are just narrow minded and that's why I chose to refer to Ebert's review.