One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Friday, July 27, 2012
Savage Friday: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
I’m an avowed admirer of the Savage Cinema -- films that revolve around violence, and explore the impact of violence --
and yet I remain deeply ambivalent about the merits of I Spit on Your Grave
(1978), a rape-and-revenge film that I awarded two-stars (out of four) in my
2002 text, Horror Films of the 1970s.
crux of the issue is how to “see” the film.
Roger Ebert famously gave I Spit on Your Grave a rating of “no stars” and called it a “vile bag of garbage.” Contrarily, other critics, scholars, and
historians -- including many women --
have championed the film as a “feminist” movie, and therefore one of apparent
historian Adam Rockoff wrote of I Spit on Your Grave that: “some critics apparently not knowing what to
make of it chose to intellectualize the film as some feminist experiment,
notwithstanding the fact that it wallows in the degradation and humiliation of
women far more than any slasher film.” (Going
to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film: 1978 – 1986; pages
Hilary Abraham, author of “Changing from
Victim to Survivor” in Violence
Against Women in Families and Relationships suggests that the film’s victimized
heroine “uses their [the rapists]
misconceptions against female sexuality against them. In other words, the rape-revenge film makes
the gendered nature of violence explicit and unavoidable,” (page 49).
former picketer of the film, Julie Bindel, recently penned a “mea culpa” titled
“I was Wrong About I Spit on Your Grave.”
Bindel concluded that the film was less harmful a fantasy than the
Academy-award winning film, The Accused (1989).
how you see I Spit on Your Grave depends on your personal values, perhaps. I’ll give you my take on the film after the
summary below. But the fact is…I’m still
grappling with I Spit on Your Grave.
“Total submission. That's what I like in a woman - total
young Manhattan-ite and writer named Jennifer (Camille Keaton) visits the
countryside to begin work on her first novel.
She rents a home in the woods, and meets some of the locals, including
the local simpleton Matthew (Richard Pace) and the gas station attendant,
Johnny (Eron Tabor).
with two other locals, these men just won’t leave Jennifer alone. By night, they holler outside her
windows. And while she attempts to write
her book, lakeside, they storm by on a motor boat, constantly interrupting.
one day, the “pranks” escalate to full-scale terror. The men abduct Jennifer from the lake, take
her into the woods and gang rape her, one after the other. After she has been raped in the woods, the
wounded, bleeding Jennifer returns to her home only to find her assailants
waiting there for another go. They rape
her again, leaving her barely alive this time.
One man, Matthew, is told to murder Jennifer, but he is unable to do it.
heals slowly over the next several days, and then begins plotting a campaign of
revenge. After visiting a Church and
asking God for forgiveness, she lures each of her assailants to their bloody
so sweet it’s painful.”
readily acknowledge that this savage cinema entry boasts a strong feminist
slant, and that such a quality makes the film noteworthy, if not necessarily
one of strong artistic merit. Much of I
Spit on Your Grave involves a victim who is deprived of control over
her own life in general and her own body, specifically. Thus, after the rape, Jennifer attempts to
re-establish her own autonomy and very identity.
one affecting scene, the audience witnesses Jennifer scotch-tape together her
type-written novel, long after the rapists have viciously torn it asunder. We see the
image in close-up as Jennifer applies the tape to the literary work, and
metaphorically re-assembles a personal sense of order.
my view, this moment is the finest and most artistic scene in I
Spit on Your Grave because of the metaphor adopted. Jennifer is beaten,
bruised and hurt, and the arduous process of picking herself up and putting
herself back together begins with something apparently small: the stitching
together (with that scotch tape) of a single page. And yet, there’s nothing small in the
of Jennifer’s difficult re-creation of self involves her returning to and
nurturing the personal vision of herself
as a writer and artist.The rapists can
rip apart her work, but she is still, finally, a creator…something which they
will never be.They can’t take her sense
of artistic expression away from her, in other words. It is part of Jennifer, and it is in that
place of “self” that Jennifer first re-asserts her identity.I found this act (and the visual gesture of
putting back together) both meaningful and important.
Re-assembling the pieces of a life ripped apart.
soon takes back her identity and power in other more external ways; sexually charged ways. She chooses to lure the savage rapists to
their doom by explicitly playing on their male frailties and their biased,
sexist expectations of what a woman in 1978 “should be.”
along, Johnny believes – as he affirms
near the film’s finale – that she “wants it” from him; that Jennifer is
some kind of sex maniac flaunting her wares and that, she is, essentially
“asking for it.”
to lead Johnny to his doom, Jennifer plays that (stereotypical) “woman” part
perfectly, acting indeed like she “wants it.”
She picks-up Johnny at the gas station, flirts with him, and drives him
to the woods…and then her house. She
even runs him a bath…with bloody results. Johnny’s own stupid misconceptions and
ignorance about women are the things that drive him to his doom, in other
Jennifer murders Matthew – the simpleton
– by becoming, essentially, his “girlfriend” and giving him a second (and
final) opportunity to ejaculate, something which he failed to do during the
rape for which he was belittled by his so-called male “friends.” Again, Jennifer plays on a man’s personal insecurity
to get close to him, and then twists the knife, or tightens the noose, as the
case may be.
Spit on Your Grave’s
final scene finds Jennifer launching a full-on attack (with hatchet and motorboat)
against the two surviving rapists. She
does so, interestingly, in a fashion that
is the visual mirror image of her original abduction.
that instance, Jennifer was relaxing in a canoe when the men roared by her in a
motorboat and lassoed her boat. Without
her permission, interest, or desire, they grabbed control of her life and
tugged her into their orbit. Her
autonomy was superseded without question, without authority. They took control of her life and re-directed
it in a terrible way.
precisely how Jennifer murders the last two rapists, only this time using the
boat engine as a murder weapon. But make
no mistake: the climactic scene on the lake is a deliberate reflection of the
earlier scene, an artistic comparison which suggests that Jennifer has at last asserted
her dominance in the “relationship” with these barbaric men. It’s the final step of taking her life back:
going to the scene of the original crime and “stealing” back the power that was
They took her power.
And she takes it back.
rape scene in I Spit on Your Grave lasts an uncomfortably long time and it’s
all about dominance and control. Here,
Jennifer is denied control over herself, control over her ability to choose who
she wants to be with, what she wants to do, where she wants to be…everything that we all take for granted
every single day. The rapists treat
her like an object, like a thing to
be used. It isn’t easy to watch, yet I assert
that the director doesn’t romanticize the brutality. Instead, the rape is gut wrenching and brutal,
and much of the action focuses on close-ups of the men: their ugly, leering,
determined visages. There’s nothing
romantic about the nude Jennifer’s demeanor, either. She is bloody, injured and dirty throughout
it all, and one feels only sympathy and anger for what she undergoes.
the film again this time, I indeed detected that director Meir Zarchi has taken
real and noteworthy steps not to glamorous
rape. His “almost documentary style,” which “eschews all music except source music” and makes use of “practical locations” (Dominique Mainon,
James Ursini, Modern Amazons: Warrior
Women on the Screen: “Radical Feminism Meets the Exploitation Movie; 2006,
page 324), suggests an earnest attempt to imbue the difficult material with
some sense of reality.
by focusing on that ugly reality, we see how terrible and despicable a crime
rape truly is.
in a pack, these men become a multi-headed monster more fearsome than any one
of them alone. That’s their (ugly)
strength or power. United in an animal
herd, they root and cheer for each other, and try to prove their membership and
manliness in the “tribe.” As they set out taking away, piece-by-piece,
Jennifer’s life and rights as an independent human being, one senses that they
are inspired not by a hatred for Jennifer personally, but by the need to prove
to one another, somehow, that they are superior to all women. In their minds,
Jennifer has transgressed natural law by coming out to the country alone, by
dressing in tight clothing, even by befriending them. And so they make an example out of her. It’s really and truly a sickening view of
is, as you might guess, powerful material.
The rapists are depicted as morally reprehensible imbeciles, and
Jennifer’s decision to kill them is clearly contextualized in terms of her
womanhood. She is raped because of her
liberated womanhood, and the manner she commits murder is also connected to her
womanhood. So indeed, it is not
difficult to detect why people discern the film as a feminist one.
yet, finally, the achievement of crafting a feminist revenge film does not
suggest, to me anyway, a very useful pro-social comment on the application and
misapplication of violence.
the ultimate point in I Spit on Your Grave that a woman
can descend, if provoked, to the same level of barbarity as men? If so, I’ll concede that point and spare
myself the gory details. I’m not at all certain
this is actually a point worth making, any more than Death Wish’s point about (male-originated)
vigilantism is one worth making. Is the equality to act out of bloodlust and
vengeance the social equality that women seek?
point of comparison, it is illuminating to remember other examples of The
Savage Cinema. The Last House on the Left
(1972) culminates on a bloody freeze-frame of its shaken suburbanite combatants,
while the soundtrack plays a song with lyrics that state “The Road Leads to Nowhere…and
the castle stays the same” signifying that the violence in the film has
solved nothing and saved no one.
Dogs (1971) ends with Dustin Hoffman noting that he “doesn’t know his way home” anymore, a
line of dialogue which suggests he has been meaningfully and permanently
changed by the violence he has endured and meted out.
John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) ends with its hero, John Voight, suffering
the equivalent of PTSD. Poor Ed dreams
of some deep, dark horror waiting to emerge in his psyche because his violent
nature has been summoned to the surface by the brutal events on the river.
Spit on Your Grave?
ends at precisely the moment that the rape victim murders the last of her four
attackers. Revenge meted, violence
delivered, there’s nothing left to say, no other issues to address.
suggest this denouement is patently unfair to our female avenger, and that
Jennifer deserves the same respect that male avengers are granted in the aforementioned
films. In other words, she too deserves the opportunity to contextualize the violence in her life. She has been injured, and she has committed
murder to avenge that injury. How does
she feel about herself…now? With the bloody deeds done? Did violence make the pain subside or lessen?
are afforded no insight into Jennifer’s mind or feelings, and so I
Spit on Your Grave squanders an opportunity to go from visceral exploitation
film to socially-valuable or artistic commentary about violence in our culture.
denying his (female) lead character this opportunity to reflect on her
experiences, the filmmaker, Meir Zarchi also affords the audience no deep insight
about the violence featured in the film.
Jennifer expresses no regret or even, contrarily, satisfaction, in her bloody
actions. Were we to see her experience a
nightmare, or return to Manhattan and her life anew, or take a cleansing bath, or
even…do anything that suggests
catharsis/PTSD/re-joining the human race, it would be easier to parse the film as
some kind of artistic or pro-social statement.
As it stands, we have only the discarded title Day of the Woman to remind
us that there seems to be intent to make a worthwhile statement here.
the very least, I can safely declare I Spit on Your Grave thought-provoking,
because I have not been able to stop pondering it since I screened it again
last weekend for the first time in a decade.
Certainly, the film pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and commits
fully to its brutal narrative.
terms of my own understanding of the film, I feel that I Spit on Your Grave is
worthwhile primarily for the way it allows its lead character, Jennifer, to
reconstruct her life following the brutal attack, and take back, essentially,
her “power” as a human being and as a woman. This element of the film is actually handled
sensitively and well.
simultaneously, I feel that the larger and perhaps more point -- that violence ultimately demeans and
degrades those who use it – is not well-expressed in I Spit on Your Grave, or
even, factually, expressed in the slightest.
that’s a shame, because the point could have been established by featuring one
last moment with Jennifer; one last moment in which she can reflect on and
consider her horrible experiences and show how they connect to our
understanding of what it means to be human.
What has she learned about
herself? How will she deal with what she’s
I Spit on Your Grave is a film, I believe, created directly out of
emotions of rage and anger. The director has recounted the personal story
of how he once helped a rape victim in the 1970s and saw that woman,
essentially, victimized again by the police afterwards. This film is thus a fiery response to those
feelings of impotence, anger and guilt. I
can only assert that I Spit on Your Grave would have been
radically improved if it had included a scene of Jennifer going to the police
to report the crime, and being shunned and disbelieved by the authorities. Then the film would have been a comment on
how the rapists’ attitude about women was shared, to some extent, in a
Spit on Your Graveis not a film
concerned with reminding us that violence is wrong. It’s a film that is instead, seething. It is a film that is enraged that the scales
of justice have not been righted,and thus wants to bloodily rectify the
situation. It may advocate for feminism,
which could be argued is a net positive.
But I Spit on Your Grave also advocates for vigilantism, which I personally
count as a net negative. The result is,
for me, a wash. Your mileage may
the final analysis, I can deeply appreciate the message of a woman finding
herself again after having her freedom savagely ripped away by rapists. But I can’t defend I Spit on Your Grave as
adhering to some higher social principle if the film can’t see beyond the narrow bloody horizon of revenge.
great Savage Cinema movies are not about the violence meted, but about the human emotional and psychological
response to the violence meted. In I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer gets
to stand up for her sex, all right, against the most awful, terrible men
imaginable. Yet the film never allows
Jennifer the dignity of reflecting on what she’s done, one way or the other, pro
or con. If we are to understand Jennifer’s
story fully, we need to know how she
views her own actions.
final words -- “Suck it, bitch!” -- may
satisfy the audience’s blood lust and sate a sense of anger, but the epithet isn't a morally satisfactory answer about what the men did, what she did, and how Jennifer feels about the traumatic experience.
Next Friday, the film that many insist initiated the "Savage Cinema" trend: Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).