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.  

The crux of the issue is how to “see” the film. 

Critic 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 social value.

Horror 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 64-65).

Oppositely, 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).

One 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).

Perhaps The Washington Times explained the controversial film mostly lucidly when reviewer Christian Toto described I Spit on Your Grave as “either the ultimate feminist manifesto, an exploitation film without a hint of artistic panache or a revenge yarn distilled to its core DNA.”

Ultimately 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 submission.”

A 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). 

Together 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.

Then, 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.

Jennifer 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 doom…

“That’s so sweet it’s painful.”

I 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. 

In 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.

In 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 imagery’s significance. 

Part 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.

Jennifer 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.” 

All 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.” 

Thus 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 words.

Similarly, 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.

I 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.  

In 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.

That’s 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 rightly hers.

They took her power.

And she takes it back.
The 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.

Watching 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.

And by focusing on that ugly reality, we see how terrible and despicable a crime rape truly is. 

Together 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 men.

This 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. 

And 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.  

Is 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? 

By 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 Nowhereand the castle stays the same” signifying that the violence in the film has solved nothing and saved no one. 

Similarly, Straw 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.

Finally, 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.

But I Spit on Your Grave? 

It 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. 

I 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? 

We 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.

By 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.

At 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.

In 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.

Yet 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.

And 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 done? 

 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 male-dominated culture.

So I Spit on Your Grave is 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 differ.

In 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. 

The 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. 

Her 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).


  1. Anonymous10:54 AM

    John your review of I Spit On Your Grave is insightful. I absolutely agree that there needed to be another scene at the end defining Jennifer after she completed righteous revenge against these men. We needed to know what happens to her when she goes back to her life. The most frustrated thing in film is when it ends and the credits roll, but the viewer says what happens next....?


    1. Thank you, SGB. It's a tough film to assess. Jennifer's revenge is indeed righteous, but like you, I want to know what it all MEANS. It's not enough to have her avenge her rape. For it to be considered meaningful art, to me, there has to be some larger comment about this incident.

      Great comment.


  2. It would be very interesting for you to compare this film (even just briefly) with Abel Ferrara's "Ms. 45" and Bob Kelljan's "Act of Vengeance" (aka, tastelessly, "Rape Squad").

    1. Patrick,

      I should do that. I plan to get to Ms. 45 in time here on Savage Friday. I must admit, I have never seen "Act of Vengeance." I feel that "Ms. 45" has more artistic merit than "I Spit on Your Grave," based on my last viewing of the Ferrara film in 2007. I hope I'm not remembering that wrong, because these films are...incendiary, to some extent.

      Tell Act of Vengeance a good film, do you think? Is it "Savage Cinema" or something else? I'm curious...

      Thank you for the comment!


    2. I only know "Act of Vengeance" by reputation, which is mixed. But it's certainly thematically apt in this context, and distinctive in that it presents group revenge. Probably worth a look. It's newly available as an MGM Limited Edition Collection made-on-demand DVD.

  3. Hi,

    I often wondered... if these movies would have no naked women in them, would they get more than a handful of viewers?

    Also. Have you seen "The Holly Mountain"? Or "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom"?

    I'm steering you wrong here, I apologize for that.

    Where does one draw the line?


    1. J.J.

      Well, you bring up the point that a lot of critics start at. Is a film such as I Spit on Your Grave just a leering exploitation of women? Or is it something more? Many women have, themselves, leaped to the defense of the film. I don't know. As I said, I grapple mightily with this one.

      I have not seen the films you name-checked. Are you steering me wrong, sir?! :)

      I don't know exactly where the line is drawn, to tell you the truth. For me, I Spit on Your Grave is not in the same class of artistry as Deliverance, Straw Dogs or Last House on the Left because it doesn't make a meaningful statement about violence. I know others disagree with me...


    2. Anonymous4:35 PM

      Call me superficial but it's the naked women that usually draw me to these films. Unfortunately I have not seen I Spit on Your Grave yet. After this review I think I have a good reason.

      John, you must see The Holy Mountain by Jodorowsky and Salò by Pasolini. They are these strange artistic European films from the 70's (maybe that's why I have seen them). I would also recommend the Life trilogy (Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) by Pasolini although there is even more nakedness and strange European art house vibe in them.


    3. My english fails me, sometimes :)

      What i meant was that those two movies are probably way, way beyond the line and if you haven's seen (or heard about) them by now then... you're probably better off without. And I'm not even sure if they are part of the savage cinema, so I may be off topic.

      Personally I couldn't stand more than 5 minutes. Try them only if you must.

    4. I think he meant Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain," which is great, definitely extreme, slightly savage but really more philosophically eccentric.

      Pasolini's "Salo" would be perfect for this series: super-intense, divisive, very difficult for most people to watch, it raises all kind of political, sexual, philosophical, aesthetic, and representational issues.

  4. Agree with your points John. Though it seems somewhat unfair to compare directorial efforts of one Meir Zarchi who went on to direct that classic from 1985 called 'Don't Mess With My Sister' to considerably more talented directors like Winner, Peckinpah, and Boorman.