Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert crusaded against it as if it were a threat to every woman in America; their vitriolic reviews led to its being pulled from a Chicago theater. It has been banned in several countries, including England, where it was one of the more notorious Video Nasties. I Spit on Your Grave is one of those white-hot controversial films more people have heard about than actually seen, yet does it really deserve its heavy reputation?
First of all, this needs to be said: Writer/director Meir Zarchi may have made this film, but that doesn’t mean he’s a filmmaker. A surprising percentage of I Spit on Your Grave is flat-out tedious. Zarchi lets his scenes — particularly the ones in which nothing of import or interest is happening — meander on interminably. If you’re going to watch this — it’s not like you’re going to miss much in the way of music (there is none) or dialogue — I highly recommend doing so in the jocular company of Joe Bob Briggs, whose audio commentary on the Elite Millennium Edition DVD is hilarious, insightful, and essential. Joe Bob will bring you smoothly over the many dull expository scenes, often pausing to point out how boring or illogical they are.
The movie does wield crude and considerable power, though. New York writer Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton, who must be dutifully name-checked in every review as Buster’s grandniece) heads for the boonies of Connecticut to work on her novel in peace. She attracts the attention of four louts — the mostly interchangeable Johnny (Eron Tabor), Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann), and their retarded acquaintance Matthew (Richard Pace). Matthew is a virgin, and the other three men decide to procure Jennifer for him. She is raped three times (once with a beer bottle) and nearly beaten to death; Matthew is entrusted with the task of killing her, but can’t bring himself to do it. Jennifer survives, heals, and sets about her revenge.
Perhaps I Spit on Your Grave has bothered people for 25 years now precisely because there’s so little art getting in the way of the story: A woman is raped; she takes revenge. As Joe Bob points out, this movie is hardly the only “rape/revenge” film, yet other films like Baise-Moi (or The Accused) have escaped censure. Why pick on I Spit on Your Grave? Well, Siskel and Ebert had themselves to blame for the movie’s instant cult status: As soon as you go on TV, red in the face, and denounce a film as sick and degrading, you practically guarantee curiosity. The duo would’ve been wiser simply to let the movie die in silence.
But there’s also a genuine impulse of compassion in this work. Zarchi’s famous story is that he himself once encountered a bruised, battered woman who had just been raped. He films the violation scenes in a mood of horror and disgust (and Keaton, who can’t do much with dialogue, is great at making us feel the physical anguish the role demands). Yet he doesn’t film the revenge scenes — wherein Jennifer hangs, castrates, axes, and outboard-motors her attackers into the next life — for cheap thrills, either. We may feel a savage release upon seeing the scum dispatched, but there’s no particular relish in Zarchi’s direction or in Keaton’s performance. It’s all rather dispassionate — almost predetermined. There are odd touches, like Jennifer listening to Puccini while one of her victims dies bleeding and shrieking in another room. I don’t think the movie believes in Jennifer’s revenge. Disturbingly (for those of us guiltily enjoying the bloody payback), it suggests that what happened to Jennifer took away not her sanity but her humanity, leaving a calloused spot where her soul once was.
This is a difficult and seriously flawed film. But I don’t feel it deserves to be hounded into oblivion, nor do I think it needs to be hailed as an overlooked masterpiece of contempt and fury. It is what it is — a rape/revenge thriller with an unusually intense emphasis on the suffering of the woman. I don’t agree that the movie fosters rape fantasies; on the contrary, any reasonably sane man watching the atrocities would cringe and wish he — or the camera — were elsewhere. That may be the film’s final sin: it doesn’t look away. It doesn’t eroticize the rape, doesn’t soften the rape, doesn’t glorify the retaliatory violence. The filmmaking is circa 1910, with silent-movie acting to match. I Spit on Your Grave makes people angry, disturbed, depressed (Ebert’s word). Of course it does. The camera just stares, refusing to editorialize or to put a stylistic barrier between you and the cruelty. You are there, and you’re not doing anything to stop it.