“This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her! I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE ... an act of revenge!”
Aspiring writer Jennifer Hill travels to a remote small town where she inadvertently draws the attention of some of the local lowlifes. Following Jennifer to her cabin, the men repeatedly rape and beat her before leaving her for dead. Two weeks later Jennifer returns to the scene of the crime and proceeds to hang, castrate, chop up, and disembowel those who assaulted her. The End. (Doesn’t look like we’ll be spending too much time discussing plot in this review, huh?)
It’s inescapable. Whenever discussing I Spit On Your Grave you MUST drag in Roger Ebert at some point. So, let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way right up front. You see, back in 1980, America’s premier movie critic had few, if any, kind words to say about I Spit On Your Grave. “This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction.” Ebert opined. “It lacks even simple craftsmanship… at the film's end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed. This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures… There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” So, as you can see, no love there.
But don’t think it was the subject matter that offended Ebert. After all, he’s the man who once scripted a few rape scenes of his own for the film Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. And it wasn’t just the twenty four minute long on-screen depiction of the assault. Ebert’s review for 2003’s Irreversible was almost apologetic in tone for that film’s nine minute (feels like much longer) rape sequence. “The camera looks on unflinchingly as a woman is raped and beaten for several long, unrelenting minutes… That the movie has a serious purpose is to its credit but makes it no more bearable… most people will not want to see the film at all… But it is unflinchingly honest about the crime of rape. It does not exploit. It does not pander.” So why the difference? Well, in Ebert’s words, “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.”
Now to be fair, not everyone agrees with Ebert’s assessment of I Spit On Your Grave. There are those hardcore grindhouse fanatics who like the movie BECAUSE of its violent simplicity and sleazy atmosphere, and, of course, there’s the rape fetishists. (If you don’t think there is such a thing, you just haven’t been on the Internet long enough.) Most of the film’s champions, however, claim to appreciate the movie for its perceived pro-feminist subtext. “If you wanna talk about empowerment” exclaimed Joe Bob Briggs in defense of the movie, “this broad is pretty dang EMPOWERED--as opposed to "The Accused," where the creaky legal system ALMOST fails and lets the guys go free.” In fact, the reviewers for VideoHound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics go so far as to call I Spit On Your Grave “one of the best feminist-revenge movies ever made.”
So with such vociferous supporters and detractors, who’s right? Well, in my completely unsolicited non-professional opinion, none of them, at least not completely. If you read Ebert’s entire review, it’s pretty clear his visceral reaction was influenced somewhat by the fact that he saw the movie in a grimy little theater with an audience which not only shrieked with delight over the murder scenes (pretty common in scary movies) but also more disturbingly cheered on the rapes (again, if you don’t think there are such people, you just haven’t been on the Internet long enough). Combine a bad audience with the film’s hit-and-miss acting, grainy film stock, and wretched, sometimes incomprehensible sound mix, and it’s easy to imagine that the ambience of the movie going experience might have poisoned Roger’s review somewhat. That’s not to say that if Ebert had seen the film in the somewhat more affable environment of his customary critic’s screening room that he would have actually liked the film, but perhaps he might not have seen it as the epitome of all things evil in cinema. Maybe.
Still, if Ebert can (arguably) be said to have gone a bit overboard in his trashing of I Spit On Your Grave, the film’s supporters go WAY too far in its defense as a feminist empowerment treatise. Now this is a marginally bold statement because a feminist empowerment treatise is exactly what the director and screenwriter Meir Zarchi was going for. In a 1984 interview with Fangoria magazine, Zarchi explained what inspired him to make the movie. While driving past a local park with his daughter and a friend in 1974, they noticed a naked bleeding woman stumbling from the underbrush and stopped to help. As Zarchi explains it, “We took the girl to the police, because at the time we thought sure, the police, they have to catch the culprits, right? Now of course I realize we should’ve taken her to the hospital. We found out when we took her to the police just what the word bureaucracy means - how old are you? What’s your name? Why were you in the park? What time was it? Should we notify your mother? By this time she was close to falling apart, and I said to the policeman, “This girl is hysterical, she should be taken to a hospital.” He said no, no, we have to fill out these papers.” It was Zarchi’s frustration and anger over this experience which ultimately inspired him to make a film in which the victim circumvents the uncaring system and turns the tables on her attackers.
Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between Zarchi’s experience and what he finally put on screen. You see, while the dismissive treatment of the real life victim’s trauma goes a long way towards explaining why Zarchi has his main character pursue justice on her own, there’s no actual scene in the movie where the authorities treat Jennifer in such a fashion. In fact, at no point after her assault does she ever try to contact the police, a doctor, the boy scouts, anyone. By leaving out such a scene, the movie denies Jennifer the motivation of being an abandoned, ignored victim who has no choice but to take matters of justice into her own hands. Another possible rationale for Jennifer’s actions could have been self defense, as there is a single scene in which the men, having discovered Jennifer survived the assault, toss around the idea of going after her before she finally calls the authorities. But nothing comes of it and the guys return to their daily routines. Instead, the movie has Jennifer initiate all of the violence in the second half of the movie, effectively flubbing that potential angle as well.
But writing off the movie’s faults as mere script problems is too simplistic and might actually miss the bigger picture. The fact is that Zarchi sees no need for such motivations to allow Jennifer to pursue the path she does. This point is driven home in the scene in which Jennifer stops by a church on her way back to kill her attackers. Now a number of reviewers have quite understandably interpreted this moment as one in which Jennifer inappropriately kneels before the altar in order to ask forgiveness for the acts she is about to commit (even a kid in their first year of religious ed could tell you that just ain’t the way things work), but having seen the film a few times and read Zarchi’s interview, I’m not sure that’s what is going on at all. I’ve come to believe that, from the director’s viewpoint at least, Jennifer is there to accept God’s blessing for the upcoming carnage. “The theme is biblical” Zarchi stated in the Fangoria interview, “an eye for an eye.”
Now, anyone who has bothered to do the minimum of research on the infamous “eye for an eye” verse from Exodus 21 understands that the intention of that ancient law was to effectively limit the scope of punishment for any particular crime. For example, before an “eye for an eye”, it was possible for a thief to find himself executed, his family sold into slavery, and his house burnt down. And that was on a good day. After the new law, the punishment had to be commensurate with the offense. As such, a thief would likely find himself paying restitution, facing a short indentured servitude, or, worst case, having his hand lobbed off. When Jesus came along and addressed the issue in Matthew 5, He emphasized the tradition aof offering greater clemency towards offenders to reflect the mercy which God offers to all of mankind for its own transgressions. But even if we ignore Jesus and limit the film to the harshest of Old Testament standards, the only action taken by Jennifer which might conceivably pass the “eye for an eye” test is the one that, ironically, the majority of viewers find the most horrific, the castration of the lead attacker. So oddly enough, had the movie just been about a one-woman eunuch factory, it might have actually passed muster. But once Jennifer leaves the newly neutered man to bleed out in a locked bathroom, she oversteps the boundaries of an “eye for an eye” and enters into the realm of wrath. And as the Catechism is quick to point out, “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit… If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.”
But even Zarchi’s mishandling of Old Testament law isn’t really the biggest problem with I Spit On Your Grave. No, to get to the crux of the movie’s main failing, you have to first accept that I Spit On Your Grave is exactly what its supporters say it is, a feminist revenge fantasy. Now there are literally hundreds of pages out there devoted to why this is so, particularly in such well respected tomes as Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws and Jacinda Read’s The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle, but it really comes down to a couple of key scenes. The most telling comes near the end of the assault sequence in which the men, having finished raping and beating Jennifer, begin to rifle through her desk. Once they find the book she is working on, they begin to destroy it, mocking her efforts and basically insinuating that the whole rape was brought on by her attempts to be a modern, uppity woman. It’s here that the movie shows its true heart and lets you know that what you’re watching is not a simple revenge film, but a kind of morality tale about the suppression of all women.
If this sounds far fetched, then remember that under its original title of Day Of The Woman (only later retitled by savvy grindhouse distributors to the more provocative I Spit On Your Grave in order to boost ticket sales), the movie was released in 1978, just three years after the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s magnum opus of second wave feminism, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. It was this book that cemented the growing sentiment among feminists that all rape is about power into the public consciousness. As Ms. Brownmiller puts it in the very first chapter, “rape became not only a male prerogative, but man's basic weapon of force against woman, the principal agent of his will and her fear. His forcible entry into her body, despite her physical protestations and struggle, became the vehicle of his victorious conquest over her being, the ultimate test of his superior strength, the triumph of his manhood… From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”
That belief in rape as a form of power struggle is at the core of this movie’s philosophy and, in conjunction with the aforementioned scene involving Jennifer’s novel, it shows you this best through the use of a bit of subtle symbolism (the film is not as completely artless as Ebert and others would suggest). At the very start of the assault sequence two of the men motor up to Jennifer as she is relaxing adrift on the water in a small canoe. Seizing the craft’s tow line, the men drag the helpless woman to a deserted spot on the shore where they intend to start the rape. In contrast, the final scene of I Spit On Your Grave shows Jennifer leaving behind the body of her final victim while seated in the men’s boat, her hand firmly on the tiller as she moves across the waters. She has not only defeated her oppressors, but taken control of their craft as they once had hers. The axis of power has shifted and it’s the woman who is in control now. Feminist revenge fantasy indeed!
Now it’s been a few decades since I Spit On Your Grave was released, so a number of subsequent studies (Craig T. Palmer’s Twelve Reasons Why Rape Is Not Sexually Motivated: A Skeptical Examination being the first biggie) have begun to challenge (to put it mildly) the validity of the “it’s all about power” explanation of rape. But even if we view the movie through the political mindset in which it was produced and accept its tenuous worldview, and even if we accept its (morally wrong) view that Jennifer’s wrath alone is sufficient to justify her actions, there’s STILL a major problem with I Spit On Your Grave. While I suppose it’s legitimate to say the film succeeds in being the supreme parable of second wave feminist empowerment that its admirers claim it to be, it does so at the expense of Jennifer’s integrity as a person.
Let me explain. In her book The Politics of Rape: The Victim's Perspective (published the same year as Against Our Will), Diana Russell included a chapter of interviews with rapists. One interviewee related how his victim, after being punched in the face multiple times, stopped fighting and simply stated, “All right, just don't hurt me.” “When she said that," he continued, "all of a sudden it came into my head, 'My God, this is a human being!' I came to my senses and saw that I was hurting this person." Before that, he admitted, "It was difficult for me to admit that I was dealing with a human being when I was talking to a woman." Ultimately, whether the motivation is power or sexual urges or whatever, rape always involves to some extent the objectification of the victim, what the University of Connecticut’s Women’s Center describes as “seeing a person as a sexual object and emphasizing their sexual attributes and physical attractiveness, while de-emphasizing their existence as a living person with emotions and feelings of their own.” That’s one of the main reasons why rape, according to the Catechism, “does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act.”
The thing that really grates on me about I Spit On Your Grave, the thing that finally causes me to recommend that people just not watch it, is that the movie spends the first half of its running time portraying the evils of objectification and its effects on the character of Jennifer, only to turn around in the second half and do the same thing to her itself. It does so first, as discussed above, by robbing her of any even semi-legitimate moral reason for going as far as she does, a decision on the part of the filmmakers which, in effect, changes her from an individual seeking justice into a characterless symbol for a political statement. But worse than that, the way she goes about it all is to become the kind of object her attackers saw her as to begin with. She makes herself up, teases and flashes the men, promises them sex to lure them close, and even allows one of them to strat having sex with her. And the camera doesn’t spare the audience a few glimpses of her unclothed body while she is doing so. While this is sadly a common plot contrivance in many rape-revenge films (Jacinda Read notes that “The female avenger… frequently becomes an eroticized figure whose sexuality represents her “capital” within the public domain.”), it’s especially frustrating in this instance because the movie went to great pains to ensure that there wasn’t the slightest bit of titillation during the rape scene. It ends up creating a paradox in which the narrative rails against the objectification of women while simultaneously encouraging the audience to do that very thing to the woman onscreen. In the end, the biggest problem with I Spit On Your Grave is that we see Jennifer treated like a thing, and her response to this is to become… a thing. And it wants us to cheer about it. No thanks.
Obviously, I Spit On Your Grave gets a lot of things wrong. The really pathetic thing is that the mistakes start before you even enter the theater. The tag line on the one sheet boldly proclaims “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition!” In the movie, there are only four men. Seriously, if the people distributing the film didn’t even bother watching it, why should you?