31 Days Of Horror #27: I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
Arguably the most notorious exploitation movie of all time, certainly here in the UK, I Spit On Your Grave is also one of the few films to be labelled a “video nasty” that was actually disturbing enough to make the suppression of it understandable (if no less frustrating for those who are as against censorship as I am). It also happens to be a fantastic film, but that’s something that always gets you funny looks from people when you admit to it.
Written and directed by Meir Zarchi, the simple plot sees a young woman (Jennifer, played by Camille Keaton) from New York renting an isolated cottage and heading there to, hopefully, work on a novel. Once there, she is targeted by a group of men who decide to sexually abuse and physically assault her. Left for dead, Jennifer uses all of her strength to recover and plan her revenge.
This is an ugly film, which is as it should be. The sustained abuse suffered by the main character throughout the first half of the movie still packs a wallop today. It’s uncomfortable to watch as Jennifer is beaten down and then broken, again and again. The men involved are absolute monsters, and yet they really just view the whole thing as one big lark. The lack of cinematic finesse makes the whole thing seem even more dangerous as a viewing experience, almost as if viewers have found a nightmarish peepshow instead of an actual movie.
Why would anyone sit through this? And how can anyone rate it as a fantastic film? Those are questions that will crop up when discussing this film, usually asked by people who have not themselves sat through it (“and why would I sit through such a thing?” would be the standard rebuttal). Well, the answer comes around in the third act. Although it’s a standard template that many other “rape and revenge” films have taken, Zarchi sets everything up so well here that it’s no wonder this stands head and shoulders above others of its ilk. The masterstroke here is the exploration of sexuality. We first meet Jennifer as a beautiful, happy, comfortable woman. She is as free-spirited and open as her abusers are small-minded and repressed. Which makes her being broken down by their sustained assault all the more heartbreaking. But it also makes the finale so much more powerful, because the weapon that Jennifer wields in her quest for revenge is actually her sexuality. Okay, she has a rope, a knife, and some other bits and bobs to help, but it’s her sexuality that allows her whole plan to come together, albeit with a very different side of her nature that has been exposed to the daylight, like an open wound.
The male actors mostly give decent enough performances, and you will hate every one of them, but Richard Pace is stuck playing the member of the group who also seems to be slightly mentally disabled, which leads to his performance standing out for all the wrong reasons. Let’s face it though, this film is all about the performance from Keaton. She’s superb throughout, although the muted, stilted nature of the opening scenes don’t allow her to hit the ground running. Thankfully, things pick up once she starts to settle into the cottage. From there, she fearlessly depicts herself as both victim and avenger with most of her thinking expressed in a too-often-dismissed physical performance that Zarchi needed to make the movie work.
You can dislike I Spit On Your Grave. You can be absolutely disgusted by it. You can choose not to watch it (lord knows that it’s not a film I can imagine anyone visiting on an annual basis). But don’t be too quick to dismiss it. It stands up as an interesting, daring, challenging piece of work that has lost none of its power, even almost forty years after it was first released.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: MEIR ZARCHI
STARS: CAMILLE KEATON, ERON TABOR, RICHARD PACE, ANTHONY NICHOLS, GUNTER KLEEMANN
RUNTIME: 101 MINS APPROX