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Friday, January 28, 2011

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) -- DVD review by porfle

No doubt about it--rape has always been a prime motivator for the revenge movie.  Whether by the victim herself or a husband, lover, or relative, audiences tend to excuse whatever horrendous acts they commit in the name of vigilante justice, and even cheer them on.  Open with a rape scene, and the filmmakers are free to make with the bloody violence.

Such is the case with the infamous I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, aka "Day of the Woman" (1978), one of the most extreme examples of this unsettling subgenre.  (One of its alternate titles is the built-in spoiler "The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill.")  To me, the debates about the "deeper meaning" that this film has stirred up since its release are all a bunch of hogwash--depending on who you ask, it's either virulently misogynistic or "the ultimate feminist movie."  I think it's really just a case of cooking up a scenario in which the bad guys are so irredeemably vile that the filmmakers are free to depict the most violent and gruesome revenge sequences their hearts desire, and if people read more into it then so much the better.

Although writer-director Meir Zarchi's inspiration for the script was a real incident in which he gave aid to a woman who'd been raped in the park, the film is hardly a "Lifetime" special.  What it does, though, and quite effectively, is to present one of the screen's most convincing depictions of the physical and emotional devastation endured by a victim of violent rape.  The film is no less exploitative for this, yet the fact that Zarchi treats this aspect of it so seriously prevents it from being anywhere near the irredeemable trash it might have been.

Big city girl Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) sets things into motion when she drives to a rented summer home in the country to commune with nature and work on her novel.  The attractive stranger draws the attention of four unsavory locals, led by pump jockey Johnny (Eron Tabor).  Turned on by her looks but resentful of what they imagine to be a teasing and superior attitude, they begin to harrass Jennifer and then brutally rape her in a marathon ordeal, setting the stage for her bloody revenge.

These guys are the most cartoonishly sexist pigs that Zarchi could cook up--they're even vile and offensive when they're fishing.  Jennifer, on the other hand, is as sweet and innocent as the heroine in a dark fairytale, which this somewhat resembles.  We see enough of her friendly and open demeanor in the early scenes to sense it being destroyed during her dehumanizing assault.

The early part of the film is very slow, almost tranquil, as Jennifer is lulled into a false sense of security in her hammock under the trees or floating on sun-dappled water in a canoe.  Twenty minutes in, the assault begins and doesn't end until over half an hour later.  The utter simplicity of the story gives Zarchi time to dwell on the key events and explore them fully enough to make us feel as though we're experiencing them too--not as one of the rapists, as some contend, but through Jennifer's eyes.  The fact that almost the entire story is told from her point of view, and never encourages us to identify with her tormentors, is what makes it tolerable.

The almost cinema verite feeling of the film is largely due to the complete lack of music (ambient sounds and silence establish the mood) and the director's matter-of-fact, near documentary style.  This gives the harsher events an inexorable quality and a sense of immediacy.  There's so little film artifice to hide behind that viewers can't distance themselves from the terrible things that are happening, and there are no timely cutaways to relieve the tension.  When the final and worst attack occurs in Jennifer's own house, it's as though we're in the same room.  This is probably one of the things that bothers some people so much about this movie.

After the halfway mark, Jennifer's long, contemplative healing process gives way to her resolve to get revenge herself rather than go to the police.  At this point the film shifts noticeably from realism to improbable fantasy, with Jennifer becoming a fearless, seductive femme fatale with almost supernatural cunning and luck.  Those looking for the charnel-house massacre promised by the film's famous tagline may be disappointed--while Jennifer's killings display showmanship, only the cringe-inducing bathtub scene is truly shocking.  These scenes do, however, provide the necessary cathartic resolution to all that has gone before.  

Keaton (who later married director Zarchi) is a good enough actress for the most part, but during the rape scenes she becomes harrowingly convincing.  At times it's as though she isn't even an actress performing for the camera but someone who's being caught on film during an actual event.  The actors playing Johnny's friends give broad performances, especially Richard Pace as the semi-retarded Matthew, which serve the story while distancing us from them as human beings.  Eron Tabor as Johnny is a better actor and his character is fleshed out more--he has a family and talks fondly about his kids--giving an added dimension to the film's notorious latter-half setpiece.

The Director's Cut DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and is definitely a step up from the Wizard Video VHS edition I bought back in the 80s.  Extras include a half-hour interview with Meir Zarchi, a poster and stills gallery, trailers, TV and radio spots, a clip of the alternate main title "Day of the Woman", and two commentary tracks.  Zarchi's is informative while the one with drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs is delightfully entertaining.

Despite the horrified misgivings of a number of critics, including an aghast Roger Ebert, I can't imagine very many people besides the truly twisted few who would identify with the rapists in this story and vicariously enjoy their actions.  As for myself, I find I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE to be a meticulously well-made film that's too sympathetic to its female protagonist to be as reprehensible as it's often made out to be.  An interesting thing to consider is that, after the more realistic events of the first half, what happens in the rest of the movie is so wildly improbable that it might simply be Jennifer's own revenge fantasy. 

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Read our review of the 2010 remake here


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