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October 24, 2010

Movie Review: I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and (2010)

As a cult film fan, I subject myself to many horrible things in the name of cinema. Many times it's worth it, as a layer of humanity is revealed, or I learn to think about something in a very different way. Sometimes the experience is empty but still entertaining, if a bit icky. And sometimes you wonder why you bothered.

The rape-revenge film is a subset of revenge films. A woman is raped, sometimes killed, and someone - a husband or the woman herself - takes revenge on the rapist, subjecting him/them to some sort of ironic end that makes the audience applaud and feel good about watching someone castrated or otherwise mangled and murdered. I'm not judging here, because I'd never be able to cast the first stone, as it were.

Buy the original I Spit on Your Grave on DVD or get the remake on DVD or Blu-Ray on

A couple of weeks ago, I won a seat to a double feature of rape-revenge films. Indeed, it was the originator of the sub-genre, "I Spit On Your Grave" and the remake of same. The directors of both films were in attendance to give some justification to their films. (In my opinion there is none for the remake, but I'll get into that in a moment.)

Both films are essentially the same - a young, attractive lone female writer rents an isolated cabin in the woods outside of a hick town where she is subsequently visited by a few of the towns less desirables - one of which is a man with a developmental problem, some sort of generic mild retardation - is raped repeatedly throughout the day, then left for dead. She comes back in the third reel and takes revenge on the men who violated her and the film ends. That's it; she's not investigated by the police, she doesn't pay for her twisted justice, and, in fact the films both applaud her for taking the law into her own hands. And as the audience we are complicit in her crimes.

No, I am not saying rape is OK. Rape is a terrible crime that damages more than the body of the raped. It damages the mind and the sense of worth. Many women are never able to come forth about a rape due largely to the perception of her from society, which is a "shame on us" moment. But that doesn't mean the reverse - taking revenge on the rapist - should be OK. As a civil society, we should be able to rely on the set of laws developed in just such cases as rape to give us justice and closure. Of course, we all know that's just not true in all cases, which is what makes films like these more attractive - finally, the bad guy is getting what they deserve. Again, I'm not judging us, just stating an opinion.

That's enough "high-minded" philosophizing for the moment. Lets talk about the films.

The setting for both films is an isolated cabin in a beautiful forest. The young women, Camille Keaton in the original and Sarah Butler in the remake, play Jennifer Hills, a magazine writer looking for seclusion and inspiration for her first novel. On her trip to the cabin, she runs afoul of a local garage owner who makes a pass at her. She embarrasses him by rejecting him in front of his friends, who razz him about it a few times. When the mildly retarded young man becomes enamored with Jennifer, the boys use it as an excuse to attack the woman.

The guys get their "courage" up and pay a visit to Jennifer, and here's one of the big places where the remake diverges from the original. In "Day of the Woman" (the original title of the 1978 film), the guys do a little showing off in front of the writer, but she seems unimpressed, so they ramp it up, grab her boat while she's out on the lake and haul her off into the woods. There, they hold her down while the leader rapes her, then they let her go and disappear into the woods. She crawls toward home, but they find her and a different guy rapes her, then they wander off again. They rape her a third time, then she makes it home, and they are waiting for her, they rape her a fourth time, then leave her for dead and run away. Pretty terrible, and it really makes you wonder why the hell you paid to see this film. But in the remake, they terrorize her for a day or two with dead birds on her porch and strange noises before they finally break into her house, then torture her for a bit, then let her go. Then she is dragged back to her home, where one of them rapes her and another of the men takes a phone call from his wife and daughter during the violation. I'm embarrassed to report that many of the audience laughed at this (not I). Then they let her go, stalk her through the woods repeatedly raping her, and then pull out a shotgun to kill her. She jumps into the river and disappears.

So, in the original, they take her away from the assumed safety of her home and violate her, then finally violate her home. The violation is increased act by act until they leave her for dead. In the remake, they torture her in her home and violate the sanctity of it right from the beginning, which sets the bar pretty high. So the physical violation has to be that much worse or the we would be numb and just waiting for it to end so we can see the rest of the film. And they manage to do just that, which really has you wondering why you are still in the theater. I mean, in both cases, you paid to watch a woman be violently and graphically raped. Frankly, the remake, which I watched first, had me questioning my taste a bit, as the rape just seemed to go on forever. The original dispensed with the torture and went right to the rape, which made it seem shorter and more direct. They may have had the same amount of screen time, I don't know, but it certainly didn't feel like it.

So why this long-winded discussion of the rape? In my mind it sets the tone for whether or not the revenge portion is ultimately satisfying from an audience point of view. The original's directness and no-frills approach moved the film along and didn't seem to linger on the violation any longer than it had to, but the remake almost seemed to fetishize the rape portion of the film, and I think that's a specific risk of this type of film. At any rate, on to the revenge.

After Jennifer disappears in the remake, the men are at a loss, searching for her body all over the area, but to no avail. But then someone briefly terrorizes the men, in the same way Jennifer was, with a dead bird and some noises. A video camera one of the men used to record the rape (yes, very stupid of them) goes missing and the tape is sent to the family of another of the men. Within a couple of scenes, Jennifer appears looking like an American version of the Japanese ghost girl, kidnaps the men one or two at a time, tortures them for a minute or two, then kills them in wildly ironic fashion; i.e. the guy with the video cam has his eyes plucked out by birds, etc. Then, when the last one is dead, she sits on a wall and slightly smiles. The end. While I did applaud the Saw-like dispatching of the men, it was way too quick for all the time spent on the rape at the beginning. Yes, the brief emotional high was there, but it was ultimately empty, and left me feeling unfulfilled. Sure, the guys were dead and she was alive, so "justice" was served in context of the film, but it was hollow and all too quick. I'm not saying I would have wanted her to torture the men any more than she did, I just wished the first act had been slightly shorter. Which brings me back to the original.

While in the remake, we don't see Jennifer from the moment she falls into the river to the moment she starts taking revenge, in the original she cleans herself up and puts herself back together, albeit only physically. The men keep waiting for word of the murder but it never comes, so they go boating by her cabin and see her outside writing. This freaks them out considerably. As she sets out to put her life back together the men fall apart, which is very emotionally satisfying for the audience.

However, the best part of the revenge in the original is how Jennifer uses her body and sexuality as the lure to draw the men in to their demise; the same sexuality that was taken from her by force. It allows her to reclaim her own body on her terms, and that's the emotional healing she needs to do to be whole again. It's hard to say whether or not she even enjoys it; it just seems more of a "The trash needs to be taken out and I'm the one holding the bag" kind of thing. It's a more subtle, and thus more believable, performance than Ms. Butler's scowling anger where you know she loves every second of watching these men die.

Ultimately, I just felt the original was a more effective, and better, film than the remake. Which is not the say the remake is a bad film from the standpoint of the cinematography or acting, it's just particularly cruel without the full sense of redemption at the end. There are plenty of remakes out there that are better than their predecessor, and there are many more that are just unnecessary. I have to put this one firmly in that latter category. The original is a film that deserves to be seen by cult fans testing their limits and looking for a visceral experience that will make them question their own humanity. The remake deserves to be forgotten like so many other remakes that didn't know what the point of the original film was in the first place.

Remake trailer:

Original trailer:

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