I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) Directed by Meir Zarchi

Meir Zarchi’s notorious quintessential rape revenge flick is also the worst of its kind and one of the most challenging exploitation films of all time. The unglamorous subgenre of rape revenge is self-explanatory; a woman is sexually abused by one or a bunch of degenerates in the initial acts, and in the subsequent acts the victim exacts a cathartic revenge. Whether the objectives are those of divine justice as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring implies, or popular justice as Franco Prosperi’s The Last House on the Beach suggests, or legitimate feminist retaliation as most films of the ilk suggest, there is always a balance between the barbaric sexual assault with the provoked final bloodbath in its respective ritual of vengeance. In depicting over-the-top gratuitous violent pornography, filmmakers of this genre acknowledge that they must equate that burden of debased horror with a vengeful act in which the victim is vindicated and the perpetrators are excoriated. Otherwise, the exploitative exercise would be tasteless and would be seen more as a chauvinistic exaltation of misogyny than an unabashed celebration of popular justice.

The perplexing conundrums that Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on your Grave engenders in me whenever I watch it stem precisely from a detestable disequilibrium between those two aspects that make up the genre and make it what it is, a rape-revenge movie. Structurally, this is the most archetypal rape revenge picture I can think of. It’s so elementary that it doesn’t even bother to take the time to flesh out a plot and context around the gruesome events. It just wants to be a verbatim exemplification of the formula of the infamous genre. Wes Craven’s prototypical rape-revenge film The Last House on the Left elaborates the stark contrasts of the act of sexual assault and the act of revenge within a plot; Craven’s film is savvy enough to understand that a film cannot be sustained by that dual framework alone, it demands something more to render it diabolically entertaining and viciously thought-provoking. Meir Zarchi’s film is so crude that it doesn’t get that. So, what we obtain from watching I Spit on your Grave is nothing more than the frustrations of a pointless and grossly illiterate sadism.

But its gravest crime is not that of being too literal with the rape-revenge genre, but rather its questionable portrayal of the rape of a woman at the hands of four pitiless, sexually deviant freaks. Camille Keaton – in a gutsy, full-throated performance – plays Jennifer Hills, the victim of this intense tale of brutality. Jennifer is an attractive young writer who goes in search of the environmental tranquility of nature in order to start writing her first novel away from the urban chaos of New York. She rents a cozy cottage near a picturesque vista of the Housatonic River. Upon arrival she meets some locals, the gas station manager and her three inextricable sidekicks. Jennifer is a city girl and clearly her gullible townie sympathy prevents her from detecting the malevolent intentions of these folks, she has no inkling that these guys are the ones who would later ruin her life and wipe out her dignity as a human being. The introductory portions are quasi-silent, impressively discomforting to elicit ominous vibes even though Jennifer doesn’t feel that menace coming on. But we do, and that’s largely thanks to Meir Zarchi’s stringent calm-and-patience approach to filmmaking. The build-up to the assault is arguably the only semblance of professionalism in this production, the rest is amateurish trash. Once the aggressors decide to browbeat Jennifer and she realizes the peril she’s in, that’s when the forceful rape dynamic kicks off all that is inherently wrong with this film.

In the history of exploitation cinema there have been many graphic rape scenes, some more savage than others, some more improperly erotic than violent, but in I Spit on your Grave the level of inhumanity is unfathomable, incommensurable. The odd thing is that it’s not the most gruesome and depraved rape scene you’ll ever see -there are others much harsher- but it is the most heartbreaking and demeaning. Meir Zarchi puts all his efforts into dehumanizing his imagery; Camille Keaton’s fearless performance, vulnerably revealing her naked body being ravaged and defiled by the psychopathic vehemence of the four assailants, leaves an indelible imprint of what the horror of being raped is all about. Naturally, the shock will be even stronger if the viewer is a woman. But even then it only requires you to be a sane human being to be demoralized by the insensitive visuals composed by Meir Zarchi’s camera. Jennifer is not raped once, but multiple times and at different times. In addition to the excruciating beatings and degrading profanities, the aggressors even have the notion of murdering her after that heinous crime. The male characters are just ignorant sexists, but their sexist tendencies drive them to murderous behavior.

The script makes apparent the misogynistic personalities of the aggressors, however, and here is the major issue of this foul film, it feels as if Meir Zarchi’s direction criticizes Jennifer as well. Just consider how the events leading up to the grotesque rape unfold: First, the girl picks the most secluded place imaginable to write her novel. Second, the staging sexualizes her and pictures her as a pornographic prop. And finally, she is rendered vulnerable before the eyes of four virile men. It is as if the film is implying all along that the main culprit in her being gang-raped was herself for being so clumsily obvious. The intentions may not have been exactly that, but the incompetence of the filmmaking methodology Meir Zarchi opts for makes it look that way; it is as if she is soliciting the aggressors to be assaulted. Which brings me to the second inglorious blemish in the film and the most unfortunate of all, the revenge that Jennifer exacts in the second half of the film doesn’t reach the level of savagery that the first half of the film did. If you’re going to subject me to a half hour of various sequences where Jennifer is brutalized, then by the same token – with the same ferocity – you should subject me to a rewarding vengeance. But that doesn’t quite happen. We get only one filthy and utterly effective castration scene, but the rest is abhorrently docile.

Let’s just say that I Spit on your Grave is the most anti-climactic of all rape revenge flicks. Somehow, I want to embrace its jarring simplicity and ultimately believe that it’s good exploitation cinema, but its static insensitivity and subsequent clemency inspire in me more loathing than appreciation for this lousy exercise.

Matteo Bedon

Written by

Editor and Official Film Critic at CelluloidDimension.com

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