I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
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I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

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By definition horror movies are suppose to illicit predominately negative emotions such as fear, apprehension and disgust in the audience but the delicate balance achieved by the classics of the genre. The disheartening fact is most genres have been diluted but the effect appears to be most evident with horror flicks. In order for an aspiring auteur to break into the movie business all he needs are copious quantities of fake blood and entrails and young ladies unencumbered by modesty. Just find some meager excuse to isolate a group of horny teen stoners and pick then off one by one in increasingly gruesome, overly complicated ways. Movies like ‘Saw’ and ‘Touristas’ took matters to an extreme ushering in the currently popular trend frequently referred to as ‘torture porn’. With only a flimsy plot to tie the horrendous acts of depravity together these films cost little and rake in millions ensuring their continuance. Initially these flicks resulted in an up roar of criticism and controversy but several of the more recent ones appear to have gained a degree of mainstream acceptance; a lamentable commentary on our society. One of the earlier films in this ‘movement’ was ‘I Spit on Your Grave’. Originally presented as a female under the title ‘Day of the Woman’, the movie took off as a cult classic once the title was made less gender specific. In retrospect there are several factors that make this movie noteworthy in cinematic history. This is not to say the movie is one of the genre’s greats, it is not by any stretch of the imagination. It does mark an early instance of the downward spiral of excessive violence in films as well as the use of several major cinematic tropes commonly employed in a broad rand of film types. The film was re-made in 2010 and considered elsewhere on this site but as for the original it represents a prime example of the precursor to torture porn, the grind house exploitation flick. This is exactly the kind of movie teenage boys would sneak into assured of getting grossed out and a lingering look at female nudity. While the film may have been marked as female empowerment the primary audience was without a doubt teen boys looking for a puerile thrill.

This was the first and pretty much only opus on the resume for film maker Meir Zarchi. He did go on to writing, directing and producing another horror flick, ‘Don’t Mess with My Sister’ but that represents the bulk of his career thus far. ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ received the dubious distinction of inclusion on Time magazine’s woeful list of the ten ‘Ridiculously Violent Movies of 2007’. Even by modern, post ‘Saw’ criteria this film can hold that placement firmly with little chance of displacement any time soon. I have to admit that certain elements of Zarchi’s directorial style are visually interesting. He makes excellent use of the innate beauty of the remote, rural local juxtaposing it against the inhuman cruelty perpetrated by the characters. He also switches be tween tight close-ups and oddly placed long shots. Typically if two characters are engaged in a conversation many directors would opt for a medium two shot. Zarchi pulls the camera back widening the viewport giving a definite voyeuristic feel to the shot. It comes across as having the audience peering out covertly from behind the bushes. Many of these technical flourishes may be lost

The first requirement for almost any horror flick is isolation. This is readily achieved here by having the protagonist, Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton) taking time off from her New York City apartment renting a house in a rural area. All she wants is a quite place to finish her first novel but some local residents have other plans. On her way into town the attractive red head catches the eye of a pair of unemployed reprobates, Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann) as well as the gas station attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor). Later she has groceries delivered by a mentally challenged youth, Matthew (Richard Pace) who takes an immediate liking to her. The combination of nothing to do, minimal intelligence and complete lack of compassion soon has the guys trapping Jenny on the lake, dragging her ashore and repeatedly raping and beating her. The main controversy surrounding the film is the length and intensity of the gang rape scene. Several times it appears her nightmare is over only to have the men brutalize her again and again. This establishes Jenny as the first trope she comes to represent; survival girl. No matter how much the four molested and pummeled her Jenny hung on to her life never giving up. Several times she tried to escape only to be abused again but she never surrenders to her plight. After she cleans herself up and makes a meager attempt to get back to her writing she transforms into the second trope, the vigilante. Actually her actions are more in line with the avenging angel as Jenny sets about to torture and kill her tormentors. One of them is castrated in another scene that provoked a lot of controversy. Even in the organized crime world depicted in ‘The Godfather’ Jenny went too far she was left alive albeit not by their consensus. The film maker was trying to make the audience sympathetic towards Jenny’s reaction and I suppose in one light he did succeed. There is nothing at all sympathetic about the men, not even the mildly mentally challenged Matthew. Like the gang rape the amount of time spent on the retribution seems overly long. The same point could have been made less overtly but the entire foundation of this film is excess. Some have noted that the full frontal nudity (prior to the Brazilian trend) is too sexual. If you are at all aroused by these scenes please, seek professional psychiatric help or at least register your whereabouts with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Sooner or later they are going to be interested in having a chat with you.

Posted 01/30/11

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