Director: Meir Zarchi
Writer: Meir Zarchi
I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most divisive and controversial Video Nasties, accused of exploitative misogyny by some but praised as a feminist masterpiece by others. The premise is simple and effective - a young woman taking a break in the countryside to write her first novel is gang raped by a group of local men, and goes on to exact her revenge by murdering them one by one.
It is shot in the summer in a wooded, rural area of Connecticut, luscious but empty and eerie. The film style is spacious and restrained, with no music and only minimal, functional dialogue. This pared down approach is possibly due to budgetary constraints but works, giving the film an uncanny, dreamlike feel that compliments the slow build up to the first scenes of violence.
The violence takes the form of the prolonged gang rape of the central character, Jennifer Hills, in what is by far the most disturbing part of the film, the later revenge killings cartoonish in comparison. In the British version, cut by seven minutes, these scenes are abstracted somewhat, and though difficult are just about watchable. The same can't be said of the uncut version, which is very tough going indeed. The differences are interesting and reveal a little about how we cope with the way violence is portrayed - in the British version most of the violence is in close-up. Watching the original US version, it seems that a lot of the scenes that have been removed show the victim and attackers from enough distance to fit everything in the frame, a graphic approach that allows no escape.
The subject matter is of course controversial and a minefield to portray, its treatment in other films ranging from infallible in The Accused to repulsive in Death Wish 2. I Spit on Your Grave's treatment resides with the former, its unflinching directness humanised by Camille Keaton's portrayal of a woman whose independence offends her attackers, a group of losers who go on to rip all the dignity and strength from her in an act of mindless violence. The reassertion of her power in the revenge scenes isn't as nuanced but does spell out a strong moral stance for the film, one some commentators have gone so far as to call feminist.
It isn't clear whether this is really the case. Director Meir Zarchi said he was inspired to make the film after helping a real-life rape victim and experiencing the frustration of her dealings with the police first hand, which could be seen as a vigilante rather than feminist approach. Jennifer Hills' revenge is also just a logical path for a thriller to take, and a premise this simple hardly needs political roots. Against this is Keaton's intelligent performance and the film's willingness to tackle such a difficult subject head-on.
I'm not sure how much intention matters though when the result is this good. The clear, simple style paradoxically makes an enigmatic and complex film that has been debated over since its release. It's an example of a horror film doing an important job, presenting a controversial situation in all its terrible detail and leaving the viewer to untangle the moral ambiguities it raises. I Spit On Your Grave isn't as technically accomplished as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or as groundbreaking as Cannibal Holocaust, but its content makes it every bit as important.