Hey there! Meet Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a young, chipper writer from New York City who's had a few things published in women's magazines but is ready to strike out on her own as a novelist. Jennifer's writing her own story, really: girl in her twenties, life, love, discovering herself...it's a whole thing. To really be able to focus on her first book, Jen leaves the big
city behind her and heads to a sleepy little town in Connecticut. A lake cabin, a typewriter, and nothing but the beauty of nature and boundless inspiration around her: this is for sure going to be a summer Jennifer will never forget. Oh, it's a memorable one, all right. The movie's called I Spit on Your Grave, after all, so needless to say, Jennifer's story doesn't exactly have the most cheery, upbeat ending.
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This isn't a slasher movie. There aren't any ominous stings in the score or a camera that lingers malevolently on the men who would go on to so savagely attack Jennifer, clumsily foreshadowing the violence to come. No, when Jennifer gets lost, she briefly chats up a guy at a gas station, and although he leers a little at this young, cute girl, he seems nice enough...helpfully gives her directions to find the cabin. Seems to be quickly forgotten by everyone involved. A little while later, Jen has some groceries delivered to her place, and she's nothing but polite to the mentally challenged fella who drops them off for her. It's kind of cute, even: Matthew (Richard Pace) has a crush. Turns out that Matthew is friends -- kind of -- with the guys at the gas station. Johnny (Eron Tabor) thinks it'd be adorable to get these two crazy kids together, so he and a couple of his buddies start to hatch a plan.
As Jennifer's relaxing on the lake and exploring its idyllic natural beauty, these rednecks scream by in a snarling motor boat, howl like wolves as they encircle her over and over, and tow her canoe to the middle of nowhere. She fights back as best she can, but it's no use. They drag her to a clearing in the meadow where Johnny looks down at her, rips off her bikini, and then motions for Matthew to come over and get some. Instead, he shyly cowers behind some trees just off in the distance. Johnny looks down and figures...well, this cute little thing is trussed up and ready to go. If the retard's not gonna do it, might as well... Johnny rapes her. She's ignored afterwards, and the rednecks make no attempt at chasing Jennifer down as she quietly shambles away, shellshocked...stripped bare physically and emotionally. They don't need to: they know where she's going. They rape her again, this time so brutally that Jennifer can hardly crawl away afterwards. Again, they seem to forget her, and Jennifer briefly has a moment of triumph when she finally claws her way back to the cabin and picks up the phone to call for help. No. She's raped again...and again. The rednecks take a half-assed stab at cleaning up their mess when they're finally finished. They're too chickenshit to see the killing through and are even reluctant to swing by the cabin later to see what's going on. It's true, though: the girl we meet at the beginning of the movie had been murdered that day. The naked, battered, bloodied remains they left behind...? That did survive, however, and this woman has had weeks to heal...to steel herself into a weapon of pure vengeance. The indescribably agony they inflicted on her will be returned a hundredfold, and when she's done...well, like the title says, she'll spit on their graves.
Once upon a time, Roger Ebert railed into I Spit on Your Grave as "sick, reprehensible and contemptible"...that it's "a film without a shred of artistic distinction", that it "lacks even simple craftsmanship". He wasn't a lone voice in the wind when the movie first found wide distribution in 1980, some three or four years after it was filmed. Skulking around a few different horror and cult cinema websites, I can barely find any meaningful discussion about the original I Spit on Your Grave, and the few, sparsely populated threads that do come up are mostly rants about how unwatchable it is. I will freely admit that the movie has more than its share of flaws, but still, I Spit on Your Grave is one of my favorite exploitation films of the 1970s. Especially considering the decade we're talking about, that's saying a lot.
Some of the things that people gripe the most about I Spit on Your Grave strike me as strengths. For one, this isn't a tightly edited film, and at the point where most directors would
cut, Meir Zarchi lets the shot run for another few seconds. This holds true for just about every shot in the film too. Saying "a few seconds" per shot may not sound like much, but in context and especially by volume, it can seem endless. Well, endless to some people, at least. I'm normally the type to want his exploitation films to be sleek, efficient, and screaming ahead at a breakneck pace. The more relaxed editing throughout I Spit on Your Grave works for me, though. It accentuates the tranquility of the first act of the film, and the violence that follows is heightened because of it. The dynamics in that sense are like a Pixies song: quiet, loud, quiet, loud. During what remains one of the most agonizingly lengthy rape scenes in the history of film, Zarchi's extended shots and disinterest in quick-cutting adds a sense of almost cinéma vérité. I Spit on Your Grave also shrugs off any sort of music, with the sounds of the forest and blood-curdling screams standing in for a traditional score. Because the film's approach isn't overtly cinematic, and because Camille Keaton's performance is so raw and intense, I find myself escaping into I Spit on Your Grave (not that that's at all a place where I'd want to be). It seems so much more real, and the impact of its most visceral sequences is that much greater as a result.
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Ebert condemned I Spit on Your Grave for glorifying the gang rape and compelling audiences to more greatly relate to Jennifer's attackers. I can't fathom that mindset at all. There's an entire audio commentary on this disc that's essentially nothing but highlighting what an intensely feminist film this is, and I'll try not to just parrot what's covered there. Just to cover a few points, though, there's nothing even a little bit erotic about the sexual assaults in this movie. The attacks are ugly and violent...about power and domination, not sex...and Meir Zarchi ensures that they're photographed accordingly. The rapists are portrayed as subhuman: wild, mindless animals driven by their most primal instincts. This is in stark contrast to Jennifer who, despite her petite, unimposing frame and the innocence she radiates, is far stronger than the beasts around her could ever hope to be. At the outset, she's independent, successful, and not in any way tethered to a man. Jennifer does her damndest to fight back, even at the very first glimmer that things are taking a dark turn. Rather than cower and weep after enduring such unspeakable horrors, Jennifer rebuilds herself. Despite the jaw-dropping length of the attacks on her, this movie isn't about Jennifer being raped: it's about how she deals with it. The film's title was originally Day of the Woman for a reason. Even though I can't imagine this logic applying all that effectively in the real world, I love the fact that Jennifer seduces some of her attackers before exacting her revenge. They used a sexual act as a means to destroy her; she in turn uses her sexuality as a gateway to slaughtering them. That these rednecks are so dim and clearly thinking purely with their
cocks absolutely furthers the feminist heroine angle that Zarchi has established.
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The acting -- and I'm sure a lot of people would say this is putting it mildly -- can be hit or miss. Camille Keaton seems particularly shaky with her line delivery early on, when Jennifer is still bubbly and innocent. She becomes another creature entirely once she's attacked, and her performance from that point on is extraordinary. Her hollowed, tortured eyes...that hellish scream...her stunned shamble: it's not the quantity or ferocity of the rapes that make I Spit on Your Grave such an unnerving experience: it's the way Keaton sells that agony. Keaton remains wholly convincing when the attack is over and Jennifer steels herself into a force of pure destruction. The way she icily seduces the men who'd so savagely attacked her is brilliant too. It's a fearless performance by Keaton, and I really doubt I Spit on Your Grave would've made anywhere near as much of an impression as it did if anyone else had been cast as the lead. The performances by the three primary rapists aren't as memorable but are at the very least above average for such a low-budget genre title. I particularly like the way that there's nothing overtly evil about any of them at first glance. Meir Zarchi makes it a point to show how increasingly feral the men become with each attack, and as strong a concept as that is, their primal, animalistic gyrations during the rapes can be distractingly cartoonish. That certainly hasn't aged well. Matthew, meanwhile, is duking it out with Franklin from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the most excruciatingly awful character in the annals of cult cinema. Think...I dunno, Woody Allen, but add a stammer and lose a chromosome or two. Richard Pace is the worst thing of almost every scene he's in. At the same time, he and the rest of the cast have been saddled with a lot of creaky dialogue by a writer who clearly isn't speaking English as his first language, so I can't blame them for some of it coming across as stilted. I also think the order in which Jennifer goes about slaughtering her attackers should've been reshuffled, although I guess you could argue that shying away from the usual escalation makes what eventually happens that much more of a surprise.
Just to make it clear, I take no pleasure in watching I Spit on Your Grave. It's a grueling and thoroughly unpleasant experience, and the brutality of its twenty minute-plus gang rape has rarely been rivaled in the decades since its cameras first rolled. This is entirely the point. Its story is of a young woman who tried to leave civilization behind and discovered the most evil, most primal force of destruction laying in wait there. This isn't a movie about debasement and degradation, though; it's about strength...about reclaiming power from those who'd savagely stripped it away. Jennifer Hills by all rights ought to be a feminist horror icon. I know I'm very much in the minority here, but I look at I Spit on Your Grave -- despite its many flaws -- as one of the greatest exploitation films to emerge from the 1970s. I guess someone at Anchor Bay agrees. I can't imagine I Spit on Your Grave ever looking more beautiful than it does with this high definition remaster, and, not content with simply carrying over the extras from Elite's Millenium Edition DVD, a new half hour interview with writer/director Meir Zarchi has been included as well. A recommendation for a movie this extreme -- this polarizing -- is difficult. I think it's an important film that deserves to be seen, but at the same time, I Spit on Your Grave repulses even a lot of the most ardent cult cinema enthusiasts I know. I can absolutely understand being reluctant to shell out money to buy a movie that's difficult to make it through once, let alone enough to justify owning. Then again, it's all of $9.99 at Best Buy as I write this, so there's certainly that. I'd expect that most readers who've made it this far in the review will want to pass altogether or maybe just opt for a rental, while I'm more tempted to give it a much higher recommendation. I'll split the difference down the middle and say Recommended.
I put on I Spit on Your Grave expecting to trudge through something washed-out and worn...the crudely photographed, gritty, grimy exploitation flick that had been seared into my brain. Instead, I wound up being deeply impressed by just how beautiful this presentation is. Its palette is robust, particularly the lush, green foliage, Jennifer's colorful bikini, and the deep reds of the cabin where the third attack takes place. There is no damage or speckling of note. I Spit on Your Grave is a fiercely independent, thirty-something year old film shot on a shoestring with whatever equipment Meir Zarchi could get his hands on, and yet clarity and detail still manage to impress at times. The seams do show a bit, but the image remains reasonably crisp, well-defined, and consistently filmlike throughout, looking particularly striking whenever the camera closes in tightly. It's not the revelation that The Evil Dead is on Blu-ray, no, but if a point of reference would help, I'd say that I Spit on Your Grave looks better than the first three Friday the 13ths out on BD right now. The only scene in which the image really degrades is the underlit night fishing, with one angle of Johnny in particular that's flat and dragged down by weak blacks. I'm sure that dates back to the original photography, though, and I can't believe that anything more could've been done to clean that up. The texture of the film is a bit grainy but surprisingly unintrusive. I certainly don't get the sense that digital noise reduction was overused. The compression never buckles under the weight of that grain, and the image is free of any edge haloes as well. I Spit on Your Grave easily ranks among the best looking genre films of its vintage on Blu-ray, and the end result is so much better than I ever could've hoped to see.
I Spit on Your Grave is presented on a BD-50 disc, with just about every last byte on its first layer devoted to the movie itself. The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
Purists might be disappointed to hear that there isn't a monaural soundtrack on this Blu-ray disc. It's six-channel, 24-bit Dolby TrueHD audio or die. On the other hand, the remix really doesn't take all that many liberties. There's not much in the way of gimmicky pans or forced split-surround effects. The rears are mostly used for light atmospherics: chirping birds, a church organ, cars in the background...that sort of thing. The most aggressive this remix gets is during the few scenes with the motorboat violently circling around, and that takes full advantage of every speaker. There are some nice stereo effects up front, such as when Jennifer walks disinterestedly to the living room as one of the rapists pounds at a bathroom door, bleeding like a stuck pig. Well, like a castrated pig. Maybe there's a difference. I don't know. Unexpectedly -- though it's probably for the best -- the surrounds aren't really used to heighten the intensity of any of the chases through the woods.
The fidelity of the recording is passable...as good as can be expected, especially since the shift in quality from on-set audio to canned ADR can be so distracting. There really isn't any low-end at all, but there's no reason for there to be any either. Easily the most memorable aspect of this soundtrack is, aside from some diagetic opera, the lack of any music. Grunts and primal screams stand in for a traditional score. Demo material it's not, but I really can't picture I Spit on Your Grave ever sounding better than this. Mono would've been appreciated as an alternate track -- the disc definitely has the space -- but if I am gonna get a remix, I'm glad it's one as respectful as the one offered here.
Commentaries aside, the only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Alternate Main Title (16 seconds; HD): The disc's one and only high-def extra is the original version of the main title...same shot that's in the movie proper, only reading "Day of the Woman" instead.
- The Values of Vengeance: Meir Zarchi Remembers I Spit on Your Grave (29 min.; SD): This half-hour interview is newly produced, and that kind of caught me off-guard. It looks dated enough that I figured it was off the 2002 Millenium Edition or something, but nope. In fact, it's so recent that Zarchi comments about having seen the 2010 remake and notes how pleased he is with it.
This interview serves as kind of a condensed version of his audio commentary elsewhere on the disc, breezing through finding inspiration in his encounter with a girl who had just been raped moments earlier, eventually tying the knot with Camille Keaton, his approach to editing and direction, the lack of a conventional score, and all the distribution headaches that plagued the film for years on end. Zarchi delves into
why no sequel was ever produced, even though he always wanted to make one, and he eagerly explains why the infamy and cult appeal of I Spit on Your Grave has endured for so many years.
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"The Values of Vengeance" is a solid interview, although if you're planning on taking Zarchi's audio commentary for a spin, you can probably give this a pass. Aside from a lengthy rant about video distribution in the UK, most of the topics touched on here are explored in much greater depth in the commentary.
- Audio Commentaries: Both of the commentary tracks from Elite's Millenium Edition have been carried over to this Blu-ray disc. I'll save the best for last and start with the track by writer/director Meir Zarchi. It does get tedious hearing Zarchi boast about how incandescently brilliant and woefully underappreciated I Spit on Your Grave is. Making this an even tougher listen is Zarchi's extremely thick accent and the fact that he's clearly reading pre-prepared notes for an hour and a half straight. If you're willing to wade through all that, though, it's actually a pretty rewarding listen. Zarchi covers pretty much everything, from writing the script during subway commutes to lining up equipment to assembling his cast. He gives a very strong sense of what it was like to be a part of such a small, grueling shoot...miserably high temperatures, a leading lady running barefoot through the forest for weeks at a time, and no stunt crew whatsoever. Yikes. Post-production, the hassles of lining up proper theatrical distribution, and the film's enormous success on video are also covered. Easily the most memorable stretch of this commentary is Zarchi telling the story of a girl he and his daughter stumbled upon in the immediate aftermath of a rape. That alone leaves this track deserving of a listen.
...but save it till after the audio commentary with Joe Bob Briggs. I've listened to around 500 commentaries over the past decade -- depressingly, I keep track! -- and out of all of 'em, this really does rank as one of my all-time favorites. I mean, anyone who's slogged through enough of my reviews knows how biased I am here, but that's beside the point. Joe Bob doesn't tackle I Spit on Your Grave as just another drive-in review; he does it as an honest-to-God film historian. He states the thesis right up front -- is this the most repulsive movie ever made or the most feminist? -- and that's primarily how the film's approached. Joe Bob touches on some of the criticisms mostly frequently lobbed at I Spit on Your Grave and shoots them down, one by one. He makes it clear how strong a character Jennifer is...how her sexuality is worlds removed from just about every other exploitation film of the era. He frequently points out just how much of a cowboys-and-Indians story this is, and Joe Bob also runs through where I Spit on Your Grave falls in the pantheon of rape/revenge movies. Yes, you get to hear Joe Bob chat about Ingmar Bergman as part of that whole thing too. He's not afraid to pick at some of the movie's clumsier moments either. Joe Bob being Joe Bob and all, there's a lot of personality here, not just endless analysis. This isn't played for laughs, though: it's one of the smartest, most insightful commentaries I've ever heard. If you grab I Spit on Your Grave without giving this commentary a whirl, you're wrong. Wrong!
Speaking of wrong!, both of these audio commentaries are hidden under the Setup menu rather than listed with the rest of the extras.
- Promotional Material (15 min.; SD): The trailers, TV spots, and radio promos on this Blu-ray disc span both incarnations of the film: the initial, eviscerated Day of the Woman release and the unrated and far more infamous I Spit on Your Grave. There are two theatrical trailers under each title, among them one subtitled in Spanish. Also included are three radio spots and three TV commercials.
- Poster and Still Gallery: Twenty low-res production stills and posters from all over the globe close out the disc's extras.
The Final Word
Look, you will probably be wholly and completely repulsed by I Spit on Your Grave. This is one of the most polarizing exploitation films I've ever stumbled across, and nosing around a few cult cinema message boards, it seems as if even the target demographic for a movie like this generally finds it an artless and excruciating experience. I disagree; in fact, the reasons most people cringe when they think of I Spit on Your Grave are the exact reasons why I have such a high appreciation for it. The violence remains shocking and disturbing even more than three full decades later. The three consecutive rape sequences run north of twenty minutes all told, and they're unflinching, grueling, and deliberately difficult to watch. The screenplay and direction are far more intelligent than most people give them credit for, and the acting -- well, a lot of it, anyway -- holds up well too.
I'd hope it'd go without saying that I don't enjoy I Spit on Your Grave, but even with some of its glaring imperfections, it's a movie I respect quite a bit. I'd hope that those who'd frowned on the film in years past would consider re-evaluating it again on Blu-ray. At the very least, there's no question that high-def remaster outclasses the handful of prints that were making the rounds in grindhouses a few decades back. All of the extras from the Millenium Edition DVD have been carried over here, and a newly produced half-hour interview has been tossed on as well. I can certainly understand why a lot of readers would be hesitant about whipping out their credit cards for this one -- I'd bet even a lot of the film's admirers wouldn't be chomping at the bit to watch it over and over again -- but I consider I Spit on Your Grave to be a remarkably powerful story about gender, violence, and power, and I couldn't be more thrilled with Anchor Bay's treatment of it on Blu-ray. Recommended.