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When the "All Rape, All The Time" cable channel (ARATT) is launched, it's a sure bet that a keystone attraction will be showings of Meir Zarchi's 1978 horror saga I Spit on Your Grave. The 1970s were boom years for transgressive horror, because it was perhaps the last genre left in which a rudimentary production by untested talent starring unknown actors could receive national theatrical distribution. Besides the European imports that flourished (often in cut and dubbed versions), a few homegrown hits -- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left -- became so popular that the best movie investment gamble an outsider could make was a wild-card gory horror picture. In the second half of the decade the field diversified, with more mainstream product dominating: The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, Halloween. But a few newcomers took their chances and pushed the line on violence and sex.
Filmed as Day of the Woman, Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave is a commercial product in much the same way that a pornographic film is commercial product: it delivers the cruelty and gore promised in its title and advertising: "This woman has just chopped, crippled and mutilated four men beyond recognition É but no jury in America would ever convict her!" Unlike some earlier efforts, Spit was filmed with professional 35mm equipment. Much of the soundtrack dialogue appears to be post-dubbed. After a couple of aborted distribution attempts under its original title, it received a more successful theatrical re-release going out unrated in 1980. The feature is probably most famous for a scathingly negative review by Roger Ebert, who was noted for praising some of the more extreme horror attractions. He found nothing to admire in what he called "a vile bag of garbage."
I Spit on Your Grave is 100 minutes of mostly poor acting and slow scenes that seem to play out in real time. New York would-be author Jennifer Hills (of Massimo Dallamano's Cosa avete fatto a Solange?) rents a riverside house in the country, hoping to relax and write all summer. Provoked by her smiles and revealing clothing, a quartet of young men assault and rape her several times in the course of an afternoon, beating her to a bloody pulp. They dispatch one of their number to stab Jennifer in the heart, but he lies and lets her live. They boys don't discover this until two weeks later, when Jennifer has recovered from her cuts and bruises. After stopping off at a church to seek forgiveness, Jennifer approaches the men separately, announces that wants to have sex again, and lures each to a gory doom.
Filmmaker Meir Zarchi explains his motivation for making I Spit on Your Grave with a story that strains belief: he helped a young woman who had been raped and beaten in Central Park, and who was further humiliated by the policemen that forced her to answer questions (with a broken jaw) before they would take her to a hospital. How that episode relates to the movie is mystery, for I Spit on Your Grave is a voyeuristic, sadistic exercise in sensationalism that wallows in the repeated rape and torture of a woman. Like Last House on the Left, it takes the convenient form of a revenge fantasy. Even there I Spit on Your Grave falls short, as the completely unbelievable Jennifer Hills character seduces her tormentors like an avenging ghost, convincing them that she wants more of the same. There's no rational way to interpret this venal construction as somehow feminist, or as expressing an honest concern for the victims of rape.
I Spit on Your Grave is a cynical rehash of ideas from Last House but also from a minor "feminist revenge" hit from 1975, Lipstick. In that slick, trashy film Margaux Hemingway suffers a terrible rape, but later tracks down her violator with a shotgun, like an avenging Spirit. I Spit on Your Grave is competently filmed in a picturesque riverbank setting, but most of its dialogue scenes wilt for the lack of decent writing and acting. A mentally challenged rapist character is particularly infuriating. To his credit, Meir stages the cruel action in moody long takes, that give the stalking of Jennifer a this-is-happening credibility.
How graphic is the movie? Horror tales can be obsessive and extreme and still be superior cinematic experiences. This show has little going for it on any level -- no context, no interest in its characters, nothing except its sick thrills. It plays as if it were designed to be program filler for the ultra-violent "horrorshow" TV channel in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Ms. Keaton is stripped naked, pursued and repeatedly raped for a full twenty-five minutes, an ordeal that aspires to be as traumatic as the cruel tortures in Last House on the Left. The second half of the film charts the reverse pendulum swing of her fantasy vengeance. Unlike the rape scenes, Jennifer's revenge is exploitative nonsense, a series of masturbatory murder scenarios that stem from yet more sexual situations. We're most likely to wonder how Jennifer could possibly have recovered from the beating she took, in just two or three weeks. The only way I could imagine the film's absurd second half functioning would be to structure it as a complete fantasy, as in Carnival of Souls or Point Blank: just as Jennifer triumphantly dispatches her last victim, the film could return to her corpse on the floor of her rented house two weeks earlier, revealing her entire revenge as an Ambrose Bierce or Luis Borges illusion.
But that might get in the way of the misogynistic thrills.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of I Spit on Your Grave will come as a surprise to horror fans who haven't seen the picture in the last ten years or so: the High-Definition transfer is remarkably sharp and colorful, with little or no signs of wear or tear. Older video incarnations of this notorious show were of especially poor quality. Filmed mostly in bright sunlight or the shade of forest trees, the only transfer flaw is a slight pulsing in some scenes, which may have been a camera defect from the original shoot.
Anchor Bay is releasing this original I Spit on Your Grave in conjunction with its new remake, also in Blu-ray. The nasty little show is given a special edition treatment, with filmmaker Meir Zarchi's participating in a feature commentary and a lengthy interview docu. Zarchi's story of the film's making highlights his purported noble intentions and describes the hiring of actress Camille Keaton, a descendant of the famous comedian. Zarchi's interview doesn't offer much information about Ms. Keaton's performance, which consists mainly of receiving and dishing out sadistic physical abuse. Staggering about naked during filming, covered with mud and fake blood, can't have been a pleasant experience.
Zarchi does go into the film's release history, giving a highly subjective account of his attempt to extract an "R" rating for his film and its subsequent success when released uncut. We even hear how the movie was licensed for UK video release behind his back, and then being banned as one of the notorious "Video Nastys".
The disc extras also include a second commentary by Joe Bob Briggs, galleries of posters and stills, TV and radio spots and trailers, and an alternate main title sequence. The cover features a specially posed and costumed model from original poster art, who does not seem to be actress Camille Keaton.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Spit on Your Grave Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.