Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols
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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ubmitting yourself to either version of “I Spit on Your Grave” requires that you have a cast iron stomach. The original is one of the most notorious horror films in movie history (or at least it was back in the 80s), although I sometimes wonder if that has more to do with the infamous movie poster than the film itself. Further, I also wonder if either film is really deserving of the label “horror.” Just because a movie contains horrific imagery doesn’t necessarily make it a horror film. What these movies really are is exploitative exercises in cruelty and humiliation. They’re for folks who thought that “The Last House on the Left” or its remake of the same name played it too safe.
The core plot is the same in both versions. A young female novelist from the big city named Jennifer Hills rents a cottage in the backwoods for the summer. There she encounters a group of redneck men intent on getting their mentally slow friend Matthew laid for the first time. Their mission spirals disastrously out of control, and at the hands of them, Jennifer is repeatedly beaten, kicked, shamed and raped, although not necessarily in that order. The second half of the film follows Jennifer Hills on her mission of payback, in which she methodically and cruelly offs each one of the men, and in the process loses something inside of herself (although maybe that’s just my take on the material). The differences between the two films are in the details.
The original focuses more heavily on the rapes, as Jennifer is passed around from one guy to the next. She escapes, they find her, and another assault occurs. Lather, rinse, repeat. One particular incident, which takes place on a rock, is one of the ugliest, saddest things I’ve ever seen portrayed in a feature film. In the remake, the rapes aren’t quite as front and center, but the emphasis on humiliation is almost unbearable. Either way, the material’s played, it’s thoroughly atrocious fare, and quite frankly I feel unqualified in trying to find a way to explain away such differences. If I were reviewing “Deliverance” and its inevitable remake (come on – you know it’s bound to happen sooner or later), it might be another matter entirely.
The remake adds a couple characters that didn’t exist in the original – a sleazy sheriff named Storch (Andrew Howard) and his clueless sidekick Earl (Tracey Walter). Storch is quickly revealed to be even more loathsome than the rest, as he becomes the ringleader of Jennifer’s torture. The original shows that the ringleader, Johnny (Eron Tabor), had a wife and kids, although the movie didn’t do anything worthwhile with it. In the remake, it’s Storch who has a family, and late in the game his wife and daughter become pawns in Jennifer’s revenge. I don’t know that this development makes the new version a better film, but it does make it a more interesting one. In fact, pretty much across the board the characters are more interesting in the remake, but that’s really only because they actually are characters to some degree, as opposed to the caricatures presented in the ’78 version. Now, don’t read that as me saying they’re good characters – just that they seem to have a little more dramatic shading.
Case in point is Matthew, the mentally challenged manboy. You pretty much can’t draw a character more ineptly than Meir Zarchi did with Matthew in the original. I don’t know if Zarchi or actor Richard Pace meant to play him for comedy, but that’s how he comes across, and it’s an element of the film that just doesn’t set well with me. The remake seeks to rectify this, and there’s no question that Chad Lindberg’s take on Matthew is miles above the 70s incarnation. That said, in either case, Matthew is a big part of why these movies fail. In both versions he’s goaded into participating by men who are smarter and more powerful than he is, and in neither take do you ever get the feeling that he would or even could have resorted to such brutality on his own. And yet when it comes time for payback, Jennifer Hills doesn’t spare him, even though in many ways he’s as much of a victim as she is. I’ll cut the original some slack, because the it’s a bad, stupid movie, but remake director Steven R. Monroe seems like a smarter filmmaker and he should’ve known better and done something different with Matthew. In many ways, he actually treats Matthew worse, but I’ll let you count those for yourself, assuming you’ve got the stomach to sit through it.
Where the original really comes crashing down into a heap of garbage, though, is in the revenge angle. Camille Keaton’s Jennifer uses her sexuality to deliver payback, going so far as to have sex with Matthew before taking him out, and seducing Johnny in a bathtub right before slicing off his most valuable asset. Now, at the time the movie came out, I think the idea was to demonstrate some kind of feminist empowerment, and you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing all there is to know about such messages back in the 70s, but her actions strike me as incredibly hollow and just plain out of touch with any such agenda. The remake has Jennifer (Sarah Butler) engage in such behavior briefly, and only long enough to trick one of her tormentors. For the most part, she’s just an imaginative killing machine, which makes this the perfect time to segue into that very aspect of the films.
30 years agon the killings that Zarchi devised were probably pretty shocking and clever, and there’s not a single frame of the remake that’s more terrifying than the scene where Camille Keaton lops off Eron Tabor’s dick. I challenge any man to watch that scene without squirming around in a serious amount of discomfort, assuming he can even keep his eyes on the screen. In fact, the scene would likely be half as effective without the seduction, so maybe the previous paragraph should be taken with a grain or three of salt. The rest of her carnage is, however, pretty tame by today’s standards, especially when you think of the sheer amount of bloody brutality cinema has showcased in the intervening years. The remake has a field day with Jennifer’s revenge, with each murder being more creatively over the top than the last. I found myself rooting for Jennifer Hills in the new version, maybe because I was having a certain kind of sordid fun through her. Jesus, after three hours of this shit, I had to find the fun somewhere.
There are plenty of other little differences between the two movies, and film buffs, screenwriters and filmmakers may glean something worthwhile playing compare and contrast. Ultimately, though, neither version of “I Spit on Your Grave” can be called a good movie. There’s no real point to either film, the stories are pretty weak, and the acting is only about as good as the characters are written. Then again, I’m a guy. Maybe men have no business reviewing these movies which detail the most horrible thing a woman can possibly go through, but since men made them, the least I could do is step up to the plate and try to find something to say. Wouldn’t it have been a brave, bold move to hire a woman to helm the remake? That’s a movie that, for better or worse, might have been worth sitting through. And maybe such a woman would even have had the good sense to go back and use the original title of Zarchi’s film, which was “Day of the Woman.”
Single-Disc DVD Reviews:
The 1978 version features an audio commentary with Zarchi, as well as a second bonus commentary from none other than Joe Bob Briggs, who aims to get to the bottom of whether or not the movie is as bad as Siskel and Ebert claimed it was, or if it actually was a successful piece of feminist propaganda. “The Values of Vengeance: Meir Zarchi Remembers ‘I Spit on Your Grave’” is pretty self-explanatory. There are also radio and TV spots and trailers, an alternate version of the main titles, and a poster and still gallery. The 2010 version sports a commentary track with director Steven R. Monroe and producer Lisa Hansen. (What do you know? A woman was involved!) There’s also a featurette entitled “The Revenge of Jennifer Hills: Remaking a Cult Icon,” some trailers, a radio spot, and some deleted scenes.