‘You’ve got great hands…God bless your hands.’
I love nature. Taking the dog a walk in the countryside, a good hike through a forest, going camping – what I’m saying is, if I was in a horror movie, I’d have died a thousand times.
It really started with Deliverance, that classic yuppies in peril story, which warns of the dangers of them thar city folk meddlin’ in the affairs of country folk. I Spit On Your Grave (has there ever been a more evocative exploitation film title?) follows in that film’s muddy footprints, spinning a nasty little yarn about writer Jennifer Hills’ vacation away from the Big Apple. On her second day, she is raped by four local yokels and left for dead. Jennifer seeks vengeance, and like the tagline says, ‘No jury in America would ever convict her.’
I Spit On Your Grave’s reputation precedes it. One of the most well known and reviled titles on the list, and it’s a hard film to watch. The protracted assault sequence goes on for an almost unbearable 30 minutes, which should be enough for most people to condemn the film there and then. For once though, there’s more going on. I’m not going to try and argue that this is a feminist film as some critics have, though I will argue that its intentions are in the right place.
In some of the Nasties, rape is presented in a glossy, titillating way designed to arouse the viewer. Not so here. Director Meir Zarchi claims, in an awkward and stilted DVD commentary, that the film is based on his real experience of helping someone who had been assaulted and being disgusted by the way the police handled it. He certainly does not encourage identification with the rapists, who are shown to be a bunch of losers with childish fantasies of ‘going to New York and fucking every broad.’ The rape itself is presented as a filthy, degrading spectacle, often shot from Jennifer’s POV looking at the ugly, sweaty faces of her tormentors. Outside of the real life death in Faces of Death, this is probably the most disturbing sequence in any of the Nasties. The BBFC, upon classifying the film in 2001, cut 7 minutes of ‘eroticised violence’. Even today the film is still cut by almost 3 minutes. It’s hard to fathom what part of the rape can possibly be seen as erotic; Jennifer is filthy and muddy and screaming, while the men show off their hairy arses and flaccid penises. It’s the opposite of erotic, so I guess the BBFC examiners are perhaps hiding some dark, secret fetishes.
It’s made all the more uncomfortable by Zarchi’s bold choice to not feature any non-diagetic music. He uses the sound design to simple but great effect, puncturing the devastating silences with the roar of an outboard motor, always heralding an act of extreme violence.
The lack of a typical movie score increases the realism further than most people are willing to accept. Compare it to it’s closest counterpart, Last House On The Left, which had a great but pretty on-the-nose score that left the viewer in no doubt of how to feel. But sometimes quiet can be emotionally louder than any music. A shot of Jennifer’s canoe floating down river is haunting in it’s eerie calmness. The silence also contributes towards one of the most effective jump scares I’ve ever seen, where Jennifer has a phone suddenly kicked out of her hand once we finally think she may be safe.
When it comes time for revenge, Zarchi delivers. Unlike Fight For Your Life, which bungled it’s baddies’ comeuppance big time, I Spit On Your Grave takes its time meting out a delicious revenge on the four rapists. Once seen, the bathtub castration is never forgotten.
It’s a crowdpleaser of an ending, but the most significant portion of the film may be act 2. For once, we actually follow the victim through her recovery. She showers, she cries, she goes to church, she plots revenge. It’s integral to the movie, and the part of the film that the amazingly ill-judged remake glossed over.
Look, it’s a tough film to watch and an impossible one to enjoy in a conventional sense. But it is a well made film with occasional moments of artful beauty amongst the ugliness. If you’re willing to take the plunge, then there is definitely more going on beneath the surface than it’s reputation would suggest. Just avoid the remake and it’s sequels.