No Smith’s Verdict rating
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
If it weren’t for the works of the late beloved film critic Roger Ebert, I wouldn’t be writing in this blog today. It rarely happens when a person’s impression on a film leaves its own impression on me; but Ebert’s no-nonsense trademark style of writing inspired me as a youngster to write my own film reviews and try to leave my own impression on readers. (Have I succeeded since then? Well…local Arkansas film-folks appreciated my Little Rock Film Festival reviews, if that counts.) Even when I disagreed with him about certain films (particularly “Jack,” “The Hitcher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others), I could still understand why he felt the things he felt in stating his opinions.
With that said…Ebert, if you’re watching me from heaven, I hope you can understand why I’m writing about the movie you called the absolute worst in your whole lifetime of watching/reviewing movies: “I Spit On Your Grave.”
Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit On Your Grave” (originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman”) is a horrifying rape-revenge story as simple as this: a woman is brutally raped by four men (which is an understatement of the whole horror genre but I’ll get to that later), but she survives and exacts revenge on them by being far more brutal. That’s about it…
“I Spit On Your Grave” is not a film I hold in high regard. It’s not a film that makes me feel easy. It’s not even a film I would watch again anytime soon. But it’s not the worst movie ever made—it’s competently made, it took many chances and risks, and it’s one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, in the way that it was intended to be. It may be the film Roger Ebert hated the most, but it’s not the absolute worst.
That doesn’t mean I recommend it, especially to those with a weak stomach. But slamming it because it’s “disturbing,” which is what it was always meant to be, is not something I want to do.
Around the time this film got a wide release in 1980, there was a long wave of slasher & exploitation films that involved “women in danger,” which made Ebert and fellow film-critic Gene Siskel so mad they dedicated an entire episode of their TV show, “Sneak Previews,” to the “epidemic.” They both felt that these films (such as “Friday the 13th,” “Silent Scream,” and especially “I Spit On Your Grave”) were misogynistic messages against independent, free-spirited women; they do their own thing and are punished severely for it…by death. (When “Halloween,” which they say started that “trend,” did that sort of thing, it was a cautionary message for people who needed to make their priorities higher than sexual.) Here, in “I Spit On Your Grave,” we have a woman going through the most horrifying rape scene in film history. Did I say “scene?” My mistake. It’s an entire half-hour long sequence that begins with the woman (Camille Keaton) sunbathing in a canoe on the river and is suddenly interrupted by two rowdy men who come along in a motorboat, tie her and drag her to land, corner her to two other men, one of whom rapes her. Does it stop there? Nope. She runs into the woods, the guys catch up, and she’s beaten and raped again. Does it stop there? Nope! She staggers back to her cabin nearby, attempts to call for help via telephone, but the guys are already there waiting and they beat her and rape her again. It’s one of the most unpleasant, horrifying sequences ever put on film, regardless of the time it was made and released.
(Fun fact: According to IMDb, one crew member quit during filming of the second rape scene, and the film’s makeup artist quit the film halfway through, because she had been gang-raped before and this felt all too real for her.)
The rape scenes go on too long, but I think the reason for that was to make the viewer more uncomfortable and to show the gravity of the horrific situation. I’m not sure it was meant to be tedious, but the point still comes across in showing us why this woman would go through such extreme measures to get back at these brutes. Speaking of which…
Two weeks after the attack (and after the woman was left for dead) is when the woman decides to exact deadly revenge against the four men (one of whom is an otherwise mild-mannered mentally-retarded man constantly egged on by the three brutes). She hangs one, mutilates another, plunges an axe into another’s back, and mangles the last one with a boat motor. It’s all pretty graphic and disturbing, and if it wasn’t for the extremities of the extended rape scenes, it would seem all too gratuitous rather than comprehensible.
There’s an important scene in which the ringleader of the four men, Johnny (Eron Tabor), is held at gunpoint by the woman. He tries to defend his and his friends’ actions by saying things like “you were asking for it!” and “any man would’ve done the same thing!” And when the woman is threatening him to take off his clothes, Johnny retorts, “I don’t like women giving me orders!” And what happens to this guy? She fools him into taking a bath with her, and…well, never mind what she does to him. The point is, while Siskel and Ebert may have used this film to further campaign against the “women in danger” films of the era, the real target of “I Spit On Your Grave” is the chauvinist, violent nature. And nowhere is that clearer than when Johnny, who has a family, is fine with being disloyal and brutal toward women without thinking of the consequences. He sounds pathetic in justifying his actions to this woman who was just minding her own business before, especially when he thinks he’s speaking for the entire male gender. And the consequences he experiences are extreme to say the absolute least.
When the woman has her revenge, she shows no mercy. She even kills Matthew (Richard Pace), the mentally-slow one of the bunch. Harsh, yes. But it’s to show consequences in following peer pressure.
“I Spit On Your Grave” knows what it wants to do, and it’s not meant to appeal to everyone. The whole film feels raw, like we’re not watching a movie and it’s actually happening (well…with the exception of some bad, noticeable ADR in some spots). The camerawork is simple and the editing isn’t too flashy. Also, there’s no music soundtrack; it’s all diegetic sound, which works to the film’s advantage. It actually helps make the disturbing scenes all the more disturbing because it feels real. There’s a tense moment when the woman thinks she got away from the rapists, only to hear the sound of a harmonica playing; the closer she goes, the louder it gets, to be revealed that it’s one of the rapists sitting on a rock and playing the instrument.
Now, let’s look at Ebert’s review: He called the film “a vile bag of garbage” and stated that “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Well, it didn’t make me feel happy, that’s for sure—but then again, when a violent film as raw as this shows the fringes of such violence, that can make anyone feel uneasy. He slams the “moronic simplicity” of the story and the technical mistakes, such as the “poorly recorded” sound. Understandable. And…wait a minute here—he says the violence is “interrupted only by an unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate scene in which [the woman] enters a church and asks forgiveness for the murders she plans to commit.” […] Roger, I’m trying to understand what you were trying to say there, because that scene seemed to me like she was going against her conscience by stooping to the level of the rapists (or below that level) and is hesitant about going through with it at first, hence why she begs forgiveness. Would you have preferred if she just went ahead and murdered them?
But then he goes from criticizing the film to criticizing the audience he saw it with, who were apparently rude, offensive, and vocal in their enjoyment of the film. He repeats some of their comments like “That was a good one!,” “That’ll show her!,” and “Cut him up, sister!” I don’t think he made any of this up, as there are some audience members who get a kick out of movie violence, but just after writing about this, he mentions how he left the theater “feeling unclean, ashamed, and depressed.” What he doesn’t express is whether or not that was the cause of the movie itself or the audience with which he saw it. But maybe it was both.
He concluded his review by calling the film “a geek show” and “an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures.” I know he’s trying to say that as a mark against the film, but he ultimately described the film itself. (There’s even an exact quote excerpt of the latter statement seen on the back of the DVD box.) There have been many films that explored more deeply “the most diseased and perverted darker human natures,” the best of which came long since this film. It causes viewers to squirm, others to protest, and the rest to try and interpret why it is the way it is.
“I Spit On Your Grave” is disturbing, and it’s meant to be. To make a film with a message against over-the-top violence is to actually show over-the-top violence in great detail. Did it entertain me? No, but I don’t think it was supposed to. Did it make me think? Yes, hence the length of this entire review. Will I see it again? Well…no, probably not. Do I recommend it? Eh…only if you really want to check it out.
I’m not giving the film a Smith’s Verdict rating, but I’m not praising it or slamming it either. It is what it is, and I just reviewed it as such.
Note: If you’re wondering what film I hate the most, it’s Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered.” I won’t even waste time in reviewing that thing.