Monday, 20 September 2010

I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) DVD Review

It's been 32 years since the film American critic Roger Ebert called "a vile bag of garbage" reared its ugly head in cinemas, causing an unmatched controversy and panic. That quote is the same one used to introduce a 24-page booklet accompanying this re-release of the infamous rape/revenge horror, and as stated by writer Calum Waddell, it's probably the best place to start. Ebert was no stranger to 'extreme' or 'exploitative' cinema - he'd penned Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970) and given the thumbs up to The Last House On The Left (Wes Craven, 1972) by then. Even in this reshaped form (strangely the BBFC have still demanded 2m 54s worth of cuts) the film is still incredibly challenging and disturbing. In my review of Craven's shocker I said that "if a movie like 'Jeremy' (Arthur Barron, 1973) is coming-of-age, then 'The Last House On The Left' is destroying-of-age". Well, if that's true then I don't even have words for what I Spit On Your Grave is. But deep in the woods of this world violence begets violence - and there's lots of blood to be shed. Ebert was right - it's just his context that was wrong.

I Spit On Your Grave is "a vile bag of garbage" and that's precisely why it's so powerful. I also think that Ebert misses the emotion and artistry of the film. For the first 20 minutes it follows aspiring New York writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, Buster's granddaughter) as she settles into her new Summer home. The film takes solace in silence (the same place where it will later exact revenge) and allows us, along with Jennifer, to soak into the surroundings. Shots of her swinging on a hammock and rowing in a tranquil river lull us into a false sense of security. Barely a word is spoken in this time (except for Jennifer's first meeting with her attackers) and no score is used. Only the natural sounds - crickets, water splashing, wind blowing, typewriters tapping - make an impression... until that speedboat comes along. The way Zarchi uses sound in the film is one of the highlights and as the young men drag Jennifer's boat to a secluded spot, the introduction of that droning engine is enough to alert the audience that a drastic change in tone is about to occur. The men chase Jennifer through the woods and then strip her for their virgin friend Matthew (Richard Pace, who like the rest of the principle male cast never acted again) to have sex with. One by one the men rape her, but worst of all is the way the torture unfolds. She is raped by three of the men but manages to escape between each time. The second escalates the violence as she is thrown over a large rock and taken from behind as the other men hold her down. After this she crawls back to her house, eventually getting hold of a phone - only to have it kicked out of her hands by the men who have got there before her. Here Matthew gets his way and the men leave Jennifer abused and alone... the screaming has been deafening.

From here we once again inhabit the silence of the world as Jennifer comes to terms with the crime forced upon her. Shots of her showering as the blood and mud falls from her skin are incredibly affecting, and knowing that Zarchi got the idea for the film after finding a woman who had been brutally beaten and gang raped, only adds more depth to the proceedings. The sickening acts in the film are never dwelled upon, allowed to become sexualised or endorsed. Our attention is always on the damaged face of our protagonist and it's clear that the film has an emotional arc; and its director feels it as much as we do. After quiet rehabilitation Jennifer takes it upon herself to exact revenge. She grabs a gun from the drawer, heads for church, and begs for forgiveness. Violence is coming.

Sadly this is where the film loses some of its power. A woman in Jennifer's position would have likely been so disturbed and defiled that any revenge she wished to undertake would have been simple - shoot the men dead, regardless the consequence. Instead she sets up a series of unbelievable traps for the oddly unsuspecting men to fall prey to. Her encounter with the simple Matthew for example is more like something out of an X-rated Looney Tunes cartoon - she lures the man into the woods wearing a skimpy nightgown, only to reveal herself to him and promise "a summer you won't forget". They have sex on the floor of the forest, near the waters edge, where Jennifer has prepared a noose. She pulls it tight over the rapists head and proceeds to hang him. It seems awfully contrived (although as beautifully shot by DoP Yuri Haviv as the rest of the film) and by the time Jennifer is taking a bath with her second assailant, it all seems a bit silly. What makes the film work however, is the way it stays grounded and bloody. There's still no score, flashy editing or exploitative sleaze. There are only three or four more characters seen in the film and they have barely any speaking time - so it feels as if Jennifer is alone with her nightmare. She deals her revenge in silence so that when she slices the genitals of one of her attackers, his screams echo through the dense, nihilistic landscape. To paraphrase the tagline of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi Alien, nobody can hear them scream.

Her revenge culminates in the perfectly threatening speedboat dispatches - bringing the film full circle in a fascinating way. The performances aren't OSCAR worthy but they're all dedicated and believable enough to feel sadness and horror in equal measure. It's a hard film to love but a worthy one to admire and most of all we must commend I Spit On Your Grave for having the strength of its convictions. The Last House On The Left had a sickly pop score and comedic interludes with chickens to soften the blow of its violence. Zarchi's film has a wide, open landscape populated by loners and rapists, who feel no guilt or consequence for their horrendous crimes... and it's fucking terrifying.

DVD Extras: 24-page booklet chronicling the history of the film, interview with Zarchi, trailers, TV spots and much more...

2 comments:

  1. Excellent review!!

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  2. That's a great review of an unfairly denigrated film.

    ReplyDelete