Every week in The Bloody Truth, Calhoun Kersten takes a closer look at one of film’s most subtext-heavy genres: horror. Spoilers ahead.
Also, TW: rape and sexual assault.
I Spit On Your Grave first shocked audiences back in 1978, under the title Day of the Woman. Since then, it has seen several DVD releases, a Blu-Ray release, and even a remake, which I don’t have the energy to talk about. Yes, it is that bad. The funny thing is that over 30 years later, it remains one of the most controversial films ever made, even in the realm of horror. The film depicts the brutalization of Jennifer (Camille Keaton), a writer who is raped by several men, who she then systematically takes down one after one. Sure, it’s a dark premise, but what is it that has helped the film gain its notoriety? The presentation of the rape itself takes up a majority of the film, in one of the most difficult-to-watch sequences that I’ve seen in all my years of watching horror films. The intensity is matched as Jennifer takes her revenge in the most graphic ways. It is that commitment to the brutality of the film, regardless of audience expectations, that has kept I Spit on Your Grave alive for so long.
Was I one of the people drawn in by the reputation of the movie? Of course, and I’ll admit to that, but that’s one of the most charming aspects of an otherwise charmless film. Come for the controversy, and stay for the message. If you think about it, it’s actually kind of brilliant. But the question on most people’s minds is “what message could an elongated rape sequence and several brutal murders have that’s worth listening to?” Well, there are two varying schools of thought on this topic. For the most part, the film was written off as senseless and exploitative. The irony of this logic, is that this graphic depiction of rape should be seen as senseless and exploitative. After all, when does rape ever really serve a purpose?
However, what’s often overlooked (except in dense academic texts) is the bizarre empowerment that the film gives to Jennifer. Sure, it forces you to sit through what seems like a 45-minute snuff film, but allow me to explain my logic. The reasoning behind these men attacking her is explored by several of the male characters. Well, there’s no good reasoning, but statements like “she was asking for it” are thrown around as mild attempts at characterization. But it is that same sexuality that allows her to get her way in the end. She uses her sexuality as a tool of manipulation in order to punish the men that did this to her. It’s an incredibly graphic and unsettling foray into the realm of gender studies, but director Meir Zarchi seems fully aware of his purpose.
One of the contributing factors to this is the story behind the making of the film. Normally, I prefer to let the filmmaking speak for itself, but in this instance, getting an idea of the director’s creative process leaves a lasting impression. His interest in making the film stemmed from a real-life experience from several years before. Zarchi and a friend were walking one day when they saw a naked woman crawl from the bushes. She has just been raped by a couple of men, so the director and his friend helped her to the police station to report the crime. When they arrived at the police station, they were met with indifference. His shock at the treatment of this poor woman led him to penning the script that became I Spit on Your Grave, formerly Day of the Woman. As I’ve said before, I’m not one to rely on personal information of the director or the cast to justify a film’s merits, but in the case of a controversial film such as this, it almost becomes necessary. I Spit on Your Grave has since embraced its controversy, even though I maintain that it remains one of the most profoundly feminist films of its time. It has gone on to shock countless audiences and will probably continue to for some time. Nevertheless, it is an impressive and graphic depiction of an event that should be disturbing, and in that sense, I Spit on Your Grave is a rousing success.