by Steve Habrat
Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.
Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.
I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.
Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.
The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.
I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins. Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.
I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.