Thursday, 7 March 2013

Sisters are doing it for themselves - I Spit On Your Grave

I Spit On Your Grave

Sisters are doing it for themselves…

Apparently there are no new ideas in Hollywood. The last few years have seen a rash of ‘70s horror movie remakes hit our screens with the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and zombie classic Dawn of the Dead being retooled for a younger, more savvy, generation. Most have been pretty superfluous (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, The Amityville Horror); soulless, by-the-numbers retreads, machine-engineered to cash-in on the goodwill engendered by the originals.

Some (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Hallowe’en) have been, frankly, terrible. Why would anyone want to remake Hallowe’en? Why would you remake it unless you can bring something new to it? Why would you let Rob Zombie direct it? And why would you humanise Michael Myers, its inhuman, indestructible killing machine (a character referred to in the original shooting script merely as “the Shape”)? Michael’s a faceless, unstoppable killing machine, devoid of thought, emotion or motive. That’s why he was scary! Making him just another freaky outsider with issues kinda misses the point. The original movie was a sleek, near-perfect engine of sustained terror and suspense. Why would you screw with that? But most bafflingly, why would you let Rob Zombie direct it? Rob Zombie couldn’t direct traffic.

Some remakes however have actually been pretty good. I don’t care what anyone says, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was both bleaker and a lot more fun than Romero’s original and the recent remake of The Last House on the Left (itself a reimaging of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) was a vast improvement over the original and its salacious misogyny. Thankfully, Stephen R. Monroe’s updating of Meir Zarchi’s classic exploitation sleazefest I Spit On Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) falls in this camp.

The plot is as simple and basic as the original: Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a young writer from the city, rents an isolated cabin deep in the heart of redneck country to write her latest novel. She stops for gas, instantly attracts the attentions of the local good ol’ boys and proves strangely immune to their rustic charms. The boys decide (after a couple of beers) that what this hoity toity city gal really needs is a good seeing to from a bunch of real men. So they break into her house. They terrorise her. They brutalise her. They gang-rape and sodomise her, leaving her for dead in the woods. Then they cover their tracks, destroying the evidence of their crime, erasing any signs of her existence, tying up any loose ends, before settling back into their lives of humdrum rural tedium; pumping gas, hunting quail and eating potato chips. Jennifer survives however, despite their best efforts, and begins her own campaign of terror, stalking them one by one, driving wedges between the members of the group, before exacting a Biblical vengeance; trapping and killing each of them in suitably fiendish, crowd-pleasing ways.

And, that’s about it. So far, so run-of-the-mill. Where I Spit On Your Grave differs from your average revenge flick however is in the build-up to and immediate aftermath of the film’s crucial central rape scenes. While the scenes where Jennifer is attacked are horrific, the slow-burn build to the rape brings home the true nature of the crime. Jennifer’s rapists aren’t the cartoon lunkheads of the original film; they’re convincingly rounded, if thoroughly unpleasant, individuals. These men aren’t just psychotic hillbillies living in the woods. These men are believable members of a community with lives, loved ones and responsibilities. One even steps away mid gang-rape to take a phone call from his young daughter. They’re not monsters. They’re ordinary men whom fate has allowed to give in to their baser instincts. The film makes it explicit that their actions have little to do with sex and everything to do with power.

Trapped for the most part in dead-end jobs in the back of beyond, these men are essentially impotent, frustrated failures, their glory days long over, a life of minimum wage and middle-age spread stretching before them, every day exactly the same as the one before. It’s almost inevitable that their rage, frustration and simmering resentment will eventually boil over into an act of shocking violence. The rape itself is a gruelling, bruising experience but it’s the scenes that precede it that are truly uncomfortable and almost too difficult to watch. Invading her home, the gang exert their power by subjecting Jennifer to a series of increasingly threatening and more violent humiliations.  They rifle through her underwear drawer. Force her to drink with them. Ridicule her writing. Flick lit matches at her. Threaten violence. Demean her by making her show her teeth like a show pony. Force her to fellate a pistol barrel.

Beautiful, talented and urbane, Jennifer isn’t just a target of opportunity; she’s emblematic of their shortcomings as men. It’s only by terrorising her that they’re able to violently assert their lost masculinity, videoing her ordeal and their dominance for their own amusement. After the clammy intensity and escalating dread of these scenes it’s almost a relief when they finally attack her. Almost.

The prolonged assault on Jennifer is horrible, an ordeal not just for the character but, subjectively, for the audience.  By the end of it Jennifer is shattered, numb, broken, Sarah Butler’s naked vulnerability eloquently bringing home not just the physical cost of rape but the mental and emotional desolation. Butler, in her first major role, is fantastic, delivering a raw, intense, committed performance, part wounded-Bambi, part avenging angel. She’s ably supported by a cast featuring some of the best creepy character actors working in Hollywood today with former soap hunk Jeff Branson particularly good as the silky lead rapist.

Having cheated death, Jennifer’s vengeance is Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye (quite literally in one case) stuff; each indignity visited upon her repaid tenfold. So the rapist with a tooth fetish finds himself on the receiving end of Jennifer’s amateur dentistry. The voyeuristic slob who stalks her, videoing her ordeal, is treated to an eye-opening experience involving some fishhooks and a flock of crows. And as for the rapist who declares he’s an ass-man before brutally sodomising her…

While the scenes where Jennifer hunts and kills each of her rapists flirt with torture porn, I Spit On Your Grave lacks the amorality and nihilism of the Saw or Hostel movies or their lush, glossy look. Grainy and washed out-looking, I Spit On Your Grave eschews the aesthetics of torture porn in favour of a harsher, voyeuristic, cinema verite-style which sucks the audience in, implicating them in the unfolding horror. Sure, Jennifer may look like she’s enjoying herself as she crushes limbs or snips off a rapist’s penis before shoving his mutilated member down his throat but her victims deserve it. These aren’t the poor, paper-thin dumb schmucks unlucky enough to cross Jigsaw’s path or the horny, teenage, walking chalk outlines backpacking across Europe/Central America/China (delete as applicable) who fall foul of white slavers/rich sadists/snuff movie directors/organ farmers/cannibals (delete as applicable) and are lovingly tortured, mutilated and murdered in glorious technicolour, indulging the audience’s secret desire to see beautiful people die horrible, lingering deaths. Jennifer’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. It’s ok to vicariously enjoy seeing them suffer. And if at times the elaborate lengths to which Jennifer goes to arrange interesting deaths for her attackers beggars belief, then so what? It’s only a movie.

A huge improvement on its sleazy predecessor, I Spit On Your Grave is probably the least misogynistic, most pro-feminist exploitation movie you’ll ever see about gang rape. It’s certainly less misogynistic than Sex and the City 2. Where, admittedly, the only rape committed was upon the suffering audience.

David Watson

Stephen R. Monroe
Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman, Chad Lindberg, Tracey Walter, Andrew Howard
Stuart Morse based on Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman
Running time
2010 (UK release date 21/01/2011)

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