The common knowledge on the original version of I Spit On Your Grave is that it is the most notorious of all rape-revenge films. However, something rarely brought into discussion on this film is that is also fits squarely into the tradition of the Southern Discomfort film. In fact, it is doubly interesting in this respect because it acts as the feminist example of this subgenre, overlaying gender-based concerns atop Southern Discomfort themes and motifs to create a viscerally effective hybrid.
Think about the differences between Jennifer Hills and her adversaries. As a beautiful woman, she obviously stirs their sense of lust – but that’s just one component of their resentment/fascination towards her. Just as important is the fact that she is a woman from the city – and as a result, her urban-bred version of femininity harbors a number of qualities that would make your average country-dwelling, machismo-minded man nervous. For starters, Jennifer is independent: she has gone to the country with the idea of spending the entire summer alone to work on her first novel. She is content to travel and work by herself, not needing the presence of a man to complete her.
Even if she wanted male company, it is unlikely she would play by the old-fashioned rules the men of this small town are used to. Writer/director Meir Zarchi has her reveal her attitudes about men and sex in a moment when Jeffrey asks her if she has a boyfriend. She doesn’t skip a beat, saying “I have many boyfriends” with a smile. The brutes around her like to keep their world nice and small, either by living in an unhappy domestic situation (like the leader, Johnny) or fantasizing aimlessly about sex with women they’d never get close to under normal circumstances. Add Jennifer and her city-fueled worldliness to the mix and it’s inevitable that the fear, resentment and lust in these stifled men will rise to the surface.
Finally, it’s worth noting that despite its “rape-revenge” tag, I Spit On Your Grave follows the standard Southern Discomfort plot progression perfectly:
– A city dweller makes the mistake of entering the domain of some resentful country types
– the city dweller gets overpowered and attacked because they let their guard down in a place where the rural attackers have the element of surprise/home-field advantage
– the city dweller drops their refinement to beat their country attackers at their own brutal game by applying their city-developed intelligence to the primal art of vengeance
I Spit On Your Grave hits all of the above marks perfectly but adds an extra kick to the mix by focusing it all through the prism of male/female relations. Jennifer uses her beauty like a weapon, leading three of the four men into a false feeling of sexual dominance so she can strike at their moment of vulnerability. This plot hook is one of the most controversial elements of the film, often causing people who would otherwise admire the film to hold it at arm’s length, but it’s crucially important to the film’s success. Our heroine is smart enough to know her desirability is her strongest weapon in this situation and in using it as such she beats the backwards-thinking villains at their own game by using their weakness against them. This is perfectly in line with kind of reasoning heroes resort to during the finale of any Southern Discomfort movie.
Thus, I Spit On Your Grave represents the perfect intersection between the rape-revenge and Southern Discomfort genres. That might not be its main claim to fame but it’s one of its most distinctive elements and one of many reasons it deserves its place of prominence in the Exploitation Film pantheon.