It’s getting tough out there for producers who want to remake horror classics. Most of the prime real estate – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, Halloween – has already been snapped up. This leaves would-be remake artists with titles that don’t have as much market share but make up for it with a certain deathless notoriety: the remakes of Last House On The Left and Mother’s Day fit this category. These titles often fit the “flawed classic” designation: in other words, these films have some strong hooks but certain problems that come from a lack of experience or resources.
Another recent entry in this second tier of horror remakes is I Spit On Your Grave. The original version is easily one of the most controversial titles in horror/exploitation history. It’s also fits the “flawed classic” tag perfectly, having some key narrative and performance issues that keep it from rising above underground classic status. An ambitious set of filmmakers could have taken its feminist variation on the rape-revenge subgenre and pushed it into new territory that would challenge the audience from a modern perspective while also addressing the flaws that held the original back.
Unfortunately, the people behind this remake didn’t do that. Instead, they decided to pander to the horror/exploitation crowd in a contrived fashion and sidestepped key elements of the original in a way that suggest they aren’t as comfortable with the film’s premise as their attempts at “badass grindhouse flick” posturing would suggest.
The plot the remake sticks closely to the original in its first half: writer Jennifer (Sarah Butler) rents a house in a small rural town to work on her first novel – this time it’s in Louisiana. She immediately runs afoul of a quartet of hicks led by Johnny (Jeff Branson), the group’s self-styled leader. He gets mad when she doesn’t respond to his oily charms during their first meeting – and decides to punish her when he discovers that Matthew (Chad Lindberg), the mentally handicapped mascot of the group, is sweet on her. He and the rest of the gang raid her house with the intention of helping Matthew lose his virginity with Jennifer – and whether she wants to help or not doesn’t matter.
The siege on Jennifer’s house and the gang-rape that follows is suitably grim and nasty – and this is where the real plot changes kick in. A fifth, unexpected participant is introduced on the side of the attackers and when they are done with Jennifer, she leaps off a bridge in suicidal desperation. She disappears and there’s an extended stretch of the film where the conspirators argue amongst each other while trying to find the body. Jennifer reappears a few weeks later and begins picking off the crew one by one in elaborate and vicious ways.
The end result is as brutal as you’d expect from a film whose marketing is built around its defiant unrated status but it is also curiously hollow from a dramatic standpoint. For starters, the script’s attempts to improve on the plot of the original are misguided. The disappearance of Jennifer from the film at the midway point takes the focus away from her when we need to be focusing on her the most (one of the best sequences in the original was the dialogue-free montage in which she nurses herself back to health). Even worse, it is replaced with generic bickering amongst the villains that grinds the film to a halt when it should be picking up steam. Also, the film’s big addition to the plot – the mysterious fifth conspirator – is a plot hook that is essentially stolen from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.
Finally, the amping-up of Jennifer’s revenge is taken to comically ludicrous extremes, with the heroine suddenly displaying a previously unseen brilliance at building and operating the kind of elaborate death-traps we got used to seeing in all those Saw sequels. As is often the case with modern horror films that want to shock the audience, this version of I Spit On Your Grave confuses being unpleasant with being scary – and you probably won’t care about what happens to any of these people because the poorly-drawn characterizations rely almost exclusively on shopworn stereotypes.
The acting doesn’t help things. Butler gives a sincere effort but her showy, Method-actor approach to the role is all wrong, especially during the second half where she spends her time alternating between mumbles and shrieks in an unconvincing “I’m crazy!” act. The actors playing the villains don’t fare any better: they put in plenty of energy to make their characters suitably nasty but their cartoon-hillbilly schtick is as clichéd as it is unconvincing. Lindberg is the only one who stands out, doing an over-the-top, “stuttering and twitching” portrayal of a mentally handicapped person that would be offensive if it wasn’t so unintentionally funny. When these actors are thrown into emotionally complex scenes like the rape or any of the murders during the finale, their mixture of overacting and poor instincts suggest they’re all out of their depth – and as a result, these scenes feel like acting class exercises run amuck.
Finally, Steven Monroe’s direction is equal parts misguided and derivative. He’s an experienced t.v.-movie director and is able to give the film a certain technical competence but he’s lost when it comes to artistic side of this film. He has spoken in interviews about how he was uncomfortable with how the heroine used her body to lure her attackers in for revenge in the original film (a complaint that suggests he completely misunderstood the film, not to mention the nature of revenge). His attitude suggest he just wasn’t the right person for this particular remake. To his credit, he doesn’t shy away from the brutality of these moments – but he does pull his punches in a way that suggests he was skittish about it (note how bashful he is about showing nudity – both female and male – compared with the original film). It’s loud and it’s nasty but he doesn’t seem to have the connection to the material that Meir Zarchi had in his original version of this story.
And any moral high ground Monroe attempts to claim with his handling of Jennifer’s revenge is wiped out by his reliance on ridiculously complicated gore setpieces, which panders to horror fanboys in the most shameless, cynical way possible. Monroe follows the Saw/Hostel torture template with slavish devotion in these scenes and lovingly lingers on the violence in hopes that the viewer won’t notice how emotionally empty his film is. Like his actors, Monroe is trying too hard to shock and doesn’t know how to pull it off – as a result, the extended bloodbath quickly becomes numbing, then annoying. The final nail in the coffin is Monroe’s slack pacing of the film, which makes it a chore to get through.
In short, the remake of I Spit On Your Grave is dull, unpleasant and too confused at a conceptual level to offer any kind of meaningful variation on its model. The original film might have its flaws but it was made by someone who sincerely wanted to convey the horror of rape to the audience – and succeeded in doing so because he was willing to take a confrontational route to get there. The people behind this remake replace confrontation with pandering – and that’s much more offensive than any perceived crime the original film supposedly committed.