I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978 Version): The (Murder) Ballad Of Jennifer Hills

It’s amazing how some exploitation films retain their power long after they are removed from the times that spawned them.  No matter how much social and cultural mores change, some films will always have that taboo-shattering ability to push a viewer’s buttons.  A perfect example of this type of film is the original version of I Spit On Your Grave.  It is a rape-revenge film, always one of the most controversial exploitation subgenres, and it presents its chosen subject matter in a raw, uncompromising fashion that retains the ability to jangle nerves over 30 years after the fact.  It is a flawed film in many ways – but it is also an unforgettable, viscerally effective piece of work that has earned its place in film history.

I Spit On Your Grave was originally titled Day Of The Woman, a title that more accurately reflects its storyline.  The focus is Jennifer (Camille Keaton), an independent woman from the city who rents a home in a small town to work on her first novel.  Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of a quartet of local men who are idle, sexually frustrated and eager to prove their machismo to each other.  Johnny (Eron Tabor) is their leader and he decides she will provide them with the entertainment they crave.  They descend upon her home with the idea of helping Matthew (Richard Pace), the “halfwit”/resident virgin of the group, to finally lose his virginity at Jennifer’s expense.

And this is where I Spit On Your Grave goes to a place that shocks even veteran exploitation film fans.  Writer/director Meir Zarchi doesn’t spare the viewer one moment of Jennifer’s ordeal – she is stripped, beaten and violated in multiple ways during a sequence that occupies 25 minutes (a full quarter of the film’s running time).  Each of the men plays a role, degrading Jennifer until she is left broken and anguished.  Johnny orders Matthew to kill her when it is all over – but he can’t go through with it and fakes the proof (a bloody knife) to appease them.  Jennifer survives and nurses herself through an arduous recuperation – and once she has healed, she uses her body and mind to take a revenge that suits the crimes committed against her.

The end result is exploitation cinema’s version of a Rorschach test, the kind of film in which everyone sees something different depending upon the mindset and values they bring to the table.  Part of this comes from Zarchi’s design of his narrative: the film strips all its storytelling conceits – characterization, settings, dialogue, even music – to the bone.  This minimalist approach puts the often-shocking content of the story into sharp relief, strengthening the punch of its raw elements.  As John Bloom (a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs) once astutely noted, the finished product sometimes feels like a Greek tragedy.

I Spit On Your Grave further disarms the viewer with its dispassionate visual approach: scenes are often allowed to unfold in wide shots and long takes, with Zarchi minimizing how much he allows his visual style to comment on what’s happening.  It must also be mentioned that this film has no musical score – the only music heard in the film comes from onscreen sources – and Zarchi’s refusal to tell us how to feel about events via soundtrack music plays a crucial role in throwing the viewer off-kilter.

Zarchi’s avoidance of laying out a message in a conventional way is a source of power but it has also left the film open to misinterpretation.  I Spit On Your Grave was famously attacked by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for being misogynist and lurid, a complete misreading of the film that suggests both men were too stunned by the raw content to apply their usually strong intellects to what was on the screen.

If you pay close attention to the portrayal of the characters, it’s quite obvious that Zarchi intends us to be on the side of his heroine.  Her ordeal is presented to us in unflinching detail to ensure the audience feels the pain it brings and his presentation of rape focuses on the cruel, unthinking brutality of this act.  Anyone who walks away from that sequence thinking that it aims to titillate the audience or glorify the attackers is saying more about their perception of life and humanity than anything about the film.

However, in fairness to its critics, I Spit On Your Grave also has some significant flaws that keep a lot of people from taking it seriously.  For starters, the men in the film are presented in a way that stacks the deck against them in a too-obvious fashion: Johnny is the only male character who gets some semblance of dimension and those moments only to make him more hateful (for what it’s worth, Eron Tabor is actually quite good as Johnny and gives him a sense of controlled menace).

The film takes its biggest misstep in its presentation of Matthew: though he is described as a halfwit by his friends, he is written in a low-comedy fashion that makes him seem more like a comic-relief nerd than a mentally disabled character.  Richard Pace’s performance of the character is too broad, making it seem like the character walked in from a slapstick comedy.

There are also a few narrative rough spots.  Having Johnny entrust Matthew with the murder of Jennifer is simply too much to ask of the audience: it makes the otherwise savvy Johnny look foolish and is such a huge logic loophole that it tends to pull many viewers out of the story.  Finally, there is a certain problem in the structure of Jennifer’s revenge: without saying too much, the order in which the men are killed isn’t as effective as it could be and this detracts slightly from the power of the finale.

However, none of these admittedly noticeable flaws can take away from the overall power of Zarchi’s film.  I Spit On Your Grave has often been described as a film that you experience – and the major power fueling that impression lies in Camille Keaton’s performance.  Her line readings are a little rough in the early scenes but once the story gets moving, the film relies on Keaton’s impressive skills for non-verbal acting.  She doesn’t just show us the suffering of her character – she embodies it, using every inch of her frame and expressive face to convey her character’s anguish.

On a side note, much to-do is made of Keaton’s frequent nudity in the film – not to mention the fact that she uses her body to lure the men into her revenge – and critics often use this as an “easy out” to dismiss the film.  Such prudish clucking overlooks not only the bravery of her performance but also the character’s total commitment to her vengeance.  Jennifer Hills is willing to use any means necessary to draw the targets of her vengeance in and the fearless manner in which Keaton portrays this plays a vital part in the finale’s effectiveness.

To sum up, I Spit On Your Grave is what you might call a “flawed classic”: it has narrative and performance issues that keep it from a reservation-free masterpiece status yet its distinctive, bold approach gives it a raw power that time can’t erode.  As a result, it is one of the true must-sees in exploitation cinema history  – and whether you watch it through 1978 eyes or modern-day eyes, this uncompromising howl of rage will come after you where you live.

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