Cinema has such power to deal with issues that challenge society. Films have, over the years, addressed complex problems like race, civil rights, poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and a myriad of other important and often troubling aspects of the world we live in. Horror films too have their part to play in showing us things about ourselves we don’t like. Slasher flicks enjoy preaching about destructive behaviours so much that we hardly notice that’s what they’re doing. Vampires, werewolves, and the host of other creatures that grace our screens are sometimes metaphors for other more common but no less frightening monsters. Cinema has the power to get a message to an audience, but sometimes the message gets lost and sometimes, like the scientists who build bombs but never think about where and on whom they’ll be used, film-makers don’t consider, or perhaps care about, the consequences.
I Spit On Your Grave (1978) tells the story of Jennifer Hill, a budding author from New York city, who has rented a house in the countryside for the summer in order to get some peace and quiet to write her first novel. She enjoys rural life in the summer, not having too much contact with the locals and taking full advantage of the remote nature of her summer home to lie around outdoors and work on her tan when she’s not writing. The only contact she really has with anyone is the delivery boy from the nearest grocery store, a young intellectually challenged man named Matthew, and Johnny, the bloke who runs the garage in town.
Her presence interests the local lads, Johnny, Matthew, and two of their friends Andy and Stanley, who begin to prowl around her house. One day, while out in her canoe getting some sun, Jennifer is attacked by the men who drag her boat to shore in an attempt to have Matthew rape her. The situation escalates badly and more or less over the course of a day Jennifer is brutally raped by all four men. Johnny convinces Matthew to kill Jennifer so as not to have her report their crime, but Matthew is unable to do so and Jennifer survives.
Jennifer slowly recovers and begins to plot a terrible revenge on the gang…
I Spit on Your Grave was one of a spate of rape and revenge style horror films that were briefly popular in the late seventies and, for some reason, are getting a revival of sorts now with some of them getting remade. Films like the Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave used extreme, graphic violence towards women to justify extreme, graphic violence in the inevitable revenge sequence that was supposed to give reason to the whole thing. As someone who enjoys finding hidden meanings in films I had hoped to find something to redeem I Spit on Your Grave but I’ve been unsuccessful.
Rape is such an awful subject that making it the centrepiece of a film means that the film cannot be entertaining. Add in the levels of violence and nudity that feature in this movie and once again, like with The Last House on the Left, I have to conclude that there is a borderline pornographic intent here. If it wasn’t for the revenge aspect played out in the final act of the film (which doesn’t get anything like the same amount of screentime as the rape) then I Spit on Your Grave would simply be catagorised as particularly evil porn and would disappear. The fact that Jennifer seeks retribution on her attackers and does so in a straightforwardly violent manner, drags the film back towards the horror genre, though that in itself is a damning indictment of how this part of the genre is considered.
Is I Spit on Your Grave a horror because Jennifer went after her attackers? Was the fact that she was raped not horror enough, in the horrific situations meaning of the word? In slasher movies the innocent victims get killed off and that makes them horror films – by calling I Spit on Your Grave a horror are we saying that the men are the victims of the piece? From my reading about the film I’ve discovered that some reviewers and commentators have tried to suggest that I Spit on Your Grave is actually a feminist movie, as Jennifer wins out in the end against terrible odds. Personally, I think that line of reasoning is bullshit.
The strange thing about I Spit on Your Grave is that I wasn’t as disgusted by it as I was with The Last House on the Left. I am genuinely unsure if this is down to having seen material like this before or if the film just isn’t as bad as Last House was. One thing that struck me about the most heinous scenes, where Jennifer is being attacked, was that while they were disgusting, they didn’t horrify for some reason. If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, you may remember a scene in an episode where Dr. Melfi is raped on her way from her office. That scene horrified me. It was shocking, invasive, perverse, disgusting and quite frankly it made me angry that such crimes occur. I Spit on Your Grave failed to invoke anything like those emotions.
The film is famous for one scene, a legend in horror films, where Jennifer castrates one of her attackers. That scene invoked an emotion!
Two Thumbs Firmly Down for I Spit on Your Grave – Perhaps not as bad as some other films of this type, but you still shouldn’t see it!