Saturday, August 30, 2008

#44: I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978)

Now that I've seen I Spit On Your Grave twice, which is probably two more and certainly one more time than anybody needs to see it, I have no plans to ever watch it again. While I can't entirely agree with Roger Ebert that the film is a "vile bag of garbage," and I disagree with him entirely when he says the film "lacks even simple craftsmanship," I think he's right on the money when he says that at the film's end he felt "unclean, ashamed, and depressed." I Spit On Your Grave has the most skeletal of stories. A woman from New York City who writes short stories for women's magazines rents a summer home in rural Connecticut to write her first novel. While there, she encounters a group of grotesquely stupid men whose vocabulary largely consists of guttural grunts, whoops, discussions of how women are "sluts," "bitches," and "full of shit," and how women from big cities like "to fuck a lot." One of the men is mildly mentally retarded, but he's a genius compared to the other three, two of whom spend the bulk of the film shirtless. The four men kidnap the woman and rape her repeatedly in an excruciating forty-minute scene. They instruct the mentally retarded man to go back to her house and kill her, but he can't bring himself to do it. She recovers from the assault and murders each man, one by one, in grimly ironic fashion. The movie ends, less than ninety minutes after it began, immediately following the final murder.

Why would someone want to make this movie? Little information can be found online about the writer/director, Meir Zarchi. I could only find a few details. Zarchi is an Israeli immigrant who moved to New York. He directed only one other film, a drama about an Italian family in New York. He got the idea for this film when he, his daughter, and a friend were driving around in New York and saw a battered, nude woman on the street. She had been raped while walking to her boyfriend's apartment. Zarchi drove her to the police station, where he says a moronic policeman interrogated her repeatedly, though the woman's broken jaw kept her from being able to speak. Zarchi insisted the policeman let her go so he could take her to the hospital, which he then did. Why this incident would make someone want to film a forty-minute rape scene in a rape/revenge movie is beyond me. However, Zarchi must have been under the mistaken impression that he was making some kind of feminist protest film, particularly considering the film's original title, the horribly misguided Day of the Woman. When the film flopped under that title, the distributors stole the name of a 1962 horror film and re-released it in 1980 to greater success.

Another baffling bit of oddness involves the casting. Zarchi cast his then-wife, Camille Keaton (the grand-niece of Buster Keaton!), in the lead. Why would you want to film your wife being brutally gang-raped? Sure, it's just a simulation, but why? If Zarchi believes he made an anti-rape film, why does he devote half of the film's running time to a scene in which Keaton is raped vaginally, anally, orally, and with an empty wine bottle, beaten savagely, verbally abused, bloodied, and covered in mud and dirt? Surely, a large majority of the viewing audience doesn't need convincing that rape is wrong. We already knew that before watching the film. For the depraved minority who get off on the violent degradation of women, Zarchi has (unintentionally?) delivered a key text. Ebert gets at this when he describes a middle-aged man in the theater with him who yelled "That's a good one!" and "That'll show her!" at the screen. The film's agenda is totally muddled, implying that Keaton asked for it with her revealing clothes, flirty behavior, and feminine allure, but also portraying men as idiotic sub-humanoids and raging ids. The graphic rape scenes and the revenge killings give everybody what they want while contradicting each other, and the stereotype of small-town folk as inbred hillbilly lunatics is perpetuated and glorified. This is a film that wallows in sleaze, and not the fun kind of sleaze.

I have to admit, however, that Zarchi's film is highly effective and cinematic. Despite Ebert's critique of shoddy craftsmanship, I think the film is technically well-made except for the sound recording. The dialogue is muddy and hard to hear, but there is so little dialogue in the film that it doesn't matter too much. Zarchi and his cinematographer Nouri Haviv know where to put the camera, how to light the scenes, and how to get compelling images. The location shooting and absence of a score create a consistent tone of realistic dread that convinces the audience everything they're seeing is really happening. Keaton, the only person who worked on the film who managed to sustain a movie career (albeit low-budget horror and exploitation), is a compelling, interesting actress. The way she moves through the woods after being attacked and the look on her face throughout are indelibly cinematic images. There's something both natural and stylized about her and the way she moves through the frame that gives the film some redeeming qualities.
Why did I watch it twice, you might be wondering? This time, I watched it for the Fangoria list, but I first saw it 19 years ago, when I was 12. My hometown is extremely small, with a population of 1,500. If you wanted to go to a mall, find inexpensive household items, see a movie (except for the drive-in in the summer), buy books or CDs, or get some pizza or Chinese food or Mexican food, you had to drive 38 miles to the twin cities of Scottsbluff and Gering, which had a combined population of 30,000 or 34,000, I forget which. On this summer Sunday, my parents and siblings decided to go to Scottsbluff. I opted to stay home and spend the day hanging out with my friends. Like most days when I stayed home from the Scottsbluff trip, I decided to ride my bike to the convenience store and rent a movie that I couldn't get away with renting when my parents were home. My friends and I skimmed the random assortment of convenience store movies and decided on I Spit On Your Grave. The VHS cover showed a half-naked woman holding a knife. We decided it was probably a slasher movie with copious T&A. Perfect for four 12-year-old boys. We had no idea we were about to see a 1970s cinema verite sleazefest with a forty-minute rape scene. We were completely silent for the first 30 minutes of the rape scene. When the last ten minutes dragged on, we embarrassedly looked at each other with obvious visual discomfort and halfheartedly tried to joke about the scene to shake off the palpable unease. We laughed about the retarded man's repeated exhortations of "I can't come!" and joked about his tubesocks. That's all we had. It wasn't enough. After the movie ended, we were silent for a long time. Then some of us said, "That's fucked up." Though we planned to spend the rest of the day hanging out together, one friend decided he just wanted to go home. The other two followed suit. I would have gone home, too, but I was already there. I don't remember what I did after that. For the following school year, we occasionally looked at each other and said "I Spit On Your Grave" while shaking our heads in disbelief and smiling sheepishly.

Two years ago, film blogger Jim Emerson hosted a Contrarian Blog-a-Thon. One brave soul attempted to defend I Spit On Your Grave. Here's a link to his review.

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