Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

When a victim gets their day

The '70s saw an emergence of films with individuals taking matters into their own hands from "Straw Dogs," "Dirty Harry," "Deliverance," "The Last House on the Left," "Thriller" to "Death Wish" about the justice system being too lenient or not being readily available in the most extreme of cases. Citizens weren't trusting "The Man" or those other two-faces that were supposed to be protecting and serving rather than beating and discriminating.

"I Spit on Your Grave," aka "Day of the Woman," involves drawn out rape and excessive humiliation to amplify that point. By the time it's ready for payback, few are questioning whether its means were justified. It makes sense within the narrow realm of the movie, though its black and white, open and shut delivery doesn't always do itself a service because it leaves little to debate or expose deeper layers. Not to mention, it's such an over-the-top set of scenarios that a viewer might just assume it unlikely and move on. Did she ask for it? Certainly not. Was she justified for what she did? With the extent she went through most would say yes I'd imagine. The film lacks subtlety to go either way with those questions and instead clunks a viewer over the head with its delivery, which makes the experience somewhat basic and straightforward and lacking in challenge. The simple directorial approach has a tendency to show rather than tell, but instead of being more interpretive it feels stripped down to the bare essentials: rape and revenge. The first is depicted with some realism in the way power and domination plays a part in the debasing act. The second is purely cinematic in the way it transitions so easily, not to mention with little question and without a hitch. Everything else with the picture leaves little in between. To its credit there are a share of scenes that are memorable for better or worse and it can keep one's attention glued for the duration even when only one aspect happens at a time.

A young and confident woman from New York City named Jennifer Hills rents a summer house by the edge of the river in a remote area a few hours away. She wants the peace and tranquility to write a fictional novel but finds bigger trouble in the thought to be quaint setting with three bored delinquents and their mentally handicapped, tag-along friend. They carry a sense of entitlement, so when turned down they don't just only take but make a point to degrade this city girl supposedly struttin' her stuff. There's nothing erotic or pleasing to be found here for the viewer, just a purely senseless violation of another person in a lonely, desperate state and setting while the audience helplessly watches on for at least a good 30 minutes. Jennifer even has the slow and agonizing walk of shame back, where you think the antagonists are going to collect their thoughts and feel guilty for what they've done, but then proceed to amp up the carnage like they were just getting warmed up. It went from a spur of the moment action to something far more dark and depraved. It feels like a firm decision was never made as to whether they're supposed to be mirroring real people or just making pure cinema villains that are only ever seen on the big screen. The end result gives a little of both: a minimal outline of their lives, but with actions that don't always line up in the way that they seem to go beyond the explanations shown or given.

The performances of the male characters went from being your typical rowdy bunch to missing all relating points the way they're so over-the-top and know exactly what they're doing. It seemed instinctual and predatory to the point of animalistic. The main actress Camille Keaton doesn't shy away from what the film puts her through. She's dragged into the mud over and over again. Some scenes she's standing fully nude with dirt and grime all over. Or in another instance she's being picked up and manhandled with forceful weight on her tiny frame. The Jennifer character has more to reveal at first, in that an independent woman tries to mark her territory and go about her life but has others taking advantage of her outgoing personality when her guard is down. The portion where the revenge takes place starts to lose relating points in that her cold and determined motivations are kept to herself for the sake of cinematic surprise rather than getting to know how she actually ticks. The only area shown for reflection is the repercussions on the victim's family. Otherwise, it makes her stone-face demeanor seem just as equally unfeeling and depraved as her tormentors. Yeah, violence begets violence and no one is the winner. But it causes the film to unfold as a blatant formula: we all meet, you relentlessly torture me without putting up a fight, I torture you without putting up a fight so you could look shamed and humiliated too, the end. Any questions?

This is a daring film for its day, but due to a shallow script doesn't transcend itself to be more than a go-for-the-throat exploitation piece. The biggest command the picture has and why it's lasted so long is that it doesn't hold back in its cruelty. Even completely dehumanizing stories made by sensationalist papers to bring out fear skip out on at least some details. This is essentially the gratuitous nitty gritty that's left out to get even more under one's skin. The camera angles are fully framed without trick photography, that way little is missed. By not including a score but just sound effects made the movie more effective to put one in the direct moment. Rape doesn't need a theme song, now does it?

"I Spit on Your Grave" purposely tries to aggravate and entice a viewer by using a mentally challenged guy, by having no police presence, by having no remorse or regret except from getting caught, by including a former Marine as if it was a cause and effect, by including slightly older guys who should know better, and then by having one of them married with kids no less! The more contradicting faults about the antagonists the better to rile a viewer up, otherwise the constructive arguments that might come about are primarily from the watcher. The filmmakers went in with a message about a female victim getting her day, demanded you paid attention with gross travesties, but then skipped over making a productive point for others, which leaves the audience satisfied in one way on a superficial level but emotionally set-up and manipulated on another. This just feels like a straight set up for a revenge film with simple characters strategically moved around to get the biggest reaction. Decent for what it advertises but otherwise you won't get more out of the experience unless you put in more effort for where the filmmakers didn't.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Meir Zarchi
Stars: Camillie Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann
Link: IMDB

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