The merits of this particular film (originally titled Day of the Woman) have been hotly debated by horror fans since its release. It is not an easy film to like, and unless you have twisted sensibilities, there's not much fun to be had during a screening. It is not, however, as poorly made or acted as its detractors claim. I Spit on Your Grave (hereafter ISOYG) is a horror film in the truest sense: it does little but shock and horrify, but it does those things better than 99% of the other movies in its genre.
Camille Keaton (the grand-niece of celebrated silent screen actor Buster Keaton) plays our heroine, Jennifer. Jennifer is a novelist who takes a summer to escape the city she lives in to work on her latest book. She holes up in a house in the country, next to a river. The local grocery delivery boy, Matthew (Richard Pace), takes a liking to her and she settles in, basking in the sun and writing.
This idyllic existence is catastrophically interrupted when she is raped one afternoon by Matthew and his gang of yokels, including ringleader Johnny (Eron Tabor), the local gas station owner. Clocking in at nearly half an hour, the rape sequence is the most brutal and explicit piece of film work we've seen, and also one of the most believable. It's a messy, repulsive piece of cinema, guaranteed to offend even veteran horror fans. This is partially because of the ordinariness of the setting, during daylight hours in the back woods. This is no fanciful, tongue-in-cheek raped-by-the-trees sequence as in Evil Dead, this is as realistic as it gets. The other contributor to the scene's credibility is Keaton's performance. Go ahead and give her the award for Most Courageous Actress now: it's tough to think of anyone who could top this. (But what would Buster say?
Bob Denver's evil twin.
The disgust this scene engenders is the reason the movie as a whole is condemned by many critics. It's tough to admit that you actually like a film with this kind of content. But except for this scene (and perhaps one other), ISOYG plays out like any other revenge-driven horror flick. After her ordeal, Jennifer spends some time recuperating. Strangely, she does not report the incident to the police, but in order for the rest of the plot to work, that's what happens. Fearing that the gang might return to hurt her again, Jennifer takes action against them, first seducing them and then killing them in turn. In the film's second most questionable scene, she treats Johnny to a warm bath before robbing him of his, uh... manhood. Then she locks him in the bathroom to bleed to death while she listens to a bit of opera. After this point, the movie slides even further into bad movie territory as Jennifer disposes of her final two victims in one only moderately gory scene. (Those who want a sneak peek at the "Bobbit" scene may click here, but this is definitely a warning for the squimish.)
The uncomfortable subject matter aside, ISOYG suffers from the fact that it never explains Jennifer's motivations. Why doesn't she call the police? Why does she seduce Matthew and Johnny before killing them? How did she arrive at her rather bizarre methods of execution? And why exactly does she stop at the little country church, asking for forgiveness, before she starts her killing spree? Too little is explained, and so much needs to be. Some more work on the screenplay could have made this film a more powerful statement on rape survival.
You could use one of those to call the police,
but she doesn't seem to know that.
Having seen ISOYG a couple of times in the last few days, we still have to profess some confusion as to why it is so often condemned for being an all-around bad movie. There are some good turns of acting, in particular from Keaton and Tabor, whose screams from off-screen may well haunt you for a while after you see this film. The photography and direction are both competent, bordering on arthouse fare at times (and it looks great on DVD). Things do get a bit sloppy towards the end and its b-movie roots become plain, but it's not the sort of horrendous production that gets churned out by direct-to-video companies so often these days.
Our guess is that those critics who call the film "an absolute piece of scum" or "irresponsible filmmaking at its absolute worst" won't admit that there's anything positive about ISOYG for fear of being identified, in even a small way, with such an offensive and exploitative movie. Or maybe they really believe it is actually so poorly directed and acted (when compared to such greats as Pumpkinhead, perhaps?) -- such is their prerogative.
If you are a hardcore horror fan or consider yourself knowledgeable about the genre, your education is simply incomplete until you have seen I Spit On Your Grave. Moviewatchers looking only for entertainment in their movies should avoid it carefully. (In truth, we denied this film its third lava lamp in part because it is so hard to recommend to anyone.) Those who think of themselves as students of film -- well, this much controversy and bile should be reason enough to take a look.