I Spit On Your Grave: Millennium Edition R1 Review
'This woman has just chopped, crippled and mutilated four men beyond recognition...but no jury in America would ever convict her!'
The most efficient, and to-the-point tag-line in motion picture history, is also one that helped fuel the exploitation boom of the 1970s. To this day, the exploitation film continues to push the boundaries, in terms of screen brutality. The movie in question, is Meir Zarchi's 1978 'classic' I Spit On Your Grave. A grindhouse mainstay during the early 80s, its reputation is one of sheer infamy. The litmus test to which all other 'rape-revenge' films are measured, Zarchi's only directorial effort is a disturbing, uncomfortable and downright shocking piece of work. In 2004, there is little I can say about this picture that hasn't been said before. Yet, it remains a misunderstood film, that has more layers than many would care to notice. It's a trip into the heart of darkness, that will linger in the mind long after its bloody resolution.
Relentlessly sleazy, the films plot is one that divides critics. Is it a flimsy excuse for wallowing in senseless gore, or does it have something meaningful to say? It tells the tale of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a New Yorker who leaves the Big Apple and ventures into the countryside to write her first novel. Naturally, things don't go to plan, and the gorgeous writer is harassed by a group of local country boys - tough guy Johnny (Eron Tabor), the mentally-challenged Matthew (Richard Pace) and their sadistic pals Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleeman respectively). The proceedings soon turn nasty. Jennifer is attacked and raped several times. Presumed dead by the group, the battered and bloody Jen ceases writing her book, and turns her attention to plotting grisly revenge...
Infamously, I Spit On Your Grave has received bannings across the globe. Recently released in Britain as a revamped 'Special Edition', it has still been cut to shreds by the BBFC (four minutes in total). And for once in my lifetime, I can understand why. This film has crawled under my skin like no other. It takes its scenes of violence and depicts them in a shockingly perverse way. Even a butchered copy of the film boasts a raw power, yet that power is heightened in its uncut form; presented by Elite Entertainment as a 'Millennium Edition', two years ago. It is a picture seen only by cult aficionados, and those with cast-iron stomachs. The only compliment I can pay the film, is that nearly 30 years after its monstrous birth, it has maintained its ferocity.
Zarchi and the films defenders, have always maintained that the movie is an exploration of feminist themes. While there may be some truth in that statement, Zarchi's approach is certainly a back-handed one. The cold and protracted scenes of torture certainly help swallow the films social agenda. Yet, the evidence is there to suggest that this isn't just mindless bloodshed. The films original title was, after all, Day of the Woman - perhaps a better moniker than its eventual choice. The men in the film are despicable - though Zarchi does provide us with a sympathetic character in Matthew; a man pushed into helping his 'friends'. It is also worth noting, that Zarchi's screenplay was based upon a real-life incident. As he states frankly in his commentary track, he came across the aftermath of a rape. The clear sadism of this incident certainly left its mark. Perhaps I Spit On Your Grave was some sort of catharsis for the director. If so, it explains the level of realism. Keaton (best known for being Buster Keaton's niece) deserves a great deal of respect for delivering such a harrowing performance. She convinces during the early portions of the film, and her transition from victim to aggressor (while implausible) is greatly portrayed.
But to counter the films dubious 'empowerment' theme, Zarchi gives the material a strong streak of vigilantism, following Death Wish. Changing the main protagonist from male to female was certainly inspired, and many similarities can be drawn with Uma Thurman's 'roaring rampage of revenge' in Kill Bill. Since the film debuted during America's golden era of neo-horror, I Spit On Your Grave also follows the basic archetypes of the genre. Just don't expect the amusing, self-reflexive nature of the Scream series. This goes for the jugular throughout. The setting itself is classic - the great outdoors, where anything can and will happen. I've lost count of the 'evil country folk' films since Deliverance, and the antagonists that plague Jennifer are now familiar (and well-worn) cliche's. That said, they are drawn realistically here. The supporting cast are perfectly slimy. Tabor inparticular, is easy to hate,hitting the same beats as David Hess in The Last House on the Left - a film that might have influenced much of the material.
While the social commentary is handled haphazardly, the violence is not. It is this, that flung I Spit into the 'Video Nasties' debacle. And it still packs a punch. The initial rape lasts for an unbearably long time. Just when you think the worst of it is over, a tidal wave of repugnant images floods your way. Not even those that watch ultra-violence religiously, could take it without questioning their own morals. Zarchi's filming style is devastatingly simple - point and shoot. The documentary fashion is all-too popular in modern cinema, but it works to a degree I didn't think possible. It also took me several viewings over the years to realise that the film is devoid of music (all we get is some diegetic sounds from a church organ, a store record and Johnny's harmonica). It works. But Zarchi defuses the knife-edge tension in the last act. The script is mostly to blame, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief all-too often, as Jennifer claims her victims in a ridiculously easy fashion. That said, the bloody conclusion makes for compelling viewing.
Ultimately, I Spit On Your Grave is a film that one can never really 'like'. As a piece of entertainment, it is too vicious and mean-spirited. Yet, after years of reflection it is now possible to notice the deeper themes that populate Zarchi's work. Is it a psychological study, or by-the-numbers filth? The jury is well and truly divided on this topic, and I fear it always will be...
The good old boys over at Elite, present I Spit on Your Grave in an awe-inspiring anamorphic transfer, letterboxed at 1.85.1. You know that there is a God, when the wonderful people who work for George Lucas give an exploitation film a THX-quality transfer. I Spit looks the best it ever has, and the image is sharper than any home video copy released to date. Blockbusters like T2 get this treatment on DVD, so this really is odd. And bloody marvellous at that. The colours are strong, vibrant and wonderful to behold (especially the blood). There is some grain due to the age of the material (the night time footage is the biggest offender), yet I didn't notice any motion artefacts or haloes. If you told me two years ago that I Spit could look this good, I would have thrown you in the funny farm...
While the sound may not be as impressive as the transfer, the option of audio tracks is something else I would never have expected to appear on a copy of this flick. We get the choice of either a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, DTS 5.1, or the original mono soundtrack. The 5.1
track is the one to go for, and due to the films low budget, the DTS option is rather useless, offering the same experience. The original recording wasn't stellar, so this film is never going to sound exceptional. Taking that into account, the work done here is brilliant. While dialogue isn't always perfect, the sound is pretty much crystal clear, and you can actually hear what's going on (unlike some video copies). The film makes great use of your speakers, with the sound effects making your set thump on occasion. Not perfect, but it fits the transfer like a glove. Purists will feel right at home with the original mono score, too.
It is great to see that Elite are keeping up the quality seen on their 'Millennium Edition' of Re-Animator, with a great slew of bonus material. While it doesn't match the quantity of that release, the extras here are outstanding. To begin, there is the long-awaited commentary by Meir Zarchi, and is insightful enough (who would have thought that Zarchi and Keaton would become lovers?). The director goes into considerable detail about his sole project, and throughout it is clear that he carries great love for his work, despite the endless controversy. The track is also recommended to those who appreciate a frank discussion about the difficulties of low-budget film-making.
While the Zarchi commentary is more than enough, we also bag an outstanding track from drive-in legend Joe Bob Briggs. Before his own brand of Elite titles, the "cult film guru" provides a surprisingly hilarious, and clear dissection of the film. He is clearly a fan, and it is brilliant to have this kind of perspective. He knows that the film is a difficult pill to swallow, but manages to defend his views admirably. A great listen.
To navigate the features, we are treated with a flashy animated menu, and the chapter selection page is one of the best I've seen - for each section, motion images are present, so there is no mistake of which scene you are accessing. The theatrical trailers are exactly what you'd expect from this type of film, and are in fairly rough shape. What is interesting though, is that there are trailers for the film under its original title Day of the Woman. But they show far too much of the film, so watch these after if you are bothered. The TV spots are similar, and show how crazy movie advertising was in the 70s. The radio spots also retain the same spirit. All worth at least one look.
An interesting extra, is a collection of original reviews and articles, including the famed review by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. It is very funny to read reviews of this nature, since they slam the film for all its worth. Naturally, many audiences provided it with acclaim instead. Absorbing, and a must-read.
The still photo gallery provides the standard stuff, but is fairly comprehensive in showing the poster art from many countries. What is present is pleasing. A neat addition, is each page of the original theatrical press book. You have to take a look at this collection.
All in all, this is nowhere near as crammed as Elite's treatment of Re-Animator or Night of the Living Dead, which are more popular films after all. But due to the nature of this movie, the bonus materials are stellar. The THX transfer is a total (and amazing) surprise, and the two commentaries provide great entertainment. Fans will find much to enjoy here. The film is split into 24 chapters, with no subtitles.
Elite's Region 1 presentation is certainly the best one available on the format, so if you must own a copy, I'd order this one. Watch I Spit On Your Grave if it grabs your interest, but be prepared for a lengthy shower afterward. Sweet dreams.