I Spit On Your Grave
There's very little chance of spoiling anyone with this review. The original I Spit On Your Grave is notorious, if not for its legend then for its lingering controversy, especially amongst feminists. Meir Zarchi, writer and director of the 1978 film, apparently based his simple rape-revenge story on his own experience finding a woman who had been brutally beaten and raped near a park in New York City. Zarchi's vision, a tale where the victim would get bloody revenge on her attackers, may not have been an act of feminism, but it was certainly intended as one of sympathy. How it managed to end up the most infamous exploitation film of all time—complete with ads featuring a half-naked heroine shot from behind, her rear-end prominent and her hand clutching a butcher knife—was probably mostly the result of marketing (Zarchi's original title for the film, the one that he still prefers, was Day of the Woman).
Still, Zarchi's film is extremely misguided, even within its own context. There is little to no character development, for the attackers or the attacked, making the rape scenes implausible, and Jennifer, the film's "heroine," uses her sexuality to lure her rapists in for her revenge, even going so far as to have consensual sex with one of them. For this and many other reasons, I do think I Spit On Your Grave was begging to be remade, if not for Zarchi's redemption then for those of us who were left deeply uncomfortable (and dissatisfied) by it.
Steven Monroe's revamp may tell the same story, but it's a different film altogether. The actors are much more relatable and likeable, even Jennifer's attackers (including a charming Jeff Branson and Daniel Franzese of Mean Girls fame), and though we aren't given too much of anyone's history, every character comes off as thoroughly real, many with both dark urges and childlike insecurity. Jennifer (Sarah Butler) is written as much more skeptical than her predecessor, a young but smart, feisty, modern update.
The motive behind the boys' invasion of Jennifer's lakeside cabin, though disturbing in its implications for the dynamics among young men, is made clear, and appropriately, their torment of her starts off as much more psychological than physical. In fact, it's not until Jennifer escapes from them and stumbles upon the town sheriff (Andrew Howard) in the woods that the attack begins in earnest. It becomes unclear whether or not the boys would have gone so far as to rape Jennifer if the sheriff hadn't gotten involved, as he becomes a despicable sort of ringleader for the entire incident. Considering Zarchi's overseeing of Monroe's remake, this choice could very well have been a nod to his personal experience taking the young rape victim he encountered to an unsympathetic police station.
Monroe's rendering of Jennifer's rape is frantic and horrible, shot not unlike a battle scene in a war film. He never empathizes with her attackers, though Jennifer is certainly not made out to be completely helpless; we see her fighting or seeking escape at every given opportunity, creating an interesting harbinger of the ruthlessness she'll later inflict on them. There is an eerie strength in the way she walks away from them afterward, bloodied and beaten, and lets herself fall off a bridge, disappearing into the water below like a ghost.
The revenge portion of the film is gratuitous in its violence and, for that very reason, incredibly satisfying. The original's seduction is taken out of the torment, Jennifer subjecting her attackers to a long, torturous death that is somewhat symbolic for each of them. Though I'm more squeamish than most, I actually found myself laughing out loud at these horribly gruesome scenes—and I wasn't the only one. So long as Jennifer's rapists were getting theirs, the entire audience wasn't anything less than thrilled.
Unlike with Zarchi's film, I never found any of Jennifer's nudity gratuitous or even vaguely sexual in the remake. Even so, I Spit On Your Grave Redux reprises the exploitative marketing of the original, the film's poster nearly identical to the first. Whether this is a ploy to attract exploitation buffs or simply homage to Zarchi's film is irrelevant to Monroe's intentions. I suppose sex sells, even if it's non-consensual.
Still, I think it's important to realize that the new I Spit On Your Grave is not meant to be a political statement on rape or a realistic portrayal of a rape victim coming to terms with trauma. It's meant as a catharsis, pure and simple. Is it a feminist one? To answer that would require answering the question of what feminism is, which, these days, is more dangerous than some of the acts committed by the film's heroine. When political debate fails, I have to go with my gut (or guts, as the case may be) for a verdict: I Spit on Your Grave is a refreshing and deeply gratifying film that left me feeling somehow vindicated.