Rightful Revenge - The Case for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE?

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

With the third film released recently, and the appearance of the remake and sequel on British TV, we take a look at the updates of the controversial I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and ponder can cinema go too far?

When the remake of Meir Zarchi’s controversial 1978 classic I Spit on Your Grave was released in 2010, many fans were in outrage. The contentious subject wasn’t the only sticking point. Why touch something that has become as revered as it is reviled? Could the new filmmaker, Steven R. Monroe, manage to out-do the original in terms of terror and repulsion? Times have changed; attitudes towards the depiction of sexual abuse have changed, and quite rightly. So how could we accept such vile images on screen these days and still ‘enjoy’ the movies? It’s a difficult, complex ethical dilemma to ponder, and one that will probably never have a conclusive answer.

No matter how tastefully such actions are portrayed, there will also be a large majority of the audience repelled, and at the very least made to feel very uncomfortable. And quite right, too; there should be no-one who finds the rape, torture, and humiliation of another human being entertaining. Does that mean it shouldn’t be included in the film, though? These things do happen in real life already - shockingly, some cultures even appear to think it’s alright - and possibly, by showing how downright horrific it is could be just enough to make those who joke about such things think twice. Just as the 1978 film made the audience feel for protagonist Jennifer, the remake and its sequel put the viewer through the emotional wringer before we get to the more satisfying payoff.

Essentially a straight re-do of the original, the 2010 version sees Sarah Butler play author Jennifer Hills, who heads off to a lakeside cabin to begin writing her second novel. It’s here she falls foul of a group of locals who are so backwards they misinterpret her ‘fun’ attitude to be something much more flirty. She is horrifically gang raped, degraded, and left for dead. One member of the mob happens to be the local sheriff and have a wife and kids, something that makes his involvement even more abhorrent. Another new factor into the ordeal is the use of a video camera to make the humiliation more complete. It’s one of the major elements that prompted the BBFC to unsurprisingly cut the film on its release.

The original 1978 version had a well-publicised run-in with the UK censorship body (it was only later they became about classification) and is still unavailable in a fully intact form over here. The remake suffered forty-three seconds of cuts, while the second was shorn of twenty seconds short of two minutes of footage. However, it was pre-cut prior to submission after an unfinished version was seen by the board, and twenty-seven separate cuts recommended.

The revenge part of the remake is somewhat troublesome due to the tone. Following the unrelenting nastiness of the first half, Jennifer’s reprisal is almost in the vein of the Saw movies, with an increasing level of ‘cool’ kills and graphic gore. Just the sort of thing the horror fans want, right? The problem is it trivialises the violation that has gone before. 

I Spit on Your Grave 2 was a sequel no one really wanted. The remake managed to make money and stir up enough controversy while at the same time not be as completely offensive as expected, could a follow-up really add anything new to the scenario?

In this film, Jemma Dallender (best known for 2012’s low budget Brit horror Community and TV’s Hollyoaks) plays a model, Katie, who is advised to expand her portfolio with some new pictures in order to get more work. Going to one company who seem to be offering a good deal, she sensibly doesn’t fall into the sleazy trap of stripping off for the photographs, but in doing so starts a horrific chain of events that leads her to the metaphorical depths of hell.

One of the photography assistants appears at her apartment offering her the photos they did take for free. But of course, everything has a price. He forces himself upon her, and brutally overpowers her. Katie’s next door neighbour attempts to help after hearing her harrowing screams, but is stabbed and left to bleed to death on the floor of the living room; watching her being defiled and abused in his dying moments.

Katie’s ordeal has only just started, though, as his ‘brothers’ – the rest of the photography crew – arrive to clear up his mess (and an offhand comment suggests it’s not for the first time, either) and decide to drug her and take her away.

She awakes in a dank basement, with one of the men once again defiling her. The torment continues with torture, humiliation and some deeply distressing scenes. Even when she manages to escape things are bad. It turns out she has been taken to Budapest. The police officer who picks her up doesn’t appear to be as pro-active as you’d expect, and Katie just wants to leave; to go home.

She is picked up by a woman from a local shelter, and the police let Katie go with her; it’s another big mistake as she is in cahoots with the gang, and ends up back in the basement to have even more horrific things happen.

It’s by chance rather than design that she manages to escape once more, descending this time into the sewers of the city. It’s a metaphorical descent as well as literal, as she must attempt to survive in the squalid conditions, resorting to eating whatever wildlife she can find. She does find a (very convenient) route into a church through the cellar and is caught in the act of stealing some supplies. The priest is the first person she has met who actually treats her like a human, but she’s too far gone into a downward spiral that she barely acknowledges his offer of help. He does notice that she has left a Bible open – with one phrase standing out to the man of God: Vengeance in Mine.

As one would expect – and certainly hope – Katie has decided to take the law into her own hands and, in keeping with the films’ tradition, tracks down the team one by one to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible to the scum who violated her. Now, this should be the part of the movie in which the audience gets the payoff for the horrendously gruelling hour that has preceded it. Instead, the methods of revenge, while certainly nasty, are not really as horrible as we’d like them to be. These men deserve more than being left to die with festering wounds, being electrocuted with a cattle prod (something Katie herself had to endure) and being drown in a nightclub toilet – one that was full to the brim with the brown stuff… The real ‘nasty’ retribution comes when one of the crew has his knackers put in a vice, which is slowly (and explosively!) closed. While this is certainly the least they deserved, one would have expected something much more ghastly considering how much poor Katie went through.

Now, we’re not here to say that taking the law into your own hands is right, but vengeance is surely the reason these films exist, and we can’t as an audience be expected to allow such terrible acts committed on these women to go unpunished in a less than over the top way. We’ve had to sit through Katie getting the most appalling treatment, and perhaps we would expect the resulting carnage to be a little more fitting. Just as we mentioned the first film stylising the revenge aspect, by not going too far, it feels like a cop out. Have we really become that desensitised? 

Just released is the third in the series, and it surprisingly takes a different route. Sarah Butler returns as Jennifer Hills, in a new town and under a new name, Angela. Undergoing therapy still after the traumatic events, she fanaticises about hurting people all around her. She finally makes a friend in a support group, but when she is raped and killed, she once again takes the law into her own hands; “Justice isn’t something you receive, it’s something you dish out” she tells her shrink.

What’s different about the third film, subtitled Vengeance is Mine, is that the audience isn’t made to suffer through a disturbing and protracted abuse to get to the scenes of retaliation, although it’s clear how much suffering has gone on with the characters in the past, and almost every male introduced is a sleazeball ‘asking for it’. There’s one particular moment that is more graphic and eye-watering than anything that has gone before in any of the other films, and certainly makes the infamous bathtub scene in the ’78 version look like PG material (lest we forget, you don’t actually see anything in there).

It’s almost telling that the third instalment has been passed uncut by the BBFC. With no explicit sexual violence towards the women (the same can’t be said for the men, there are a couple of very nasty moments), it’s almost as though it was waved through. Without the motivation to be behind the avenging angel Angela/Jennifer, we should really be on her side. However, we are even though she’s a raging ball of anger and violence. We know what she - and the others - been through. So maybe we don’t need to see it depicted so graphically in the first place?

Movies have the power to make us feel uncomfortable, and face things we don’t want to, and by doing so, provoke a certain response. It’s important that they are allowed to carry on doing so, but we have to trust the filmmakers’ integrity when they present it to us. Exploitation cinema is built on films like I Spit on Your Grave. It should make us question why we watch them, but ultimately, it should make us want the actions to only be represented on the screen. Films such as these should be repulsive, because that’s what they depict. It’s up to us as viewing adults to choose if we can handle and process what we see in a right way.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 are screening on Horror Channel. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 3: VENGEANCE IS MINE is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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