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I Spit On Your Grave

September 27, 2010
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It’s a well-established truth that those over-familiar cultural landmarks you’ve never actually experienced, but just think you know, are never, when you finally get around to them, what you expected. Take my current discovery – David Copperfield – which confirms this theory and, of course, has thoroughly confounded my presumptions. It is, obviously, why the classics are the Classics and why we should make room for them.

It is not true, however, of possibly the most famous of that tranche of movies we in the UK have come to call the Video Nasties. I Spit On Your Grave, AKA Day of the Woman, the infamous rape revenge flick from 1978 still, quite justifiably, stirs up intense feeling. In his impassioned criticism of it, Roger Ebert called the thing “a vile bag of garbage”, and he’s absolutely on the money. Not only is it fucking awful, it is guileless, unsurprising and utterly artless. It is exactly what you imagine it to be, should you wish to waste your imagination in such a way. In fact, imagination is way too bright and creative a word to use. It’s a film about a gang of men who rape and torture a woman repeatedly, believe her to be dead, and then, when she returns in the final reel, suffer for their actions. Don’t think beyond that. That nauseating idea you now have in your head is all that it is, and less.

Slamming a movie so lacking in craft (it looks like crude video rushes thrown together, it has virtually no dialogue, it is badly recorded, there is no direction, and that’s without mentioning that it is an exploitative piece of crap) isn’t sport. In the end you devolve into a head-shaking doubt-wracked mess, wondering if you’ve become that reactionary fool you always swore you’d never turn into; but here it’s justified. Looking at I Spit On Your Grave now, looking at it then, is as unpleasant as it gets.

Which brings me to the re-make and a lot of areas that I feel very uncomfortable inhabiting, but, hey, I want to unscramble this.

You see, despite many many misgivings, one of the things I am definitely unable to say about the new movie is that it lacks craft. Indeed, it is extremely well crafted. Moreover, it is an effective and lean machine put together solely – it seems at first glance – to show support for the female character (Jennifer, played by the excellent Sarah Butler). The basic story is the same but it has been embellished and thankfully shifted around to eradicate the grim feeling that I never managed to erase from before, that by being attractive, by sunbathing in public, and then by using her wily charms to later lure the men individually to an unexpected rendezvous – she takes a bath with one of them – the girl at the centre of everything was somehow complicit in her predicament.

Now, yes, Jennifer is still a pretty girl, but she’s conspicuously successful, intelligent, charismatic and much more importantly has placed a boundary around herself. The fact that she is still assaulted in her holiday home dispenses with any she-asked-for-it defence. You might think this is an unnecessary comment, but beneath the bleak cold shadow cast by that first film, believe me, it needs saying that these men step over a line. This concept is further emphasised by having a character she is expected to trust shattering that confidence in the worst way possible.

When the assault takes place, the threat and tension had been ratcheted up to such a degree that I was expecting something as unwatchable and soul-staining as similar scenes in Irreversible or Baise-Moi, say, but that’s not the case and although what we get is deeply unpleasant and most definitely not entertainment (again, you’d think it unnecessary to say that, huh?) for the most part it is implied, or is suggested as happening during Jennifer’s understandable blackout.

Although none of this first half of the movie could ever be defended as some sort of feminist manifesto, what isn’t beyond doubt is that the film is on Jennifer’s side. We’re on Jennifer’s side. Unquestionably we don’t want this to happen to her, and when it does we want it to stop.

In the second half, well, that’s something entirely different. The revenge section of the first film is a comparatively brief matter. What that says, I’m not sure. Here, it’s what it’s all about. Undeniably, this hits all the right buttons for an audience baying for blood. The way Jennifer dispatches her tormentors mirrors the different ways in which they humiliated her (the guy who video’d her has ‘something’ done to his eyes, the cruelly handsome thug who cannot bear the idea of not possessing her loses his manhood, etc.). There’s a primitive satisfaction to it all.

But is that progress? What sort of balance have we redressed with that? We’re given an itch and it’s scratched for us. And you know what? It’s done very smartly, very creatively; and, yes, once you’ve been beaten into submission it is appealing to see these monsters taken apart like this. I don’t deny that when Jennifer is betrayed and you know there’s no hope left for her, you want the man who has deceived her to suffer (and trust me, he does). But I Spit On Your Grave leaves a foul taste.

The film is being marketed on it’s unrated status. Indeed, on IMdB it’s now known as I Spit on Your Grave: Unrated. It’s a repulsive enough phrase without having to add anything so salacious as the intimation that it’s too strong for a certificate. The poster shows Sarah Butler’s almost bare bottom (peeking out of an outfit she doesn’t actually wear in the film, it’s a copy of the old poster from the seventies). The tagline is “It’s Date Night”, a phrase lifted from a sneered line in the movie, but given, in isolation, it’s own particular brand of wince-inducing inappropriateness. As a lesson in what is wrong, this remake works almost too well. As an entry in the new canon of re-imaginings of old horror standards, it is, I’d say, unique because it trumps its source material at every turn. But when it starts to turn into Saw (would a rape victim bent on revenge really decide to ‘get inventive’?) and when the only way left to sell it is on smirks and nudge-nudge insinuations then what’s really been learnt?

Stars? I think I’ll leave it unrated…

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