In the history of cinema there has been a handful of films that have drawn a firestorm of controversy over the purportedly offensive subject matter that the filmmakers chose to present to an unsuspecting audience, among them classics such as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, FREAKS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, BABY DOLL, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE WARRIORS, and BLUE VELVET. Yet none of these works has been critically vilified as the most hateful film ever made, an opinion leveled by many critics, both professional and armchair, at Mier Zarchi’s 1978 rape/revenge story DAY OF THE WOMAN, or as it has been much better known since its re-release in 1980, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.
I first heard of the film back in the spring of 1980 on an installment of Gene Siskel (the bald one) and Roger Ebert’s (the fat one) “Sneak Previews” during their days as public television mainstays, theirs being one of the few movie review programs at the time. What was interesting about their review of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was that they took their entire half hour running time that week to pan the flick with unprecedented venom; this was not just a review, it was an outright crucifixion that saw both well-respected critics ranting like madmen about how the film had not one shred of artistic quality, encouraged the audience to identify with the rapists, eroticized the act of rape, and portrayed the film’s heroine as a helpless toy whose sole purpose was to be humiliated and degraded for the enjoyment of the sick audience at which the piece was aimed.
I usually kept my ear to the ground for offensive films at the time, — hell, I still do — and a movie like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE would have played at the nearby and notorious grindhouse Norwalk Cinema, but there had never been a trace of it. In fact, if not for the SNEAK PREVIEWS witch hunt most of the general public would never have heard of the film. And as any idiot can tell you, if you don’t want people to see something, just gloss over it quickly and let it die a silent, lonely death. But when the two most high profile critics in the country take up a whole episode of their show to denounce just one movie, that’s going to raise eyebrows and spark curiosity. And, consequently, box office. In the following two years I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE did decent business in theaters, but it really hit the big time when the VCR boom happened and people could now watch whatever twisted shit they chose to corrupt themselves with, all in the privacy of their own living rooms. And what better way to watch a film that allegedly celebrated the time-honored, old school entertainment that is gang rape? In fact, during the first few years of its release on VHS the flick was a perennial best seller, never leaving the top 50 charts until the late-1980’s, despite being banned outright in several countries. So, just what is this toxic chunk of cinema anyway?
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is about as simple as a story can be: a young woman from the Big City heads out to the Sticks and catches the unwanted attention of four local louts. The louts hunt her in a secluded part of the forest, take turns beating and raping her, and mistakenly leave her for dead. She survives, gets her shit together, and exacts well-deserved, lethal revenge. The End.
Sure, that sounds simple, but what was it about this film that has affected so many on such a primal, visceral level? I’ll, analyze the plot in detail a bit later, but for my own part I can say that I have a real problem with rape, harm to children and harm to animals being depicted as entertainment, and the reviews of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE certainly made it seem like it was created solely for the purpose of giving a vile audience what amounted to some sort of sick rape pornography; I like my sex and violence to stay mutually exclusive, thank you very much, so I went into seeing the film with an already loaded viewpoint.
I first rented the movie sometime in the late 1980’s along with what was considered to be the other “classic” of the genre, Wes Craven’s 1972 “homage” to Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING (1959), the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. My buddies — a mixed crowd of males and females — and I stocked up on booze, joints and snacks, and ran LAST HOUSE first since it was the senior of the two works, and let me tell you, it was a profoundly disturbing experience since pretty much the latter half of the movie was shot in and around our hometown of Westport, Connecticut, and my friends and I could have hopped into a car and driven to the locations in question within minutes. The horror of seeing the two lovely young hippie chicks unspeakably violated, tortured and murdered by a carload of prison escapees and mental defectives in familiar locations, along with the savage vengeance enacted by the parents of one of them, plunged the viewing room into a deep funk, and we debated running the second film on our double-bill. But we were the hardest of Westport’s fans of evil and offensive films, and to paraphrase Super-Chicken, “we knew the job was dangerous when we took it,” so, with a sense of ominous foreboding, we proceeded as planned.
We knew of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’S notorious status from the get-go, but nothing had prepared us for the onslaught that we witnessed. The film looked painfully amateurish, the performances seemed wooden at best, and the much-condemned and admittedly ultra-sadistic rape scene felt like it went on for at least half of the film’s running time, with a camera that seemed to linger too long on the ugliness it captured, almost in the same way that one cannot look away from the grisliest of car accidents.
My friends and I were stone-cold stunned; this roomful of wiseasses made not one wisecrack during the proceedings, and the one thing that was said by way of comment came from the crew’s resident ladies’ man, Eric, who postulated, “Jesus…Can you imagine trying to get it into a dry, unwilling female? For fuck’s sake, man!” The three girls in the room nodded in shocked agreement, and even when the film’s heroine achieved her revenge, not one of us felt any form of relief since she had now descended to the rock-bottom level of her assailants. A profound sadness filled us all.
Now I understood the knee-jerk reaction felt by Siskel and Ebert and many other commentators, although I felt that their reactions were a bit much considering how many other films had dealt with similar material in equally harsh ways (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE leading a very vicious pack, the latter even containing hardcore penetration shots during one of the rapes, a segment that could only have been gotten away with in the film’s native Sweden) but there was something about the film that would not let go of me and I just couldn’t suss out exactly what it was…
After my first viewing, I saw I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE twice more during the next decade, and began to figure out a few of the things that intrigued me about the film:
1. The first thing I noticed after recovering from my initial state of shell shock was that the film has no musical score, a stylistic choice which only ups the tension by giving the viewer no cues as to where the action may go, and also stranding the viewer firmly within the film’s own bleak reality.
2. The desolate location of Kent, Connecticut is pretty much a dead zone, a no-man’s-land in which anything can happen due to its isolation. Having actually been to Kent and felt its ambiance of “you can turn your neighbors into chili here, and no one would ever know,” it was the most perfectly unsettling place to film such a story. It’s funny how horror filmmakers tend to gravitate to Connecticut; LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, and several of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise were shot there since many of the backwater areas look like the staging ground for many an urban legend featuring teenagers and crazed serial murderers.
3. The justifiably infamous four-against-one rape sequence does not actually go on for nearly an hour, it just feels that way, The actual running time is still excruciating though, since it clocks in at a staggering twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds of nigh-unbearable cruelty.
Recently the DVD online ordering service I use, Deep Discount DVD.com, had a massive sale, and I finally decided to order the Millennium edition of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE just so I could hear writer/director Mier Zarchi’s commentary track, a track that I imagined would be either a feature length litany of apology and “what the fuck was I thinking,” or an equally long spouting of pretentious excuses for making what is the basest form of exploitation. What I got both shocked and surprised me, so much so that I have completely reevaluated my stance on the film and will now defend it in a court of law as an important, if flawed, work of art.
Having been depicted in the media for nearly three decades as the Great Satan of cinema for masterminding such an incendiary flick, Mier Zarchi opted to avoid commenting on his film since so much has been said on it and for all intents and purposes he has been pilloried right along with it, but he came out of seclusion for the special edition, and thank the gods that he did. Zarchi’s commentary reveals much of the process of crafting an extreme independent film, but his reasons for making this filmic holocaust are not only completely valid, they are downright fucking heartbreaking.
As previously stated, the 1970’s saw the rise in popularity of rape/revenge flicks, a genre spearheaded by the success of DELIVERANCE (which in many was the direct ancestor to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) and DEATH WISH, and along with it came a certain factor of titillation connected to such content; a titillation that doesn’t address the sheer degrading horror and inhumanity of the act of rape. Zarchi may be the only filmmaker whose vision on this rather touchy subject is informed by firsthand knowledge of the shattering aftermath of rape thanks to a 1974 situation in Queens in which he, his daughter and a friend stumbled upon a naked woman who had been raped and sadistically beaten by two rat bastard motherfuckers who not only robbed her of her basic humanity and broke her jaw, but also intended to slash her throat when they were through having their “fun.” What saved her life was her telling her assailants that since they had knocked off her glasses she couldn’t see them and therefore identification was impossible.
Zarchi and his friend threw a coat around the woman, dropped off his daughter at home, and then made the mistake of taking the woman to the police only to witness her further violation by an indifferent cop who showed her no compassion and clearly wanted to get her processed into the system and out of his hair as soon as possible. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, when Zarchi dropped off his daughter at home, the eight-year-old girl asked her mother, “Mommy, what’s rape?” Can you imagine having to explain that one, especially after the kid witnessed a naked, abused woman with a broken jaw staggering out of the bushes? Jesus H. Christ…
The years went by and Zarchi understandably couldn’t get that scene out of his head, and when the opportunity presented itself he wrote and directed DAY OF THE WOMAN as a no-holds-barred, anti-entertainment depiction of rape whose very simplicity allows the story to say one hell of a lot despite its near total lack of dialogue. And with that, here’s the in-depth plot analysis section!
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING!!! THE ENTIRE PLOT IS DIVULGED IN GRAPHIC DETAIL, SO TURN BACK WHILE YOU CAN. ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!!!
Very much wearing its post-liberation-movement sentiment on its sleeve, the narrative introduces us to Manhattanite Jennifer Hills (the unimaginably brave Camille Keaton, great-niece of Buster Keaton), who heads to an unspecified upstate location in the middle of nowhere for a summer of relaxation and creative inspiration in a charming rented house by a placid river (in this case played by an unbilled Housatonic).
Upon arriving in town she pulls into the local gas station and meets Johnny (Eron Tabor, enacting one of the foulest villains in moviedom), the obvious alpha wolf to omegas Andy (Gunter Kleeman), Stanley (Anthony Nichols), and Matthew (Richard Pace), a retarded man-child who the rest treat like a feeble-minded pet. Matthew develops a crush on Jennifer, and when his “friends” learn about it they start to formulate a plan that will serve as the catalyst for this whole horrible mess: they must help Matthew lose his virginity by any means necessary.
When Jennifer gets to her rental house — in which a previous occupant left behind a fully loaded pistol in a drawer where one would expect to find Gideon’s bible —, the location is clearly a tonic for the urbanite and, overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings, Jennifer takes an innocent nude swim that is the antithesis of the so-called “male gaze” since Zarchi only gives us the briefest glimpse of her nudity and immediately pulls back to a vantage point from across the river, thereby eliminating the ogle factor and respecting the character’s privacy. Or is the positioning of the camera an indication that Jennifer is being watched by eyes filled with bad intent?
The next day, Jennifer orders groceries from the local market and Matthew turns out to be the delivery boy. The two cheerily banter back and forth as he asks her a series of childlike questions and determines that she comes from New York City (which he eerily describes as “an evil place”), that she is a writer who has been published in “women’s magazines,” and that she doesn’t have a boyfriend at the moment, although even the dim-witted Matthew can gather that she is no stranger to the pleasures of the flesh. She even playfully tells him that she’ll be his girlfriend for the summer; not a great idea in a film of this nature…
Matthew: unwitting catalyst to one woman's worst nightmare.
That night, the boys go fishing and engage in a round table discussion of everything that all men need to know about women, and these Rhodes scholars clearly know it all, including a dead-serious rumination on whether or not women have to take shits just like men do. And after many a spent Pabst Blue Ribbon their determination to get Matthew laid approaches the boiling point…
NOTE: as of this point the narrative is told almost entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, a fact that cannot possibly be overstressed.
For the next few days Jennifer paddles about the river, becoming one with Nature, working on her (painfully poorly-written) novel, and hanging out in a hammock while wearing a very fetching string bikini. At that point, two of the boys wreck the tranquility by zooming about and doing donuts on the river in an annoyingly noisy outboard boat; the intent of this action is not merely to be obnoxious, but is instead a blatant act of scoping the place out to see just how vulnerable Jennifer is. That night, she hears whoops and howls from the surrounding woods that are obviously not made by animals, yet she is not intimidated in the least and defiantly strolls outside to see what’s up. Finding nothing, she retires for the night.
The very next morning the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and Jennifer goes sunbathing in the middle of the river, bikinied and secure in the bosom of the natural world, in every way a longhaired Diana reveling in her wilderness. After a long, tranquil establishing shot, the silence of her solitary idyll is disrupted by that fucking outboard motor and the arrival of Andy and Stanley, both of whom hoot and holler like wild Injuns on a drunken rampage. The boys latch on to the canoe’s tether rope and drag an indignant Jennifer behind them, an unwilling captive who attempts to fend them off with repeated swings of her paddle and a barrage of foul language.
At this point, if we include the stalking/kidnapping, the rape of Jennifer begins in earnest as the boys haul her canoe to the riverside and try to pull her ashore; at no point during this exchange does our heroine back down, quite the opposite in fact as she hurls blow after blow at her assailants, making as much pejorative noise as possible. She breaks away and runs barefoot through the woods, pursued by the two shrieking Neanderthals, and when she reaches a clearing we almost think that she can get away. And then she literally runs right into the engineer-hatted Johnny. He repeatedly knocks her to the ground, as she fights the bastards off as best she can, but it’s a case of four booze-fuelled assholes against a willowy, ninety-eight pounds soaking wet city gal in a bikini, so you do the unfortunate math.
Johnny tears the bikini from Jennifer like he was skinning an animal — this was, after all, a human foxhunt — but she still ain’t having it, so each of the scumbags grab a limb and pin her spread-eagled to the ground. Johnny then urges Matthew to come and get her since “we got her for you,” but Matthew is too nervous and can’t perform (there is apparently some small part of him that knows that this is wrong), so in a moment of “well, what the hell, we might as well since we’ve got her here,” Johnny disrobes and mounts poor Jennifer, thrusting and grunting like the greasy pig that he is. When it is over, all of the men are stunned into silence by what they have done, and they release Jennifer, who stumbles away whimpering into the forest.
Bloodied and dirty, Jennifer staggers like a zombie through a disturbingly phallic forest-scape for what seems like a silent eternity, and then she hears the eerie keening of a nearby harmonica. She turns to see Andy perched upon a boulder and she quickly surveys the area for a possible escape route, but there is none to be had; she is surrounded by the four vermin, and they once again haul her into position for violation, only this time they place her face-down over the boulder, thereby making it simple for Andy to sodomize her while having what appears to be an epileptic seizure. The scream let out by Jennifer at this point will stay with you until the day you die, trust me on that one…
Andy soon finishes, and the boys leave the ravished Jennifer to roll off the rock and bounce off a tree. Before rolling off the boulder Jennifer remains immobile for quite some time, and the viewer even begins to wonder if she’s dead. But Jennifer is made out of far sterner stuff, and she manages to wobble to her feet and make an unsteady beeline to the rental house. As she enters the front yard, she collapses and begins to shake and sob uncontrollably, eventually crawling up the steps and donning the robe pegged next to the door. Soon, she is inside and making her way to the telephone, but when she begins to dial, a leather boot kicks the phone away from her and we realize, to our horror, that the bastards are inside the house and they are not done with their “hijinx.”
Pushed beyond all limits of physical and mental endurance, Jennifer still ain’t having it and manages to not only fight back, but she also motherfucking clobbers Stanley in the skull with a small table before being once more subdued and damned near knocked out, which allows the now-emboldened Matthew to climb atop her and attempt to get it up. As his friends cheer him on, the horny retard still can’t get the job done, so he is unceremoniously pulled off of Jennifer as Stanley sits on her chest while taking a long pull from a whiskey bottle. She seizes the opportunity to plead for her life, telling her assailants that she is badly hurt and to please not rape her anymore because she just couldn’t take it, even offering to use her mouth if that will do. Stanley contemplates that for a moment…before forcefully lodging the whiskey bottle up her tortured vagina and forcing his sorry excuse for a member into her bloody mouth. He then jumps off of her and begins to viciously kick and beat her in a display so off-putting that it even outrages Johnny and the rest, all of whom haul him off of Jennifer. They then leave her on the floor and order the slow-witted Matthew to take a buck knife and do her in once and for all. The redneck assholes step outside and leave Matthew to murder our girl, but he chickens out, rubs her blood onto the knife figuring she’ll just die anyway. I mean, nobody could possibly live through such abuse, right? So the mental defective goes outside and tells his friends that he’s offed their plaything, and they all leave, happy as a tree full of birds.
Needless to say, Jennifer survives all of that unspeakable horseshit and the viewer once more suffers along with her as she cowers, shivers and sobs, back against the wall in a corner, eventually gaining the strength to recuperate. Gone is the wood nymph who is innocently comfortable with her sexuality; that goddess has been replaced by a hardcore spirit of righteous, black-clad retribution, and from now on all bets are off.
The most affecting part of this segment is when Jennifer drives past a cemetery and the viewer looks at the tombstones as rather obvious symbolism, but that idea gets blown out of the water when she turns off the road and pulls up to a church. She walks in with a noticeable intensity, kneels before the altar and quietly says, “Forgive me.” She stands up, crosses herself and walks out. If the Judeo-Christian God is in any way as just as he claims to be — that “vengeance is mine” bullshit notwithstanding — as of now Jennifer is pretty much granted a free pass when it comes to turning those ratfuckers into mulch.
In short order, Jennifer lures each of the violators to horrible deaths: Matthew is granted his fondest wish but is hanged at the moment of his first orgasm, Johnny has his ween removed in a scene guaranteed to make every male in the audience clutch his stuff and scream like a four-year-old,
and the remaining two animals are dispatched on the lake with an axe and their own outboard motor. Once they are all dead, Jennifer guns the engine, the boat now symbolically representing a motorized phallus of death, and sets off upriver to an uncertain fate, a slight half-smile playing on her lips.
Now does that in any way sound like a film that glorifies rape, makes the viewer side with the violators, or portrays the woman as a socket that just sits there helplessly and takes it? I think not, and I honestly wonder whether Siskel and Ebert saw the same movie I did, since if they really had they would have made all of the same observations that I just shared with you. And what’s doubly galling about Ebert's review is that he has gone on record stating that LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is one of his favorite “guilty pleasures.” Then again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since the guy actually recommended COP AND A HALF…
Not enough can be said about the sparse but powerful cast: Camille Keaton is simply amazing as Jennifer, giving a completely believable performance that required total nudity for a large chunk of the picture, to say nothing of being on the receiving end of the pretend rapes. It’s an incredibly brave and rough role to essay, and it makes me sick that both Jodie Foster and Hilary Swank were lavished with massive critical kudos and Oscars for following in the footsteps of a trail blazed by the far-lesser-known Keaton.
And I don’t know how in hell the guys in the film could work up the moxie to even pretend to do any of the shit that their characters pull in the movie; all four are great for what they have to do, but Eron Tabor’s Johnny and Anthony Nichols’ Stanley are so heinously evil that you want to jump into the frame and kick them to death with an iron boot. Richard Pace’s turn as Matthew gets across the child struggling with the basest of male urges, and you almost feel sorry for Matthew when he gets killed because you have to ask yourself just how responsible he was, what with being slow and all that. Sadly, a film of this nature turned out to be pretty much a surefire career-killer, and most of the actors never worked again.
So, there you have the skinny on one of the most controversial films ever made, and while I cannot recommend it to the casual viewer for obvious reasons, I urge you not to listen to the virulent screeds against it that choke the internet; at the barbecue joint I recently discussed I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE with a very sweet lady who comes in every now and then, and because I was reading a book on the making of the FRIDAY THE 13TH SERIES she brought up Zarchi’s film as her favorite horror film and expressed a wish that if ever she could come to the defense of any one misunderstood flick, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE would be the one that she would champion.
Amen to that, sister. Amen.