I've just been taping the commentary track for the new "Millennium Edition" DVD of "I Spit On Your Grave," which may be the most despised movie in the history of film. Sometimes I think I'm its only defender.
It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of this rape/revenge classic, and to this day it's banned from television -- ALL television. When I was hosting movies on The Movie Channel, and later on TNT, I would occasionally ask if we could get rights to it, thinking it would be a great thing to show even if we had to use the censored version. But it was on the "too grisly for cable" list, and it stayed there even after standards loosened up in the 1990s and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," to use just one example, actually aired on premium cable.
They won't even show "I Spit On Your Grave" on adult pay-per-view.
What is it about this movie that makes it so universally hated? I could make a pretty strong argument for it being a feminist tract, and in fact, when it was first released in 1978, the title was "Day of the Woman." If you took Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, and asked them to come up with their worst-case version of the true nature of rape, it would probably look a lot like what happens to Jennifer Hill, the free-spirited New York magazine writer who rents a summer house in the country in "I Spit On Your Grave" and gets brutally attacked by the local pond scum.
No sexuality at all -- just completely oppressive violence of man against woman.
And then she sets the world straight. Only she doesn't do it in the wimpy legalistic way that Jodie Foster does it in "The Accused." In that movie, for which Jodie Foster won the Oscar, a girl is gang-raped and then fights through the legal system to get justice against her attackers. It's the EXACT SAME PLOT as "I Spit On Your Grave." The only difference is that Camille Keaton, the grandniece of Buster Keaton who stars in "I Spit," does the job herself. If you wanna talk about empowerment, this broad is pretty dang EMPOWERED -- as opposed to "The Accused," where the creaky legal system ALMOST fails and lets the guys go free.
At any rate, the reason the movie got flagged for censorship in the first place is that, when it was re-released in 1980, Siskel and Ebert hammered it so brutally on "Sneak Previews" that they all but called for its banishment from the face of the earth. Then they continued to crusade against it, pretty much establishing it as the movie that no civilized person should ever permit himself to see. (Of course, that just made people like me want to see it even more.)
Their argument was that the movie was told from the point of view of the rapists, and that the people who watched it in downtown grindhouse theaters actually CHEERED for the rapists.
First of all, I've examined it shot-by-shot several times now, and the first charge is just absolutely false. There's no question, from the opening shot of the movie through the closing shot, that the story is told from one point of view and one point of view only -- the woman's.
Not only that, but during the actual rape sequence, the point-of-view shots are VICTIM'S point-of-view shots -- the twisted face of the grimacing rapist, and, by the way, WAY too many closeups of flabby male buttocks for my taste. You don't even see that much of Camille Keaton. What you DO see of her is in the aftermath of the rape, when she's bloody and dirty and virtually catatonic as she tries to make her way through the woods back to her summer house.
The reason the movie was shot that way is that the director, Meir Zarchi, witnessed the aftermath of a real-life rape in 1974, when he was the first to see a battered nude woman emerging from a city park. He called for help and assisted her, but the experience shook him -- and led to "I Spit On Your Grave." He wanted to show just how gruesome the experience is.
Actually Ingmar Bergman had made a similar movie in 1959 called "The Virgin Spring," but the difference in that case is that the girl's rape is avenged by her father, Max Von Sydow.
Same thing with Wes Craven's first film, "Last House on the Left," in 1972 -- the rape is avenged by the girls' parents. So what Zarchi was doing is making a "what if" movie, as in "What if women didn't have to rely on other people to take back the power?" It's about the strongest "Take Back the Night" statement ever made. She doesn't just take back the night. She takes back the night, the morning, the afternoon, and steals the clock while she's at it.
As the original poster put it, "This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition ... but no jury in America would ever convict her!" Actually she only killed four men, not five, and she didn't really burn any of them, but they don't call 'em exploitation movies for nothing, do they?
Now what about that second claim -- that Ebert and Siskel watched the movie in a theater where everyone was cheering for the rapists to win?
First point -- from a veteran of grindhouses, God how I miss 'em -- is that, the more intense the movie, the more young hormonal males will say and do almost ANYTHING to make it appear that the scene doesn't really affect them. If they laugh, it's not necessarily a real laugh. If they adopt some anti-social point of view -- "Get her! Kill!" --it's always at a time when the action on the screen is genuinely upsetting and they want everyone to think they're bad asses who can make jokes even during the scary parts.
It doesn't mean any more than ghetto murder slang -- or the cheering that sometimes occurs when Jason slices up a teenager in a particularly imaginative way. The cheer is a form of nervous laughter, not identification with the killer.
"At the film's end," wrote Roger Ebert, "I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed, and depressed."
And all I've got to say to that is my second point -- the only reason he could feel unclean, ashamed and depressed is that HE identified with the rapists. And that's VERY kinky. This woman TRIUMPHS in the film. It's no different, really, than "Death Wish" or "Dirty Harry." The first half of the movie sets up a series of crimes so horrendous that, when the peaceful character takes up arms, you don't mind it. The only difference is that those are male fantasy projections and this is a female one.
It's been frequently written in video guides and elsewhere that the film glorifies rape because the actual gang-rape sequence is 40 minutes long. Actually it's not. It might FEEL like it's 40 minutes long, but if you count the very beginning of the entrapment of Jennifer, long before you're even aware that it's a rape, and stop counting after she's been raped the final time, it's about 24 minutes. The revenge, on the other hand, is incredibly drawn out.
If I had to guess why this movie has drawn this level of intense hatred, I would have to say it's because a lot of people think rape shouldn't be portrayed at all. Murder is fine, but rape is still taboo. But the rape is not nearly the most terrifying part of the movie.
The worst scene -- you know the one I'm talking about -- is so horribly gruesome that I can't imagine any male watching it without remembering it the rest of his life. Let's just say it's the ultimate MALE fear, and it's perpetrated by a cool, collected female who, by the end of the movie, has restored herself to sanity, the old-fashioned way.
Watch it with me when it comes out in November. I'm telling you, it's due for a revival.
Web site for "I Spit On Your Grave": elitedisc.com/desc_page/titles_hscc_4.html.
(Contact Joe Bob at JoeBob@upi.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)