I Spit On Your Grave (USA, 1977)
Although replete with class problems—the idle rich win out over the struggling poor, in the end—Meir Zarchi’s 1977 I Spit on Your Grave is an otherwise brilliant film, horror or no, rape revenge fantasy or no. What’s distressing is its critical reception, and the limited viewership the film’s received because of it. Not so much because I desire to support Zarchi’s vision, or income. But because French filmmaker and theorist Virginie Despentes is correct when she writes in King Kong Theory that:
A powerful and ancient political strategy has taught women not to defend themselves … But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” does mean “no”.
Originally released under the better title Day of The Woman (although I admit I prefer this title because it dovetails nicely with my upcoming essay on 2011’s The Woman), the film follows an urban transplant—a writer named Jennifer Hills—during her summer sojourn in the country by the lake. Her tranquility is broken, repeatedly, by four young men from town, and then her patience. Eventually, they nab her, bring her to a remote area of the forest, and rape her repeatedly. When they finally leave, we trace her struggle to stand and then return home; but there they are awaiting her and, again, attack. Three of the young men convince a fourth who is slightly mentally retarded to kill her. He cannot, but claims that he did. Her recovery takes weeks, and when she reemerges, the group of rapists turns on each other. United they may be a threat, but divided, she seduces each handily after requesting forgiveness in a church. Coitus Interruptus: she then kills each attacker in as brutal a manner as she can imagine. Remorselessly.
Jennifer does all this impassively, played by a sensibly stoic Camille Keaton, Buster’s granddaughter. That she was married to Zarchi at the time undercuts the force of the film a bit: onscreen she is a serenely composed, self-aware, independent woman, both before and then a bit after the rape. Her stage presence is commanding: it alone is worth substantial viewership.
But critics were not appreciative, at first. (Of course, this itself fostered a cult following.) Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it a “vile bag of garbage … sick, reprehensible and contemptible,” getting it dead wrong overall but sprinkling in a lame cheer for “feminist solidarity.” Barf. Tasteless, irresponsible, and disturbing are common insults, with certain characters receiving unfair portions of blame: namely the “retarded” rapist and the sick/sadistic/degraded female protagonist. Britain used it to push for tighter control over film standards—censorship.
Carol J. Clover attempted to set the record straight, a little bit, in the 1992 Men, Women and Chainsaws. Providing an overview of its critical reception, she qualifies its inclusion by restating the purpose of the book: “to offer an account not just of the most but of the least presentable of horror”. She adds that she does not “fully share” the negative views of the film—noting one interviewee’s suggestion that it be made compulsory viewing on high school campuses—and correctly identifies the film as not shocking or valueless at all. It simply fails to adopt a masculist viewpoint, one in which gang rape can be let off the hook as part of our culture. She makes excellent points about the individual rapists’ failure to take responsibility for their act—each blames the others, at some point, or the victim. But Clover ultimately condemns the film as largely artless.
It’s not true, but the film fails more significantly elsewhere: It’s the failure to maintain a masculine-friendly POV I’d like to look at more closely. Because this is perhaps not so much a problem of this film, as it is a problem of how allegiant we expect culture to remain to a rape-culture sensibility.
Let’s take the subgenre it sits in, for example. From a certain perspective, contextualizing the film as a rape-revenge fantasy is a problem. We do not have burglary-revenge fantasy films, although plenty of plots begin with a thieved item and continue with a plot dictated by reacquiring it. Films in which kidnappers or terrorists are hunted down are not kidnapping- or terrorism-revenge fantasies. Kidnapping and terrorism are too correctly situated already as legitimate crimes to need to justify them as revenge-worthy. Too, films in which rapes occur in the first place are not termed woman-revenge fantasy films. In fact, sometimes they are just “fantasy,” if they are called out at all. Rape, in fact, is the standard. In horror, in film, and in culture. It is retaliation against it that is marked.
This is not to say that rape is inevitable, or common, or necessary: only that we do not condemn it so thoroughly that we can even properly identify it. (Think of US Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claims of the impossibility of pregnancy in the case of “legitimate” rape.) It’s a cultural confusion that allows for a legal one. As Despentes writes, “With rape, it’s always up to you to prove you didn’t really give your consent.”
Despentes uses the second person, but she’s writing about her own rape. During which she had a knife. That she did not use. So her knowledge of the political strategy used to keep women acquiescent, even when bodily integrity is at stake, is personal and deep. “I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night,” she writes, “and slit each of their throats, one by one. Instead of having to live with being someone who didn’t dare defend herself, because she’s a woman and violence is not her domain, and the physical integrity of the male body is more important than that of the female.”
I Spit on Your Grave allows for a cultural imaginary in which the domain of women is violence, both serene and justified. But culture has a way of enforcing adherence to norms, even if tiny pockets of resistance can be created; few know this as well as Despentes, who has also made films, censored and considered rape-revenge fantasies. Her theory is this: “Rape is a well-defined political strategy: the bare bones of capitalism.” [Emphasis mine.]
This may be true, but comes into play in a different way than expected. In its refusal to allow for the possibility that all women may not dare defend themselves, capitalism marked I Spit on Your Grave—the film was problematized, a deviation from the standard and acceptable depiction of gender politics, and of culture. And that sets off its own domino effect. Because although the film may gain a small, cult audience—what democracy really does allow for, in the end—it cannot be embraced by a mainstream one, and will be marginalized (with vengeance) because of it.
This is a real problem. I Spit on Your Grave has some moments of absolute shocking gore, and some truly revolting kills. But it also has long moments of tranquility and peace. It’s a great film. But because it doesn’t privilege male viewership—and I wouldn’t even say that it instead privileges female, because it’s actually fairly even-handed, as Clover points out—it’s been kept from wider distribution, critical acclaim, and viewership. Could it function as a social imaginary, allowing a future in which more men refrain from forced sexual assault out of fear of getting their dicks cut off in bathtubs? We won’t know, under capitalism. They’d have to see it, first.