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Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit on Your Grave” is kind of a funny film to choose to remake, having caused heated debate ever since its release and frequent censoring back in 1978. Whilst on the one hand, the film’s reputation for controversy might well be just as headline-grabbing today, it’s one of the few pieces of extreme exploitation cinema that even many diehard genre fans find it uncomfortable admitting they actually like. This is understandable, given that much of the running revolves around brutal rape scenes, with the film walking a fine line between supposed feminist revenge as per its original title “Day of the Woman”, and gratuitous misogyny dressed up as grindhouse entertainment. Director Steven R. Monroe (“Complacent”, “Storm Cell”) is the man bravely attempting to update and revive the film, running the risk not only of being accused of glamorising violence against women, but of needlessly churning out yet another pointless remake.
The film basically sticks to the same plot as the original. Sarah Butler (a television actress who appeared in “CSI:New York” and “CSI: Miami”), takes the lead as Jennifer Hills, a romance novelist who rents a cabin for a couple of months deep in the southern backwoods, hoping to finish her latest work in peace and solitude. Unfortunately, she catches the eye of a particularly nasty gang of local males, led by the brutish Johnny (Jeff Branson, “The Guiding Light”, “All My Children”), who subject her to a terrifying night of abuse and rape, before ditching her body in a river nearby. Of course, she turns out not to be dead, and a few weeks later reappears to exact a ferocious campaign of revenge against her tormentors.
With the themes dealt with in “I Spit on Your Grave” still relevant today, much as with the original, the film’s main issue is the charge of it using rape as entertainment. Monroe does his best to get around this in the same way as Meir Zarchi, by employing a clear, defined structure that sees the film divided into two halves, the first focusing on the protagonist’s nightmarish ordeal, and the second on her retaliation. On this score, the film actually improves upon the original, thanks to vastly superior production values, plus a few tweaks to the story and characters, which help to make things more believable and go some way to justifying her later behaviour. The first forty five minutes or so are tense and well paced, becoming increasingly unpleasant and distressing as the film builds and grows more menacing. The rape scenes and the abuse which precedes them are tough to watch and go on for a painfully long time, but though graphic are not sexualised or played for titillation in any way. Through this, Monroe succeeds well enough in putting the viewer through the wringer with Jennifer, thanks in no small part from a brave, likeable performance from the impressive Butler, and as a result, the film does manage to avoid any real misogyny.
The second half of the film is considerably more problematic, as although the horrors which she has earlier endured essentially vindicate her actions in advance, the tortures she enacts are hideous and incredibly drawn out. This in itself is where the issue lies, as the film leaps from gritty, unpleasant grittiness into distinctly “Saw” like territory, with Jennifer putting the men to their deaths through odd and ironic methods that frequently defy belief, not least since the early stages of the film portray her as being notably clumsy and not exactly given to Jigsaw style scheming. Each of these scenes follows the same pattern – she waits till her victim is alone, knocks them out, the camera fades to black, they wake up incapacitated and in one kind of agonising position or another. Whilst the death scenes are certainly spectacular, and undoubtedly amongst the year’s cruellest and bloodiest, they are clearly signposted, and lack any real suspense or surprise other than as to what inventive methods she will have dreamt up next. This is not helped by her making a few wisecracks along the way, something which makes it clear that these scenes are not being played for at least some kind of catharsis, but primarily for gruesome thrills.
Of course, this likely quite intentional on the part of Monroe, and as much as anything is simply a sign of the post “Hostel” times. However, despite the extreme gore, it does make the film somehow less savage and nihilistic than the original, as by going too far and into the realm of the gimmicky Grand Guignol, it almost creates a barrier of safe disbelief that distances the viewer from the far more grounded and real life suffering of the first half. This does make it an uncomfortable film in a different way, since it almost suggests that Jennifer has gone through her ordeal solely so that the audience can revel in her bloody, spectacular revenge and enjoy some guilt free sadism.
Again, this in itself is open to interpretation, much as it was with the 1978 film, and “I Spit on Your Grave” is certainly likely to elicit a range of responses from both male and female viewers. This aside, in more general terms, it is one of the few remakes to build, and even perhaps improve upon the original, and it stands as a solid, challenging piece of visceral and shocking genre film making that mostly succeeds in its aims.
Steven R. Monroe (director) / Meir Zarchi (1978 screenplays), Stuart Morse (screenplay)
CAST: Chad Lindberg … Matthew
Tracey Walter … Earl Woodason
Daniel Franzese … Stanley
Sarah Butler … Jennifer
Jeff Branson … Johnny
Andrew Howard … Sheriff Storch
Rodney Eastman … Andy
Saxon Sharbino … Chastity