Fantastic Fest 2010 Review: I Spit On Your Grave

Posted on October 2, 2010 by N. Amer Editor

I Spit On Your Grave (2010)
Fantastic Fest 2010
Directed by: Steven R. Monroe
Starring: Sarah Butler, Chad Lindberg, Daniel Franzese, Jeff Branson, Rodney Eastman
Review by:Britt Hayes

Every once in a while, a film comes along that will rattle you furiously. If you’re lucky, the same film may reward you for enduring the atrocities within. I Spit On Your Grave does both, but it goes even further and does the impossible. A remake of the 1978 Meir Zarchi exploitation classic, Steven R. Monroe’s I Spit On Your Grave is the surprise horror film of the year. Never in my life would I imagine that I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) could be respectfully remade, let alone could it be outdone by its own remake. But here we are in 2010, and Monroe’s film not only pays respect to Zarchi’s film, but improves on every flaw in the original film.

Jennifer Hills is a young novelist taking a vacation in a remote cabin in the country to finish her newest novel. Her first stop in town is the gas station, where she encounters Johnny and his friends. Johnny lays it on pretty thick, but Jennifer isn’t some dumb country girl. She’s from the big city and where she’s from, men don’t impress women with cheesy, obvious pick-up lines. Feeling embarrassed, Johnny and his friends (Andy, Stanley, and the mentally-challenged Matthew) hatch a plan to get back at Jennifer.

The men break into her cabin, taunt her, rough her up a bit, and humiliate her. Jennifer finds a way out, and this is where the remake takes a sharp left turn with a new character, Sheriff Storch. In the ’78 film, audiences wondered why Jennifer never tried to go to the cops, and here that question is answered and then some.

The remake updates the source material without bashing you over the head with it: Jennifer has a cell phone and a laptop, as would be expected in this day and age, but the other interesting addition is Stanley’s camcorder, adding another layer of humiliation to Jennifer’s torment. The men, of course, molest Jennifer repeatedly and leave her for dead. For those concerned that the rape is not intense or brutal enough – as if one needs a twenty-five minute rape scene – I can assure you, it is. In some ways, Monroe’s film is harder to watch, perhaps because Butler’s performance is so genuine, or perhaps because Monroe uses the camera in a way that – even if we aren’t watching in gyno-vision – makes the acts more terrifying. Monroe puts us at Jennifer’s level so we come face to face with her emotions and what’s happening to her. And it happens. Over and over and over. At one point we black out with Jennifer and find it’s happened again.

Months go by and the men think Jennifer is long gone, until someone starts messing with Johnny late one night, and someone sends a package with an incriminating video tape to Sheriff Storch’s house. The last hour of I Spit On Your Grave is pure revenge, and justifiably so. Jennifer sets traps because she’s not strong enough to subdue the men. Some are rather elaborate and will no doubt draw comparisons to the Saw franchise, which is unfortunate. Anytime there’s an elaborate entrapment (and I personally didn’t find Jennifer’s traps to be that elaborate), Jigsaw’s name is invoked and we feel like we can’t appreciate a good, violent trap anymore. This isn’t Saw. This isn’t Jigsaw. This is a woman getting legitimate vindication and turning the tables 180 degrees on the men who victimized her. She refuses to be a victim and let them control who she is. This is empowerment represented with hyperbole; a giant exclamation point.

Zarchi’s Day of the Woman is one of the most controversial films in history, but it has some serious issues. It’s difficult to root for Jennifer when she takes her revenge in his film. There’s nothing pleasant about what happens to her, and yet there’s nothing remotely pleasant about what she does to claim retribution. Maybe it’s difficult to relate to Camille Keaton’s Jennifer, or maybe Zarchi’s film aesthetic is just that unflinching. Day of the Woman is a bleak, nasty film, but Zarchi’s greatest misstep was Matthew, the mentally-challenged man-child. Matthew is painted as a Jerry Lewis-esque clown, and every moment he’s on camera takes us out of the experience. Here you have an emotionally devastating rape sequence, but Matthew shows up and we’re not sure if we should laugh or become more angry.

Steven R. Monroe improves everything in I Spit On Your Grave. Matthew is still mentally-challenged, but played with careful tact and understanding by Chad Lindberg. Matthew becomes a complex character we can empathize with. Daniel Franzese (who I loved in Larry Clark’s Bully) is perfect as the burly, hick-ish simpleton Stanley, and reinforces the belief that dumb is dangerous. Rodney Eastman’s Andy and Jeff Branson’s Johnny are both equally horrifying and slick, while Andrew Howard’s portrayal of Sheriff Storch is perhaps the most insidious of the bunch (even if it is a bit reminiscent of Michael Rooker).

Sarah Butler is the real breakout star of this film. Jennifer is sort of every-girl: Sassy, intelligent, a little pretentious, and very comfortable in her own skin – she embodies traits we all have. It’s easy to like her immediately, which makes it so much more terrifying when she is assaulted, and all the more gratifying when she takes her revenge. I think because we connect with her so much more readily than we do with Camille Keaton’s Jennifer in Day of the Woman, it’s easier to applaud the violent retaliation in the end.

I Spit On Your Grave examines the sexist thinking that it’s unacceptable to brutalize a woman but perfectly acceptable to harm a man. The film challenges us and makes us question why we’re okay with Jennifer’s revenge but not okay with her rape and abuse. When you consider your gut-reaction, there’s a more sexist notion afoot: that Jennifer is a woman, and therefore is weak. It’s wrong for her to be attacked because she can’t defend herself, but it’s encouraged and accepted when she strikes back because we could never expect – but only hope for – her to react this violently.

Mostly, I Spit On Your Grave is a hyperbolic representation of an eye for an eye. It’s wishful thinking taken to the Nth degree, and more importantly: it’s only a movie. We can’t honestly desire that a woman who is raped and left for dead will come back and inflict torture with these intricate set-ups, but we do desire to see good triumph over evil, the good guys beat the bad guys, and the victims become the victors. I Spit On Your Grave tells the story of an average woman – an average person, really – who is so victimized and beaten down that she may never recover, but she takes that horrific situation, internalizes it, and becomes stronger than her victimizers. And that’s a premise I think we can all get behind.

It’s impossible for Monroe’s I Spit On Your Grave to be any more controversial than Zarchi’s Day of the Woman, but Monroe still pulls off the greatest coup by matching, and in some ways topping Zarchi’s ruthlessness and savagery, while giving us a film that is meaner and better.

I Spit On Your Grave is the second horror film this year (following Hatchet II) to be released UNRATED in theaters under a special contract with AMC theaters. If you want to see I Spit On Your Grave and support the return of Unrated horror to our theaters, please visit the site: www.ISpitOnYourGraveMovie.com

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