I Spit on Your Grave/Day of the Woman (1978) ****
In 1982, when the campaign against the Video Nasties began, even those governmental figures who openly sided with pains in the public ass like Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association had few tools available to them for bringing the unruly home video industry to heel. The only really effective weapon in the would-be censors’ arsenal was the Obscene Publications Act, a 19th-century law aimed originally at the print media. (In fact, there was initially some uncertainty as to whether the Obscene Publications Act could be applied to video recordings at all.) Enforcement was the responsibility of the Director of Public Prosecutions (for some reason, I keep wanting to type “Director of Public Persecutions” instead…), whose office was hardly the ideal instrument for the task at hand. Under the OPA, the authorities were forced to adopt an ad hoc approach, launching proceedings against specific individual films rather than issuing any sort of universally binding general guidelines. Furthermore, the whole process was something of a crap shoot, in that it was up to the courts to determine whether a given movie met the statutory definition of obscenity and was therefore eligible for banning. In order to fight the Video Nasties battle, the Director of Public Prosecutions basically had to maintain a list of all the movies in circulation on video which he and his staff thought might be found obscene in court, and treat everything on that list as a target of opportunity. The DPP lost more cases than he won in the two years prior to the passage of the Video Recordings Act, and his agency’s shifting fortunes account for the bewildering multitude of unofficial Nasties lists released prior to 1984— new titles were added as they came to the office’s attention, while others dropped off the list when it became obvious that the nation’s courts were not going to return a verdict of obscenity (or when it became evident that something amazingly stupid had happened, as when some overzealous twit mistook Zombie Flesh Easter— obviously a typo for Zombie Flesh Eaters— for a distinct film and dutifully incorporated it).
As cumbersome and uncertain as the process was from the government’s point of view, it was even worse for the distributors and retailers of the video industry. One of the peculiarities of the Obscene Publications Act was that it allowed for the same title to be prosecuted in multiple jurisdictions, and although a verdict of obscenity was valid throughout the land, acquittals were taken to be strictly local. When the Director of Public Prosecutions was thwarted in one court, he could and frequently did begin new proceedings against the same movie in another location, repeating the process until either the case came before a sufficiently censorious judge or the DPP racked up enough defeats to make further attempts seem a waste of resources. (The Evil Dead was acquitted by three different courts and still wound up banned!) Consequently, it was almost literally impossible for a video store owner to be certain that their stock contained nothing illegal, and that a posse of cops wouldn’t be showing up one day to confiscate their merchandise and bust them for trafficking in obscenities. And as if that weren’t enough all by itself, officials in some arch-Tory jurisdictions virtually made a game of it, subjecting the “smut peddlers” under their authority to concerted campaigns of harassment and persecution. So basically, it was an intolerable situation for both sides, and whatever the faults of the new regime ushered in by the Video Recordings Act, it did at least have the virtues of letting everybody know where they stood and eliminating a lot of the old system’s potential for abuse— at least once it was finally fully implemented in December of 1985.
One point that stands out immediately about the way things were done in Britain before the Video Recordings Act is the central place afforded to the concept of obscenity. Generally, obscenity is linked with sex, not violence, and it seems rather odd to hear the term being bandied about in the context of movies which mostly featured nothing more salacious than a bit of mild T&A. There are, however, a couple of sub-groups under the Video Nasties heading for which the label is a somewhat better fit. Rough and perverted sex was indeed the main point of many Nazi atrocity movies, for example, and the Last House on the Left wannabes literally could not exist without sexual violence. Then there are the rape revenge movies. I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s absurd to interpret the majority of those films as sexploitation, but at this point I’m pretty well used to the idea that most people, when confronted with a movie in which a naked woman appears on the screen, simply assume that the intention was to get some guy’s dick hard. That being the case, it requires no imagination at all to understand how I Spit on Your Grave would wind up facing prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. We are talking, after all, about a movie in which the entire second act is basically one big 30-minute rape scene, and unlike, say, Ms. .45, I Spit on Your Grave isn’t even a little bit shy when it comes to nudity. Nevertheless, unless you actually are a rapist, there isn’t a damn thing about the central half-hour of this movie that can meaningfully be described as sexy.
There isn’t much of a story here, but sometimes you really don’t need more than the general contours. Writer Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton, from What Have They Done to Solange? and The Concrete Jungle) leaves her home in New York City to spend the summer on the outskirts of a little village out in the country. The idea is to use the peace and quiet to focus her attention on writing her first novel— all she’s written up to now has been a set of short stories that saw publication in women’s magazines. The first person Jennifer meets in the town where she’ll be spending the next three months is Johnny (Eron Tabor), who runs the local gas station. (This is the kind of place where there isn’t but one of those, nor any reason to have more than that.) They chat for a while as Johnny fills up the tank of Jennifer’s Volare, and it seems reasonable enough that Johnny should find the new arrival attractive— not only is she very pretty, but she has a sense of style and a way of carrying herself that combine to make her look absolutely glamorous in comparison to her rather seedy surroundings. Matthew Lucas (Richard Pace), the delivery boy from the local grocery store, thinks so too when he comes to her house a bit later that afternoon. Indeed, Matthew’s reaction is, if anything, much stronger than Johnny’s, for he’s a painfully awkward social retard who faces the further handicap of being not terribly bright, and one gets the impression that girls don’t talk to him. Jennifer does, and Matthew leaves her rented summer house visibly infatuated.
As it happens, Matthew and Johnny are friends. Their circle is completed by a couple of mookish layabouts named Stanley (Anthony Nicols) and Andy (Gunter Kleeman), and the first time we see the four of them together, they’re fishing on the other side of the same big-ass lake that Jennifer’s rented property abuts. The main topic of conversation is Matthew’s virginity, and how the rest of the guys need to find him some way to get quit of it. This leads to all manner of free-range discussion about women in general and Jennifer Hill in particular, the main result of which is to make clear to everybody that Johnny and his pals are a bunch of fuckers who need to be sterilized immediately. (Although we’ll be seeing a bit later that it’s too late for that to do much good in Johnny’s specific case.) By the time the gang has split up to go home for the night, the decision has been made that Johnny, Stanley, and Andy are going to do whatever it takes to get Matthew laid this summer.
I doubt that you have any real question as to whom Johnny has in mind to be the agent of Matthew’s devirginization, and even if you do, no such question can long survive the way Stanley and Andy spend the next several scenes. Jennifer likes to while away her afternoons lying in a hammock beside the water, scribbling down notes for her novel. Alternately, she paddles her little wooden boat around in the lake for a few hours, presumably using the scenery to jump-start her stalled creative processes. Well, after the gas station boys have made their pact to find Matthew a woman, Jennifer increasingly finds her afternoons being intruded upon by Stanley and Andy, whose lack of gainful employment means that they have all the time in the world to go tearing ass up and down her shoreline in their noisy old motorboat, hooting and hollering like a couple of goddamned monkeys. And since they don’t have to get up for work in the morning, they can also stop by late at night to throw things at Jennifer’s house. Given these guys’ idea of courtship, I’m sure you can easily imagine their idea of consummation. The next time Jennifer takes her boat out on the lake, Stanley and Andy zoom in and take her under tow, dragging her probably a good mile up the lake before pulling ashore and hauling her onto the muddy bank. Jennifer tries to flee, but the men chase her straight into the waiting arms of Johnny. The three of them hold her down and tear off her bikini, calling all the while for Matthew to get his ass over there and claim his prize. Matthew is too nervous, though, and so Johnny takes it upon himself to show his shy young friend how it’s done.
Fully the next third of the movie is given over to Jennifer’s travails over the course of that afternoon. After Johnny finishes raping her, he and his friends allow her to run off into the woods, but they catch up with her again soon enough. Again they invite Matthew to do the honors, and again he declines; Andy takes his turn then, forcibly sodomizing Jennifer while Johnny and Stanley hold her down over a fallen log. She goes into shock and loses consciousness by the time he’s finished, and must literally crawl the remaining distance to her house once she comes back around some hours later. Jennifer has just picked up the phone to call the police when she discovers that her ordeal is not yet over— the men circled around ahead of her, and have been waiting for her in her own kitchen! This time, Matthew does manage to rape Jennifer, although he’s still too nervous to achieve orgasm. Stanley would naturally be expected to go next, but he’s apparently drunk up so much of Jennifer’s Irish whiskey that he can’t get it up. Instead, he beats Jennifer savagely and makes a short, fruitless effort to make her suck his cock. Now that all four have had a piece of the action, they head off to resume their normal lives, but they’ve still got one bit of business to attend to. Johnny gives Matthew a knife, and instructs him to go back into the house and stick it in Jennifer’s heart. Naturally, Matthew can do no such thing, and he merely wipes the blade across the woman’s copiously bleeding mouth so that he will have something with which to fool the others into thinking he’s done as he was told.
Jennifer lies low for the next two weeks, recovering both physically and psychologically. Once her bruises have faded and her ability to follow a train of thought has returned, she sets her mind to taking revenge. She stealthily follows both Matthew and Johnny home from their respective jobs, and spies on them to learn their routines. (Johnny, the thrice-damned bastard, turns out to have a wife and two kids!) Then, just about the time that Johnny is starting to wonder why no one has said anything about finding Jennifer’s body yet, she makes her move, placing a call to the grocery store, and asking for a delivery. Knowing the game is up, Matthew goes to her house with a knife stolen from the butcher counter, but Jennifer outmaneuvers him by turning on the seduction. While they’re having sex in the bushes by the side of the lake, Jennifer slips a noose around Matthew’s neck; this time, Jennifer later observes, Matthew comes. Johnny is next. She stops by the gas station at closing time and gets him to come home with her— by the time Jennifer finishes with him, Matthew’s punishment will look merciful in comparison. Then it’s just a matter of tracking down two shiftless parasites with no set schedule and possibly not even a fixed address. Fortunately, it’s an awfully small town.
I imagine I’m the only person alive who ever said this with a straight face, but for me, I Spit on Your Grave is the feel-good movie of 1978. Why? Because the fucking sons of bitches get exactly what they deserve, and they get it from the person who most deserves to give it to them. It never fails to bring a smile to my face when Jennifer slices Johnny’s junk off in the bathtub, and when she’s circling that motorboat around the helpless Stanley with the wind in her hair and the sun on her skin and the big fucking axe in her hand, it’s such a beautiful sight that I just want to drop down on one knee and ask her to marry me. My favorite scene of all, though, is the one that transpires between Jennifer and Johnny before she takes him home. After picking him up from the gas station, Jennifer drives first to an out-of-the-way place somewhere, with the implication that she’s chosen it as a good, secluded spot for outdoor sex. But as soon as Johnny has left the car, she pulls a gun on him, and orders him to take off his clothes and get down on his knees. (Hilariously, he doesn’t bother to remove either his left sock or his big, goofy hat.) Johnny begins begging for his life at this point— as you’d expect a man in his position to do— but he does it in a very curious way. Rather than giving her a lot of, “I’m sorry! Please don’t shoot me!” he goes off on a long tirade about how she was asking for it, what with her high heels and her skimpy clothes and her sexy big-city makeup, and that no man could possibly have been expected to control himself around her. That’s when Jennifer puts the gun down, gives him back his clothes, and invites him back to her house. It’s brilliant. As Johnny comes to the end of his spiel, Camille Keaton lets this little look shoot across her face, and you just know she’s thinking, “Oh, you so shouldn’t have gone there. I was just going to shoot you in the face and leave it at that, but no way in hell am I letting you off that easy now!” It’s the ultimate example of a theme that runs throughout I Spit on Your Grave’s third act, the idea that Jennifer, having suffered so much from Johnny and his buddies’ rampant sexism, turns around and uses those very same ignorant attitudes to lure them to their doom. They’re bigger and stronger and tougher and meaner than she is, but she’s able to come out on top because they seriously are so fucking stupid that they actually believe their own bullshit; they allow themselves to be snared because they honestly think that deep down, Jennifer really liked it.
The paradoxical thing about I Spit on Your Grave is that the ecstatic quality of the third act is made possible by the unrelenting viciousness of the second. It isn’t just that Jennifer’s multiple beatings and three-and-a-quarter rapes are depicted graphically, but that they’re depicted with a horrifyingly detailed realism. There is none of the roving extreme closeup conventionally associated with cinematic sex. Jennifer’s hair becomes progressively more matted and her skin progressively more clotted with mud and grit, in a manner which shows unmistakably that the whole sequence was shot in order from beginning to end with a bare minimum of retakes. Her anguished shrieking as Andy ass-fucks her on the log sounds as much like the voice of actual, physical pain as anything I’ve ever heard in a movie, and the suddenness with which it trails off as she goes into shock has an equally distressing verisimilitude. Most importantly, the rape sequence rings true as an emotional experience, and as an event in one person’s life. From the moment Stanley and Andy show up in their motorboat and begin harassing Jennifer until the time Johnny and the others let themselves out of her house, the camera never once leaves her surroundings, making the series of attacks feel as though it plays out in one continuous, real-time take, even though it of course does no such thing. Furthermore, because this section of the film begins with Jennifer alone in the camera’s field of vision, it is her point of view that dominates the events of the next three reels or so, emotionally if not necessarily in the literal sense— and it’s worth pointing out that the climax of each rape is shown from a perspective not far out of line with Jennifer’s own. Writer/director Meir Zarchi succeeds breathtakingly in putting the audience in Jennifer’s place, creating what is probably the most vicariously painful depiction of sexual violence in the annals of cinema. It pushes what comes next beyond the territory of mere revenge, and into that of Righteous Vengeance. And in doing so, it opens the door to as glorious a catharsis as any the movies have to offer. Those who have attacked I Spit on Your Grave as misogynist and pornographic since its release have, as usual, missed the point completely.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal salute to the Video Nasties. Click the banner below to see just how much nastiness my colleagues and I could take.