In 1977, I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi), issued under the less flamboyant title Day of the Woman (and also known as I Hate Your Guts and The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill), was condemned across continents for being a film that, according to Roger Ebert in “Why Movie Audiences Aren’t Safe Anymore,” fostered in the audience rape and violence towards women (Ebert 54). Initially, the film was banned in the United Kingdom, Finland, Australia, and Germany. Upon its release in theaters, it was picketed by various groups (including women’s organizations) and panned by critics; and still, thirty years later, it remains a subject of controversy. That a low budget B-film can generate an inordinate amount of storm and stress is illustrated by Ebert’s assessment of the film as "a vile bag of garbage” that is “so sick, reprehensible, and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters” (Ebert 61). Gene Siskel, in a concurrent review, labeled it as “easily the most offensive film I have seen in my 11 years on the movie beat” (Siskel 3). Ten years later, in the 1987 Video Movie Guide, film critics Mick Martin and Marsha Porter called I Spit on Your Grave
an utterly reprehensible motion picture with shockingly misplaced values. It seems to take more joy in presenting its heroine’s degradation than her victory. She is repeatedly raped and tortured. When the tables finally turn, she proves to be just as vicious as her attackers. The scene where she robs a man of his offending ‘weapon’ is one of the most appalling moments in cinema history. This is, beyond a doubt, one of the most tasteless, irresponsible, and disturbing movies ever made (Cited in Clover, 114).
They even declare “regardless of how much you may enjoy ‘bad’ films, you will hate yourself for watching this one” (Cited in Clover, 114).
Even today, the pittance of critical scholarly attention that has been directed towards I Spit on Your Grave remains mixed in its evaluation of the film. Carol Clover is one of few feminist film critics who has bothered to engage in an extended analytical reading of the film as part of her examination of the rape-revenge genre. Yet even Clover, in her defense of the film, almost apologizes for her investment in the material by declaring that it would be less demanding to discuss the rape-revenge category without mentioning I Spit on Your Grave, but due to “its video popularity, and further given the fact that it reduces the genre to its essence, and finally given the project of this book to offer an account not just of the most but also the least presentable of horror, I have decided. . . to use it as a point of entry into a thriving branch of modern horror” (Clover 115). She even offers up that “I Spit on Your Grave is a shocking film, and one is inclined to suspect its makers of the worst possible motives” (Clover 116); even though industry lore has it that Meir Zarchi supposedly directed the film after having assisted a woman to the hospital when she was raped in a park.
While I would argue with Clover’s denial of any artistic merit in the film, what is more important is to see that it is a film that holds a mirror up to society’s inherent misogyny, and that it is the spectators themselves who, over-awed and anxious from the material at hand, are irresponsible in their willingness to deride the shocking subject matter of the film without allowing for any close examination of its form and content. So over-stimulated are our eyes by the graphic (and I would argue not gratuitous) depiction of rape, we don’t actually “see” the film. This blind spot is evidenced by the Martin and Porter who interestingly enough, point out the film’s “misplaced values,” yet fail to recognize the irony of their blurb with its own misplaced values, i.e. that even though the heroine is repeatedly raped and tortured, they consider the most pernicious scene of the movie to be that of the man’s castration.
I Spit on Your Grave is essentially constructed in a two-part narrative framework made obvious through the name given to the sub-genre: rape-revenge. The first section of the film is devoted to the movement of the female protagonist, Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton), from her urban home into the rural setting where she is attacked and the portrayal of her extended rape and brutalization at the hands of four men as well as the aftermath and physical recovery. The total length of the rape sequence is approximately thirty minutes—almost one-third of the film’s running time—and actually consists of three separate acts of rape and assault, punctuated by Jennifer’s desperate and degrading attempts to escape her assailants. The second section of the film encompasses her subsequent acts of revenge against her rapists. Each of these two segments is demarcated by a tracking shot of Jennifer in her car, in profile, facing the right of the screen as she begins her literal and metaphorical journey. In the opening driving sequence, she is evenly lit, wearing make-up with her hair pinned up and clothed in a reddish-orange sundress as she begins her intended vacation; in the subsequent profile shot as she embarks on her mission of murder, she is shot in shadow, donned in sunglasses and a black kerchief and she makes her way to the church to ask for forgiveness for her ensuing revenge.
The rape scenes are presented almost minimalistically—stark composition and harsh, natural lighting with no soundtrack other than the men’s continuing banter and war cries, as well as Jennifer’s breathing, crying, and agonized screams. While subject, at least in part, to the same techniques of condensation that structure Hollywood mainstream films, the sequence is shot in a series of long takes that powerfully suggest that we are witnessing events in real-time—there is no escape either for her or us. The effect of the verisimilitude of reality allows for a rape scene in which we experience her entrapment. This painfully long scene is neither titillating nor entertaining, but an excruciatingly illuminating display of the horror and degradation of rape with only the mud, bruises, and blood covering Jennifer’s broken body to serve as visual trappings. This brutally realistic mediation forces the audience to share in the roles of victim, victimizer, and accomplice (there is no innocent standing-by when the looks of the characters we are forced to identify with are those who are pinning the victim down as she is assaulted) as the camera oscillates between a multitude of viewpoints. Whenever she is filmed nude, she is not eroticized or spectacularized, but is captured in long or medium shots, so that her body is witnessed as whole, not cut into parts. The few times that the camera moves into an intimate space with her, rather than the suggestion of fragmentation, we instead see her nudity deliberately disguised and so must focus on her face which is an imbrication of rage and terror.
Beyond the film’s refusal to recapture Jennifer in a voyeuristic gaze, the narrative structure of the film refuses to subject her to the kinds of sadism and control that Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ finds in, for example, Hitchcock’s films. Isabel Cristina Pinedo describes the conditions of many horror films as those that find women “unable to use violence, and thus drive the narrative forward, [and hence the] victims lack narrative agency” (Pinedo 75). Jennifer uses graphic violence repeatedly and drives the second half of the narrative entirely by herself in her ensnarement of each of her attackers in turn, but her actions foreground the very issue of narrative control itself as she engages in a direct reversal of the men’s control of her; there are three assaults, each increasing in violent intensity, with the third as a two-on-one battle. But it is perhaps the function of the boat in the film that most succinctly expresses Jennifer’s progress towards control over narrative movement. The rape sequence is initiated at the point when the men, in a motor boat, pull Jennifer’s row boat off course, run it aground, and rob her of the tiny ineffectual paddle she attempts to wield as a defensive weapon. Once stripped of the power to control her own course, there is nothing standing between her naked body and the torture she is about to endure.
After the attack, during her recovery, Jennifer sees her boat adrift in the river and her anchoring of it to shore coincides with the initiation of the revenge portion of the narrative. It is her forcible boarding and takeover of the motorboat at the end of the film that symbolizes her triumphant reversal of women’s subjection, as it is the vehicle through which she kills the last two of her rapists and closes the film with an image of a woman who navigates the boat out toward the audience in a direct confrontation and guns the motor as if to say “I’m coming for you next.”
This final scene in I Spit on Your Grave has Jennifer reiterating the words of her last attacker, Stanley, “Suck it, bitch” as she turns the boat motor on, in proximity of his genitalia. The water bubbles and froths with blood and then the film cuts to Jennifer’s triumphant face, wearing an almost imperceptible smile. The film’s last cut goes from her face to her hand on the motorized tiller as the credits role, suggesting her ultimate control and empowerment.
Day of the Woman. Scanner Communications, 2002.
Briggs, Joe Bob. “Advice to the Hopeless.” 2002.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton Univ. Press and British Film Institute, 1992.
Ebert, Roger. "Why Movie Audiences Aren't Safe Anymore." American Film 6.5 (March 1981): 54-6.
Ebert, Roger. “’I Spit on Your Grave’: a vile film for vicarious sex criminals.” Chicago Sun Times (July 16, 1980): 61
Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Feminism and Film. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
_______. “Introductory Notes.” In Kaplan, 19-21.
_______. "Is the Gaze Male?" In Kaplan, 119-138.
Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter. Video Movie Guide: 1987. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Kaplan, 34-47.
Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Siskel, Gene. “Most frightening horror of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is its mainstream American audience.” Chicago Tribune (Monday, July 14, 1980), Section 2, page 3.