Review: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

This is a difficult one. Along with The Last House on the Left (1972), this is one of those unpleasant 70’s rape-revenge flicks that makes its audience feel dirty for watching a woman being brutalized, and then for cheering her (or her surrogates) on as she seeks revenge.

Camille Keaton (from What Have You Done to Solange? and Tragic Ceremony, and granddaughter of silent film comic Buster Keaton) is Jennifer, an author who rents a country cottage, planning to write and relax there. She’s harassed and raped by four men, one of them mentally challenged, and then (SPOILER ALERT) she tracks them down and kills them one by one. (END SPOILER ALERT) That, in a nutshell, is it.

One of only two films directed by Meir Zarchi (the other being Don’t Mess With My Sister; 1985), I Spit on Your Grave is competently made, more so than The Last House on the Left. Its 2010 remake is even more polished, however, it’s neither as controversial nor quite as effective as the original, much like the 2009 remake of Last House.

So, what’s an appropriate reaction to the original I Spit on Your Grave? Disgust? Outrage? Dismissal? Enjoyment? What are we to take away from 100 minutes of rape and revenge? Is it the understanding that rape is bad? Hopefully that has always been obvious. Is it to learn that revenge is futile? The Last House on the Left at least makes it clear that it toys with this idea by adding a brief coda to emphasize this point, but I Spit on Your Grave doesn’t. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) clearly revels in its protagonist discovering his bloody “manhood” after his wife and home are attacked, adding a grey area to its resolution; I Spit on Your Grave is not so intentionally thought provoking. Bear with me. It’s through these comparisons to other thematically related films that we’ll discover a reading of I Spit on your Grave. By finding out what it’s not, it becomes easier to define what it is.

For example, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible uses its rape scene to not just shock, but to also show how brutal and harrowing rape is. I Spit on Your Grave does that too, but in a much more questionable manner and for such a loooooong time. At least it’s not at all titillating, so thank God its intent doesn’t seem to be to sexually excite its audience. The prolonged rape scene isn’t even the single moment when ugly reality intrudes on an otherwise enjoyable exploitation flick like it is in, say, Savage Streets. There it shows us how vile the villains are and sets up the action that follows. Here too, it propels the film forward (eventually), but it also takes up almost a quarter of the film’s running time.

I Spit on Your Grave differs from even Deliverance, another 70’s rape-revenge film, because there is no sense of, well, deliverance. You sit there, wondering what kind of life Keaton’s character is going to return to? How is she going to explain all those bodies? What’s next? When I Spit on Your Grave is over, when it just ends like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the viewer is left with only an emptiness. At least the ending of Chain Saw was somewhat cathartic as the audience felt like it had escaped from Hell along with Marilyn Burns, even if she would never quite be the same ever again. In Chain Saw, however, Burns didn’t become the monster; in Grave, Keaton does. Perhaps that’s the movie’s point – that the actions of the male characters have turned Keaton into a monster – but I don’t really think so.*

After all these comparisons to other rape-revenge films, what I’m left with are two reactions: 1) I Spit on Your Grave’s resonance and ability to disturb comes from it’s lack of point of view, it’s journalistic observation that sits back, shows what happens, and doesn’t comment on it. And 2) I Spit on Your Grave seems to exist purely as exploitation cinema. As true horror exploitation, its job is to take us somewhere dark, and that it does. And that makes I Spit on Your Grave impossible to dismiss.

*When discussing Keaton’s presence in I Spit on Your Grave, it’s important to note that the effectiveness of the film rests almost entirely upon her performance. If she appears a little lifeless at first (perhaps intentionally), as she endures what is infamously recognized as the longest rape scene in film history (approximately 25 minutes) and its resulting change in character, Keaton’s performance also changes into something much more vivid. And based on what Keaton is called upon to endure here as an actor, it’s almost impossible to separate the agony her character suffers from the agony Keaton must have actually encountered during shooting.

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7 Responses to Review: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

  1. Fantastic review! I have to admit, I am not a fan of this film, and I hear wildly different opinions of it all the time. This review comes closest to the things I disliked about it (Keaton becomes the monster, lack of catharsis, etc.), but you also make points that say to me maybe one day I should re-examine this one. However, I have to say, I was utterly disgusted by it. I know some women find it powerful, but I thought it was condoning what it was condemning. Interesting if you compare it to Cannibal Holocaust which essentially does the same thing, yet I found far more effective.

    At any rate, you’ve made me re-think certain parts. Thanks!

  2. Dave Stewart says:

    Hey thanks, Amanda. Whatever it is, it can be though provoking, although that’s most likely unintentional on the filmmakers’ part.

  3. glenn says:

    Not a huge fan of I Spit on Your Grave. I think it’s prurient. It’s says rape is bad (true), so let’s really linger on it and then throw in some sexy revenge bits at the end.
    Also the acting is really weak so there’s no sense of realism, unlike the early scenes in Last House on the Left and no sense of drama like say Death Weekend.

    Actually, I disagree about the comparison with Deliverance, which has no real sense deliverance. That film ends in split friendships. Those guys will never talk to each other again. Also it is imbued with the fear being found out. Reynolds’ machismo hobbled by a broken leg, Beatty unable to come to terms with what happened to him and Vought troubled by his ability to kill and living in fear of the bodies literally resurfacing.

    In contrast I Spit ends with Keaton almost unaffected by her trauma and completely satisfied with her revenge. I do agree that it is pure exploitation and that this is what is troubling about it.

  4. Dave Stewart says:

    Truly interesting points, Glenn. The sense of deliverance I refer to in the Boorman flick is the three men literally coming off the river in a big ole metaphoric sense, and emerging from immediate danger. You’re right about the hobbled machismo and the broken friendships, but to me there is a sense of having made it through an ordeal despite what’s to come in its aftermath. There are, for sure, severe ramifications that the survivors are going to have to deal with, and when I say severe, I mean severe. But then there’s the movie’s title, which unless it’s intended to be ironic, I can’t help but take at face value. My read of Keaton at the end of I Spit on Your Grave is that she is almost an automaton, all traces of humanity and sanity gone. To me, she’s a catatonic zombie; a lost cause.

  5. glenn says:

    I think the title Deliverance is ambiguous rather than literal or ironic. I think that the trauma involved is a kind of trial by nature. So you could argue that the fight with the mountain men is a deliverance from the conformity of a dull white collar existence and the escape is a disguised anti-climax. a sort of come down. Boorman, as was Dickie, is big on the primal forces of nature stuff and the noble savage idea.

    Where as I think at the end of I Spit you’re supposed to assume Keaton is going to kick more misogynist butt. I think the disturbing thing is that to an extent its supposed to be like a drive-in Russ Meyer over-heated yokels kind of film crossed with Death Wish, but crosses so many lines it becomes something much nastier.

  6. Dave Stewart says:

    I particularly like/agree with your last point, Glenn.

  7. Mickey ES BBeck says:

    I love the movie. The story wasn’t meant to be one with extreme detail. It’s a story of a woman wanting to go to the country to be free of the crazy city madness and have her mind free to write. What happens is crazy country guys who see this woman alone and away from their town so they want to get her. Cause no one will know. But she survives and like anyone who is pissed from suffering extreme abuse gets revenage. She is not a monster like you said. If a monster is someone who defends herself and makes sure they don’t do that to anyone else then you need help. I saw the same post on Freaks about killing the couple who tried to kill one of their own. They are not monsters for defending their friend and putting them in the same spot they are. I would do the same and if that makes me a monsters then maybe you want those type of people alive and healthy to hurt and kill.

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