I Spit On Your Grave, in both its 1978 and 2010 incarnations, is a horror film with a deceptively simple premise: a woman named Jennifer Hills retreats to a house in the middle of nowhere all by herself, is sniffed out and raped by locals and then exacts murderous revenge on them. I say that it's deceptively simple, because what sounds cut and dry has been the fodder for 32 years of debate -- is the film merely an excuse to depict a prolonged and brutal group rape sequence with tit-for-tat redemption thrown in to obscure the exploitation, or is it a feminist statement of the enduring strength of woman? (The original film's director, Meir Zarchi, has always contended the latter reading was his intent...although maybe that's more lip service to get him off the hook.)
In the spirit of this discourse, a friend, writer and hip-hop aficionado whose opinion I respect very much, Sean Fennessey, and I discussed the newly released remake, which comes at an unsettling time. With the release of this film, the controversy over a Pitchfork writer casually dropping the contrived genre name "rape gaze" in his review of Salem's King Night and World Star Hip-Hop's posting of a cell-phone video in which VH1's Tough Love star Taylor Royce appears to be sexually violated while passed out in a hotel room, it's been a disturbingly big week for rape in pop culture. (That Taylor Royce video, incidentally, has since been removed, though its page is still up, proving that World Star Hip-Hop is too dumb to be as slimy as posting the video initially suggested. I don't expect that or any site to have many standards, but I also didn't realize it was a vehicle for atrocity.) Two white guys investigate ("investigate") what the hell is going on below...
Rich: Our screening of I Spit on Your Grave was an EXPERIENCE. Watching a remake of a grindhouse movie in a renovated grindhouse theater -- the AMC Empire in Times Square -- in the middle of the day with a vocal, frequently laughing audience really added another dimension. And we didn’t need special glasses or anything.
Sean: Sort of a great one in that we saw this film in the middle of a Monday afternoon with no more than seven other people.
Rich: We were among enthusiasts!
Sean: They were all evil in delightful tourist-y ways.
Rich: Revenge enthusiasts!
Sean: To their credit, they totally got all the jokes. They knew when to laugh and when to shriek. You and I didn't laugh much though.
Rich: Did you hear the old one about the guy who was taped to a tree and had hooks put through his eyelids to keep them open so crows could peck out his eyes after they were smeared with fish guts? We didn’t laugh ‘cause it wasn't not funny! That Real World Los Angeles/sexual harassment reference may sound like a joke, but seriously, it wasn't not funny.
Sean: The set pieces were basically wonderful. Really creative and about 10x smarter than the rest of this movie.
Rich: You mean the Rube Goldberg-esque torture schemes? This movie could have been titled Saw Sex. Did you think it was otherwise dumb?
Sean: Not so much dumb as dull.
Rich: You know, I actually appreciated that. Torture porn, by definition, is devoid of suspense. I appreciated director Steven R. Monroe’s attempt to inject that here.
Sean: Well, it shared the plodding pace with the original. But it has none of the oddness. I'm not necessarily looking for narrative. Just something in the way of a conversation I enjoy. Watching the original you get the sense that Meir Zarchi is sort of a comedian. Steven Monroe seems like just another dude who loves these movies.
Rich: That’s interesting. Talk about the sense of comedy of the first one. It's been a while since I've seen it, and that's a surprising observation.
Sean: For starters, the mentally disabled character is straight Jerry Lewis. It's slapsticky. He has pratfalls, he wears dork glasses, a silly hat. Zarchi seems to be mocking an archetype that barely even existed at that point--the local retard.
Rich: Oh yeah. I mean, that’s cheap cheap cheap comedy, but you could certainly find some kind of relief there if you were so inclined. This remake was devoid of comic relief.
Sean: Well, depends how you feel about lye melting skin.
Rich: That is true. I thought that was a Fulci reference.
Sean: Probably! Did you find yourself enjoying the first 2/3rds?
Rich: Of course not! I didn't enjoy it at all! But I did appreciate it.
Sean: What worked best?
Rich: The overall bleakness.
Sean: It was despairing.
Rich: It's as hard to watch as a movie about brutal gang rape should be. At least, it’s hard to watch as far as the action goes – in stark contrast, it also looks great, like a love letter to the deciduous forest. Also, I feel like this movie places at least a bit more ambiguity on culpability. Maybe that’s what worked worst.
Sean: That seemed like your first instinct walking out.
Rich: It's not saying, "She deserved to be raped," but there seems to be a lot of suggesting like, "Well, if she hadn't done that, maybe it wouldn’t have happened."
Sean: She seems more vicious in this version. I thought her mocking [her to-be-rapist] Johnny's advance at the beginning weirdly set a precedent for her lack of innocence.
Rich: Yes! She was savvy!
Sean: In one way, that's impressive, she's not some wallflower. But in another, it makes her a classic "hot girl."
Rich: Also complicating things was her knocking over a barrel of water on him during their first meeting at the gas station. It was kind of like, "Well, you could see how he'd be pissed off..."
Sean: "She deserved it."
Rich: Right. This version suggests that more than the first.
Sean: Really muddled message there.
Rich: Yes. And really, the first half of the movie is just a series of bad moves on her part. Take her renting a cabin in the woods by herself. Thirty-two years of horror cinema have occurred since the original I Spit on Your Grave to show what a bad idea that is. Seriously, would you do that? I sure as hell wouldn’t. And then there's running by yourself in unfamiliar woods. And checking out an abandoned house that's even scarier than the one you're staying at. And investigating strange noises. And saying, "Hello?" into the darkness. And what about her defense tactic once invaded: "My boyfriend's on the way"? That alone made it much more difficult to give this movie the feminist reading that many did the original.
Sean: There was too much convention in the beginning, for sure. The original doesn't have much of that. It feels more alien. Did you think there was any intentional philosophy at work other than, "How rad is this kill scene, bro," in the last half, after she is done being brutalized and seeks her revenge?
Rich: I think it's intended as catharsis for the viewer. However, it’s a lopsided payoff. If we're following the supposedly gritty realism of the first half, it makes little rational sense. There’s no gritty realism in having your raped woman character turn into a strange amalgamation of a Japanese ghost girl and Jigsaw.
Sean: I don't understand why they humanized the sheriff character at all.
Rich: Oh! I loved that, actually!
Sean: He's shown with a pregnant wife, and an "angel" daughter.
Rich: I loved that he got that call from his daughter during the rape. That felt really real – like a cheater who misses his loved one’s call because he’s busy fucking someone else.
Sean: And he seems to be really hard-working! When the sheriff blurts, 'I'm a God-fearing man," I weirdly felt a pang of sadness for him. I know I shouldn't, but it was complicated in a way that these things typically aren't. That's mostly indefensible, but I'm accustomed to absolutes.
Rich: That's another layer of the ambiguity.
Sean: Maybe it was better than I thought?
Rich: That Monroe humanized the sheriff and made him at least slightly harder to hate. Also notable is the fact that at least two of her rapists are hot – I know you can’t relate, but Jeff Branson is a good-looking, nicely proportioned Hollywood beauty. That complicates things. I’m not saying rapists can’t be conventionally good-looking, but it certainly makes him harder to hate than if he appeared to be out of The Hills Have Eyes. Monroe's giving us less to work with than someone taking an adamant moral stance would. But about the discord between the realism-obsessed first half and the fantastical second, the thing is that Jennifer becomes not just monstrous as her attackers (which is maybe understandable), but also just as stupid (which is ridiculous). The element of the video camera is new to this version, obviously. And look, when you're beat and raped senselessly, maybe you can't be counted on for strict logic.
Sean: The video camera is pretty lame, I thought.
Rich: But when you have evidence, you take it to the authorities. And not the rapey local sheriff, the actual authorities. She had that choice -- legal revenge was an option with the irrefutable evidence she had, unlike in the first, when her only seeming outlet was to take justice into her own hands. But instead, the 2010 Jennifer lashes out with violence AND ALSO TAPES IT. Dumb. How could you root for her?
Sean: I was trying to figure out if there was any way she could have copied the tape and sent the sheriff a dupe. Literally a month passes between rape and revenge.
Rich: Oh yeah, that's totally what I thought happened.
Sean: It seems more plausible that she didn't. We're led to believe she lived in the woods subsisting on fried rat for 30 days. Which, why? And if that's true, where'd she get the jeans she's wearing when she tortures them? I realize I'm parsing something that needn't be parsed, but it speaks to this weird collision of realistic empathy and standard-issue splatter flick.
Rich: That's the biggest problem with this film from a formal perspective -- it wants things both ways. I don't see a problem with depicting heinous acts on film, and if you're going to do a movie about rape, it seems almost disrespectful to whitewash and sugarcoat it. Show people how fucking disgusting it is. Torture them with bleakness. But maintain that level of realism, or it all starts to feel like it's for fun. And this movie wasn't fun.
Sean: Save the whole fish hook thing.
Rich: It really struck me that she was doing this torturing for us, in the whole it's-only-a-movie sense. It wants you to invest emotionally (and cringe) but at the same time, feels self-consciously cinematic.
Sean: It was too performative, especially for a movie that seemed to be working hard to show a dark vision of the worst thing anyone can do to a person.
Rich: Right. But at the same time, that does speak to me somewhat, even if it's convoluted in this case. I don't really attend horror cinema for the visceral experience. I watch it AS CINEMA to see how it's going to try to freak me out. I've been saying, "It's only a movie..." all my life. And that's where I find Ebert's criticism to be faulty.
Sean: He's programmatic about the phoniness of the politics. He famously hated the original, and defied the notion that it was even slightly feminist. The very act of portraying rape immediately made it vile to him. He echoes some of that in his review of the remake. But the case for the original -- the director's chosen title was The Day of the Woman -- at least exists. It's arguable.
Rich: To act like it wasn't capable of starting a dialogue is just disingenuous. "The audience is very, very quiet. Some share Jennifer’s terror. Some, I am afraid, may be aroused or entertained by it." That's from his most recent review. You could beat off to anything. You could beat off to Toddlers and Tiaras or Sesame Street. That's not those shows' fault!
Sean: Right, and it's all a matter of context. Enjoying her terror is different from watching her get raped. Being scared is a legitimate aphrodisiac. Though, again, rape is not. Rich, it's probably important that I ask: Is there any more you want to share about Toddlers and Tiaras?
Rich: I'm saving it for the book. But you know what I mean. The idea of there being one emotional interpretation for a thing is just so...weird for someone who's essentially paid to be emotional. "There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering." That's from this first review.
Sean: Wrongheaded for a guy who has been good about celebrating seedy culture in the past.
Rich: Yeah, for the guy who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which, I think was referenced, by the way, in the Spit remake. (“Marijuana cigarettes!” is a refrain of the sheriff.) Maybe that’s a wink at Ebert?
Sean: From other Ebert reviews: "If you think being addicted to cocaine is wonderful, then Scarface is the movie for you, a-holes!" "Do you like murdering deer? Enjoy, Bambi, sadists!" "Do corporate malfeasance interest you? Then you will 'like' The Social Network."
Rich: How do you feel about rape as a taboo? That the mere mention of it gets people upset? I'm referring to Rapegazegate, of course.
Sean: It's a tough one, obviously. Of course rape is loathsome. Everyone knows this.
Rich: Right. And anyone with so strong of a reaction that they can't bear mention of the word probably has reasons that make him or her entitled to it. So even in extreme cases, there's a need for sensitivity. But clearly, no one is pro-rape, except rapists, and even some of them are at least conflicted, I’d presume.
Sean: But as a dramatic tool, it's obviously useful. As subgenre title, it's a joke. And it was meant to be a joke.
Rich: Also, isn't "rape gaze" a thing? : Not two minutes into I Spit on Your Grave, there is rape gaze. I mean, as a phrase, it’s descriptive. It's also a clever pun on “shoe gaze.” And yes, obviously a joke.
Sean: Well, it gives you a sense of something. But as a rule, microgenre names are idiotic. We just escaped the tyranny of chillwave. People actually say "chillwave " out loud.
Rich: Yeah, I don't get that. I don't hate "witch house," though, since Salem invented it themselves probably with a similar irony in mind.
Sean: It's also weirdly more evocative. Like, if the witches from Macbeth made music, they might make that Salem album.
Rich: With sizzurp in their cauldron. That album is Dummy '10 to me.
Sean: The alarming thing to me about Salem has little to do with rape -- it's race.
Rich: Just like with Portishead, though, right?
Sean: I don't usually think of them together, but they have a lot in common.
Rich: I mean, I guess those were less examined times, but there'd be a debate on appropriation if Portishead came out today. Or rather, if the Internet were what it is in '94. Just as they took hip-hop loops and extrapolated them for maximum bleakness, so do Salem with Southern hip-hop.
Sean: It's not so much appropriating sound or voice as it is misinterpreting what those things mean. Salem's album is intentionally dark, bordering on openly misanthropic. And it seems obsessed with Screw and Three 6 Mafia and Gucci Mane and a vision of rape that to an outsider seems like "Devil's music." But that is definitely not the goal of any of that. It is party music, or club music, or drinking music, or even lonely music. But it's got little to do with the insular creepiness of Salem. And while I'm not against the mashing of two disparate sounds at all, I'm against reframing without context to white kids who don't know any better.
Rich: That's interesting, and in many cases so right on the mark. But plenty of Southern hip-hop is really, really dark. I mean, Birdman had a radio hit about murder.
Sean: Well, it depends on what you mean by “dark.”
Rich: I mean being pro-murder is dark!
Sean: That is true, but there's a looseness with murder in rap. He "killed" the game, etc. This is a more supernatural evil we're talking about, like a monster raping an innocent woman while jamming a Big Moe album.
Rich: But isn't "What Happened to that Boy" literally about killing a snitch?
Sean: It's not that it isn't. It's just that people don't feel that when they listen to it.
Rich: But it’s there and Salem tease that element out to its extreme and adding layer after grim layer of atmosphere. There is Jeezy stuff that sounds straight up gothic to me.
Sean: Give me an example.
Rich: I was always really impressed with how heavy The Inspiration is. “The Realest” is so hard, and “Streets on Lock” features a funeral organ! I feel like Salem took that album title literally.
Sean: Right, but the first lyrics are about cars! It goes both ways. "What Happened To That Boy" sounds like Fat Tuesday in N.O. Jeezy raps mostly about drugs and wealth and power.
Rich: I'm convoluting things a little here. I guess I mean to say that Salem skim Southern hip-hop for its grimmest elements. Scary-ing up already brooding music sounds like a natural progression. It’s at least a rational bend in the river. Lyrically, I do think that there is enough violent material in hip-hop to work with. I mean "a looseness with murder," is indicative of a lot, even if it isn't explicitness ABOUT murder.
Sean: You're right.
Rich: I just appreciate King Night as a whole. I fucking love it. It's so settled into its sound but so willing to explore it. Electronic albums like this are few and far between to me -- and they were commonplace in the '90s. I don’t know if I’d be as wild about it without that nostalgic association I’m drawing, but I always say that nostalgia is a narcotic. If you're slanging that kind of brick, I'm buying.
Sean: Maybe the violence in rap is endemic to me, and with Salem it feels like poaching. Unearned.
Rich: I'd have a hard time arguing otherwise in that respect.
Sean: It sounds really big and impressive. But that's as far as I go.
Rich: That's further than I expected.
Sean: As soon as I think about it--though I recognize that may not be the point--it loses me. Kinda like I Spit On Your Grave.
Rich: What do you mean?
Sean: As set pieces, the ending is fun. As any sort of morality tale it's a disaster. It's possible to openly dislike her brutality at the end. The only thing you admire is her cleverness, but even that is eradicated by videotaping the whole thing.
Rich: She used the powers that she got from being raped for bad instead of good.
Sean: Well, maybe. Ultimately, they're for good, because those were bad dudes. But the means was probably damaging in its own right.
Rich: But maybe now she'll get arrested for torturing them, especially since there’s a document of it?
Sean: Hard to know how someone lives after a month like that. That's the movie I want to see.
Rich: Yeah! I think you should write the fanfic!
Sean: The prison drama about the waifish novelist who torture-murdered four bumpkins who raped her.
Rich: It could revive women-in-prison exploitation. I bet Ebert would like that, as long as the tits were big enough. Seriously.
Sean: Caged Heat is a pretty good name for Salem's next album.