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Legendary late '70s shocker gets remade as reactionary theater

I Spit on Your Grave

Directed by Steven Monroe

Opens Oct. 8

Watching a woman being raped

is nauseating, even in a movie. The way a group of men verbally taunt, intimidate, and terrorize her. The way they verbally and physically humiliate her. The way they egg each other on as if they’re on a team sport. When they start forcibly removing her clothing and holding her down and taking turns, the scene has progressed beyond horrific. By the time she’s walking around the woods with her nude body covered in mud and one arm twitching in shock, the movie has transported you to one of the most uncomfortable places a movie can take you. And halfway through Steven Monroe’s remake of Meir Zarchi’s 1978

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I Spit on Your Grave

, the apex of rape/revenge movies, cult horror movie heads worried that this remake wouldn’t be as brutal need not worry, as this

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Spit

delivers one of the most unpleasant opening reels to hit theaters in a long, long time.

It’s the “even in the movie” part of the above paragraph that is the biggest problem with both of these movies, especially this remake. Zarchi’s original is one of the most controversial and dissected low-budget movies ever made. It spent most of the 1980s discussed but little seen, reviled by Roger Ebert in his 1980 review, banned in several countries for being seen to glorify violence against women, dubbed one of the “video nasties” by the United Kingdom, and named one of the Top 10 Ridiculously Violent Movies by

Time

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in 2007.

Since its early infamy it has undergone a bit of a critical re-evaluation and earned its fair share of cinematic admirers. Carol Clover got the ball rolling with her indispensable investigation of gender in the modern slasher movie, 1993’s

Men, Women and Chainsaws

, which often convincingly argues that audience identification in the horror movie lies not with the killer but with the “final girl.” Today, Zarchi’s artless mise-en-scene and bare-bones visual language get compared to the ascetic cinema of Bruno Dumont and Michael Haneke, and the online magazine

The Quietus

reports that French provocateur Gaspar Noe played it for the cast of his

Irreversible

.

Monroe’s version, as adapted by Stuart Morse, doesn’t alter Zarchi’s schematic plot. Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a young writer from the city, rents a remote cabin by a lake to finish her book. She meets three young men—Stanley (Daniel Franzese), Johnny (Jeff Branson), and Andy (Rodney Eastman)—who work at the local filling station, and accidentally embarrasses Johnny when he tries to flirt with her. She’s nice to Matthew (Chad Lindberg), the local simpleton, after he fixes her cabin’s plumbing, a fact Matthew shares with Johnny and the guys. They decide that she should be nice to them, too, and head over to her cabin in the middle of the night with a video camera. What follows is the excruciating rape scene, followed by the movie’s final act, in which Jennifer exacts her revenge on each of the men who violated her.

Now, fimmmaking technology has become much more sophisticated since Zarchi’s original came out, and filmmakers and filmgoers have become much more visually literate in that time too. Clover’s “final girl” has become as much a part of movie thinking as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” which psychoanalytically spotlights cinema’s inherent voyeurism. These ideas aren’t just the intellectual tools of academic film analysis but part of the popular discussion, and horror movies themselves have started playing with such conventions, to comic and sometimes witty effect.

Wisely, Monroe’s

Spit

doesn’t try to be clever. He keeps to the framing devices that made the original’s first half so fraught with tension: the long shots of Jennifer around her cabin that emphasize how alone she is in the woods, and the relative lack of background music, which allows the brain to fill in the silence with an anxious dread.

And Monroe actually tones down the rape scene. The original subjected its Jennifer to four assailants. Monroe subjects her to two and lets the audience imagine the rest.

What has radically changed since the original, however, is cinema’s ability to portray violence to the body onscreen. Special effects and digital technology means filmmakers can creatively insert arterial sprays into sword fighting epics, paint shocking realism into war pictures, and orchestrate moments of violence that feel genuinely unnerving. No genre has embraced this technology with the same relish as horror films, for in the past decade alone horror flicks have come up with baroquely imaginative ways to inflict agonizing pain on and dismember the human body. All of which makes Monroe’s

Spit

an interpretive landmine, because it arguably makes what Jennifer does to her tormentors more extreme than what they do to her.

Sure, Zarchi’s original Jennifer executed her revenge with a cold-blooded purpose, but Monroe’s Jennifer morphs from violated woman to elaborate Jigsaw Killer with convenient alacrity. She doesn’t just exact revenge, she orchestrates grievous bodily harm with a symphonic meticulousness. This Jennifer isn’t just an avenging angel, she’s a murderous virtuoso.

There’s no reason why a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to commit psychotic acts of homicidal mayhem as well as a man, but the fact that I’ve even wandered into this sort of territory in a movie whose major plot point is rape should tell you just how politically callow this remake is. In its efforts to equal—if not top—the original’s visual visceral unpleasantness, it may have inadvertently created a crudely different sort of subtext.

Specifically, how Jennifer responds to her attackers gets updated, but so much of the original’s story gets merely transported to the present that its opportune implications get a little obtuse. Zarchi’s

Spit

used the convenient divide between urban and rural, playing female city dweller off male country folk to exacerbate differences in class, education, etc. In the late ’70s, the American city was often portrayed as the seat of all contemporary sin, the place where someday a real rain was gonna come and wash all the scum off the streets. Such as portrayed in Nick Reding’s

Methland

, America’s small-town countryside has endured the same sort of economic spiral in the past 20 years that beset America’s cities in the ’60s and ’70s, and contrasting urban/rural doesn’t carry the same sort of valence it once did.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the political landscape. This mid-term election year features a news cycle regurgitating ideas about rural Tea Parties and urban progressives, suggesting a real chasm between America’s city and country populations. Just how accurate a depiction that is may be witnessed Nov. 2, but taken in the context of Monroe’s

I Spit on Your Grave

it offers a bewildering picture. Jennifer here practically becomes an urban female predator torturing, albeit warranted, her rural male oppressors. This

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suggests that when urban dwellers venture into the countryside they may corrupt and threaten the populace. Apparently, in a political climate in which universal health care is regarded a socialist threat to liberty, anything is possible—including a rape/revenge movie that turns its victim into a monster.

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