This essay examines the exploitation film I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and its recent remake (2010), and how both these films make strong comments about the culture which they were released in and the context which they were interpreted. The original film was visually enhanced and re-released on Blu-Ray this year, and therefore, along with its remake stands as a contemporary text. The essay focuses on the cultural significance of the previously banned movie being remade for a modern audience, and the voyeuristic aspects of both films. The way the film represents meaning to the audience through sound and image will also be discussed, representation being defined as the ‘process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture… [involving] the use of language… signs and images which stand for or represent things’ (1997, p. 15). The aim of this essay is to shed light on the social and cultural significance of horror films, which are braver in their exploration of society’s taboos, and the reasons why society needs these films, as evidenced by the recent trend of their remakes. The essay also aims to explore the feminist qualities I Spit on Your Grave contain, for the purpose of this essay feminism can be defined as ‘the advocacy of equality for the sexes, in opposition to patriarchy and sexism’ (Macionis & Plummer, 2008, p. 883).
In the last decade swarms of horror films have risen from the ground in the form of remakes, these include:
(2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(2005), The Amityville Horror
(2006), The Hills Have Eyes
(2009), Friday the 13th
(2009), The Last House on the Left, and most recently
(2010), I Spit on Your Grave
Lizardi (2010, p.114-115) offers two suggestions as to why these films are being remade, one is that remakes are ‘commercial products that repeat successful formulas in order to minimize risk and secure profits in the market place’, while the other reason is that horror remakes have the potential ‘to reveal something to us about our recurrent fears, anxieties and hopes for the future’. Becker (2006, p. 47) contends with this view by suggesting that horror films represent ‘society’s collective nightmare’, which contain repressed issues that must be confronted and resolved. It is worth noting that the original versions of these horror remakes mostly stem from the period of slasher films made in the 1970s, an era which was known for the carefree hippie generation and the contrasting bloodshed of the Vietnam War. Considering that ‘films are best understood in relation to the periods in which they were produced and consumed’ (Lizardi, 2010, p. 115), it is necessary for me to explore the culture that the original slasher films were unleashed upon, culture being defined simply as ‘the beliefs, values, behaviour and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life’ (Macionis & Plummer 2008, p. 882).
With the hippie revolution dissipating, and the war in Vietnam alive and well, the American culture was slowly descending towards ‘the sinister, the heavy, and the darkly forbidden’ (Becker, 2006, p. 48). During these times, the catchy pop songs of the early 60s had been cancelled out by the dark sounds of The Doors and Led Zeppelin, while the film industry turned to horror with films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). These films revealed ‘a shift in the worldview of the hippie counterculture, which had its considerable hopes in the possibility of significant progressive social change undercut by immense social traumas of the late 1960s and early 1970s’ (Becker, 2006, p. 43). In the opening scene of Wes Craven’s infamous Last House On The Left (1972) one of the two female protagonists – before leaving to a Bloodlust concert – is given a necklace by her father, the camera zooms in as she puts it around her neck, revealing a silver peace symbol, a cultural icon of the hippie movement. The camera holds onto this image before fading into a fixed shot of a forest, showing the two girls frolicking towards the camera, serene music playing softly in the background. This scene is later juxtaposed when the two girls are kidnapped; the terror on the girls’ faces are shown in extreme close ups during the scenes of their rape and torture. The progression of violence is eventually capped off by showing a close up of the intestines of one of the girls being pulled out of her body; throughout all these scenes the camera is static and the music is dark and synthesized. This strong contrasting imagery represented the death of the hippie movement, and is a consistent motif of the horror films of the 70s. It was the filmmakers way of getting to the ‘guts’ of their films message, which was ‘there is a war going on, and blood is being spilled.’ A reality that was swept under the rug in the ignorant bliss of the 60s hippie counterculture.
Last House on the Left, along with I Spit on Your Grave were banned in more countries than they were allowed, yet despite this they have both been recently remade. Wes Craven says of his film’s remake “I think it is a film for its times… it’s been a very chaotic eight years. Eight years of… warfare and reactions to 9/11… 9/11 perhaps was the ultimate home invasion… [It was] profoundly shocking to the American psyche. So I think that there is certainly a profound relevance to this film [in modern times]” (Lee, 2009, p. 1). Considering the original films were a direct response to the atrocities of the culture at the time, are these remakes also a response to the terrors of today’s society? Film scholar Stephen Prince suggests that ultra-violence in horror movies are used ‘to comment on the social violence of the era’ and therefore the films can be seen ‘as a form of social commentary’ (Becker, 2006, p. 56), while Sharrett (2009, p. 33) believes that these remakes are ‘a response to the atrocity that was the Bush era’.
The original I Spit on Your Grave and its remake follow a simple three part narrative structure, known as the rape and revenge structure. Act I shows the female protagonist being raped by a group of men, Act II shows her recuperation, and Act III involves the female protagonist exacting violent revenge on each of her attackers. The biggest difference between the original film and its remake is the original focuses more on the total depravity of the rape scenes, while the remake instead focuses on the violent revenge. It seems that the anxieties of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, along with the ‘atrocities cued from Abu Ghraib and the Bush-era practice of… enhanced interrogation techniques’ has mirrored itself into the depiction of violence in today’s horror movies (Hamid, Lucia & Porton, 2009, p. 2). The hugely popular Saw (2004-present) and Hostel (2005-present) films have spawned a new sub-genre of horror called ‘torture porn’, which stems from their depiction of extremely graphic torture methods. I Spit on Your Grave’s (2010) revenge sequence employs the popular torture style of the Saw and Hostel films, with the female protagonist, Jennifer Hill, creating elaborate traps and torture devices to make the rapists suffer for their actions. One scene shows Jennifer taping one of the rapists to a tree, forcing his eyes open with fish hooks, pouring fish guts on his face and then leaving him there for the crows to peck his eyes. Another scene has Jennifer pulling one of her attackers’ teeth out with pliers; none of this occurs off screen.
Sharrett (2009, p. 32) states that the increasing budgets for these horror remakes allow the filmmakers ‘to pursue more extravagant ways of destroying the human body’ and that this glorification of violence and torture is a ‘symptom of the state of culture’ (Sharrett, 2009, p. 37). In the documentary on US torture methods, Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), George Bush makes the comment ‘one by one the terrorists are learning the value of American justice” (Gibney, 2007), this parallels the justice that the lead actress in I Spit on Your Grave enacts on her attackers, is this remake’s use of torture as justice a social comment on the torture tactics used by US soldiers to avenge the 9/11 attacks? Becker (2006, p. 48) asserts that due to the ‘1968 police brutality at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the inexorable bloodshed of the war in Vietnam, and the 1970 killings of students by the National Guard at Kent State, the government seemed to consider violence not only an acceptable but a desirable solution’, it is arguable that the same message is being made in modern times with the Iraq War, and therefore the remakes of the Vietnam era films are attempting to make a similar social commentary on the nature of violence. The question begs to be asked, is this social commentary necessary? Does it contribute to or glorify violence? Barrett’s (2006, p. 115) answer to this question is that ‘in reducing violence to nothing more than visual pop culture fodder… the very violence that is under the justification of the war on terror… becomes all the more acceptable’, this suggests that in watching these films, we as an audience are becoming desensitised to the very real violence that occurs off screen.
I Spit on Your Grave is ‘acclaimed or reviled, depending on your point of view, as the most powerful or repulsive rape revenge melodrama ever filmed’ Crowdus (2003, p. 32). It is indeed a film which has received both scathing criticism and passionate defence, depending on the context it is viewed in, context being the ‘time, place or mindset in which we consume media products’ (Williams, 2002, p. 1). Film critic Joe Bob Briggs believes that the film was ‘destroyed by critics, in particular by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’ (Crowdus, 2003, p. 32), Ebert called the film ‘an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures’ while Siskel suggested the movie would encourage people to commit rape (Crowdus, 2003, p. 32). Ebert criticised I Spit on Your Grave as ‘a film without a shred of artistic distinction’ (Ebert, 1980, p. 1) because of the context in which he viewed it; he watched it under the impression that it was supposed to be a sleazy exploitation movie, and he viewed it in a theatre full of what he believed to be ‘vicarious sex criminals’ (Ebert, 1980, p. 1). The bulk of his review focuses on the audience, and this colours his judgement of the film; he states that ‘as a critic, I have never condemned the use of violence in films if I felt the filmmakers had an artistic reason for employing it. “I Spit on Your Grave” does not.’ (Ebert, 1980, p. 1). Ebert reviewed a similar rape and revenge film much later on in his career titled Irreversible (2002); both films share in common extended sequences of brutal and unflinching rape, however, Ebert applauds Irreversible’s artistic merit due to its reverse chronological structure ‘which makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence’ (Ebert, 2003, p. 1). Lacey (2009, p. 30) suggests that ‘there can be no certainty that the individuals in the audience will read the text in the way it is intended’; which as you are about to discover, is the case with Ebert’s review.
Exactly what message was the filmmaker trying to make you may be wondering? ‘The director honestly thought he was making a feminist film, and an anti-rape film’ (Crowdus, 2003, p. 33), and he initially released it under the title ‘Day of the Woman’, until it was picked up by distributer Jerry Gross, who changed the title to ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ to increase sales. The director, Meir Zarchi states that ‘when they announced the title I Spit on Your Grave, I hated it and I still do’ (Fidler, 2009, p. 40). Zarchi explains in his commentary for the DVD that the film was born from a personal encounter with a rape victim in New York City in October 1974, who he described as ‘a young woman, around eighteen or nineteen, totally naked, a walking corpse covered in mud and blood. She was still in shock and struggled to talk through her broken jaw’ (Fidler, 2009, p. 50). Zarchi took her to the police station to report the crime, but received no help from the uninterested police officer; interestingly the remake includes a police officer as one of the rapists. As a result of this experience, the female victim in the movie cleans her own wounds after her repeated attacks, and then ‘embarks on a quest of vigilante vengeance, what Zarchi might have seen as the only solution to such injustice’ (Karminski, 2010, p. 6). In light of this context, the film can be seen as a misunderstood text, considering it was initially made to represent the reality and horror of rape and to make a bold feminist statement, as evidenced by the strength of the female character and her justice against her attackers in the final act of the movie. Despite this, the film has been heavily criticised for the enormous length of the rape scenes in the movie; however, Briggs asserts that this is due to exploitation cinema being more honest, direct and confrontational than mainstream cinema, which explains why the film presented the brutality of rape in its raw and unedited form. Briggs suggests that ‘Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with murder but they do have a problem with rape,’ (Fidler, 2009, p. 50) which is clearly evident in the remake’s shying away from the savageness of the rape act, and the intensifying of the ultraviolent revenge scenes. Dawson (2002, p. 1) asserts that the remake did this in good reason as ‘film and media don’t merely report on social reality but actively help to produce it. Thus films such as [I Spit on Your Grave] contribute towards the reproduction of a cultural milieu in which the reality of rape becomes conceivable’.
In conclusion, this exploration of the film I Spit on Your Grave and its remake aims to establish the cultural significance of the films initial release in the 70s along with its predecessor Last House on the Left, and its recent reimagining. It is clear that the film was created with the intention to open the viewer’s eyes to the reality of rape and violence against women, which is an undeniable shadow of human nature that exists and stalks society to this very day. The essay also sheds light on the various interpretations of the film, some of which have been lost in translation due to the context in which the film was advertised. The essay also explores the feminist qualities which the film possesses and how these were represented through the camera angles favouring the female’s point of view. I will end my essay with Joe Briggs opening line of his commentary for I Spit on Your Grave, ‘what we’re going to decide here is, is this the most disgusting movie ever made or is it the most feminist movie ever made?’ (Fidler, 2009, p. 38)
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