If you were one of those who were concerned that Cinetel Films' remake of Meir Zarchi's infamous grindhouse "classic" I Spit on Your Grave was going to be a tame, watered-down, "safe" affair--well, allow me to inform you that you need not be concerned. Steven R. Monroe's much-debated new version, I'm here to announce, is not at all afraid to shock, disturb, and thoroughly get inside your head. In a time when horror film seems to be devolving more and more into self-parody, I Spit on Your Grave is a raw, unflinching, grueling experience, lacking even an ounce of post-ironic camp. And dare I say it, a superior film to the original.
Granted, many might point out that this isn't really saying much, considering that the original I Spit on Your Grave isn't exactly Suspiria or The Shining. What it did have going for it, however, was that raw power to deeply disturb, and I can honestly say that, despite a few choices that reflect a different mindset at work than 30 years ago, on the whole the film manages to pack a similar punch to the original, while at the same time giving us a better-made and more engaging motion picture.
One of the biggest problems I always had about the original was the way in which it was angled as some sort of pro-feminist ode to the empowerment of women, when if you come down to it, it is more a shamelessly misogynistic attempt to titillate through the gratuitous depiction of rape and dehumanization of women. This time around, Monroe and company manage to create a work that doesn't cop out, yet chooses to take a higher moral ground, if that makes any sense at all. Don't get me wrong, the film isn't without a certain element of sordid titillation, but one never gets the sense of over-the-top sleaziness one gets from the original.
For those not aware, I Spit on Your Grave (or ISOYG) tells the story of one Jennifer Hill (played here by Sarah Butler), a beautiful young writer who is brutally raped by a gang of backwoods hooligans while staying at a secluded cabin, only to escape and later wreak a bloody vengeance upon all of them. This time around, those same basic elements are still in place, and in fact there is even a certain attempt to duplicate the gritty, washed out look of '70s-era grindhouse cinema, for which kudos go to British cinematographer Neil Lisk. This technical aspect is just another area in which this remake trumps the original.
I would be loathe to say that I "enjoyed" the film more than I "enjoyed" the original, since I can't feel comfortable using that word in relation whatsoever to either version. This is grim, cringe-inducing film-making of the highest order, and rest assured that there were more than a few hoity-toity reviewers at the sneak preview I attended uttering exclamations of disgust and glancing around the room in disbelief that we were all actually witnessing what was happening on screen. Nevertheless, what I will say is that I was able to appreciate the quality of the finished product, and the way it took me back to my younger days, in which my ironic, angsty self would actively push the envelope to seek out the most disturbing cinematic experiences possible. I don't do that so much anymore, and I admit a movie like ISOYG is no longer really my cup of tea. But one cannot help but be impressed with the chances it takes, and the bold manner in which Stuart Morse's script embraces the material head-on.
I'm happy to report that the film-makers did make the decision to somewhat truncate the original's infamous 30-minute rape scene (nearly one third of the entire running time of the movie). Nevertheless, just because it is cut short from the longest rape scene in movie history, doesn't exactly make it a walk in the park, or anything short of thoroughly unsettling. And frankly, if you're the kind of person who's going to find fault with less rapiness in your I Spit on Your Grave, well, I don't feel a really compelling need to know you. Also, Morse's script makes the wise choice of removing all the contemptible nonsense about Jennifer seducing the man who raped her just so she could punish him. That little bit of high-grade woman-hating was thankfully excised, but make no mistake--retribution is still handily meted out.
Which brings me to my next observation, having very much to do with the revenge aspect of the film. In general, I'm all about revenge movies. Give me Death Wish, Braveheart, or any number of cheesy Steven Segal flicks, and I'm instantly and perversely happy. Hell, you're listening to someone who watched Mel Gibson's Payback on his wedding night, while eating from a gigantic bowl of hot wings. There's just something that appeals to me deep inside about watching despicable wrong-doers get what they have coming to them, in gratuitous fashion.
And yet, this movie seemed to taunt me, to toy with the fascination many seem to have with that kind of movie. Because although I may be tarred and feathered for saying it, I couldn't help but feel that in the context of the story, there's no way these guys deserved what she did to them, heinous though their crime was. And that's not to say they didn't deserve death, which they most assuredly did; just not the biblically epic series of elaborate, sadistic tortures visited upon them by Jennifer. It is almost as if the film-makers are glutting us with the notion of vengeance, testing us to see how much we can handle--"Oh yeah, you want to see some payback. Want these guys to get what they have coming to them? OK, well how about this? Can you handle this? What's wrong, too much for you?"
The feeling of grim satisfaction that usually attends these kinds of films here quickly evaporates, due to the simple fact that Jennifer has become a far worse monster than any of her attackers ever were. This is even more the case than in the original; here, Jennifer has several weeks to plot her revenge, and comes up with a series of horrific set-pieces that make much of the Camille Keaton's revenge in the original seem like Elmo's World.
The influence of the torture porn movement, and Saw in particular, is evident in the manner in which Jennifer exacts her cold and calculated vengeance, depicted in far more elaborate and sadistic fashion than in the Camille Keaton original. Aside from one unforgivably bad CGI shot, this stuff is about as rough to sit through as anything witnessed in the heyday of grindhouse horror.
Granted, much of it is far-fetched in its overly choreographed nature, but that's simply one of the feats of suspension of disbelief expected of the viewer, much like the mysterious ability of this waifish girl to physically overpower her attackers. I could've also done without the endless stream of corny one-liners that pour from Sarah Butler's lips during the film's final act. Her character's descent into lame Schwarzenegger-style quips really took me out of it, and felt out of place in a movie like this.
From a dramatic standpoint, matters are salvaged via the efforts of our gang of thugs, led by Jeff Branson in the role of Johnny. Unlike anyone portrayed in the original, Branson takes us on an emotional journey here; we can see the wheels turning in his head, the processes that lead him to such dark places. It's a very strong performance, as is that of Chad Lindberg as the mentally handicapped Matthew, a highly controversial character from the original that was thankfully not sacrificed at the altar of political correctness this time out. Also impressive is Welsh actor Andrew Howard in a downright chilling turn as the morally bankrupt Sheriff Storch.
The addition of this character, in fact, is one of the ways the films actually ups the ante from the original in terms of head games it seeks to play with the viewer. Even those thoroughly familiar with the original will be pretty much caught off guard by this new character, an addition to the which brings along with it quite a bit of baggage. Unlike his young and dumb cohorts, the Sherrif is an authority figure and family man, making his actions all the more unthinkably reprehensible. As a family man myself, there were certain moments in this film that nearly made me physically ill. A dear friend of mine, who had the privilege of being shown the script before filming even began, let me know all about this fresh, warped twist, yet it still did nothing prepare me for it.
I have a lot of respect for the always on-point Anchor Bay Films for having the gumption to theatrically release the unrated cut of this film--the version I witnessed Wednesday night--despite the fact that an R-rated cut does exist. In the age of PG-13 slasher films, and cop-out unrated DVD releases, that truly is a rarity. Much like the Last House on the Left remake, which I also thought was quite good, though not as good as this, this is a movie that bucks the trend of much of modern horror, which is to either go the route of tongue-in-cheek or give us a stylized, "isn't this cool" version of horror violence. I Spit on Your Grave is like a kick to the gut, and impressively derives its shock value without going the easier route of traditional exploitation cinema.
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