Back in late 1978, there was a little unrated gem of a film that played around the country called "Day of the Woman" aka "I Spit on Your Grave." I saw that original film on its initial release and, ironically actually did a detailed technical analysis and "review" of it for my film class. (I got an A+) The film was considered so horrific that "legitimate" theatres in Philadelphia wouldn't show it and it was relegated to the XXX theatres in Center City "way off" from the "classy" areas of the City. Most compelling for me in Meir Zarchi’s original was the grain and grit of the film itself, heightening the dirty/disgust factor of the plot points themselves. And yes, as gruesome and almost macabre as the film was, I liked it.
Now, thirty-two years later, Steven Monroe remakes this classic, resulting in a product of which he can be proud that is both enjoyable and entertaining (he provides a plethora of new ideas for exacting eye-for-an-eye revenge, including a new method of penile amputation that’s even more torturous than the ancient Chinese method of whacking the penis with a rock against a tree until it falls off), and which surpasses the original in quality and excellence.
Author Jennifer Hills is looking for a few months of quiet "alone time" in order to write her new novel. Finding the perfect spot out in the Boondocks with no one around for miles but for a ramshackle looking gas station and an odd little man who handles local cabin rentals, Jennifer has found bliss. A private lake, dock, acres of woods and a fully apportioned two-story luxury cabin are a welcome site after a nasty encounter with the local boys at the gas station. Dirty and vulgar, Jennifer’s humor seemed lost on their lacking intellect. Dismissing them as nothing but a collective juvenile nuisance, Jennifer settles in, anxious to start work on her book. Fully stocked with food, alcohol and some marijuana, she is set for the next several months..
But while Jennifer seeks some quiet time, the gas station delinquents have something else in mind. Led by wounded ego Johnny, the "boys" - Stanley, Matthew and Andrew, mysteriously appear at the cabin late one night drunk, breaking in, and harassing Jennifer. But things get really ugly when they escalate to violence, gang raping her countless times throughout the night and day, humiliating her, beating her, abusing her with unspeakable acts, not to mention videotaping the events and forcing her to watch the torture being exacted upon her. And things get even uglier when Sheriff Storch turns out to be anything but law abiding. Beaten and abused to within an inch of her life, with pronounced limp, broken bones and battered body, Jennifer wanders zombie-like naked through the woods with her captors tailing her every move; that is until she takes a swan dive off a bridge into a raging river.
Concerned that someone may be looking for her, the boys, under the control of the deviant sheriff panicked over a phone call to the rental agent from a friend looking for her, search high and low and signs of Jennifer’s body, but to no avail. Obviously, the body washed far away with the river.
But with the passage of time odd things start happening. Events that mimic those perpetrated by the boys on Jennifer. Well boys, she’s back! Holing away in the woods mending her body and plotting, Jennifer is determined to torture each of the four as they tortured her. And let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than a woman out seeking revenge.
With military precision, one by one, the boys are subjected to exacting retaliation giving new meaning to "an eye for an eye". And with a furious calm intensity, one must ask, just how far will Jennifer go in her revenge?
Sarah Butler, while engaging as Jennifer, giving her a great visceral determination, doesn’t give as strong a performance as I would expect for this role. Sadly, the girl can’t scream with a damn, lacking oomph and passion.
Outstanding is Jeff Branson who shocked me with his performance. Not what we usually see from him. As Johnny, he is high energy, mean to the core, but has this edge of embarrassed intimidation. Totally unexpected and welcome, although at times, his arrogance felt forced and unnatural.
The real acting standout is Chad Lindberg as the slightly mentally challenged, Matthew. He is amazing. I first took note of him some 10-12 years ago in an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" but where he really caught my attention was with this great enthusiasm and innocence in "The Rookie." But here.....WOW! He is the one character that is completely multi-dimensional and Lindberg really conveys a conscience, and humanity, yet a need to belong and be loved.
Daniel Franzese’s Stanley is equally excellent as brings substance to the performance with some real vulnerable and sheepish moments interlaced with "wanting to belong". Comic relief is added through Stanley’s obsession with filmmaking and seeing himself as the next Spielberg. A little over the top is Andrew Howard who, as Sheriff Storch, appears to be in caffeine overdrive for the entire film. And just color me happy to see Tracey Walter as odd little Earl. He may always have very small or supporting roles, but he always brings a sense of realism to any project and here is no different.
Working from a screenplay by Stuart Morse based on that of Zarchi, Monroe has done a more than admirable job here. Compelling is that every character in the film is needy in some fashion or another and their actions are all the result of those insecurities and needs. At first blush, the film looks clean, bright, peaceful and calm and polished. Thanks to cinematographer Neil Lisk, that entire serenity quickly changes and gets progressively darker and tonally muted almost to a complete black & white palette as the film progresses. Visually effective and conducive to the story. Employing the whole "filming within a film" idea thanks to the character of Stanley, works brilliantly and adds a new dimension of psycho - and humor - to the film. It also allows for incorporation of that grittiness of the original film which ramps up the creep factor. The pacing is good and even but where Monroe really excels is when revenge kicks in. He methodically escalated the suspense in perfectly graduated doses of tension. He also does a nice job with continuity and relevance. Each action has a purpose and a resulting reaction. Each discovery and focused frame is relevant to the story. The abandoned cabin and Jennifer's visual sweep, the tool shed and camera shots held just long enough that you see each item that's there. There are no gratuitous shots.
The real standout for me are the torture methods. Gross, disgusting and fucking awesome. And what makes them work is Sarah Butler's coldness and lack of emotion - although when she screams, she fails miserably.
Aiming for realism as opposed to exploitation, Monroe provides a more extensive narrative and complete picture than the original and excels at creating an ominous tone from the start. There is no question that psychological forces are at work here, both within the film and the audience. Disappointingly though, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE lacks the unpredictability and "grime" that added so much to the aesthetic of Zarchi’s original version.
Although minimal, there are some flaws, not the least of which are unanswered questions concerning relevant plot points. How did Jennifer get out of the water without anyone seeing her? I sensed there was something cut from the opening that would have established her as a swimmer or diver or something that would enable her to survive underwater for some length of time. And what happened to the sheriff's daughter? And why did no one come looking for Jennifer when there was no communication of any kind from her for 2 months?
Controversial, horrific, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is one of the few films that is actually better than the original and challenges you to look within yourself. Nothing to spit at, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE demonstrates again why, often, revenge is the best medicine.
Jennifer Hills - Sarah Butler
Johnny - Jeff Branson
Matthew - Chad Lindberg
Stanley - Daniel Franzese
Andy - Rodney Eastman
Sheriff Storch - Andrew Howard
Earl - Tracey Walter
Directed by Steven R. Monroe. Written by Stuart Morse based on the screenplay by Meir Zarchi.