By JERRY JENAE SAMPSON
One of the harsher criticisms lobbed at films within the extreme horror genre is that they use sexual violence as a means of arousal. Those who condemn these films claim, often without watching, that if graphic sex and nudity are depicted onscreen that it must surely be for the gratification of the viewer. Over the years there has been much disagreement over the merits of rape-revenge films. The loudest protestations most often come from those who refuse to watch films at all, quick to judge and condemn the works as teeming with misogyny and even glorifying sexual violence against women. But, while rape revenge films are not always executed well, they do have an undeniably large number of female fans who are willing to go to bat for the genre.
In 1974 writer-director Meir Zarchi recalls driving with a friend and his daughter when a bloodied and naked woman crawled out from the bushes on the side of the road. She had been raped and beaten by two men in a New York City park. Zarchi struggled with the decision of whether to take the woman to the hospital or the police, and ultimately regretted his choice of the police after witnessing the despicable way in which they treated the woman. The experience left an impression on Zarchi, and four years later, in 1978, he would release I Spit on Your Grave (originally titled Day of the Woman – the title that Zarchi preferred).
I Spit on Your Grave is the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a writer from the big city who goes on vacation in the countryside in order to finish her first novel. Upon first arrival to the small-town gas station, Jennifer attracts the attention of the gas attendant, Johnny, and his two do-nothing pals Stanley and Andy. Jennifer is polite to Johnny while watching with amusement as the other two men play a childish game of toss the switchblade. Upon arrival at the house, Jennifer calls the local store for a grocery delivery. Matthew, a mildly mentally disabled man delivers the groceries. After learning that Jennifer is from the big city, Matthew tells her that she “comes from an evil place,” a point that will come up while the four men discuss the newcomer later that evening. Events in the film lead to the horrifying, not at all arousing, gang rape of Jennifer and eventual enactment of vengeance upon the guilty parties.
To the modern female viewer, there are many instances during Jennifer’s early interactions with the men that stand out as risky. At one point Jennifer tells Johnny almost exactly where she is staying – why do that? It is good to remember that this was a time when women were pushing back against the tight restrictive nature of society. They were no longer relegated to marrying young and having kids right away. Jennifer was a successful writer with stories published in women’s magazines. Her voice was able to be heard in a domineering industry that was overwhelmingly run by men. She had no reason to think that stepping outside of her car and chatting with the small-town men was dangerous because she was likely able to hold her own during altercations with men in the city. Normal interactions between a man and woman become abnormal when the man is prone to thinking that “New York broads fuck a lot.” Johnny doesn’t look at Jennifer the way he does his wife, who has dirty hair and wears sagging jeans, who he sees as built solely for childbearing and housekeeping. He sees Jennifer as “other” – a piece of meat that wants to be eaten.
Jennifer is granted no time of peace before the men begin to torment her, calling out to her at night, driving their boat loudly in circles in front of Jennifer as she tans. The very things that many people would describe as “boys being boys” are utilized in a way that almost disarms the viewer and Jennifer herself. She raises a hand to wave to the men, an obvious attempt to show that she acknowledges them but doesn’t want to be bothered.
These small signs come as natural to women as breathing. Ask any woman and she will tell you of a time that she attempted to escape unwanted advances from a man by gently and politely letting them down. Women are told not to “poke the bear,” which presumably means that if she tells a man to fuck off, don’t be surprised when he freaks out on her. While women are taught to let them down easy, men are rarely expected to leave a woman alone. While women should assume the worst and act accordingly, men are able to act as they wish because they seemingly have no agency over their desires. This isn’t how it must be, but through years of training, this is how it is. The point is clearly stated in I Spit on Your Grave, when later in the film, after Jennifer has been brutally raped and she begins her revenge tour, Johnny tells her that “you coax a man into doing it to you,” that because she was wearing a skirt that showed the lower half of her legs that she was seducing him, what did she expect, “a man is just a man.”
Most critics of I Spit on Your Grave and similar films of the time were quick to say that the issue arises from glorifying violence against women (included in a list of banned films is The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s 1972 exploitation/rape revenge film). But I question what evidence there is of “glorification” in these films. The sex that is shown is in no way shown under a glossy lens – it is not sensualized – and if there are men who feel arousal upon watching the scenes, shouldn’t that be a matter taken up with them, and not the film itself? It is the very instinct to place blame outward that has led to the epidemic of assault that women must guard themselves against. In Carol Glover’s seminal book on gender in the horror genre Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she recounts a review from Mick Martin and Marsha Porter that claims the film “seems to take more joy in presenting its heroine’s degradation than her victory.” And that, “When the tables finally turn, she proves to be just as vicious as her attackers. The scene where she robs a man of his offending ‘weapon’ is one of the most appalling moments in cinema history.” This criticism is notable for its shock and awe over the means in which Jennifer dispatches her rapists. Upon rewatch, the scene in which Jennifer seduces Johnny is one of the most cathartic of the film. She has just finished threatening him with a gun, before changing her mind after he explains to her how she was essentially “asking for it.” She is sweet to him, draws him a bath, brushes her flowing hair as she stands nude before him. He has actually convinced himself that what he did to her was what she wanted. And so, after the audience is forced to listen to Johnny ramble on with all of the talking points that were apparently just as prevalent in the 70s, Jennifer takes the knife that was meant to kill her and severs Johnny’s penis while masturbating him. Perhaps it is Jennifer’s use of her sexuality to avenge her own debasement that some viewers are disturbed by. Is it because a woman’s sexuality is so often used as a reason for punishment in modern society – and religion – that it is hard to see the woman use her violated body as a trap for payback?
Many women can appreciate films like I Spit on Your Grave because there is a strong recognition within the film’s narrative. We recognize the very real nature of why Jennifer chooses to enact her revenge as she does. Male critics, such as Roger Ebert, who deign themselves worthy to say what constitutes a “feminist film,” were quick to demonize women who take pleasure in watching Jennifer taking her revenge. But in reality, women, like Jennifer Hills in the movie, are aware that the moment a rape or assault is taken to the authorities in the attempt to follow the “rules,” the woman again becomes a target. Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist who once stood on the picket lines protesting against this film but has since addressed her previous feelings and now has a different outlook on the matter. She states in her article for the Guardian “I Was Wrong About I Spit on Your Grave”:
“I still believe in our criminal justice system and am against vigilante attacks, but the fact remains that the majority of men who rape women get away with it. If I were gang-raped, aware as I am of the near impossibility of winning justice through the courts, I would not be sitting here fantasizing about being saved by crusading lawyers and nice men.”
This is a feeling that I and other female fans of the rape-revenge genre share in the choice to embrace films in which women enact retribution on the men who do them dirty. Most notably, the film shows Jennifer Hills pick herself up after she has been traumatized and left for dead. She tapes together the ripped pieces of her manuscript. She goes to church and asks for forgiveness, and then she does what she feels she has to do. She is not, in fact, destroyed by what has happened to her. She is not a victim, but a survivor. She is strong in mind and body.
It is easy to demonize the three separate rape scenes in I Spit on Your Grave. They are brutal, dirty, and all too real. The men joke with one another as they are raping Jennifer Hills. They egg one another on – teasing simple Matthew for his inability to do the deed, cheering for Stanley as he forces Jennifer to “suck it bitch,” all the while knowing full well that he is not interested in anything from Jennifer other than to batter her for simply being a woman. It is possible that some people may be uncomfortable with the realism of the sexual violence that the film portrays. I Spit on Your Grave filters out any form of Hollywood glamour, choosing instead to focus the camera on the actions of this small gang of men as they bond over their shared joyride with the “whore” from the big city.
In fact, is this different from any countless number of real-life cases of campus gang rape within a fraternity? The truth is, many people see cinema as a means of escapism, and for those people, films that deal with extremity are not recommended. But there is merit in a film like Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave for some audiences. Some women, those who understand full well the implications of staying at a cabin alone in the countryside, those who are not allowed the freedoms that men are given without question, some women find catharsis in watching a woman get pure, unadulterated revenge on the men who raped her. Some women don’t consider the act of castration to be the most egregious act ever performed on screen. And how is it possible to be so sanctimonious about what is portrayed on film when society as a whole serve to protect those men who cheer one another on in these acts of depravity in real life?
It’s best to save the slack jawed incredulity for the nightly news. I encourage viewers to understand what films like I Spit on Your Grave are saying, there, in black and white, about the danger of the male group dynamic and the hopelessness that a woman feels when forced to rely upon the ineffectual short arm of the law and the illusion of justice after being violated. In 2020 it is not deemed necessary to depict rape in such an explicit manner, but when taken into context of the time in which it was released, I Spit on Your Grave is one of the few films that shows the absolute devastation of what happens to one out of every six American women in their lifetime. Outrage can be valiant, but when it is aimed at the wrong target, it’s as useless as a rape whistle in an abandoned parking garage.
Clover, C. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws (2nd ed., pp. 114-116). Princeton: Princeton University Press.