Wednesday, October 19, 2011

2011 Halloween Film Festival: I Spit On Your Grave (2010)

In the history of exploitation films, perhaps no other movie is as notorious as writer-director Meir Zarchi's 1978 grind house classic, "I Spit On Your Grave" (aka "Day of the Woman"). Even if you've never seen the original, you may have heard of the sheer brutality of the gang rape that the film includes, depicted onscreen for an extended portion of the movies ninety some odd minutes. In actuality, actress Camille Keaton is molested several times in that flick and the films depravity makes if very difficult to watch, despite the somewhat over the top acting.

Jump ahead to 2010 and director Steven Monroe's unnecessary remake, which follows the original release like an outline, but  also incorporates significant changes. Although I personally fail to understand why this particular movie even needed to merit a remake, I actually think that the latest version is superior in a number of respects to the original, none of which actually resulted in a healthier box office haul. I Spit On Your Grave (2010) starring Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Andrew Howard, Chad Lindberg, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman and Tracey Walter was a huge flop upon release.

Just as Camille Keaton did in the 1978 film, actress Sarah Butler really puts herself out there in the role of Jennifer Hills, a short story writer who rents a cabin in a remote area for some quiet time to work on a novel, only to run afoul of a handful of testosterone-fueled rednecks who want to teach this uppity city gal a lesson, when she rebuffs their unwanted attentions. In both films, a mentally-challenged young man named Matthew inadvertently initiates the horrific attacks to come, by exaggerating his own interaction with Jennifer to the others, in order to ingratiate himself to their group. The names of the four rapists remains unaltered from the first film, but director Monroe splits off an aspect of the original gang leader, gas station operator Johnny (who was a married man in the first film), to create a new character for the 2010 version in County Sheriff Storch (portrayed by Andrew Howard). 
The groups initial assault on Butler's character is akin to a home invasion and this portion of the film is its most effective, as she endures layers of humiliation at the hands of the men who will ultimately gang rape her. For instance, she is forced to pull back her lips to show her teeth before being forced to perform fellatio on a gun barrel, and one of the goons videotapes stuff like Jennifer being forced to drink alcohol and again when she is later made to dance for the group. Jennifer acts quickly during a moment of inattention and succeeds in escaping only to run into Sheriff Storch, who then accompanies her back to the cabin to arrest her attackers. After discovering her marijuana joint in an ash tray, and her supply of liquor, plus no attackers present at the scene, the Sheriff seemingly finds her story of assault implausible; but as he begins to pat her down, it is obvious that his own physical interests are disturbing. Suddenly the gang returns and we realize that the Sheriff runs these guys like his own little squad. If there was a way to make the gang rape even worse than the original version, this is it, as Storch is truly one evil bastard.

The explicit nature of the rape is downplayed to a far greater extent than in the original, there is nudity of course, but it is not as prominent this time out. Butler deserves high marks for her willingness to be in this flick, but for exploitation alone, the 2010 Grave falls short (and that's not a bad thing). Where this version excels is in its depictions of the attackers. No longer simply one-note caricatures, the "bad guys" are completely fleshed out as characters. They are goons none the less, but you see, we've all known men like this. We've all seen these guys before. The dopey lummox, the conflicted retard who just wants to be accepted, the depraved bully, the toady and the sadistic prick are all stereotypes culled from real life. We see guys like this at sporting events, at the local bar, in the workplace, and hell yes, some of them wear badges. The thing is, that just as in real life, these men don't think that they are doing anything wrong. In their minds, Jennifer deserves what she gets. Yes, that's all so much bullshit, but for me it made the films premise more believable than the cartoonish analogues of the original.
Butler's nightmarish revenge on her attackers is also much more naturalistic and believable in this version. You can accept how a slender, feminine young woman can pull off what she physically does to these guys. Trust me as bad as it gets, they deserve it, and it is also in this part of the movie where her acting talents are most effective. Jennifer is a destroyed person, and whether you want to debate female empowerment or the motivations of the audience for watching something like this, is irrelevant. I Spit On Your Grave (2010) is a watchable (but cringe-worthy) experience, and certainly far better than torture-porn stuff like Saw or Hostel.

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