I Spit on Your Grave (1978/2010) 

Being 9 at the time, I was so freaked out, I vowed never to watch the rape-revenge film they so viciously, venomously attacked.

Never did I give "Spit" a try, nor did I want to, until its Blu-ray debut, released simultaneously with its 2010 remake of the same name, when curiosity finally got the best of me. Now that I've seen it, I can throw an educated two cents into the ongoing debate of whether the controversial thriller exploits women or rather is a misunderstood champion of feminism. And that is: Can't it be a little of both?

In the 1978 original, titled "Day of the Woman" before a re-release a couple of years later, Jennifer (Camille Keaton, grandniece of Buster) retreats to a cabin in the woods to write her first novel. Her solitude — and very soul — are shattered when four redneck locals gang-rape her. For one of them, the mentally handicapped Michael, it represents the loss of his innocence, in more ways than one. Instead of calling the police, Jennifer wills herself into a superwoman and takes bloody revenge on each of them.  

Last year's remake tells the same sordid story, right down to retaining the characters' names. Per the current remake rules of upping the ante, this time Jennifer (newcomer Sarah Butler) is raped not by four men, but five. From there, director Steven R. Monroe takes his more polished (but still ugly) version down a slightly different path, rearranging the order of Jennifer's murders and making them more gruesome, even culminating in one seemingly pulled from a discarded draft of a "Saw" sequel.

Both films "work," in that viewers are made to feel boiling-point hatred toward the men and empathy for Jennifer, to the point that you want to see the guys punished for their crimes, and believe me, you get to. (Each version has a scene of comeuppance that'll make any guy wince in pain.) Whether the product of low budgets or directorial intent, their grimy, bleak looks contribute to experiences so downbeat, so disturbing, so exhausting, I hardly consider them "entertainment."

At the same time, they are effective in relaying a very simple story; I hesitate to call it a plot. I'll admit I chose to watch the original via subtitles and the commentary of the legendary drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, who adds a little levity to the grim proceedings. He's also, as always, a wealth of information, providing details both serious and funny ("This was the first in a series of one role for Matthew") as he alternately defends and mocks the movie.

Briggs says that Keaton didn't get the recognition she deserved for her rather brave performance, and I have to agree, extending that to Butler as well (she's the better actress, anyway; the remake boasts more professional acting and production values all around). Jennifer is stripped naked, literally and figuratively, and robbed of everything that you have to wonder, "What madman thought all this up?"

Well, it's Zarchi, and you'd assume him to be a misogynist sleaze. Instead, in the half-hour conversation with him on the original disc's extras, he appears to be a nice, normal guy — just not an extraordinarily talented filmmaker. He was inspired to write the movie after witnessing the aftermath of a rape in real-life, and coming to the victim's aid, even when the police wouldn't.

Thus, despite the nudity and the graphic depiction of the acts (all simulated, mind you), there is nothing erotic or arousing about the film. You've heard experts suggest that rape is not about sex, but power? I get that now. "I Spit on Your Grave" drives that point home before shifting that balance of power to satiate the victim's desire for revenge.

Granted, "I Spit on Your Grave" isn't for everyone. It's not even for a quarter of everyone. Whichever version viewed, if it doesn't bother you, there's something wrong with you. —Rod Lott

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Rod Lott

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Fugitive Speech @ Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center

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