I Spit on Your Grave. 1978. Directed & Written by Meir Zarchi.
Starring Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann, & Alexis Magnotti.
Rated R / 101 minutes
Horror / Thriller
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Meir Zarchi’s 1978 shocker I Spit On Your Grave—also known as Day of the Woman—is one of the earlier, more (in)famous examples of the rape-revenge film, a lamentable sub-genre that, more often than not, only serves to further exploit women and their trauma than anything else. Half the time women in these films never get to actually reclaim their own agency by taking revenge themselves, instead remaining the damsels in distress requiring, usually, a male force to avenge them.
One good thing about Zarchi’s film is it gives its female victim a restored, violent agency with which to reclaim a bit of inner peace by wiping out her rapists. I Spit On Your Grave feels like a cinematic vision of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, full of cultural, as well as social significance, in spite of its horrifying brutality.
Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) is a writer. She rents a small cottage in a rural part of Connecticut to write in isolation. Her solitude’s shattered when a group of local men target her, at first harassing her, soon progressing to violent assault and gang rape. Afterwards, Jennifer crawls bloody back to her cabin, where the men are again waiting to assault her again. When the men charge their mentally challenged friend Matthew (Richard Pace) with killing Jennifer he can’t do the horrible deed, and she lives. Jennifer bides her time, and a couple weeks later the men haven’t heard anything about her body being found. Then she begins picking her rapists off, one by one, until none are left to hurt her, or any other woman, ever again.
The general misogyny of men, apart from rape and sexual assault, is on display throughout I Spit On Your Grave, even in the seemingly banal conversations the group of rapists have when they’re alone together. The term ‘broad’ is thrown around a lot, and that was a common word among American men for decades. The term may originate from a couple potential places, such as abroadwife—a woman away from her husband, usually a slave—or, in a more elaborate metaphor, a sex worker seen as a pimp’s meal ticket, in the sense that playing cards, or tickets, equals playing broads. Either way, an icky term with misogynistic and sexist implications. Most chilling is when Matthew complains he didn’t get off when they raped Jennifer, so one of his buddies assures: “There‘s gonna be a bunch more broads. You‘ll cum next time.” While the man might simply mean another woman will come along for Matthew, he’s probably suggesting they’re going to rape another woman, or more women, plural.
What I find the most interesting touch of misogyny in I Spit On Your Grave is a passing, almost missable reference to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy in the male consciousness. At one point the soon-to-be-rapists are talking and they get into a typical, idiotic male conversation about whether women defecate. One of them says: “All women shit. Women are full of shit.” Another voice replies quickly: “Not my mother.” This conversation touches on the patriarchal male wish for purity in women, to the point they can’t even imagine a woman using the bathroom, or menstruating. It all goes back to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy and the patriarchal notion that women are either pure, chaste beings, or they’re bad, promiscuous whores.
“You coax a man into doing it to you.
A man gets the message fast.”
Jennifer’s violent retribution against her disgusting male rapists calls to mind the searing SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. The manifesto posited that the world’s problems, big and small, are the cause of men, so one of the steps necessary to create a better world is to wipe men out. I Spit On Your Grave echoes Solanas’s rage by going directly at the male ego where it feels pain the most: the dick. Jennifer first lures Matthew in with sex, only to hang him with a noose as he climaxes; a great shot shows his pants hanging around his ankles as his body hangs from a tree, a man murdered at his most vulnerable. The best scene in regards to figuratively castrating the misogyny of rapists involves a literal castration, when Jennifer lures the leader of her gang of rapists then slices off his dick in the bath, providing a shocking, cruelly satisfying revenge scene.
What’s most interesting is that Solanas’s manifesto was seen, by some, as satire due to its connection with Freud’s theory of femininity, and the violence Jennifer visits upon one of her rapists, by castrating him, feels directly linked to Freudian ideas about how young boys view their mother. At one point, the castrated rapist calls out “Mother” a couple times, regressing from man to child—maybe the ultimate violent revenge Jennifer could accomplish against one of her attackers.
I Spit On Your Grave makes a clever connection to historical portrayals of misogyny with the use of a song from Giacomo Puccini’s Italian opera Manon Lescaut. After Jennifer cuts off one of her rapist’s penises in the bath she leaves him in there to bleed out, and she puts on a record, playing the song “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut. The song is specifically related to Jennifer’s struggle, as it features Manon recalling her past and musing about her supposed fatal beauty, or, how her beauty’s been used as a scapegoat by men to justify their actions. That idea itself is seen in I Spit On Your Grave when one of Jennifer’s rapists goes on a rant about how women can “coax a man” into rape, exclaiming “Tits with no bra!” as if she were asking to be assaulted. Most nasty is how he says she was lying outside barely clothed, “just waiting, like bait“; the predatory language makes the misogyny here more than evident.
There are few rape-revenge films I’ll say are genuinely good, and I Spit On Your Grave is one of them. Although I have to skip over the rape scene, it’s too traumatic for me, and the length of the scene remains questionable to me, I find the film an effective exploration of the trauma in sexual assault and also liberating in the sense we actually get to see the victim take their own revenge, eviscerating men, toxic masculinity, and misogyny at once. Camille Keaton gives an outstanding performance that will never be forgotten in the history of cinema.
Though I wouldn’t say nuance is exactly Zarchi’s thing there is nevertheless a nuance to I Spit On Your Grave that isn’t always present in the majority of rape-revenge films, especially the ones that lean harder into the horror than the thriller elements. Jennifer’s not alone in being a victim who’s allowed to reclaim her agency in one of these nasty films, especially in recent years with Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and more recently Violation. But the symbolism with which she attains revenge, and the scene when she listens to a song from Manon Lescaut, adds much more gravity and complexity to I Spit On Your Grave, lifting it from a rape-revenge film to something more transformative, more transgressive about the violent plight of women in a so-called man’s world.