Feminist slasher or exploitation film? Thirty-two years after the original, I Spit on Your Grave gets the remake treatment.
Though remakes of landmark seventies horror films have now become routine - the past five years have seen retreads of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left and The Omen - horror buffs will be watching the remake of Meir Zarchi's 1978 landmark I Spit on Your Grave with special attention.
After all, when the original took its bow in Chicago, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel - then arguably the most powerful film critics in America - were so offended by its content, they attacked it forcefully enough that the distributors yanked the movie from 20-odd Chicago cinemas. I Spit on Your Grave benefited from the publicity, immediately transforming into "the movie Siskel and Ebert don't want you to see." Ebert gave the film a starless rating, calling it "a vile bag of garbage … without a shred of artistic distinction."
The main bone of contention was the film's centrepiece: a gruelling, brutal, 40-minute gang rape of a woman. But a number of feminist critics have since convincingly argued that what follows the gang rape is truly radical: the victim recovers, hunts down the four men who committed the crime and murders them one by one in explicit acts of revenge (including one castration). In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, author Carol Clover points to the rape-revenge film as unique, in that the woman does get to take out the men who violated her.
Steven R. Monroe, who has directed the remake - which makes its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal this weekend - says he knows a remake like this is inevitably risky. "There are some people who I know are hoping they can say it sucks. Horror fans are a completely different breed. Bless them, they are so passionate about the genre. But that means their expectations run very high."
Rest assured the volume has been cranked on the original (though even with the recent spate of torture porn - like the Saw and Hostel series - the original remains intensely disturbing). The basic plot remains the same: a woman from the city arrives at a secluded country house to write a novel. Early in the film, she stops in at a gas station where some men spy her. They later track her down and brutally rape her. She survives to destroy them all. There is one key difference that those familiar with the original will notice: In the first film, Jennifer (played by Camille Keaton, grandniece of Buster) enacts her revenge by seducing the men. In the remake, Jennifer (Sarah Butler) doesn't attempt to seduce anyone, just skewer, mutilate, eviscerate (with a rifle), and yes, castrate the offenders.
Monroe says he first saw the original when he was 16 and was shaken up by its brutality. Several years ago, he learned a producer he occasionally worked with had acquired the remake rights. "I said, 'You have to hire me!'" he recalls. "I lobbied them for about a year. I really wanted it, as I could see if the remake fell into the wrong hands, it could easily end up disastrous."
The extensive rape sequence remains disturbing, with the thugs employing the expected litany of misogynist epithets. And the class difference is again pointed up, with the men suggesting that Jennifer "thinks she's too good for us." Monroe has upped the ante by having one of the rapists bring along a camera so he can catch the degradation on video.
But another thing remains the same: The question hangs over the remake as it did the original. Is this simply another case of a lurid exploitation, or does the ultimate revenge make it a radical feminist departure?
"I shudder to use the word 'entertained,' but I hope people will be affected by it," says Monroe. "The fact is, if you represent this in a real and believable way, it's going to be upsetting. Why else would you touch on this subject? I know this divides people. Fifty per cent say, 'Who wants to sit through a 30-minute rape scene?' But the other 50 per cent say that a rape scene should point out just how horrific rape is."
Zarchi, the writer and director of the original, served as an executive producer on the remake. While he didn't initially agree with some of Monroe's choices, he says he now endorses the new film, calling it an effective update. Zarchi says he wasn't surprised when the original got so much attention. "I wanted to make a ripple in the ocean. It turned out to be a tsunami."
But he says he does have a recurring nightmare about critic Roger Ebert, who repeatedly savaged I Spit on Your Grave. "I'm terribly afraid he'll show up at my house some time, and ask for residuals. Every time he'd attack the film we'd sell thousands and thousands of copies of the video!"
"Days after I first saw the original," Monroe recalls, "my mind kept going back to it. I couldn't get it out of my head. That's what I'm hoping will happen with audiences with this version."
I Spit on Your Grave (2010) will have its world premiere at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival on Sunday, July 11 at 10 p.m. at Concordia University's Hall Building (fantasiafestival.com).
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Other horror movies that truly horrified
Freaks (1932) Director Tod Browning turned the tables in his tale of romantic betrayal, having the disabled and disfigured circus freaks in the film as the good guys, with the physically beautiful actors cast as the evil ones. Censors denounced the use of actual circus freaks as an exploitive casting stunt. Half an hour was cut from Browning's original version (including a revenge castration scene). The footage has never been recovered.
Peeping Tom (1960) This feature came out but a few months before Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was released - and that film, of course, became a massive box-office and critical sensation. But oddly enough, Peeping Tom - which dealt more brazenly with similar themes of violence and voyeurism - was attacked by critics and failed to capture the audience's imagination. Writing in the British magazine The Spectator, Isabel Quigly called it "the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing." Director Michael Powell's career was severely damaged by the furor, but the film was recuperated critically after Martin Scorsese championed it in the 1980s.
Irreversible (2002) Gaspar Noé's feature included a shattering 20-minute depiction of Monica Bellucci being raped (notoriously, the scene featured a computer-generated penis). The sequence proved so extreme that 25 people required medical attention at the Cannes premiere, either fainting or leaving the cinema vomiting. Noé conceded he wanted to out-do previous big-screen representations of rape. "I wanted to beat the sins of Deliverance and Straw Dogs," he told me in 2002. "The only movie I ever walked out on because it was too tough for me was Straw Dogs. I think that rape is a fear that is much closer to everyday life than even death itself. Ever single kid, male or female, has felt the fear of rape."