From among the Video Nasties

Thus far into the great Summer of Blood '10 Video Nasties Extravaganza, you could be forgiven for assuming that the Video Nasties list was pretty much a bunch of hot air, trumped-up charges of obscene violence levied against movies that were mostly innocuous and badly-made, guilty perhaps of extreme bad taste (in the case of the many Nazisploitation films on the list) but hardly the sort of truly odious, vile cinema that deserves to be loudly and publicly censured.

Which is, of course, exactly what the Video Nasties were. They were scapegoats and whipping boys, raised to the level of national crisis by a reactionary government and society for what reason I can't figure out, but it was surely not because the United Kingdom was being plagued by ultra-violent slasher-style killings in 1982. I take it to be self-evident that a democratic nation has no right to make up censorship lists, but reasonable people can perhaps think otherwise; still, I assume we can all agree that a democratic nation in the censorship business has to be goddamn careful to only pick truly deserving works to censor.

Still, in attempt to be fair to the Director of Public Prosecutions, I thought the time had come to dredge up one of the really nasty Nasties: a film that, by all rights, is as wicked and unholy and immoral as all that. A title so notorious that its mere existence on VHS was one of the flashpoints for the beginning of the Nasties craze, the 1978 rape revenge picture I Spit on Your Grave.

Originally released in the US under the title Day of the Woman - which writer-director Meir Zarchi has always preferred, correctly noting that it is a hell of a lot less sensationalising - the film tanked at first; two years and a rechristening later, it became a tremendous flashpoint for controversy, cited by a number of critics - Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert being the most prominent - as the very embodiment of everything wrong with cinema today, defended by a tiny minority as a very unconventional feminist narrative, and seen by everybody in-between as the ultimate in extreme exploitation. This is what happens when you make your entire movie hinge on a 28-minute gang rape sequence.

Nuance, you might guess, is not a strength of I Spit on Your Grave. Virtually nothing happens in fact: a woman named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton - Buster Keaton's granddaughter!) travels into the country from New York City, looking for a quiet place to write. She first attracts the attention of a sleazy gas station attendant, Johnny (Eron Tabor), then of an apparently developmentally-disabled grocery store delivery boy, Matthew (Richard Pace). Johnny, along with the equally slimy Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann), begins to harass Jennifer at the remote cottage where she's staying; almost immediately contrives to drag her from her boat into the woods, where they and Matthew rape her for an afternoon. Matthew is sent back to murder her, but he can't; and after a couple of weeks, Jennifer is physically recovered enough to isolate and then kill each of the rapists. Which she does with great zeal.

First things first: it's not feminist. I would argue for it a number of specific virtues (yes, yes, huge surprise: of course I have a fair measure of regard for the movie I called "wicked and unholy and immoral"), but not feminism. It is a movie that has clearly been made by a man for a male audience, with too many concessions to the needs of the exploitative revenge thriller for it to begin to qualify as "feminist" by any meaningful definition: even if we can square Jennifer's inexplicable decision not to go to the police after her rape, even if we can excuse her transformation into a cool-as-a-cucumber assassin after her trauma; there'd still be no getting around the fact that she seduces two of the men before she kills them. I emphatically do not consider this a problem with the movie - but it's not feminism, and and the people out there waving their arms and saying "no, don't you get it, it's about empowerment!" are almost as annoying as the people declaiming it as the lowest kind of trash.

It is, however, a precise and damning indictment of male sexuality, perhaps the most stridently anti-masculine film ever made by a male filmmaker. The first scene we see with the men all together is a night-time fishing trip taken up with the crudest chatter imaginable, starting with a lengthy disquisition about shitting that turns into a troglodytic appreciation of how great it is to fuck women. Anyone who can leave this scene without hating the living daylights out of each and every one of these men is either infinitely more forgiving than I, or is themselves a leering, misogynistic rape fancier. Note, however, that these are the sole significant representation of men onscreen (there are two other men in the credits, neither of whom has so much as a line of dialogue). In the universe that I Spit on Your Grave presents, this is the only way that males can be: either barbarically sexual, or an imbecile who wants to be barbarically sexual.

Zarchi has already primed us for this. Very early indeed, he presents one of the hoariest scenes in exploitation cinema: Jennifer goes skinny dipping. Keaton strips down to nothing, and the camera hovers over her chest and head, and then zooms back to reveal her whole body. It's hard to express in words how odd this feels when you're looking at it: there's something listlessly functional about it, like the camera knows that we're here for the nudity (the film's idealised audience, once again, is unmistakably heterosexual and male), but doesn't especially respect us for it. It's a bland sort of ogling that goes on, and then the film cuts to another angle of Jennifer naked; this time, it zooms back what must be a couple hundred yards, all the way across the water. And this shot, with trees suddenly appearing between us and the bathing woman, can only possibly be read in one way: the viewer is suddenly, and forcibly, placed into the position of a Peeping Tom. The presumed gratification that comes from watching a nude woman in a movie is disconcertingly replaced with a sense that one is a pervert.

By far, the most piercing attack on male sexuality comes well after the rape itself: Jennifer has made her plans to kill her attackers, and in two cases, does so by acting as though she wants to have sex with them. This is psychological garbage, of course, but it serves its purpose: it demonstrates how the male's infatuation with his own virility can make him into the stupidest of all God's creatures. Especially in the scene where Jennifer springs her trap on Johnny, the alpha male among the rapists, he has every reason to believe that she wishes him pain and suffering; Matthew has been missing for a day; and yet, as he makes clear when he's begging for his life - she has a gun trained on him, though it's evident to us that she never really means to use it - he honestly believes that she must have enjoyed the rape. Because he cannot conceive of a world in which a dominant male's sexual prowess might possibly be unwelcome, especially to a woman who was so obviously "asking for it", wearing clothes more attractive than a nun's wimple, and sunbathing in a bikini in the yard of her extremely isolated cabin in the woods. That Jennifer lets him think that she's acquiescing to his charms is a cat playing with a mouse, and nothing but; and the romantic in me likes to assume that it's this moment of unbridled asshole misogyny that wins Johnny the most devastatingly nasty fate in the film: she cuts his penis off and he bleeds to death in a locked bathroom (Zarchi frames his death agonies so that it looks like he's ejaculating blood, just to cast his demise in sexual terms that much more).

So, anyway, I Spit on Your Grave pretty much hates men altogether, up to and including you, Mr. Man, who is watching this movie. Yeah, fuck you. And here, as we pretty much had to, we come to That Scene.

The rape is not exploitation, and that's that. I have no doubt that in all the years since the film was made, plenty of people, men and women, have found it erotic, but it is unmistakably clear that Zarchi is not sexualising the rape, and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is arguing in bad faith, period.

This gets us into the matter of, "Why do we see movies, anyway?" A good number of the film's harshest critics have framed their problems with it as one of intensely bad taste, finding it impossible that anyone would try to pass this kind of thing off as "entertainment". No shit! But did Zarchi ever claim that I Spit on Your Grave was meant to be entertaining? He absolutely did not; the idea for the film came one night after he helped a rape victim to a police station, where the police were worse than useless, and he was driven to tell a story of a woman getting her own justice. That's right: I Spit on Your Grave is a big ol' Message Picture.

But fun? Christ, no. I have now seen the movie twice - and I rather wish that I had not - and my responses to the various beats of the rape scene have included cringing, turning away, covering my face with my hands, fiddling with the remote. And not ever, for one frame, thinking, "Boy, I'm happy right now that I'm watching this". It's this bit that trips people up, not just about I Spit on Your Grave, but on a lot of movies that are about the intense suffering of human beings. "Why do you want to watch that?" asks the aghast observer. "What possible value could it have for you?" First off, nobody who asks that question ever gets to praise a Holocaust movie again. Second, it's the same exact reason: for 28 horrifying minutes - more horrifying by far than anything in most legitimate horror pictures - I can at least understand in the broadest outlines a human experience that I will never feel. Now, a movie can't express the feeling of being raped, any more than a movie can express the feeling of losing all your family in a Nazi death camp. But it can, in a way, make those things more real, turn it from a noble but absent "how sad that must be for you" into a visceral, and deeply felt, "you must be in unfathomable pain right now".

In other words: unpleasant things are a part of life, so unpleasant art must be made, for if art doesn't reflect every element of life, then art is a damned lie.

At any rate, the rape sequence is a fair masterpiece of filmmaking, given what it's depicting: Keaton's performance could not be improved upon, and Zarchi's framing is carefully chosen to emphasise the violence of what we are seeing and remove as much sex from it as possible. I somehow do not want to spend much time picking at these 28 minutes, even though they are immaculately-made; but having to endure it is quite enough for me, and then to go back and say, "let's take a shot-by-shot look at why it's so hard to endure it" seems like it would just be masochism.

So, just past the halfway, the movie turns into an early torture porno, with Jennifer offing the boys in very drawn-out plots; yet it at least has the merit of killing people that we assuredly want to see dead. And that's the part of I Spit on Your Grave that I think doesn't really get talked about enough: the way it makes the audience complicit in the second-half killings. We never occupy the rapists' POV, not once in the whole 101 minutes of the film; there are a few times that we see exactly what Jennifer sees, and the framing predominately favors her perspective. More to the point, it's very, very hard not to be delighted when she gets her bloody revenge, because by God she deserves it; and yet there is no clear moral authority involved. Jennifer makes not the slightest effort to pursue justice through legal channels, and while we can magic that away by remembering that I Spit on Your Grave takes place in a metaphor for how patriarchal societies destroy women, it still looks a lot like the real world, where vigilantes are not necessarily to be praised.

Let's go back to the emasculation scene: after cutting of Johnny's member, Jennifer turns on a Puccini aria, and sits rocking desperately as his screams fade away (Keaton's expression is magnificent here). It doesn't seem, in this moment, that she's very triumphant, and that makes it hard for us to feel a sense of victory in the scene; it's more like she' s trying to wish all of this away. And maybe that's the point of the film, and the reason so many Nice People have screeched such invective against the movie: it doesn't allow for any good choices. Maybe some events are really so horrible that there is no recovering from them, not through violence or justice or any of that. Killing Johnny hasn't un-raped Jennifer, it's made her a killer - a tremendously justified killer, mind you, and a killer who still goes out and kills again, so she's obviously not too put off by what she's done. But there's no fixing an unfixable world, and I Spit on Your Grave presents a thoroughly fucked world if I've ever seen one.

So no, it's not entertaining. It's anti-entertaining. It is one of the most wretchedly nihilistic things I have sat through that didn't involve Swedes mourning God's death. Yet it says quite a lot, and it has been made at quite a consummate level of craftsmanship, for a movie that I can't in good faith ever recommend to anybody.

Take a trip in the Way-Back Machine! Three years ago, I live-blogged my first ever viewing of I Spit on Your Grave, on a group blog operated and since abandoned by several of my college friends. Check it out - confusing in-jokes abound!

Body Count: 4, each one grislier than the last. Actually, that's a lie, number 2 is by far the grisliest. But they're all pretty fucking cruel.

Unendurably Long, Borderline-Explicit Rape Scenes: 1

Nastiness Rating: 5/5, truly Nasty. The emasculation scene would handily deserve a 4 by itself, but here it's simply gilding the lily.