Restorative Violence in Meir Zarchi’s ‘I Spit on Your Grave’
In 1980, Roger Ebert posted a review of the “sick, reprehensible” rape-revenge flick I Spit on Your Grave. His evaluation reads like many of his horror movie reviews do—full of an innate disdain for the genre alongside harsh judgment upon those who willingly engage with it. “There is no reason to see this movie,” he claimed, “except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” The renowned film critic is correct, though not in the way that he probably intended.
Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave released in November of 1978 to immediate and sustained controversy. In addition to critical sentiments like Ebert’s, the MPAA grudgingly gave the film an R rating, only for a producer to add “sexually violent” footage to earn the infamous X rating. Overseas, the Director of Public Prosecutions placed Grave on the “Video Nasties” list, effectively banning it from home video sale and distribution under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act. It is rape revenge through and through, and as such, contains a whole lot of sexual violence and a whole lot of physical violence in kind.
Grave sees New York author Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) taking a solo writer’s retreat to an isolated cottage in Connecticut. She is unassuming, but a group of local men— Johnny (Eron Tabor), Stanley (Anthony Nichols), Andy (Gunter Kleeman), and Matthew (Richard Pace)— take notice of her and stalk her briefly before abducting her. The men pressure Matthew, who is intellectually disabled, to rape Jennifer but he refuses at first. The men proceed to rape her instead and when she crawls back to her cottage, they descend upon her again; this time, Matthew participates in the sexual assault.
After he is ordered to kill her, Matthew loses his gumption again and leaves her for dead. She does not die. Over the 102 minute runtime, Jennifer proceeds to dispatch each of her tormentors one by one. Matthew’s death is relatively merciful; Jennifer willingly lures him to a lakeside spot and hangs him. Andy gets an axe to the back, and Stanley gets ripped apart by her boat motor as she speeds away. Each death holds a cathartic power in its own way, from their screams of pain to Jennifer’s spoken callback to her assault with “Suck it, bitch.” But the moment that gets the most attention among fans and detractors alike in Grave is when Johnny takes a bath.
Poor, poor Johnny—couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. After she recovers, Jennifer returns to the gas station where the men work and entices Johnny to get in her car. On the way home, she stops and orders him to undress at gunpoint. After some back and forth with him, she changes her mind and brings him back to the cottage for a bath. Weaponizing the very seductive nature that Johnny blames her rape on, Jennifer hops in the bath with him and proceeds to stroke him until he reaches the edge of orgasm. Then she castrates him with Matthew’s blade and leaves him to bleed to death in her tub. Classical music fills the air, competing with his screams. Jennifer is fully zen throughout; after Johnny dies, she dumps his body and burns his clothes.
The scene is shocking for many reasons, one of which is the screen time given to a male victim (playing fast and loose with that term here) mewling and sitting with his violation. So many male victims in rape-revenge are dispatched quickly, in the time it takes Jason Voorhees to spilt a teenager in twain, while the female victims usually have prolonged rape sequences. I Spit on Your Grave devotes over 20 minutes to Jennifer’s living nightmare. In fact, torture scenes involving male victims tend to be the most memorable parts of horror movies like The Loved Ones, Audition (which could be argued as a rape-revenge movie), even Hostel. This isn’t necessarily due to bias on the viewers’ part, but a relative scarcity within genre content. It’s just not done as often.
To contextualize the brutality and the bloodshed, it’s necessary to look at the genre as a whole. The rape-revenge film is generally defined by two major elements: they are victim-centric and they involve violent extrajudicial justice. Plenty of movies utilize the rape of a woman to catalyze their male hero into an uber-masculine agent of vengeance, but if they still privilege a male protagonist’s point of view (like, say, Sudden Impact wherein Clint Eastwood tracks a serial killer dispatching her gang rape assailants), they’ll be received as action or drama films and not strictly rape-revenge, where the rape survivor’s arc is paramount to all others. One of Shakespeare’s most violent tragedies sees Titus Andronicus going full Michael Myers on everyone onstage after his daughter Lavinia is raped and mutilated, but the story is his and not hers; not rape-revenge.
It’s more of a guideline than anything else—two films that are widely included in rape-revenge conversations, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (a loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood, have a set of parents and a daughter avenging the rape of a family member in each of their respective stories. Scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes in Rape-Revenge Films that I Spit on Your Grave, despite “a complex and competitive relationship between the men,” turns its eye primarily upon its woman survivor; “it is her experience,” Heller writes, “that consistently remain the core of the film’s interest.”
The other trapping needed to make a rape-revenge film proper is a protagonist who enacts their own street justice—either after the system has failed them, or with the knowledge that the system will fail them. This is one of the reasons why Abel Ferarra’s nun-with-a-gun joint Ms. 45 is considered to fall under the label while The Accused, in which Jodie Foster seeks resolution through the court system, does not. Again, this isn’t an ironclad rule—the upcoming Promising Young Woman, written and helmed by Emerald Fennell (a woman filmmaker behind a rape-revenge movie is a depressingly rare but welcome sight), plays around with post-assault revenge within and outside of the justice system. Most definitions of the genre have both of these loose criteria: a violated victim (usually female) seeking vengeance for a sexual assault, and she carries out that retribution away from the judicial structures available to her.
Embroidered within all of that is an individual power blitz for the rape survivor. That blitz necessitates violation traded for violation given; assault for assault. When Jennifer was gang-raped by a group of men, she lost a sense of personhood. Sexual assault is a multifold offense: in addition to the physical trespass, there is a spiritual one that dehumanizes its target. Survivors often struggle with feelings of worthlessness, as though a valuable piece of them has been stolen. So, in many films of this flavor, death itself is not enough to replace the valuable piece lost—he must lose something of value to him, and he must suffer the whole time as she suffered. What’s more valuable to a man than the bodily extension that history has considered the single greatest symbol of his manhood?
In wild contrast to movies like Ms .45, I Spit on Your Grave insists that a gun cannot bring restoration to the survivor in the way that it can for the average Death Wish male avenger—the castration is an integral part of the cathartic process. In film crit bible Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol J. Clover elaborates:
“Knives and needles, like teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws, are personal extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace. All phallic symbols are not equal, and a hands-on knifing answers a hands-on rape in a way that a shooting, even a shooting preceded by a humiliation, does not.”Carol J. Clover
A concession: as restorative as the scene may be, neither the film nor the rape-revenge genre as a whole have quite achieved equilibrium in terms of traded transgressions across the gender spectrum. The Nice Girl trope heavily intertwines with the male gaze, and male nudity in rape-revenge is still privileged with off-screen or obscured violence at the moment of penetration. When Johnny gets his comeuppance, gruesome as it is, he is still given a degree of modesty. The actual castration is performed underwater and thus away from the view of sensitive eyes that watched Jennifer’s merciless rape without any such visual veil.
Still, all is not hopeless; Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 crowd-pleaser Revenge not only treats its rape sequence with far less leering salaciousness than vengeance films of decades past, but the film also features a climax chase scene with a fully nude, fully vulnerable male assailant pursuing and being pursued by the bikini-clad survivor/mistress he tried to kill earlier. Perhaps the genre would benefit from more women at the helm, just a thought.
Upon retrospection, Ebert was right. The sight of “sadism and suffering” is part of I Spit on Your Grave’s value. Jennifer could have simply shot every one of the hooligans who hurt her; then again, she could have simply filed a police report and gone through the old, tired channels. Would that have gotten her true justice? Zarchi doesn’t think so. Whatever follows her rape is merely ruthlessness returned in kind, and it is fully justified in the film’s eyes. In fact, as the movie’s tagline gleefully asserts, “No jury in America would ever convict her!”