This review contains some spoilers.
It’s always a challenge to recommend a film like I Spit On Your Grave. But I’m going to do just that. Despite it’s retro-sexist cover (yuck) and the creepy-voyeur DVD/BR menu scenes – this remake is far superior to the original film in nearly every way.
It must be said that the original from 1978 has never been a particular favorite of mine. The acting is painfully bad, the camera-work is laughable, the script (what there is of it) is atrocious, and the direction can best be described as shoddy. The only reason that the film didn’t fade into obscurity is due to its subject matter – and because it has been so notoriously censored and banned for decades. It is the most infamous and famous of all Rape/Revenge films.
Years ago, I had wondered why no one had remade it, but then again – no one was making films with rape as a subject unless they were Message Movies starring Jodie Foster. Or armchair-feminist bullshit on Lifetime. Then came the 2000’s and a return to darker, more visceral horror. Foreign films began to include vicious attacks in them and those terrors began to creep into American films once again as well. With 2009’s fairly well-received Last House on the Left remake, it seemed high time to revisit some more of those infamous 1970’s shockers.
Which brings us to this film. Just like in the original, the story is simple: Jennifer Hills is a novelist that is starting to work on her second book. She plans to take a few months vacation away from the city so she rents a cabin in a remote rural area to get away from it all and begins writing. Four young local men take issue with the pretty city girl coming to their town and set out to “teach her a lesson”. They terrorize her, brutally rape her – repeatedly, and plan worse. She survives and exacts horrific forms of revenge against everyone. The End.
So what did I like about the remake? Lots of things. The acting here is very good from all parties – especially the star, Sarah Butler. The script is grounded in realism (for the most part). Unlike the original, Sarah fights every moment of each attack. At no point is she a weak character. Also unlike the original, Sarah never once comes on sexually to any of her attackers afterward in order to gain power over them. I’ve always felt that many misunderstood those scenes from the original film – obviously, she was using sex as a weapon against them, turning the tables on the scumbags. That was the whole point. But many misinterpreted this and felt that the film was somehow saying that 1978 Jennifer enjoyed the attacks. There is no such perceived ambiguity here. Jennifer disappears for more than a month and her attackers assume she has died. But what she’s done is hide and plan and plot, making a bit more realistic her torturous set-ups. The character of Matthew (portrayed by Supernatural’s Chad Lindberg), the mentally challenged young man, is treated with much more dignity in the remake as well, even though his character takes a nasty turn that I’m not sure was entirely necessary. One major plus: gone is the overwrought, 45-minute gang rape of the original – replaced by two shorter scenes of equal terror and brutality, but far less insidious voyeurism.
Not that it’s any easier to watch. With far better acting than it’s predecessor, I Spit On Your Grave is not an enjoyable experience. Especially for women. Jennifer is subjected to an awful lot of abuse here. She undergoes a protracted scene of terror early that I found the most uncomfortable and two of the rapes are shown completely – the others are implied but (thankfully) not shown. When she goes on the offensive, I’ll admit that i experienced a few moments of exhilaration – something that I never did with the 1978 version. This time around I wanted her to hurt them. I may have even felt empowered for a brief moment – enjoying the vengeance rooting for her. “Day of the Woman” indeed. Some may enjoy all of Jennifer’s vengeance, but much like the original Last House on the Left – eventually the retribution stopped being fun for me. Hopefully that was the point. By the time that Jennifer is exacting her revenge on the son-of-a-bitch Sheriff, I no longer knew how i felt. Part of me wanted to cheer, part of me… well, not so much. While we may wish Eye-for-an-Eye vengeance on violent assholes like the monsters in this film, it’s another thing entirely to witness it.
I hate to admit it (because I expected to detest the film if I’m honest) – but this is a good movie. It’s not a great one however. One major problem that I had with it is that the attackers are good-looking actors by and large. The main brute (played by soap-actor Jeff Branson) looks much like Sam Worthington with his crew-cut. His right-hand man gives off a younger Guy Pearce vibe and even the “ugly one” isn’t a horrible-looking guy. One of the things that really worked in the original is that all of the attackers were unattractive slobs. They looked like the backwoods yokels you’d expect to find in the 1970’s terrorizing interlopers. This group of guys look a little too much Abercrombie & Fitch for rural, city-folk-hating assholes. More pointedly for this story – these guys go after Jennifer specifically because she’s too pretty for them. I couldn’t help but think that these were laughable lines from the likes of Worthington & Pearce look-alikes. Another gripe is that at least one of Jennifer’s revenge scenarios is outrageously overblown: a lye-bath. Something a little more realistic wouldn’t have taken the viewer out of the moment as much. For example – Stanley’s demise is just as cruel and disturbing but grounded in a bit more reality. Last, but not least, it was easier to believe that the original’s youthful (but not young) Jennifer Hills was a short-story writer. While Sarah Butler does a commendable job in this film, it’s difficult to swallow that she’s supposed to be a novelist here. She’s awfully young – supposedly over 25, but she looks to be barely drinking age.
I am glad that the director Stephen R. Monroe decided to delete the scenes that he did (included in the DVD/BR Extras). Several of them serve only to give the attackers a bit of humanity and let’s face it – that’s not the point of this movie or its original. The point is singular: To sympathize with Jennifer Hills. This is a rape/revenge fantasy film – no more, no less. For a brief moment, you are asked to empathize (perhaps celebrate?) a woman driven to extremes by the men that violated her. And maybe, just maybe – you’re asked to question how far you’d be willing to go in similar situations.