There’s a new grave-spitter-on-er in town: comely Sarah Butler in Steven R. Monroe’s ante-upping, boastfully unrated remake of I Spit on Your Grave. Back in 1978, writer-director Meir Zarchi hit pay dirt when his rape-and revenge flick Day of the Woman was (a) retitled I Spit on Your Grave by schlockmeister Jerry Gross, and (b) made the centerpiece of an anti-slasher-movie campaign by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Trust me: The best thing that can happen to an obscure grindhouse flick is for some fuddy-duddy like Ebert or, well, me, to decry the vile, sick, sadistic, despicable, depraved, sadistic, vile, despicable depths to which modern culture has sunk or sank.
Actually, I didn’t think the original was that bad. Ever since Carol Clover’s paradigm-shifting book Men, Women, and Chainsaws — which offered the arguable but disarming thesis that no matter how much torture “the final girl” endures, her triumph over the monster is you-go-girl empowering — I’ve had to control the reflexive jerking of my knee until I think things through. Crude though it was, I Spit on Your Grave said what all revenge pictures say but in hot pants and a halter top: I’ll dress how I want, I’ll go where I want, and if you mess with me I’ll cut off your dick. In close-up.
No question, the new film hits its marks. The protagonist, Jennifer, rents a cabin on a lake outside Gooberville to work on a novel, although she seems to spend most of her time drinking and lying around in an eeny-weeny bikini. After she blows off the advances of a studly gas-station attendant — humiliating him in front of his scurvy, leering friends — she wakes up in the middle of the night to find the four men in her cabin, looking to put her in her place. This is the film’s 25-minute mark, and the next 25 are an escalating and finally unmitigated nightmare. They taunt her, strip her, etc. When she escapes, she stumbles upon a sheriff (Andrew Howard) who is not a knight in shining armor. What follows is … very, very bad. Naked, filthy, ravaged, in shock, she wanders out onto a bridge, and, with a shotgun about to blow her in half, falls backward into the rushing water and vanishes from sight.
Now this is where my feelings about the picture get complicated. The 45 minutes that follow are … I am reluctant to admit this … okay … here goes: the sickest kind of pleasure. Because it’s now Jennifer’s turn to haunt and then taunt her would-be murderers, and her punishment is neither brief nor painless: Each killing is as protracted, humiliating, ingenious, gory, and downright poetic as any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it all. We find ourselves in the position of the righteous torturer, only without the Geneva Conventions or a shred of doubt about the malefactors’ guilt. Yes, one of her rapists is a simpleminded innocent who was pushed to do the deed by his mates and his wayward, 25-year-old-virgin hormones; and he has spent the next month staring into the river, wracked by guilt. But would his elimination from this earth be a great loss? As for the others, it’s only right to make them plead with her as she once pleaded with them. I especially like the way she handles the big guy with the video camera. She lashes him to a tree, sticks fishhooks through his eyelids to hold them open, and makes him watch his home movie of her ordeal. Then she guts a fish, flings the intestines on him, and watches the crows settle in for some snacking. Those birds do love a tasty eyeball.
So that’s that, then. There is not much art in I Spit on Your Grave, but there’s a great deal of skill and cunning. Sarah Butler might not be much of an actress, but she looks and smiles enough like a young Mary-Louise Parker to give her, in her later scenes, a likable dash of perversity. I’m not going to get moralistic: I knew going in what the movie would be, and it was all that and more. On a related note, I loathed the politics of Fox’s 24 and the ways in which its justification of torture was music to Dick Cheney’s ears. But it was still most satisfying to watch Jack Bauer, in one of the final episodes, torture and then disembowel the grinning jackal who murdered his true love. In that case, of course, there was a “ticking-time-bomb” scenario and the guy had swallowed a key — so the gutting had the Alan Dershowitz Seal of Approval. But it still seemed cruel and unusual — unusually good.
I guess the only thing left is to decry the vile, sick, sadistic, despicable, depraved, sadistic, vile, despicable depths to which I have sunk, and to wonder if this will translate into how I relate to people in the real world. We’re all injured every day in so many ways, small and large, and there are so many ways in which to retaliate.