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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Van of the Dead: Swappin' Spit: I Spit On Your Grave 1978 and 2010

I Spit On Your Grave 1978 and 2010
2011 Starz Media/Anchor Bay Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

When I think of Meir Zarchi's original I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) from 1978, I think of my one-time neighbor and old friend from the mid-eighties. Beta was dead, VHS was all the rage. Ditto for Colecovision and Commodore 64. Archaic brand names to young eyes, right? Most don't even know what these 8-bit computers and gadgets are, much less care. Why should they? Not with 4G cell phones that can play movies on the damned things.

I bring this up in light of Steven R. Monroe's 2010 hitch 'n ride update of I Spit On Your Grave. As young teens, my buddy Shawn and I used to sneak all the forbidden horror films we could in his basement or sometimes in my living room when my folks weren't around. It was a less PC world back then and there was a silent bond between video counter reps in their young twenties and teenagers that they would look past our ages and let those nasty R-borderline-X films out the door in our mits. We always knew who worked what shift between the hardball older employees and the college-agers who knew why we had to see Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and eventually the really brutal stuff like Make Them Die Slowly, Faces of Death and Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave.

Of these films, Shawn and I were disappointed by Chainsaw's less-is-more minimalist approach because we were juvenile gore hounds. Romero delivered the goods, but we were laughing like lunatics all the way through and at the time missed the sociological hellhole Romero was trying to convey. Faces of Death impacted us, finally, particularly with the headless chicken. Then everything changed with Make Them Die Slowly and I Spit On Your Grave, two of the most hardcore genre films that have been printed. Only Cannibal Holocaust supercedes these two.

Our sicko teen bloodlust was more than satiated with these films, but speaking for myself, it was the first time I actually felt dirty watching them. Both Make Them Die Slowly and I Spit On Your Grave involve dastardly murders and each feature a castration scene. The hot topic between Shawn and I was, did they actually go too far?

Here, I'm sure, was the dilemma posed before Steven Monroe when tackling I Spit On Your Grave. By title alone, you know you're in for something thoroughly wicked. How deep was Monroe going to subject his lead, Sarah Butler, in conveying Jennifer Hills' appalling degredation? Zarchi had put his lead (and one-time lover) Camille Keaton through an unbelievable amount of physical torment. Acting or not, Keaton deserves some sort of subculture Academy award for subjecting her body beyond the expectations of just about anyone, Butler included. Keaton spent at least 30 to 40% of the first I Spit On Your Grave fully naked, largely in the woods, water and fields and getting thoroughly roughhoused in a brave performance to show rape at its foulest and most intolerable. Give her a hand whether you approve of the film or not. Poor Sarah Butler, she sure had a tough act to follow in 2010.

This year Starz and Anchor Bay bring you both versions of I Spit On Your Grave. The '78 film gets the Blu Ray treatment alongside its contemporary and the dare is laid before you to watch them in succession. Zarchi's film gets the upper hand for the sheer brutality of Jennifer's rape, while Monroe actually one-ups his predecessor (Zarchi did oversee the remake, for the record) in terms of the humiliation factor and of course, the revenge sequences.

Both films are set up in the same manner. A pretty young writer vanishes to a secluded cabin to write her novel, makes the fateful stopover at a backwoods gas station and stupidly red alerts the panting perverts at the pumps what she's up to. Both Jennifers are inherently concerned about offending the apish hicks they come across and don't wish to come off as snotty, which is unfortunately their undoing.

In Zarchi's film, Camille Keaton is a bit more seductive though annoyed to pieces the local rednecks begin cruising by her cabin on the lake. Their intentions are slow-paced and methodical until their loins get the best of them and they jump Camille on the lake, drag her away and take their fill of her. She gets away, they stalk her and rape her some more. She staggers home in the muck and the mire and yet again they attack her in her cabin once the audience has assumed Jennifer has suffered the worst of her ordeal. Leaving her trampled and degraded, the specially-challenged grocery boy Matthew also gets a turn; when he is left to stab and finish Jennifer off, he can't do it and he hides it from his mongrel pals.

From there, Camille Keaton licks her wounds in a series of silent segments before gaining enough strength to go after her rapists and extol a bloody retaliatory strike. What's different in the '78 film is Jennifer uses her sexuality as a weapon to coax Matthew and main baddie Johnny before hanging and slicing gnards respectively. Camille's dispatching of the other two scumbags is feral and the film rolls to close on the frame of Jennifer's outboard motor, drifting from her smug smile of vengeance.

By contrast, Steven Monroe's Spit goes for the jugular in terms of humiliation and in portrayal of Jennifer's spectacularly ugly revenge. Sarah Butler's Jennifer is with the times; she brings a cell phone and laptop to the cabin instead of the typewriter Camille Keaton uses. While cell phones are routinely used as gags in horror vehicles, once Butler's cell drops into the disgusting toilet of her cabin, it's symbolic of the sickening filth and torture she'll both endure and inflict.

In the spirit of the unsavory times we're living in and the over-the-top eviscerating world modern horror has become, Monroe's I Spit On Your Grave opts to explore the depravity of subjugation versus the overt act of sex. Thus Butler's Jennifer is forced into a prolonged psychological battering before she's even penetrated. The four mucky-mucks in this film comprise of a new Johnny and Matthew, plus a videophile who captures every minute of Jennifer before-and-after they violate her. In this film, however, two other central dirtbags are introduced: the renter of the cabins who turns his eye from what he knows is going on in town, and a sadomasochistic cop who turns on Butler when she escapes the first wave of her profane mistreatment.

Jennifer has been likened to a show horse that has to be broken and she's forced to suck Johnny's cold steel pistol like a phallus. These scenes are extensive and disturbing, yet when Jennifer brings the sheriff to her cabin to arrest Johnny's motley mutts, she's subjected to even more cruelty since the badge is in league with the rubble. Like Zarchi's movie, Matthew is kept to this bunch like a mascot "retard" but in Monroe's film, he is the first to actually rape Butler. From there, the film breezes through Jennifer's defilement in the woods, which is merciful for the audience, considering the cop plants himself in her rear and that scene is plenty horrific. Teasing Jennifer by leaving his holster within her reach while sodomizing her, if you're not shuddering, you're soulless.

Butler escapes by dumping herself into the river off of a bridge, which sends the sheriff and his oversexed oafs into scampering mode trying to retrieve Jennifer and bump her off. As Roger Ebert (famous for his "reprehensible" tirade against the original film) has pointed out, the first half of Monroe's film is the more offensive, despite the outrageous kill scenes yet to come.

You have to overlook the fact Jennifer has somehow survived her turmoil and lived on the land for a month as the film suggests. You have to, because Monroe really capitalizes on her improbable return and wisely keeps Jennifer to the shadows as she stalks her rapists and drives them insane before setting them up for gross snuff-outs. As the thugs throw a dead bird on her cabin porch before invading her, this motif comes back to haunt Johnny as one dead bird after another gets thrown at his sliding glass door. The sheriff is purported as a family man with a second child on the way. As Jennifer has teased her aggressors off-camera, she finally shows up in the sheriff's living room with his wife and daughter, posing as an advisor for a gifted student's school. Good stuff, though you have to wonder how she even knew anything about the allusion of the daughter's intelligence, only dropped to the audience in a scene between the sheriff and his wife.

I'll leave the revenge kills to you for examination because Monroe would obviously prefer his audience to be virgin coming into the final act of his film--as we're to assume Jennifer is virginal (or at least quasi-virginal) before her trials. Let's just say Johnny's castration scene in the original is humanitarian compared to this one--albeit, neither compare to the dick puncturing squeamishness in Neighbor.

Jennifer takes her time with her nauseating getbacks in this update--we have well entered the Hostel competition sweepstakes, let's leave it at that. Sarah Butler recites every raunchy bit thrown at her back to her victims, so it's up to you to decide if her verbal warfare is more poetic justice than Camille Keaton's spread 'em and slash 'em revenge. The bonding thread between Keaton and Butler is their final smirks of satisfaction before the credit rolls.

As a side comment, Monroe's brief usage of the harmonica really wasn't necessary, because the harmonica is seldom used in his redo and with very little impact. In Zarchi's film, the harmonica is instrumental in Camille Keaton's rape through the second round. It's as much a torture device for Keaton to come across that scoundrel casually whipping out a steel harmony with his mouth before banging her from behind. His lackadaisical disregard for Keaton's anguish was a genuinely devastating sequence of events, unmatched by the new film. The harmonica in 2010 is a mere appeasement to Zarchi and his fans.

Admittedly, this was one film I cited in conversation I never wanted to see remade, particularly after Last House On the Left had been rebooted. My main point was, how much further does it have to go if you remake I Spit On Your Grave? Well, Steven R. Monroe has delivered his post-Pong, post-Saturday Night Fever answer. We live in the age of X-box and iPod and mainstream music has launched a full disco revival, while Monroe has created a well-filmed bit of nastiness that goes pretty damned further than the original in some aspects. Some argue both films are smut, some art house treasures. Zarchi's film perhaps stands to gain the benefit of both, but Monroe has brought you the bare-knuckled terror of humanity at its worse. You either consider that an improvement or you don't.

Combined Rating: ***1/2

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