In a country town Jennifer (Sarah Butler) encounters a group of local men at a petrol station before settling into a rented cabin where she intends to relax and write. The men she encountered at the petrol station disrupt her idyllic cabin hideaway though, breaking in and then humiliating and raping her. When the local Sheriff arrives he is revealed to be on the side of the men and joins in the violent attack. The men drag Jennifer out into the woods to continue her torture but Jennifer stumbles away from her tormentors and escapes, only to return in the film’s final act to exact revenge.

The first rendering of I Spit On Your Grave was a version released in 1978 which starred Buster Keaton’s grandneice Camille Keaton as Jennifer Hills. This film has now been remade by Steven R. Monroe and despite a number of key differences the two films still have the same basic plot points. They are of course two separate films and whilst I am usually reluctant to overly compare remakes to their originals this review will feature a number of comparisons as it seems appropriate to a discussion of the ways in which the remake works (or fails to).

I originally intended to see Monroe’s I Spit On Your Grave at Montreal’s Fantasia film festival but unfortunately arrived a day too late and therefore didn’t get to witness what sounded like a very heated Q&A. Aside from the audience member who took to the stage in the Q&A to argue with the filmmakers face to face, a gentleman also supposedly passed out during the film, falling down some stairs and cutting his head. A few members of the audience reached immediately for their camera phones to ‘document’ the man’s injuries; A grisly reaction perhaps but one disturbingly in keeping with the film.

I was then afforded the opportunity to see the film a month later at London’s Frightfest film festival and although the screening had less drama there was still something of a minor controversy surrounding a number of cuts made to the film by the BBFC. This was overshadowed somewhat though by the far more excessive cutting of A Serbian Film, which was subsequently pulled from the festival. I Spit On Your Grave played to what appeared to be a lukewarm reaction from the Frightfest crowd and, perhaps unsurprisingly, talk in the lobby and on Twitter afterwards seemed to be dominated by discussions of the original.

I Spit On Your Grave (1978) is something of a landmark film in the history of horror. Not a landmark most people want to visit frequently or would recommend to friends but it is a landmark nonetheless. Fascinatingly de-constructed by Carol J. Clover in her excellent Men, Women and Chainsaws, I Spit On Your Grave is a much discussed film despite its grimy low budget origins. Constantly savaged by the BBFC every time an optimistic distributor attempts a release in the UK, the film still remains only available uncut in the UK via import (my first experience of the film uncut was a friend returning from Amsterdam with a VHS copy of the film).

Watching the original is an unpleasant experience but one that is all the more impactful due to it being so hard to stomach. Whilst the original ‘succeeds’ in being so unrelentingly grim the remake seems to let the audience off the hook too often, pulling back from the visceral experience and presenting a more conventional and unremarkable horror.

Most significant in the original was the way in which director Meir Zarchi positioned the audience with Jennifer, closely aligned with the victim, unable to escape the torture. This made the abuse all the harder to watch/experience and her revenge all the more cathartic and unsettling. The remake introduces a new element to the experience with a character who at first secretly video tapes Jennifer and then continues to document the vicious gang rape. The effect is one that has been characterised by some as either creating a complicity with what is occurring or even commenting on this complicity. Indeed, the BBFC themselves state in their full report on the film that

Before awarding an ’18’ classification to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the BBFC required seventeen individual cuts to its scenes of sexual violence in order to remove elements that tend to eroticise sexual assault (for example, through the use of nudity), as well as other elements that tend to endorse sexual assault (for example, by encouraging viewer complicity by the use of camcorder footage, filmed by the rapists, during the various scenes of sexual assault).

“Encouraging viewer complicity” is a tricky phrase and it is one that is used here to essentially condemn the film but it is interesting that this is how the BBFC chose to categorise the effect of this application of an in-film camera. I can only assume that pre-cuts this was the effect (although I’m still highly doubtful) but in the version presented on this Blu-ray and previously in theatres in the UK, the use of a video camera actively distances an audience. The events framed through the camera lens, as applied here, merely serve as a constant reminder that we are viewing a film, this is a mediated experience and one that is being performed. The result is that the film fails to get under your skin and create a strong connection between you and the characters, something the film is sorely missing.

That is not to say that there are not horrible moments and gruesome violence but they seem hollow, lacking the weight that they really need. Rape scenes, fish-hooks in eyelids and  faces dipped in acid will undoubtedly send most audience member’s toes curling and appal many but without any reaction beyond a quick shock these moments will not truly affect anyone.

It should be noted that the various actor’s performances are particularly good despite their reasonably one note characters and Sarah Butler is especially convincing in the difficult and troubling lead role. The film is also, for the most part, competently made on a technical level and the steely look to the film (well represented in this crisp transfer) is striking if a little misjudged. Low level technical competence and adequate performances are far from enough though to make this worth recommending to anyone.

I Spit On Your Grave is available to buy or rent on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK today.

Film [Rating:1.5/5]
Blu-ray [Rating:3/5]