(Trigger warning: the following contains frank commentary about sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.)
When David Cronenberg made A History Of Violence ten years ago, he set out to make an important point about one particular cinematic double standard. It goes like this: the audience cheers when villains are physically attacked and vanquished by our heroes. But are deeply repulsed when the reverse happens.
I wonder now if this idea was at all inspired by I Spit On Your Grave, one of the most notorious, hypocritical horror films of all time. Originally released in 1978 to much deserved condemnation and disgust, it tests one’s endurance for depravity like few films before and since.
The set-up: Jennifer Hills, a sexually liberated, short story feminist writer, decides to work on her first novel in a cabin hours away from her apartment building in New York City. Along the way, she stops for gas where she encounters three men. Two are too preoccupied with constantly throwing a switchblade in the ground to notice her. But the attendant who serves her chats her up. He seems friendly and professional.
As it turns out, like the dopey knife throwers, he’s actually an unrepentant misogynist with ugly views about women, particularly those from big cities. (He also has a wife, a son and a daughter.) They’re joined by a mentally challenged, bespectacled delivery boy who works at a nearby grocery store. He’s a virgin who develops a crush on the writer after stopping by to hand over her order one night.
That becomes their rationale for ultimately stalking, harassing, chasing, kidnapping, stripping, raping, humiliating and beating this poor woman in a supremely uncomfortable series of scenes that just go on and on and on. Making things even worse is how the terror sequences are briefly interrupted by moments of false hope: the writer, naked & completely traumatized, seemingly in the clear walking away from her assailants only to encounter them again. The moment when she slowly crawls to the phone in her cabin only to have the receiver kicked out of her hand before she can say a single word to the operator.
When her nightmare finally ends, the men assign the easily suggestible delivery boy to kill her off. Reluctantly armed with a knife, he can’t go through with it, though. Passed out and showing disturbingly visible signs of her truly horrifying ordeal, he decides instead to wipe the blade with blood from her face hoping to fool them. Because they’re reprehensible morons, it works.
As Hills quietly recovers at her retreat and goes back to working on her book, the rapists become worried. And with good reason. Two uneventful weeks have passed. No body has been discovered. There should’ve been a noticeable odor. Belatedly starting to doubt the delivery boy’s story, after two of the men discover the truth, he gets beaten and kicked out of their group.
Meanwhile, the violated writer’s attitude has significantly darkened. Preemptively asking for God’s forgiveness at a local church, Hills systematically plots the demises of each of her assailants. How she undergoes this startling transformation is never ever explained, just accepted as a given considering her deplorable circumstances. (What about other survivors who don’t do this? Are they weaker people because they don’t develop a sudden bloodlust for their attackers?)
Her first kill bothers me the most and not just because of its violence. Laying a trap for the very naïve and conflicted delivery boy, she ends up having consensual sex with him. Yuck. This allows her enough time to wrap a noose around his neck. Also terrible.
Let’s stop for a moment and consider the irresponsible implausibility of this scene. As the movie emphasizes again and again, the delivery boy is easily manipulated as explicitly demonstrated when he rapes Hills. (He initially resists but is ultimately pressured to do it by his domineering peers. Why does he give in? Because he’s a people pleaser with a child-like mentality who’s desperate for friends, although it’s clear he knows the difference between right & wrong but nonetheless, still chooses poorly.) Why script her to be in this seriously compromising position to exact deadly revenge when it’s not even necessary nor believable?
Even weirder is the moment when she tells one of his estranged comrades in a later scene that he successfully climaxed (or was she just lying for strategic, survival reasons?), something he couldn’t do when he was raping her in front of the other cheering men. That’s just…creepy & bizarre. It also sends a terribly misleading message about rape victims.
And it’s not the only one. One of my biggest annoyances with I Spit On Your Grave is the constant, unchallenged “slut” shaming. When Hills confronts the gas station attendant late in the film, he basically blames her for her own rapes using textbook misogynistic reasoning. Not once is she scripted to say anything that would instantly demolish his sexist garbage. In fact, in the very next scene, they share a bath together where she does something every man fears.
That’s the film’s dangerous counter argument. Rather than attacking the faulty, flimsy roots of cultural woman-hating in some intelligent, compelling way, it endorses simple-minded vengeful violence. Why challenge a sexist’s corroded mind when you can just cut off his penis instead? Or hang him with a noose? Or put an axe in his back? Or carve him up with your motorboat motor?
It’s the same lazy, heart wrenching tactic employed by the radically reworked 2010 remake, a film that manages to do the impossible. It made me empathize with despicable assholes who don’t deserve it. Not only is it far worse than the original, it may be the worst film I’ve ever seen. (Yes, I hated it even more than the far sillier Sleepaway Camp.)
In the update, Jennifer Hills is already an established novelist working on a new title. When she encounters the dickheads at the gas station (like the earlier version, she’s lost and needs directions to her isolated cabin in the woods), this time they don’t conceal their threatening demeanours. One even tries to hit on her but she sees right through his bullshit while an accident leads to him being embarrassed, another significant change from the 1978 movie.
The mentally challenged delivery boy is now a mentally challenged plumber for hire who is rewarded with a kiss for fixing her plugged toilet & filth-spewing sink. Of course, he takes the completely innocent, appreciative gesture the wrong way. (She’s not romantically interested, just thankful for having a functioning bathroom.)
As before, his virgin status becomes one of the bogus motivating factors (along with the new gas station rejection) behind Hills being viciously gang raped in yet another ugly, overlong, seemingly endless series of exploitative terror scenes (complete with those sadistic false hope breaks) but now with the added twists of a corrupt, very married sheriff being one of the assailants (there are now five rapists instead of the original four), a supremely gross use of a gun and the fact that it’s all captured for sickening posterity on a camcorder.
Also, the supremely pressured, mentally challenged plumber is a far less willing perpetrator this time around. In fact, you could argue he’s a victim, too, since his supposed friends threaten to kill Hills if he doesn’t violate her, too. And he has genuine remorse.
In a departure from the original, this Jennifer Hills completely disappears from the story after jumping off a bridge naked, dirty, bloody & bruised just as the sleazy sheriff is about to shoot her. The villains immediately go into crisis mode afterwards, searching in vain for a once terrified now suddenly steely nerved survivor who, as this version progresses, must’ve studied the CIA torture techniques in record time. (Again, this is never explained, just accepted without question.)
As a result, the 2010 update of I Spit On Your Grave seriously tests the aforementioned double standard on onscreen violence. We are deeply repulsed by the villains repeatedly violating our innocent hero. And it’s clear when Hills turns the tables in scenes that would make even Jigsaw blush, the audience’s reaction is expected to be far more enthusiastic and supportive. She’s supposed to be getting “justice”, you see.
But the filmmakers completely miscalculate. In one of the saddest ironies I’ve ever experienced as a critic, the agonizingly long torture scenes made me empathize with the rapists (ugh) not because I suddenly liked them (on the contrary, they’re despicable vermin) but precisely because they’re being tortured which is wrong no matter who is on the receiving end of such degrading abuse. You know your film has gone completely off the rails when it proudly considers an internationally recognized war crime as a “solution” to misogynistic violence. The stench of hypocrisy is unmistakable.
In the long history of humanity, how many victims have taken the Jennifer Hills approach to “justice”? I don’t have reliable stats on hand, but I’m sure it’s not a large number. And for those who have fought back (most likely in self-defence situations unlike Hills in either of these movies), how many got away with murdering their attackers? Based on the alarming number of abuse victims in prison alone (not all of whom were convicted of murder, it should be noted), probably not that many.
So, the idea that “no jury in America would ever convict” the Jennifer Hills character for exterminating her rapists, as famously asserted in the original I Spit On Your Grave ad campaign, is dangerously wrong. (She’d probably get the death penalty, depending on the state, in all likelihood.) With catastrophic rape culture myths still stubbornly pervasive and continuously propped up by mostly powerful white men in the real world (despite an encouraging, growing international backlash), and with many victims understandably keeping quiet out of fear of retaliation (criminal & civil remedies are too often far out of their reach), violent retribution is an ill-considered, fantastical dead-end. It’s also, let’s face it, anti-feminist and just plain wrong.
Let me get back to the business of the camcorder for a moment. In recent years, there have been awful media reports of young women being photographed and videotaped while assaulted by young men. Photos and videos of these deplorable acts of misogynistic violence circulate in schools and are posted in online forums and on social media sites like Facebook & YouTube. When the gang rapists in I Spit On Your Grave start to worry about their own video evidence becoming public, with the notable exception of the married sheriff who has more to lose than anybody else, it feels very phony. Rapists in the real world are arrogantly unrepentant not just because they’re proud of their despicable crimes, but also because for the most part they know they won’t pay any legal price for them. (Too many infuriating examples to mention here.) The villains of I Spit On Your Grave are scaring themselves for no reason. Rape culture will always protect them.
I don’t know about you but I’m growing increasingly weary of “women in danger” movies like this. Honestly, what real purpose do they serve other than to dumbly and irresponsibly fetishize misogynistic violence & tortuous retribution? As I write this, I’m reminded of what Gene Siskel said on Sneak Previews 35 years ago. He argued that movies like the original I Spit On Your Grave were a sexist backlash to the feminist movement, a terrifying rebuke to the growing independence that women were starting to enjoy in the late 70s/early 80s, which was threatening to the old world order of the confining patriarchy. (Hell, it still is.)
Indeed, when you think about Jennifer Hills in either version of I Spit On Your Grave, you make note of this very independence. In the original, she skinny dips, writes in longhand in an outdoor hammock while in a bikini & openly admits to having a full dance card. In the remake, she jogs, drinks wine while typing on her laptop and smokes marijuana in her cabin. Both characters are so comfortable in their own skin they don’t fully understand they’re in serious danger until it’s too late. As a result, both are severely punished for living life on their own free spirited terms and blamed for nonexistent offenses.
But because neither film is willing to point out this serious injustice, it foolishly allows the misogynist narrative to dominate. Ultimately, it sees only one way to combat it: with more violence.
And as David Cronenberg argued in A History Of Violence a decade ago, our acceptance of this double standard is a big part of the problem.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 28, 2015