I Spit on Your Grave‘s reputation precedes it. Meir Zarchi’s original 1978 guttersniper remains a fascinating muddle, a gruesomely entwined rape and revenge fantasy that was famously panned by Roger Ebert upon its re-release (when its distributor ditched Zarchi’s original—and preferred—title, Day of the Woman), both reviled and co-opted by feminists. Did Ebert miss the boat? Yes and no. The film sucks, but the behavior Ebert observed in the audience he saw the film with didn’t peg the filmmakers as perverts so much as it corroborated how they wished to play on the grindhouse crowd’s basest instincts.
Thirty-two years later, what most shocks about Steven R. Monroe’s remake of Zarchi’s cheapo classic is its utter predictability, proof of the veracity of the phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Monroe’s images don’t exactly have the greased sheen of a Platinum Dunes joint, but they’re nonetheless expensive-looking—and as such, their affect is questionably pretty. The plot, though, remains the same: Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler), possibly the hottest successful literary sensation to have ever lived, travels to woodsy Bumblefuck, Nowhere to pen her second novel, gets raped by a group of yokels who resent her “big-city cock-teasing” ways, and after taking a fabulous swan dive into a raging river, ostensibly to her death, returns to enact revenge on her victimizers. How you respond to Jennifer’s rape, then to her retribution, is meant to speak volumes about you as a person, which is the problem with I Spit on Your Grave then and now: its adamant finger-wagging.
Each and every murder in the film is a carefully thought-out provocation on Jennifer’s part that connects in some way to how she was abused, like the portly videographer Stanley (Daniel Franzese) getting hog-tied to a tree, his eyelids pulled back with fishing wire and face doused with fish guts so a bunch of crows can lunch on his peepers. The month or so it takes Jennifer to return as an avenging angel is easy to question, and though you marvel at her meticulously detailed retaliation, you wish there was an explicit correlation between her victimization as a woman and her scope, or interests, as a novelist. She needn’t be Susan Sontag, but the one snippet that the ghoulish Johnny (Jeff Branson) reads from her work in progress suggests she might be a staple at book clubs that revere Elizabeth Gilbert and Candace Bushnell.
This is a dubious vision, but it’s crucial to note the subtle differences in Zarchi and Monroe’s aesthetic choices. Where Zarchi often pulled away from Jennifer’s body, Monroe stays close on it, though his camera maintains an almost “respectful” distance during her prolonged rape, first by the retarded Matthew (Chad Lindberg), then by his four buds. This stance is that of someone who has exhaustively studied the original I Spit on Your Grave and gone to great lengths to remake it as an unmistakably feminist manifesto. Hell, even if you’re queer, you lust for Jennifer: She’s smoking hot and whip-smart, smokes pot, and probably voted for Obama. By the time she curiously disappears into the river, you more than expect her phoenix-like rising and subsequent act of revenge—you actively wish for it.
But I Spit on Your Grave, old and new, remains interesting and something of a dirty little secret for how it presents Jennifer’s eye-for-an-eye rampage as a rebuke of sorts to anyone who says they’re above Old Testament-style retribution. Like Jennifer perhaps? Would that we got some kind of sense of her views as a liberal—maybe then her vengeance would suggest more than just emotional deliverance, but also a political reckoning. This cagey film wants to say that Jennifer is really no different than her abusers when it comes to the law and understanding how it’s designed to protect us from ourselves; that one of her tormentors is actually a police officer becomes a narrative cop-out—a too-easy way for Jennifer to disregard her allegiance to “civilized” society. Roman Polanski would have worked all of this out with air-tight moral and aesthetic exactitude, but if you still leave I Spit on Your Grave pleased for Jennifer, and saddened that she left so much evidence behind, then Monroe has done something right.