Man and nature are both all-consuming in Meir Zarchi’s landmark horror film I Spit on Your Grave, seamlessly surrounding attractive young novelist Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) as she drives deep into the New York countryside to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. The film’s titles fill the frame in big red block letters and the lack of music or sound in general immediately becomes a striking aesthetic choice. Large groves of thick trees mark both sides of the road, eventually guiding Jennifer to a dilapidated gas station with a single white shack as an office. Two man-children, the shirtless Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and the suspender-wearing Andy (Gunter Kleeman), gleefully play with a switchblade, while suave mechanic Johnny (Eron Tabor) idly chats Jennifer up before she drives away into the distance. The interaction is strange but surprisingly unthreatening, and Jennifer’s casual and hopeful demeanor is expressed when she immediately disrobes for a swim upon reaching her cabin the woods.
On the surface, isolation equals safety in I Spit on Your Grave, and Jennifer quickly settles in to her routine walking through the dense green forest, lounging on the calm lake in a red canoe, and soaking up the sun in her hammock. But the sporadic use of sound effects begins to encase her world in dread, and what first seems like random overlapping noises quickly develops into menacing patterns. The audible motifs of a motorboat engine and a harmonica quickly take the place of the traditional horror-film theme music, cueing the human monsters that are circling Jennifer’s cabin from beyond the frame. Jennifer has no idea of the impending danger slowly closing in on her, and I Spit on Your Grave turns the languishing peace of nature into a prolonged arena of terror.
The elongated rape sequence that takes up more than 30 minutes of I Spit on Your Grave is devastating not only for its brutality, but also for its ghostliness. A handicapped grocery delivery boy named Matthew (Richard Pace) joins the trio from the gas station, and the men emerge from the woods with no tense editorial buildup or stalker POV. Even worse, the sequence is broken up into three separate parts to signify both the duration and the crippling trajectory of the act. The inference of possible escape during the moments that segue into these scenes becomes the film’s most diabolical trick. Each segment, from the initial assault by Johnny in the bright sunshine, to the protracted set piece within the dimly lit forest, then finally in Jennifer’s cabin at night, takes on a unique type of visual repulsion, and the affects still make an impact 30 years after the film’s release.
I Spit on Your Grave almost becomes a silent film during this terribly effective middle half, the shocking violence only interrupted with the steady stream of piercing screams and maniacal laughter merging on the wind. A visual form of confrontation becomes apparent, with Jennifer’s white skin becoming covered in a combination of mud, sweat, and blood, textures that signify her violent shift in spirit and an overall transformation of ideology. As Jennifer recovers from her attack, allowed to live only because Matthew is unable to kill her (finalizing a trend of impotence), her divergence into calculated retribution is never represented in narrative terms. The famous torture that defines the film’s manifesto (including the infamous bathtub geld) on male aggression springs forth from an elemental part of Jennifer’s core being much like the deviancy from the rapists themselves. Zarchi seems to be saying that if men were made to sin, women were made to revenge.
It’s hard not to admire Zarchi’s disavowal of substantive character traits and narrative foundation for thematic shock and awe. His film oozes with aggression from all sides, taking form in the sharp reds, blacks, and greens of the film diverse chromatic scale. One can’t mistake I Spit in Your Grave for anything other than a raging political text, a rigorous reminder to the power of a disturbed imagination, be it victimizer or victim. “I don’t like a women giving me orders,” Johnny arrogantly says right before he loses his manhood in a literal bloodbath. Jennifer can only smile, and momentarily revel in the pain she’s about to unleash. Her malicious focus is so clear in the final moments there’s no need for narrative closure, and Zarchi simply cuts to black after her final lethal blow, fittingly wielded aboard the motorboat that evoked omniscient power earlier in the film. Engulfed in nature and vengeance, Jennifer forcefully reclaims her individualism, taking away power from the good ’ol boys and making it her own. Her silent smile in one of the film’s few close-ups is a deafening exclamation point no viewer will soon forget.
I Spit on Your Grave will not look any better than it does on Anchor Bay's vibrant 1080p transfer. Every color pops with a disturbing intensity, most notably the many objects splashed with red and green, like the lamps in Jennifer's cabin, her swim suit, and the interior of the canoe. The day sequences are so stunning you almost forget about the terrible acts filling the frame. Almost. While the nighttime scenes are a bit muddied, I chalk that up to the low-budget production design. Speaking of which, the sound design is pretty awful, with key dialogue unintelligible and sound effects raised to harshly pitched levels. The imbalance probably has to do with the original recordings more than anything else.
Two superb audio commentaries highlight an otherwise meager supplemental package. The first, by director Meir Zarchi, touches on the production experience, the thematic issues at work, and the importance of on-location shooting. The other, by film historian Joe Bob Briggs, brings a comedic and witty perspective to the social and political subtexts defining the film's iconic status. The disc contains a low-budget documentary called "The Values of Vengeance," which basically mixes footage of the film with an interview of Meir Zarchi talking about the various artistic decisions and personal experience on the film. This featurette is most interesting when the director talks about how editing played a key role in fleshing out the story. Also included are radio and television spots, a photo and poster gallery, and an alternate main title sequence.
Ghostly, wrenching, and defiling, I Spit on Your Grave comes out of the past coated in textured mud and blood, returning in a rapturous Blu-ray edition.