What separates the I Spit on Your Grave films from most other movies in the genre is that the primary source of horror is derived from rape rather than other forms of violence. While the rape/revenge subgenre certainly does exist within the genre as a whole, it is not utilized nearly as often as others, most likely due to the fact that it is so difficult to strike the proper balance when presenting the subject matter. The ideal depiction of a rape scene on film is one that acknowledges the horrific nature of the act without overly sexualizing it or downplaying the severity of it’s impact on the character. I Spit on Your Grave is generally cited as the quintessential rape/revenge horror film, but which version is able to more effectively explore what is easily one of the most taboo subjects in film? For that matter, does either version depict the central act properly? Well, let’s discuss.
Before I start, I do want to mention there are some spoilers regarding the plot so if you have not seen these films, I would recommend doing so prior to reading this. Okay, all set now? Let’s continue then. Both films follow the same basic plot structure in which novelist Jennifer Hills rents an isolated cabin in a rural town to focus on writing her book. Before long she is brutally raped and beaten by a group of men and left for dead. Once she physically recovers she seeks her gruesome revenge.
Considering the fact that the remake sticks very closely to the story of the original, it is almost baffling how different the final results are. Although, once you start examining the details, it becomes very apparent why the original is able to be a harrowing portrayal of sexual violence that is still genuinely disturbing nearly forty years later and why the modern version is the kind of trite piece of shit that makes people hate remakes in general.
Let’s start with the most important part of the story in both films: the rape scene. In the original the event unfolds in real time, only using time-lapse cuts when characters are traveling between locations. In this version, writer/director Meir Zarchi forces the viewer to bear witness to every horrific moment of the progressively brutal violation without reprieve. There is also a palpable sense of dread, not only before but during the act as Jennifer is clearly hoping the ordeal will be over after each assault, only to have it begin again. In this way Zarchi doesn’t let the viewer off the hook but forces them to confront every moment of the horror she has to experience.
Far from being an exploitative tool to titillate the viewer, this realistic, unflinching depiction shows rape for the vile act it truly is. I’ve always said “horror should be horrifying” and when disturbing subject matter like rape is explored, it should be done so in a way that actually disturbs the viewer, not simply presented like a sex scene that’s designed to excite. This is why there is far more cultural value in the realistic way the original, and films like Irreversible, depict sexual violence than films that sanitize it. It is an important reminder that rape in the real world is a horrible thing and one that should be taken seriously.
The remake on the other hand delivers the standard version of what Hollywood thinks passes for edgy and realistic but is, in reality, playing well within the established safe space of the average viewer’s comfort zone. It is still disturbing but comes nowhere near the unrelenting brutality of the extended, punishing realism of the original. It also self-sabotages by only showing two of the men actually committing the rape and merely implying the involvement of the others. I can’t think of any reason for this other than a misguided attempt to spare the delicate sensibilities of the viewer, despite the fact that all of them being involved is a key part of the story.
Speaking of misguided, the choice in the remake to have Jennifer disappear into the river after the rape and then start stalking the men with borderline supernatural abilities, like she’s fucking Jason Voorhees, was an utterly terrible decision. It took the film from the gritty realism of its source material and plunged it deep into mediocre Slasher territory. By doing so, it also cuts out what is perhaps the most poignant and devastating part of the original which is Jennifer dealing with the aftermath of the crime. This, along with the lingering shots of her in between assaults, is important because it further humanizes her and reinforces the traumatic fallout this event is causing her life.
Another aspect of the original that is a key part of delivering the emotional impact is the excellent performances. Camille Keaton’s fearless and emotionally raw portrayal of Jennifer is an essential component of the original’s success.
That point is reinforced in the remake, as it is very clear that Sarah Butler is not up to the task and her stilted performance never lets you forget that you are watching someone trying to act. Although that can really be said for pretty much the entire cast of the remake, who all feel like poorly sketched stereotypes straight out of central casting. Even the initially goofy depiction of the simple-minded Matthew in the original is made all the more chilling when he proves that, despite his initial reluctance to participate, he is just as willing to indulge in his darkest base desires as the rest of the men.
There are also so many brilliant, subtle points in the original that are completely lost in the remake, seemingly because director Steven R. Monroe couldn’t grasp their significance. For instance, the fact that the men in the original mock and destroy her writing towards the end of the ordeal, as though they are trying to make their domination and destruction of her complete by also emotionally violating and destroying her. In the remake it is thrown in as a relatively inconsequential afterthought before the rape begins.
Another important point in the original is that her sexuality, the very reason they targeted her in the first place, is a key tool in her revenge, a fact that is almost completely excised from the remake. In the original, it is also made clear that the men are not just mad at her but actually blame her for the fact that they felt compelled to violate her. This is a subtle but very important commentary on the kind of mindset that perpetuates rape culture in our society and one that is totally glossed over in the remake.
The original also adds a layer of complexity by efficiently establishing the fact that, despite being capable of horrific crimes without regret, the lead rapist Johnny is also a loving and attentive father. This doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does serve as reminder that other innocents will suffer the fallout if he is served with his well-earned comeuppance. There is an attempt in the remake to invoke a similar familial tie with the character of the sheriff (who was invented for the remake) but it is belabored to the point of rendering it ineffective.
To be fair, the gore itself in the original, while creative, does look quite dated by today’s standards. Even though the effects are updated in the remake, and overall do look good, they are simply the same run-of-the-mill post-Saw set pieces we have seen in pretty much every horror film since the beginning of the millennium. In the end, this is one of the most clear cut examples of how no amount of slick production values can justify the existence of a remake that doesn’t preserve the aspects that made the original great in the first place.
This review originally ran on Corin Totin’s Sick Flix website. Check it out for more dark and disturbing film reviews!