This wasn’t an easy film to watch.
Don’t get me wrong: I Spit on Your Grave is a deftly crafted thriller/horror flick. The build of suspense as we wonder if our heroine, novelist Jennifer, is going to escape the clutches of those who would do her harm, is handled effectively. Her subsequent revenge for the gang rape is chilling, brutal and spot-on. Sarah Butler is top-notch as Jennifer, and Jeff Branch is convincing but not over-the-top as the belittled redneck Johnny. Andrew Howard steals scenes as the sheriff, a solid family man and gleeful rapist. The portrayal of the rape as an act of power and degradation, rather than a sexual or titillating experience, is also well done, a credit to filmmaker Steven Morse’s handling of volatile material as well as the work by the cast.
Yet as I thought about it, I was ill at ease about recommending it, partly because there is an element of exploitation to the proceedings simply because of the nature of the subject matter. As I’ve said, that’s not intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who clearly sought to portray a horrible incident as honestly as possible. The more obvious exploitative elements come on the back end as Jennifer inflicts her fury and vengeance on the perpetrators.
After mulling it over for a few days, I think I’ve pinned down exactly what was causing my concern. When I think of exploitation flicks, the blaxploitation era is what comes to mind. Those films were generally low-budget and dealt with urban tales heavy on the violence, drugs and sex. However, you had large African-American casts, actors and actresses whom couldn’t find much work in what was, even compared to today, a much whiter Hollywood. You also had African-American filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles find work behind the camera. Plus, the sorts of themes of these black-centered tales weren’t receiving any real attention in the broader cinematic world. In other words, while the black experience in America was being exploited on screen, there were African-Americans who were able to benefit and expand their careers because of the opportunities offered in blaxploitation cinema. I’m not arguing that it was a perfect system or all sunshine and puppies, but there was an upside off-screen in the real world that came as a result of those films.
When it comes to I Spit on Your Grave, the same cannot be said. Only two of the 11 producers listed are women, and none are executive producers. There are only four women in the cast, two of whom are little seen side characters, and one who is solely used briefly for sex appeal (the audience sees more of her ass than we do her face). As you move further through the crew credits, outside of departments where you might traditionally expect to see women (makeup, costuming, etc.), there aren’t many females listed.
And are females watching a film like I Spit on Your Grave? Blaxploitation flicks drew African-American audiences. I have a hard time believing you can find a strong, core group of female fans who are going to flock to rape cinema. Those who have suffered a brutal sexual assault aren’t likely to want to live it over again on screen.
Plus, the skeevy profit motive starts to come into play when you see that I Spit on Your Grave 2 followed three years later, which, of course, could mean a ISOYG3 is just around the corner. It’s one thing to make a film about rape, an important if hot-button topic. It’s another thing to attempt to capitalize on rape by turning it into a franchise like Friday the 13th or Halloween.
To me, that naked greed, the idea that it’s OK to continue to earn money off of manufactured degradation of women, creates more of an ick factor than the jarring, disturbing, fictional images in I Spit on Your Grave. And, in the end, that’s why I feel I can’t recommend the movie, no matter the quality or the delicate handling of the subject matter.