5. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Freudian slips are the worst. Remember that time in second grade when you accidentally called the teacher 'Mommy'? Your psyche will never let you live that one down. Or how about the time the Best Buy employee asked if there was anything she could help you find and you blurted out, 'Guilt-free, mutually-fulfilling coitus'? How embarrassing. What you meant to say was 'Steel Magnolias on DVD.'
I Spit on Your Grave is sort of a cinematic Freudian slip. I'm sure that writer-director Meir Zarchi imagines the film empowers women—because not only does it depict a brutal gang rape in a way that unequivocally sympathizes with the victim, but it also ethically sanctions and celebrates the victim's gruesome vengeance, which she summons her own psychological and physical wherewithal to achieve. On paper, this interpretation is very persuasive, and I have little doubt that this was probably Zarchi's conscious intention in making the film—but once a work of art leaves its creator's hands, it must speak for itself, without the aid of his rationalizations.
Yes, it's absolutely true: the rape scenes are graphic, disturbing, and not at all what a healthy viewer would find sexually titillating. The victim is crying out in terror, while four backwoods types—including one cartoonishly retarded man—hold her down, beat her, and rape her orally, vaginally, and anally. The attacks are episodic. She is attacked once, allowed to escape in the woods, attacked again, allowed to return to her cottage, and attacked a final time there. In between the assaults, the film stays with the victim, who is filthy, bloody, naked, and traumatized; she's gasping for air—she's crawling on the ground—she seems only technically alive.
But what exactly are we supposed to make of a film that dwells for approximately a half hour on a rape sequence? The same directorial impulse that draws out a scene of graphic violence in order to make the audience appreciate (in some small way) the horrific reality of these acts also inures us to this violence and provides us a safe psychological vantage from which to satisfy our voyeurism.
It's similar to slowing down one's car to rubberneck at a gruesome accident scene. The conscious mind would certainly never admit that it takes pleasure in someone else's injury or death—but then again the conscious mind has nothing to do with it. It's the impulse itself that tells us everything we need to know.
I'm going to give the director Meir Zarchi the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not disingenuous in his intentions—in other words, that he did not try to rationalize the film's motivations in order to provide ethical cover for what is essentially a crass exploitation film. But again, what Zarchi tells the audience in interviews or press materials doesn't overrule what the film itself says. I Spit on Your Grave seems preoccupied with the rapes to an unsettling degree, so much so that they eclipse the (implausible) revenge scenarios in the second part of the film in both duration and cruelty. Also, the episodic assaults seem structured to elicit glib horror movie responses from the audience; for example, when the victim crawls back into the cabin and struggles to call for help, the movie cheats and places the rapists just outside the frame where the victim would clearly see them in order to surprise the audience when the phone is kicked out of her hand.
Another major problem with characterizing the film as 'feminist' is that all the characters are complete blanks. The woman is only the victim/avenger. She fulfills no other role for the audience. We know nothing about her personality because she provides us with no evidence that she even has one. The film doesn't attempt to draw her as a fully-realized human being and then to make her a victim whom we can truly identify with; rather, she is merely a void, an empty shape, a place-filler, much like the anonymous names of crime victims we read about in the newspaper. This problematizes Zarchi's claim that he takes the woman's side in the film. The depersonalization of the victim actually encourages our voyeuristic pleasure in her attack because nothing is at stake. She's a concept, not a person. She's the Victim. She stands for victimhood like a symbol does—she gives shape to the crime but we really don't experience it through her.