Even in agreeing to review the brand-new remake of the pseudo-classic rape-revenge thriller “I Spit on Your Grave,” I’ve already gotten suckered by the movie, which like so many extreme horror flicks amounts to a kind of con game: Do you dare keep watching? Will you stare into the darkest abyss of the human psyche, or will you turn away like a little chickenshit?
Well, I kept watching all right, more out of formal or academic curiosity than anything else (and I’m not claiming that’s an honorable reason). But I decline to take the movie seriously, or lend much credence to its claims of meaningfulness or moral equivalence. A story about a brutalized woman who turns on her attackers and exacts a level of grotesque, Grand Guignol fantasy vengeance the redneck rapists could never even have imagined is not a “feminist” film, if that word has any meaning. (Purist alert: I watched the “unrated version,” which will open in roughly 10 cities, and presumably has more nudity and violence than the R-rated version that will be more widely available.)
I don’t propose going off into some long film-theory tangent about whether horror movies are inherently misogynist or not, and what we mean by that, but let’s review briefly. Meir Zarchi’s crudely effective 1978 original — and yes, fans, I know its real title is “Day of the Woman” — had the virtue, if you want to call it that, of adding a new twist to the horror-movie lexicon. Zarchi showed us an attractive young writer being repeatedly raped and beaten by upstate New York yokels at her rural cabin, but lavished even more attention on her subsequent campaign of terror, as she hunts them down one by one and dispatches them in imaginative if highly implausible fashion.
Even then, Zarchi was riffing off the already-existing horror convention of the Final Girl: The movie’s last surviving protagonist, who must wage a climactic battle against the masked madman or the slimy ghoul or the whatever, is invariably female. Sometimes she prevails and sometimes she doesn’t (and every possible attempt to fake us out on this question has already been tried). But you rarely see a Final Dude; that would be like ending a romance novel by having the bosomy heroine decide that she doesn’t especially like the sideburned, swashbuckling count and would rather hoe onions. Really, all that happened in “I Spit on Your Grave” was that Zarchi took the combat between the Final Girl and the monsters, made it especially violent and sadistic, and drew it out so it filled up two-thirds of the movie.
In updating this dubious achievement in cinema history — and let’s just pass over the question of whether that was worth doing in the first place — director Steven R. Monroe and writer Stuart Morse could, in theory, have come up with something interesting. Their movie is far superior to Zarchi’s on a technical level; the acting is mostly quite good, and Neil Lisk’s cinematography is cool, graceful and ominous. We’ve come a long way since 1978, at least in terms of public discussion of female sexuality, and this version’s heroine, Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler), definitely fills the role of big-city hipster chick, emanating unconscious creative-class privilege. With her long, straight hair, hip-hugger jeans, designer running shorts and preoccupied demeanor, Jennifer looks exactly as if she’s taking time off from writing first-person sexual confessions for Salon to crank out that first, impassioned novel about her suburban girlhood.
In fact, when Jennifer first meets Johnny (Jeff Branson), the muscular, buzz-cut lunk who runs the local gas station — the story has relocated from upstate New York to backwoods Louisiana, which makes for nice pictures but is also far more of a cliché — a momentary spark seems to pass between them. The balance between fantasy and reality would be vastly different in this film if those two characters were less like horror-movie archetypes and more like people. Couldn’t Jennifer be less of a virginal priss, and at least be tempted by the idea of this good-looking and (at first) polite country boy? Couldn’t Johnny be less of a village idiot and a bit more of a smooth talker, maybe a guy who’s seen a few reruns of “Sex and the City” on TBS?
But I guess at that point we’re going in a totally different direction, into a Joyce Carol Oates novel about complicated and messed-up people or something. Needless to say, that isn’t this story. Any time Monroe wastes on developing Jennifer and Johnny as characters is time he doesn’t spend showing them doing other stuff: Johnny forcing Jennifer to deep-throat his revolver, say, or Jennifer, somewhat later, pulling out Johnny’s teeth one by one with a pair of pliers. (Yeah, I just “spoiled” two scenes, and you know what? The complaint desk is closed at this time. Anyway, don’t worry: There is way, way worse stuff than that in this movie.)
Despite seeming like nothing worse than a low-rent rural Lothario, Johnny soon talks a few of his dumb-ass buddies — including the mentally disabled Matthew (Chad Lindberg), who is sadistically goaded into coming along — into paying Jennifer a late-night visit and bringing a video camera. At first they just want to torment and terrify her, until the arrival of the vastly more depraved local sheriff (Andrew Howard) sends it in a darker direction, but arguably the drawn-out scenes of verbal and psychological torture are harder to watch than anything that follows. For one thing, they’re entirely too realistic and too familiar; we realize while watching that thousands of women are subjected to this kind of abuse every day, even if relatively few get gang-raped by backwoods numbskulls right afterward.
See, that’s where the problem lies in claiming that “I Spit on Your Grave” contains some kind of moral balance. Yes, Jennifer miraculously survives being raped by five guys and dumped naked in the swamp, and comes back to wreak elaborate vengeance with the help of industrial chemicals, garden shears, fish guts, triple-barbed fishhooks and hungry crows. (Work it out for yourselves.) But the key word in that sentence is “miraculously.” Jennifer’s ordeal is convincing enough, but nothing about her revenge is adequately explained or even remotely plausible. Where has she been sleeping and what has she been eating? Where did she get clothes? Did she dredge her iPhone out of the swamp, dry it off and place a J. Crew order? It’s as if the rape and near-murder has turned her into an undead, Freddy Krueger-style supervillain, capable of going anywhere and doing anything and possessed of unlimited equipment and know-how. Some of her torture setups are like New York performance-art installations, circa 1988; they’d take a team of builders three or four days to assemble.
It isn’t just that two wrongs don’t make a right, or that becoming more sociopathic than a group of dead-end criminals doesn’t make Jennifer much of a feminist role model. It’s more that the whole movie is a bizarre psychological game, in which we permit ourselves to watch (and/or suffer, and/or enjoy) an all-too-realistic and brutal rape, and then repent at leisure by watching a long series of gruesome but utterly ludicrous torture scenes. Here’s a news flash: Horror movies always challenge us to move back and forth between victim and perpetrator, the “male gaze” and the female. (I’m not trying to convince you to like them, if you don’t.) Once in a while, they do it with imagination and style, but this well-crafted example just piles imaginary atrocities on top of real ones, and then halfheartedly claim that it means something. Well, it doesn’t. So unless you’re exactly the kind of obsessive who already knew you had to catch this before you started reading, don’t bother.