I have watched a lot of horror films in my time. Similarly to my best friend Sophie, we both used horror films as a way to escape from unhappy teenage years and have thus become somewhat desensitised to even the most disturbing of films. Case in point, having just finished Martyrs, (a film at the forefront of the sub-genre of French extremism, and one which frequently tops the list of ‘most disturbing films ever made’) our collective thirst for horror remained unquenched. Martyrs was gory, but not the sort of life-altering terrifying event we were after.
I Spit on Your Grave was one such film.
Originally titled Day of the Woman, I Spit on Your Grave is an early example of the rape-and-revenge plot found in some of the most gruesome films of the horror genre. Writer Jennifer Hills goes to a remote lake house to write her first novel, and is brutally raped and beaten by four separate men in one day, soon after she arrives. She manages to survive and begins plotting; before she is done, she has murdered her attackers in a bloody act of revenge. Described by Roger Ebert himself as ‘a film without a shred of artistic distinction’, most (predominantly male) film critics seemed to agree that this film was distasteful to the point of it becoming unwatchable. This film has thus been branded with a layer of notoriety which lasts to the present day.
There is no way around the fact that this movie is almost entirely unwatchable. Spit boasts the longest rape scene in cinema history, clocking in at almost half an hour, pretty much a solid third of the entire film. It is conducted ruthlessly, both within the confines of the film and behind the camera in its directorial choices. The boys play a game of cat and mouse with Jennifer, each time allowing her to escape and lulling both her and the watcher into a false sense of security that maybe, just maybe, it’s all over now. The rape comes (and keeps on coming) with beating, humiliation and very little dialogue to break up the long and relentless shots of violence, with no music other than Jennifer’s cries and screams to detract from the animalistic violence going on in front of our eyes. It, as Carol J. Clover describes in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, ‘reduces the genre to its essence’, both in its simplistic plot and its lack of elaborate cinematography. It was slated for both of these elements at the time of release, but I believe it is exactly this, its ‘brutal simplicity’, which makes it so relentless, disturbing and therefore, so effective.
When the revenge happens, as brutal as the murders are, I could not help but be on Jennifer’s side. I’m sure most viewers would agree with me. Sophie and I cheered Jennifer on through her four acts of homicide, delighting in the satisfaction she garnered from castrating, hanging and otherwise shredding the men to pieces.
So it clearly wasn’t the gory acts of revenge which made this film so terrifying. The rape scene itself was obviously horrific and deeply disturbing, but it was not what Sophie and I discussed in detail once the film was over.
What we were most concerned about and terrified of, was the fact that all the microaggressions and harassment leading up to the rape were awfully familiar.
Catcalls whilst she lay in a bikini, wandering eyes at the gas station where she filled her car – even down to the specific comments on how tempting Jennifer’s legs were was scarily similar to something Sophie had experienced earlier that very same day. This film is terrifying because it’s so undeniably possible.
It’s also the answer to any man who accuses a woman of not being ‘able to take a joke’ when he cracks one about sex wherein the issue of consent is in question. It’s the reason the song “Blurred Lines” caused me (and many others) nothing but discomfort when it was released. We can see reflections of the behaviour from the film in many aspects of modern day culture and everyday sexism. It is here, in the familiar and every day, where the true horror lies.
I believe that Spit, despite being so merciless in its content and almost crudely made in its delivery, is an incredibly important film. It illustrates that heinous acts, such as a rape, have their consequences. It also manages to depict, however extreme the form may take, a strong woman who enacts the revenge on her own terms. This film has been described by film critics as everything from ‘the worst movie ever made’ to ‘a radical feminist film’. But maybe what brings all these elements together is that it holds up a mirror to the misogyny we find in society today. I would argue that it’s important to look into this mirror, however devastating the experience may be, in order to change our behaviour. It is, in that sense, essential viewing… if you can stomach it.