Some NSFW material follows
I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of Jennifer Hills, a young woman who rents a cabin in the woods so she can write a novel. There she is attacked by a group of men, who rape and beat her, repeatedly. She then goes about getting her revenge on the men in gruesome fashions, and the audience sees a film dealing with some very grim reciprocity.
There are two versions of the film, one from 1978, the other from 2010. Both have received some incredible backlash, but in terms of outright controversy, the original takes the cake. It was banned in many places, attacked by many who considered it a dangerous film for its brutal content, and none of its stars went on to much of a successful film career following.
Both movies have the rare honour of receiving “zero stars” from Roger Ebert, which is something reserved for only the most atrocious films in his opinion (another is the underwhelming The Human Centipede) and both have since gone on to be analysed by more sympathetic viewers and had different light shed on them.
But given that remakes are, in the end, inextricable from their origin film, how do the two compare?
You can read a more in-depth opinion on the original here though I now have a bit more appreciation for the film than I did at the time I wrote that review.
The original is a film that suffers from the hype/controversy on its release. If you view it as the schlocky trash that it was advertised as (and continues to be today), then it’s a pretty full-on horror film that has a lot of rape in it, and you might wonder what the purpose of it is. If you view it as it was intended (a story of a brutalised woman regaining control after her incredibly severe trauma) then it’s a pretty full-on quasi-drama that has a lot of rape in it.
I don’t necessarily think the original is a good film, but I do think it’s worthy of a bit more praise than the controversy around it warrants. Firstly, it is incredibly sympathetic to Jennifer. It devotes a lot of time to showing just how brutal and degrading her torment is, and while it doesn’t necessarily excuse her later actions, it does make them understandable, or at the least justified.
Several feminist film scholars attacked the original for (in their eyes) turning Jennifer into a monster after she’s been raped. I can see where they’re coming from, but I disagree entirely – the audience is meant to side with Jennifer and sympathise with her. We’re meant to squirm at the revenge she exacts, but we’re meant to be glad the men are getting their comeuppance.
The remake is a much higher-budget film, but it’s also been made and released into a different climate of audiences. Instead of an unwitting audience who were about to be introduced to a full on film, the remake was unleashed on a world already familiar with the likes of Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes (remakes) and a bevy of similarly graphic films. As such, the tone between the two films is incredibly different, almost polar opposite. It’s a better-made film, but I have nowhere near the respect for the remake as the original.
Without question, the acting is superior in the remake. It’s probably due to a difference in styles over time, but the performances in the remake are a lot more nuanced, which leads to the film being more realistic.
That said, I prefer Camille Keaton’s Jennifer from the original. Sarah Butler does a fine job in the remake, but I could never shake the feeling that they cast her because at a quick glance she looks a bit like Kristen Stewart in an effort to draw in less attentive viewers. While she dies give a decent performance, I liked the character of Jenifer more in the original. The original Jennifer – and this will sound cruel of me – seemed like a nicer person so it made the rapes more horrific. This isn’t to say that you feel like Sarah Butler’s Jennifer isn’t as horrific a rape victim, but…well…let’s just address the rapes.
The rapists in the original seem to be motivated by their sheer boredom. They don’t really seem to have that much against Jennifer, and she’s just a diversion from their humdrum day-to-day lives. This is not to excuse them at all – they still rape her horribly – but it does mean you can see why they’re doing what they’re doing. Again, it doesn’t excuse it, but it’s important in making the audience side with Jennifer, that not only is she a victim, but she is largely irrelevant in the scheme of her rapists’ perspectives.
There’s roughly 20 – 25 minutes of rape scene in the original I Spit on Your Grave, and while this sounds excessive (and is) I don’t believe there’s a single moment of it that’s meant to be played luridly or offensively (yes, you may be offended, but that’s not the intent of the film). Instead, the viewer is wedged into an empathetic angle alongside her, once the men have finished (each time – there are three separate scenes) we spend time with Jennifer as it shows how badly affected she is. This means we understand and support her actions later in the film.
The remake takes a decidedly nastier turn (if it’s possible) with the rapists. Here, the men live a relatively comfortable life. They’re portrayed as men from a small community – not a few hicks in the middle of nowhere as per the original, and Jennifer is definitely a source of optional entertainment for them. The differences start that Jennifer in the remake is a little sassier. When she stops for petrol, one of the soon-to-be rapists, Jonny, hits on her, and she laughs in his face about it. She also inadvertently humiliates him in front of his friends. Much of the motivation seems to come from Jonny’s need to save face. He makes a point of saying he could “have her” anytime he wants, and when Matthew (the retarded rapist who will be discussed later) reveals she kissed him, it seems to be more essential that he regain his prowess in front of his friends.
The biggest difference in the rape scenes from the remake is that the new version spends a lot of time psychologically breaking Jennifer. The men go to her house in the early hours of the morning and start making noises outside. She goes outside, can’t see anything, and comes back in to find the background in her laptop has been changed to a photo of the men. They then make their presence known, lock her inside the house and threaten her – they don’t rape her (yet) they just threaten her. They make references to her being a show horse, making her whinny, and humiliating her and degrading her as much as they can, including beating her a few times, and making her fellate a gun. She eventually breaks free, and runs through the surrounding forest, into the arms of the local Sherriff. He listens to her story, and takes her back to the house to corroborate it.
At this point, I was intrigued. There is no local law enforcement in the original, and given that there had been no rape as yet, I was wondering if the film was going to use the psychological abuse as the catalyst for the revenge. I didn’t think the remake would have the gall to turn the Sherriff into a fifth rapist, despite being suspicious of his character. But it turns out that yes, the remake does have that gall, and the Sherriff begins to rape her along with the other four who have come back.
The remake spends less time with the actual rape, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t disturbing at all.
“Which is worse?” you might ask? Well I’d tell you to address that question with a slap to your head. The point is not which rape is more disturbing – they both are, and both are hard to watch. They are both unforgivable, and both warrant the later revenge taken. But the point of the remake is not to outdo the original – it’s to update it. Cruel though it is, the psychological torture of Jennifer in the remake does increase the tension – the original made it pretty clear that the rapists would get to it pretty quickly. But at the same time, the psychological torture means that the audience is made to witness Jennifer being brutalised in two distinctly different ways – and the remake is nowhere near as sympathetic to her as the original. It spends no time showing how traumatised Jennifer is, it just rapes her and gets it out of the way – which is an attitude too dangerously close to that of the film’s rapists for my comfort levels.
If you must draw a distinction between the two – and it’s pointless to try, but if you absolutely must – I’d say that the original’s sympathy for Jennifer makes it sliiiightly easier to watch – but that’s like drawing a difference between being stabbed in the gut with a 12” or 14” blade – it’s still gonna fucking hurt!