One of the benefits of being a film critic is that you can discover movies that everyone else has ignored, or dismissed, and help build an audience for them - if they're worthy of it. Cult films, though, don't always become favourite pictures based on their quality. Sometimes a critic's pan can even create the kind of curiousity for a work that was better left for dead. This argument becomes the starting place for David Churchill's discussion of a cult film and the remake that spawned it over thirty years later.
So, what is the film like? I'm very reluctant to overpraise the 1978 version, because it really is nothing more than a poorly acted, very violent 1970s-era exploitation film, but there is more going on here than a sicko rape and then reverse revenge travesty. Director Zarchi is not much of a writer nor is a he a deep thinker, but at least you can tell that his ideas come from some place other than “oooh, isn't that a cool image” that infects the 2010 remake. Locating a lot of the action on a river, he presents the 'locals' in a manner that evokes John Boorman's Deliverance. The film's latter half revenge suggests hints (very tiny hints) of the darkest of Greek revenge tragedies (with the blood on stage instead of off). His other idea to not use music, just the surrounding landscape noises as the 'music,' is somewhat inspired. Yes, the acting is generally terrible (though you cannot fault the bravery of female lead Keaton who spends large swaths of the film completely naked), the soundtrack is muddy so it's best to keep the subtitles on to hear, if you must. But the generally lame dialogue, plus the special effects, leaves a lot to be desired. Yet this film achieves what I think Zarchi honestly intended. Based on his preferred title, Day of the Woman, he really thinks this is a feminist film. It's a stretch, but an argument can be made. The depictions of the rapes are brutal and very hard to watch. There is nothing either erotic or exciting about them. The same can be said for her various acts of revenge. Her actions are violent, relentless and disturbing. And they’re meant to be.
|Camille Keaton in I Spit on Your Grave (1978)|
This brings me to the remake. Not surprisingly, it was released last year to generally bad reviews (including one by Ebert). A film like this is never designed for the critics. Of the two films, this is the one that could be called terrible, but not for the reason you'd think. The scenario is generally the same, but the river is abandoned for extended sexual assault sequences within the cottage. The assaults are brutal, but compared to the unsparing vision in the first, they're toned down. Her revenge, though, is far more gruesome than in the first picture. The result? It's not trying to top the original, but the torture-porn movies of the last few years such as Saw I through VI. By abandoning what made the first version disturbing, the film-makers have done something they certainly weren't intending: they made a dull movie. The set pieces where the men are killed are clearly designed, as I said above, as, “ooh, isn't that a cool image” scenes. Attached to nothing but shock, this remake flays away, trying to be controversial. However, a bigger budget, with smaller brains, does not a 'cult hit' make.
Ebert should have left well enough alone.
- originally published on March 1, 2011 in Critics at Large.