One of the most controversial sub-genres in the world of grindhouse and exploitation films is known as the “rape and revenge” genre. The films in this category prominently feature young women in situations of sexual abuse and peril at the hands of villainous men or women, only to have the victim seek revenge in an equally visceral and disturbing manner. Most of these films are unashamedly gratuitous in their content, while others balance the carnage with some form of social commentary.
Two of the most memorable and historically significant films in this genre are Wes Craven’s 1972 cheapie, The Last House on the Left, and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave – also known as Day of the Woman.
Before you read any further, know that this article contains SPOILERS.
The Last House on the Left concerns two young teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, who leave home to go to a death metal concert one night. On their way, they meet a young man named Junior, who invites them back to his place to score some marijuana. Once they arrive, they realize that they have been lured into a trap. Junior is an escaped criminal who lives in a run-down apartment with a family of deviants, including the leader Krug, his switchblade wielding sidekick, Weasel, and a bisexual woman named Sadie. Phyllis attempts to escape and is gang-raped in front of Mari.
The next day, the criminals take the girls to the woods, where they are humiliated and abused. In an attempt to give Mari an opportunity to escape, Phyllis runs away, distracting Sadie and Weasel who chase after her, leaving Mari under the watchful eye of the mentally challenged Junior. Meanwhile, Sadie and Weasel catch up with Phyllis, corner her up against a tree, and eviscerate her. Junior lets Mari go, but Krug stops her. Sadie and Weasel reveal the severed arm of her friend, Phyllis. After carving his name into her chest, Krug rapes Mari and pulls off her favorite necklace. In a state of shock, Mari walks into a nearby lake. Krug shoots her, and her lifeless body floats away on the water.
Later that evening, it begins to storm. The criminals seek shelter and find it – at the home of Mari’s parents, John and Estelle, who invite them in. It is clear that they are worried about their daughter, who hasn’t returned. Later, the crime is revealed after Estelle finds Mari’s necklace around Junior’s neck. Estelle and John decide to take matters into their own hands, leading to an extremely gruesome and bloody finale.
Wes Craven’s film was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 tone poem, entitled The Virgin Spring. While that film had a much more redeeming ending, this film sticks to its grindhouse roots, delivering all of the ugliness that it can possibly muster. The film touches on the flower power era, the burgeoning sexuality of the two young women, and the nature of survival and how it relates to ordinary people who are pushed to extraordinary lengths to seek retribution. All of this is considerably less effective than it could have been, due to Craven’s reliance on comedic undertones.
There are several moments of ironic comedy which diminish the power of the stronger scenes. Some see this as one of the many strengths of the film. I found it to be very distracting. Aside from these minor quibbles, the film is quite memorable, though not nearly as powerful or audacious as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave.
I Spit On Your Grave opens as Jennifer Hills arrives at a gas station to fill up her tank. Jennifer is a young aspiring writer from New York City, and she has rented a cabin in the countryside to finish her novel. She is full of life, incredibly intelligent, and independent. It is clear that the gas station manager, Johnny, is attracted to Jennifer. His unemployed friends, Stanley and Matthew, stand nearby, leering at her. She pays and then leaves, arriving at her cabin shortly thereafter. It is a sunny afternoon, and so she strips off her clothes and decides to take a dip in the lake. It is implied that someone is watching her.
That night, a mentally challenged delivery boy named Matthew brings her groceries. The two share an innocent dialogue with one another, and Jennifer gives Matthew an apple and gives him a whole dollar as a tip for his services. Matthew becomes infatuated with Jennifer, and speeds away on his bike to tell his friends, who are gathered around a campfire. Low and behold, his “friends” just happen to be the men from the gas station. Matthew brags about his one dollar tip and the fact that he saw Jennifer’s breasts. Johnny and the rest of the men enter into a chauvinistic discussion concerning independent city women, and the fact that Matthew is a virgin. They vow to find a “broad” for the young man as soon as possible.
The next day, Jennifer lies on her hammock in her bathing suit with a pen and pad, working on her novel. The peaceful serenity of the scene is interrupted when Johnny, Stanley, and Matthew continuously cruise by her cabin on their speedboat. She goes inside to work, and is interrupted later on that night when she hears the disembodied voices of the men hollering and whooping at her in the dark.
In the morning, Jennifer goes out on the lake to relax in her canoe. The men chase after her in their speedboat, and tow her canoe to the shore. She gets out of the canoe and tries to escape, but she is unsuccessful. The men call Matthew over to the scene, and insist that it is time for him to become a man. Matthew declines. This angers Johnny, who proceeds to brutally rape Jennifer. Afterwards, they let her go, but only for a while. As she stumbles through the woods beaten, bruised, and fearing for her life, she comes upon Andy, who sits on a rock while playing his harmonica. He attacks her, raping her. Jennifer is attacked again that night, only this time, it is Matthew who takes part in the brutality, but this doesn’t last very long. Stanley assaults her before they all decide to leave. Her nearly lifeless body writhes on the floor. Before they take off on the speedboat, Johnny sends Matthew back to the cabin to stab Jennifer in the heart. Matthew enters the cabin, but cannot follow through with the crime. He dabs a little blood on the knife and returns to the shore to tell Johnny that Jennifer is dead.
Meanwhile, Jennifer regains her strength. For the remainder of the film, she stalks her attackers, observes them from afar, and sets out to plan her revenge. What follows next is disgusting, deliciously perverse, extremely bloody, and ultimately satisfying, especially if you view the film through a feminist filter. I Spit On Your Grave makes a powerful statement about the liberation of women. Meir Zarchi pits our protagonist against four of the most unattractive, abhorrent, mind-numbingly stupid rednecks ever committed to film, one of whom attempts to justify his crimes by implying that Jennifer’s promiscuous way of dressing was the reason that she was raped. Many rapists have used this very excuse. According to some, if a woman dresses in a less than Puritanical fashion, she is “asking” to be raped. This is preposterous, and Zarchi knows this. He uses this disgusting logic as a set-up for one of the films key revenge sequences. The men in this film are threatened by Jennifer’s independence. In their warped minds, they believe that women are expendable. Zarchi builds broad caricatures of these types of men, ridiculing and mocking their ignorance for the majority of the running time. This film is about the death of subjugation at the hands of a powerful woman.
According to the commentary and the making-of feature on the DVD, Zarchi was inspired to make this film after an encounter with a rape victim. He was taking a drive with a few of his friends, and he spotted a woman crawling out of some bushes, barely dressed. It was revealed that she had been attacked as she was taking a shortcut to a friend’s house. Zarchi immediately took her to the hospital. After this incident, the thirty year old director scrapped together a small budget and made this film, which was marketed as an exploitation B-movie, and screened at drive-in cinemas.
Over the years, this film has been unjustly criticized as morally reprehensible trash. While I can understand these vitriolic reactions, I believe that they are unfair. While some of the acting is weak, the film is competently made, with an effective sense of mood and atmosphere. Camille Keaton delivers an undeniably brave performance, and the cinematography isn’t bad.
More than anything else, it is a haunting and unforgettable feminist fable, as well as a piece of cinematic history that cannot be ignored.
Both The Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave are available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Next week: We will return to the Crown International collection with Cindy and Donna and The Pink Angels